Laila Lalami was in San Francisco last week to promote her novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. She, of moorishgirl.com fame, was born in Morocco and came to the U.S. for grad school. In the Q&A, an Indian man questioned her on her choice of writing in English. He said he was grappling with the challenge of writing in a language that is not one’s first language. Laila replied that while her native tongue is Arabic, her first literary language, learned in school, was French, but later as a result of coming to America, English has become her writing language. She mentioned some of the difficulties that come up, e.g. how to reproduce dialogue that in real life is taking place in Arabic, and how some idioms are simply untranslatable.
This got me thinking — again — of the relationship between one’s writing language and mother tongue. This is a huge subject, but let me jot down a few thoughts here.
Born in what is now Bangladesh, I spoke Bangla at home. When I was a child, I spoke, argued, cursed, and played in Bangla. To be precise, we communicated in our East Bengal dialect of Bangla. Bangla has many dialects, and each stands at a different distance from the Bangla of ‘proper speech,’ journalism and books.
At five, I was sent to an English-medium school run by missionaries from a Catholic order based in South Bend, Indiana. I was the eighth of my mother’s nine children, and the last five of her children would all go to English-medium schools. The result of a colonized mindset? No doubt. But it also reflected a mother’s desire for the best chances for her children, in a society just emerging from the shadow of the English Raj. In school, I would learn literary Bangla, but the language I studied in, wrote in, and read in, became English.
So I grew up in this hybrid world, of colloquial Bangla spoken at home and with friends, a certain familiarity with the literary language, and the language of complexity becoming English, the heritage of our former colonial overlords.
Then I came to the U.S., and as an adult I have lived, worked, and loved, nearly entirely in English. I still read Bangla, either newspaper articles on the internet or newspapers and books when I visit Bangladesh. With family and old friends, in the U.S., I speak some Bangla, but mostly English. I have not written anything substantial in my mother tongue for a long time.
That English has become my first language is a fact of my life. It is a product of my history. And it has inevitably become my writing language. In itself this is not a problem. There are many writers who began life in a different tongue but wrote in English. Conrad and Achebe come to mind.
What challenges, however, does my mixed-up language upbringing bring up for my writing?
It seems to me that most of the difficulties that I face are because I live in the U.S. but still ‘write home.’ Thus far at least half of my stories have been set in Bangladesh.
In practical terms, one major difficulty that comes up is the same that Laila spoke of at her reading. When I am writing characters speaking in Bangla and trying to reproduce that in English, I have to imagine in my mind the conversation in Bangla, then try to reproduce in a different language something of the original rhythm and word choices. Since I have to convey the result in English, it’s not a matter of reproducing Bangla grammar or creating one of my own. Similarly, if I am writing a Bangali speaking in English, I have to confront the varied ways in which English is spoken by us, including the mixture with Bangla that is known sometimes as Benglish.
But I worry also that there is a deeper problem here. If I am writing stories that are set in Bangladesh, I feel that my not having access to Bangla as a language of diversity and complexity cuts me off from deeper springs of creativity that are part of my storytelling tradition. There is a loss here. The narrowing of experience and learning in one’s formative years is not a good thing.
And there are problems not directly related to language but of many years of removal from the homeland. The Bangladesh I write of is one that emerges from my memory; it is not the place as it exists today. When I write of contemporary Bangladesh, a different set of problems will no doubt emerge.
Sometimes other issues are raised about writing in English that I feel are not the problem of the language but a different detachment — perhaps emerging from the same privilege that may have led one to be educated in English.
A writer friend and I debated this the other day. She was considering the possibility that there is something inherently elitist in narratives written in English from the subcontinent. She noted that many — though not all — of these stories are set among the privileged classes. I agreed that there is a tendency to focus on middle and upper class milieu. I do not want to suggest that this in itself is a problem, but leaving aside that question, I don’t think this focus springs from the choice of language. The working and poor classes of people are less visible not just in South Asian writing in English but also in mainstream American writing, for example. (Laila Lalami has written an excellent essay on "Fiction in the Age of Poverty" making this observation about current American literature. It is available at powells.com) This may be the result of other things, like a larger social and cultural blindness, a wider gulf between those who write and the working class and poor, and the outlook shaped by the neo-liberal politics of the last 25-30 years. A topic worth exploring in its own right.