Language & Identity

This past weekend was the first ever BIBLIOTOPIA festival at the Fondation Jan Michalski here in Switzerland. I was asked to moderate one of the sessions – a focus on Language and Identity – and in preparation had the pleasure of reading the following books from three very interesting writers:

  • Katja Petrowskaja – Maybe Esther (tr. Shelley Frisch), 2018
  • Gazmend Kapllani – A Short Border Handbook (tr. Anne-Marie Stanton Ife), 2009
  • Gazmend Kapllani – Je m’appelle Europe (tr. Françoise Bienfait et Jérôme Giovendo), 2013
  • Gazmend Kapllani – Le Dernier Page (tr. Françoise Bienfait et Jérôme Giovendo), 2015
  • Xiaolu Guo – A Village of Stone (tr. Cindy Carter), 2005
  • Xiaolu Guo – Once Upon a Time in the East, 2017
  • Xiaolu Guo – A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers, 2007
  • Xiaolu Guo – 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (tr. Rebecca Morris, rev. by Pamela Casey), 2009

Several things connect these writers – the first being that none of them are writing in their native language. Petrowskaja is Russophone but chose to write her book in German, Kapllani is originally from Albania but has written his three novels in Greek (which I then read in English or French translation), and Guo began her writing career in Mandarin (which was her 3rd language) before switching to English after she had moved to the UK. All of them are also writing about immigration, displacement, and/or escape, about the intricacies of family narratives – this often meaning silent or hidden stories – and all of them are writing about censorship in one form or another. There was so much linking the writers that I was excited to speak with them as a group. The actual panel conversation I got to have with them was far too short, but I enjoyed hearing their thoughts on how they located themselves—personally, politically, artistically—within their new language and culture.

Something I took away from the discussion and that I am still thinking about is the idea that it isn’t really that big of a deal to be writing in one’s 2nd or 3rd language. We talked about the idea of “betraying” one’s mother tongue, and how they each negotiated that tension in their work and over time, but eventually all three of them insisted on the normality/necessity of writing outside of one’s native language, and even expressed a sense of exasperation that Anglophones are continually astonished, as if this were an impossible task when, in fact, it is not. It was a gentle scolding of the idea that languages are impenetrable from outside their attached culture, in other words language can become another border that doesn’t need policing. We didn’t have time to go into the nuances of stylistic compromises, emotional engagements, etc – things about which I am still very curious. As a translator I know what it feels like to undress and dress a language, and although I consider myself almost bilingual, I very rarely write extensively in French. I found it both perplexing and liberating to think that I could just switch one language for another if I wanted to or needed to.

In any case, I’d like to write a bit about their books now that I’ve spent so much time with them, and I’ll start a new post to do so, beginning with Xiaolu Guo.