Writing in English, Novelists Find Inventive New Voices
Emma stalks the little English colony, ears open. She listens intently to Joni Mitchell records. Before long, her linguistic love affair is consummated: She finds herself speaking and understanding English. Transported, she steps into another life.
“She didn’t know what she was getting away from,” Ms. Marciano’s narrator observes, “but the other language was the boat she fled on.”
That same boat is carrying a lot of writers these days, most of them working in English, but others in French, German, Spanish, Japanese or even Dutch, enriching and expanding the literature of their host cultures. Some have left their native language behind after being displaced by political unrest or repression. Others have relocated and plunged into new cultures in a spirit of adventure, encouraged by the freer movement of people and ideas over the last quarter-century. A new literary diaspora has taken shape, propelled, as Isabelle de Courtivron has written in “Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity,” by “immigration, technology, postcolonialism and globalization,” powerful forces that have “dissolved borders and increased cross-cultural mobility.”
Ellen Litman, an émigré from Russia whose novel, “Mannequin Girl,” was published in March, said: “I’m not sure what I call myself. I’ve lived in the U.S. longer than in Russia at this point, and the longer I’m here, the further I am from that experience.”
Ms. Marciano, who grew up in Rome, acquired English more or less as her heroine Emma did, as a teenager. She lived in New York in her 20s and, while spending 10 years in Kenya, wrote her first novel, “Rules of the Wild,” in English after a failed start in Italian. Today she lives in Rome, but English has become her second skin.
“You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language,” Ms. Marciano said. “I am a different person because I fell in love with English. I cannot revert. I cannot undo this. I am stuck.”
Two waves of emigration from the former Soviet Union, the first in the late 1970s, the second after the nation’s collapse, have yielded a bumper crop of Russian writers who have made English their own. Some, like Gary Shteyngart, and Boris Fishman, whose first novel, “A Replacement Life,” is being published by Harper in June, came to the United States as children and absorbed English by osmosis. Others, like Ms. Litman, Lara Vapnyar, Kseniya Melnik, Olga Grushin and Anya Ulinich, left the Soviet Union in their teens or early 20s, late enough in life to make the transition to another language a conscious effort.
“They are all very fluent, but their sense of the language is different,” said Karen Ryan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Stetson University in Florida, who has written extensively on Russian émigré literature. “There’s a sense of play and inventiveness, which is true of all transnational writers.”
The Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, stranded in Chicago when war engulfed his hometown, Sarajevo, took on English at age 27. At the time, he said in a recent interview, “I spoke like a capable tourist.” Today, Mr. Hemon, the author of “The Question of Bruno” and “The Lazarus Project,” is regarded as a stylistic wizard in the Nabokov vein, inventing his own English in phrases like “clouds and cloudettes” or deploying the eyebrow-raising adjective “agape” to describe a toilet.
In the bilingual Olympics, China has also fielded a strong team. Ha Jin, who emigrated from China after the government crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, won the National Book Award 10 years later for “Waiting,” his second novel in English. Xiaolu Guo, who moved to London in 2002, used her own struggles with English as the basis for “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers,” which was named to the shortlist for the Orange Prize in 2007.
Perhaps best known to Americans is Yiyun Li, whose third novel in English, “Kinder Than Solitude,” was published by Random House in February. Ms. Li came to the United States with fairly rudimentary English to study immunology at the University of Iowa. “Someone told me, ‘Iowa City is special, everyone is writing a novel,’ ” she said. “I decided, O.K., I’m going to try.”
She enrolled in a community writing class, then won admission to the university’s graduate writing program. By the time she was ready to take her first classes, The Paris Review had accepted her first short story. Soon after, The New Yorker had accepted a second, and Random House had signed her to a two-book deal.
Like many of her bilingual peers, Ms. Li speaks of the advantages of writing in a foreign language. “If you are a native speaker, things are automatic,” she said. “For me, every time I say or write something, I have to go back and ask, ‘Is this what I want to say?’ ”
Some bilingual writers find it liberating to escape from their native language. “I think that I have fewer tools than if I were writing in Italian, but my voice is freer,” Ms. Marciano said.
That sentiment was echoed by Nancy Huston, a Canadian who settled permanently in Paris in the early 1970s and has written in French for most of her career. “I remember feeling euphoric, that it was easier,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t have the memories and the dreams and all the baggage.” After the birth of her first child in the mid-1980s, Ms. Huston reconnected with English and has published in both languages since the 1990s. Her novel “Black Dance” will be published by Black Cat in September.
For Nadeem Aslam, the author of “The Blind Man’s Garden,” who grappled with English when his family emigrated to Britain from Pakistan for political reasons when he was a teenager, his adopted language counts as a mixed blessing. “English for me is a language of rage,” he said, “but it is a language of love, too.”
The enormous power of English, guaranteed by America’s economic might and the residual influence of the former British Empire, makes it a default literary language. But not all the traffic flows in one direction. Examples abound. Andrei Makine, a Russian granted asylum in France in 1987, dazzled the French with “Le Testament Français” (published in the United States as “Dreams of My Russian Summers”), which won the Prix Goncourt and two other literary prizes in 1995. Yoko Tawada, a Japanese émigré who lives in Berlin and writes in German, has won a devoted following for uncanny, dream-shrouded works like “Where Europe Begins.”
“All interesting literature is born in that moment when you are not sure if you are in one place with one culture,” Ms. Tawada told The Herald, of Glasgow, in 2008. “So I don’t think I’m exceptional: I’m in a special situation, but it’s a very literary, poetic situation.”