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Writing in a ‘foreign’ tongue

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.

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Letters in the age of e-mail

I wrote a letter this weekend, the old-fashioned way.  Pen to paper.  I even dragged out an old box of  parchment paper that had been gathering dust.  The act was not spontaneous: the letter was requested by a friend who’s at a writing retreat for two months.
    It felt good.  I wrote five pages, and my handwriting was not as bad as I feared it might be. I enjoyed the feel of the envelope in my hand as I trudged down to the mailbox.
    Letter writing in the age of e-mail, some say, is a lost art; they bemoan the loss of feeling as pen scratches away at paper or the dreamy stare into space as you compose your feelings into words.
    I’m not so sure.  The greater pleasure may be felt by the one who receives.  To open your mailbox and see — in the thicket of bills, junk mail, and magazines — an envelope addressed by hand bearing a familiar name, then tearing it open as you retreat into your home, the thrill is all there.  It is that which I miss.

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How far is Penang from Dhaka?

On my last trip back to Dhaka, Bangladesh, nearly a year ago, I flew in via Singapore.  At that airport, dozens of Bangladeshis came on board.  I sat in an aisle seat, and a young man with a mustache took the window.  After we had finished the evening meal, I asked him where he was coming from.  Malaysia, he said. He had flown in from Penang, where he worked in construction, setting up elevators.
    There are perhaps as many as 200,000 Bangladeshi laborers in Malaysia, just over half that number having legal contracts to work there.  Most are employed in construction.  Through our conversation I learned something of the conditions in which they lived and worked.

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Hurricanes and regime change

    Often, after Nature hands us the first punch, the second comes from the Man.
    Witness, in the face of Katrina, the shameful failure of response by the most powerful government on earth to the survival needs of its poor, mostly black, residents of New Orleans.
    But Katrina only exposed that long before Nature’s assault, the punches had been raining down from the Man.  Most of those left stranded could not evacuate because they were too poor.  Where would they go without cars, without cash, credit cards, or bank accounts to pay for hotel rooms?
    You cannot kick Nature’s ass for bringing Katrina on shore.  But the disaster made by the Man should have consequences.  “Toss the scoundrels out” is a sentiment that has often been heard, post-Katrina.
    Sometimes it does work out that way.  My memory goes back to the November 1970 cyclone that hit the southern coast of East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh.

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On a street named Moliere

On my last night in Mexico City this July — I was visiting at the invitation of an old college friend — I went out with my host family to a lovely restaurant on a street named after Moliere. I was surprised to find that the streets in that neighborhood were named after figures from other countries – from the world of writing or art or politics. Moliere was just off the main road named after Masaryk. Not far, I was told, were roads named after Jules Verne and Voltaire. Earlier on my trip, I had walked past statues of Tito, Gandhi and Churchill along Paseo de la Reforma near the wonderful National Museum of Anthropology. Downtown I had walked streets named after the countries of Latin America and I have learned that in the Zona Rosa there are roads named after world cities.

I did not get a chance to find out how universal this naming was: perhaps it was heavily oriented towards Europe and Latin America. I would be curious to know if the celebration extends further.

But still.

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Refugee?

The week that Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, a friend of mine from New Orleans escaped from the storm and drove, first to relatives in the south, then later up north. I spoke to her as she was driving along a highway. I asked her if she’d eaten, and she said she had bought a breakfast sandwich and had not quite finished it yet. Somewhere in the conversation, I called her a refugee and she bristled at my use of the word. I’ve read of other black folks rejecting the word, too, considering it demeaning and not worthy of being used for someone who’s a citizen of the United States. But why?

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