What is it like to write fiction in a language that is not your native tongue? Harder, surely. But liberating too, perhaps, to distance yourself from instinctive ideas and cultural reflexes.
A.M. Bakalar, author of Madame Mephisto, a ‘punchy debut’ recently reviewed on this site (http://bookoxygen.com/?p=1306), here discusses some of the impulses and advantages of expressing yourself in a non-native voice.
Medea, the protagonist in Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s Medea and Her Children, at one point chooses to write a letter in a foreign language, French, rather than her mother tongue, Russian, because it is easier for her to use a language where some words do not have the same emotional nuances as those in her mother tongue.
One of the best known Polish authors who wrote in English is Joseph Conrad. The Russian author Vladimir Nabokov wrote in English, the Czech author Milan Kundera translates his own works and writes in French, Afghan author Atiq Rahimi writes in Persian and French, German author Sybille Bedford wrote in English.
As soon as I decided that I was going to write Madame Mephisto in English rather than my mother tongue – Polish – I felt a huge sense of relief. Was I afraid my novel would never be published in Poland if I chose to write in Polish, because of the ideas I wanted to write about? Or was it more that the emotions associated with Polish words meant I would be unable to express myself accurately? Choosing to write in a second language gave me a new identity, the chance mentally to abandon my mother country, freedom to look at my Polishness from a completely different angle.
And then there was the technical difficulty of writing in Polish. To put it simply, my Polish is not good enough. Nowadays I live and breathe in English. I remember a few years back I translated two Zimbabwean’s novels, Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, from English into Polish and sent the translations to various publishing houses in Poland. All of them were rejected with the same comment – my Polish read like a foreign language, it had English structures.
Language is a powerful tool for a writer, with its implications, shadows of meanings, emotional attachments to specific words that can convey so many different things depending on who’s talking, the setting, cultural background. The difficulty of writing in a second language is that it is not my own, I did not grow up speaking or writing or thinking in English, that came much later. At the same time I do not feel I have a responsibility to write in Polish just because I born there.
From a practical point of view, writing in a second language allows me to reach a larger audience. The very precarious position of literature in translation in the UK, where what is translated is a mere fraction of what is being published every year, means that if I did choose to write in Polish the chances of my work being translated into English would be rather slim.
I was obsessed, while writing Madame Mephisto, trying to understand the predicament of living in two countries, physically and mentally, and at the same time releasing my protagonist Magda, and myself as a writer, from any obligation towards my home country. Writing in English allows me to have dual identities. I feel more comfortable in my English skin than in my Polish. I stumble when I speak in Polish, and English immediately invades my mind when I speak or try to write in Polish. When I was little and was learning English I used to translate Polish sentences into English in my head before uttering them. Now I have to make an effort to translate English into Polish if I want to speak or write in Polish.
The only time when I do not translate my second language into my mother tongue is when I write in English because writing in English has become so automatic that when I try to write in Polish it feels like a foreign language to me. In a way I am actively and constantly translating my Polish identity and culture into English every time I write or speak.
Alyosha in Andreï Makine’s novel Le Testament Francais says: ‘When I find myself between two languages, I believe I can see and feel more intensely than ever.’ Artistic expression is about freedom, not about imprisoning yourself as an author within the boundaries of your mother tongue. I think the most acute aspect for me, when I made a decision to write in a second language, was my lack of loyalty to my motherland. I do not pine for Poland nor do I feel it is my duty to present my country in a positive light just because I live abroad and owe the nation I left behind the best possible representation in my writing.
The creative process for me comes with such intensity that the only responsibility I feel is to my readers and myself as an author, to write honestly and truthfully. Writing in a second language gives me a sense of freedom, of writing against expectation. It gives me the opportunity to reinvent myself and to address important issues, taboos. If I chose to write about them in my mother tongue I would be at war with myself and with others.