Beloved Bilinguals: Writers Working in their Second Language

Image by Jen Rickard Blair for World Literature Today. Alarcón, Alvarez, Cisneros, Danticat, Díaz, Hemon, Jin, Santiago, Shteyngart.

Ha Jin has his characters speak in a slightly “off” English to remind us they are speaking Chinese. The author says, “I think in English, but I hear in Chinese.”

Gary Shteyngart thought in Russian while composing his memoir Little Failure in English. As a child, his nicknames included Solnyshko (Little Sun), Soplyak (Snotty), and of course Failurchka (Little Failure).

Julia Alvarez changed the word mother to mami throughout her first book, Homecoming, after an early reader said he hadn’t realized she was Latina. (She was later berated at a conference by a writer from the Dominican Republic, “It doesn’t seem possible that a Dominican should write in English. Come back to your country, to your language.”)

How do they do it, these astonishing bilinguals? Isn’t it hard enough to write well in your native language – to have the command of idiom needed to compose a poem or the multi-toned mastery to complete a novel? In history, I can think of only two novelists who have stood the test of time writing in English as a second (or third) language: Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov.

Today, besides those already mentioned, among well-known novelists we have Laila Lalami (first language: Arabic), Edwidge Danticat (Haitian Creole), Khaled Hosseini (Farsi), Elif Shafak (Turkish), Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnamese), Aleksandar Hemon (Bosnian), and several Spanish-as-a-first-language writers: Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, and Daniel Alarcón.


(Left to right: Lalami, Shafak, Thahn Nguyen, Hosseini)

A recent article in World Literature entitled Inside the Bilingual Writer by Erik Gleibermann included short interviews with some of these authors and looked at how they “navigate identity between a childhood lived in one tongue and adulthood lived in another.” The article is full of interesting snippets.

Edwidge Danticat left Haiti for New York at age twelve. As she wrote, English began to dominate, and it wasn’t until after the success of Krik? Krak! (1995) in English that she rediscovered Haitian Creole as a literary language. She adapted one of the stories in that collection into Creole for a Haitian radio broadcast. Later she said, “I felt closer to how I felt the story as a child.”

Sandra Cisneros says “I was thinking in Spanish and writing in English” during the composition of her breakout book The House on Mango Street. “It was there underneath like an archaeology.” She subsequently used Spanish more consciously, and now says, “I always feel like I’m on a borderland.”

Junot Díaz sprinkles his dialogue with Spanish, adding color. The characters tend to cuss and deliver their punchlines in Spanish. In their Dominican milieu, cabrón has a better ring to it than asshole, just as mierda is somehow richer in context than shit.

Uniquely, Esmeralda Santiago composes simultaneously in Spanish and English, scribbling down words in whichever language comes to her first, before turning everything into English. Hers is a familiar immigrant story with an unfamiliar ending. Arriving from Puerto Rico at 13, she was told she’d need to re-do Seventh Grade because of her lack of English. “Seven gray?” she responded. “I no guan seven gray. I eight gray. I teeneyer.” She read like crazy, aced seventh grade and became a bestselling novelist.

Several of these bilingual writers – particularly the Hispanics – have an informal kinship. Danticat says, “I learned a lot from Julia and Sandra, how they used Spanish. I learned from them the rhythms of another language. They taught me how not to censor myself.” In return, Julia Alvarez says of Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory that “it was the other side of the island and she was the sister I’d never known.”

The last word belongs to Arundhati Roy, who last month (June 2018) delivered the Sebald Lecture on Literary Translation. Talking about her latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, she said:

“In place of the author’s name, I was tempted to write: “Translated from the original(s) by Arundhati Roy.” The Ministry is a novel written in English but imagined in several languages. Translation as a primary form of creation was central to the writing of it … It is a story that emerges out of an ocean of languages, in which a teeming ecosystem of living creatures—official-language fish, unofficial-dialect mollusks, and flashing shoals of word-fish—swim around … all nourished by what the ocean provides. And all of them, like the people in The Ministry, have no choice but to coexist, to survive, and to try to understand each other.”










3 Comments Add yours

  1. bruce2u2 says:

    What about JJ Wilson? Is English you first language?


    1. JJ Wilson says:

      Yes, English is my first language!


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