Linguistic migrations

June 12, 2016

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Aamer Hussein is a short story writer and novelist living in London.
Aamer Hussein is a short story writer and novelist living in London.

“What makes the Irish such wonderful writers?” A reader asked at a gathering during a conversation about Beckett’s plays, which were enjoying a fringe revival in London last month. “Is it the musicality of their prose, or the echo of the Gaelic language?”

There have, of course, been acclaimed Irish writers who experimented with bilingualism: Brian O’Nolan wrote his English works as Flann O’Brien and a seminal Irish novel, The Poor Mouth, as Mile na Gopaleen, choosing two identities for his different languages; others, such as Eithne Strong, wrote poetry in both languages and fiction only in English. But generally, on my trips to Dublin, I’ve found an impatience with the subject of Irishness in fiction, and particularly with the topic of language. The sense of English as a language of oppression seems to have been done away with, and many writers have made it their own and would call it their mother tongue.

What’s all too easy to forget is that Beckett wanted to escape this mother tongue, just as he escaped his mother country. He moved to Paris, and began to write in French; one of his most famous early works, Waiting for Godot, was originally a French play. Throughout his career, he alternated between languages, recreating texts in one or the other, sometimes several years after he wrote the originals. Some versions have it that he felt it was possible, in French, to escape the tyranny of style; others that writing in a foreign language forced him to purify and radicalise his style because English came to him too easily.

The stories of writers who were forced to change their languages because of displacement — Nabokov, Nemirovsky, or closer to our time Andrei Makine or Aleksandar Hemon — are more common in literary history than those who chose to do so. Han Suyin, born in China, found herself in exile in Hong Kong during the tumults of the Chinese Revolution, and chose to write about the world she inhabited not in Chinese but in English, her third language, possibly because she’d recently studied medicine in England and would proceed to spend much of her writing life in postcolonial Anglophone Malaysia. In a sense, however, her choice of language was also a choice of primary readership; yet when she eventually moved to Europe she settled not in London but in Lausanne, a short distance from France where she was immensely popular, but only wrote rarely in French, the language of her Belgian mother.


On writers who manage to escape exoticism and stereotypes while working in an idiom entirely alien to the setting, customs and landscapes they depict


And as for colonial education, or linguistic hegemony, we have the examples of French still dominating the literary culture of several postcolonial countries in Africa. English, on the other hand, is no longer just a postcolonial tongue but the language of global commerce, and today we might find writers from Indonesia, Morocco, Iceland or Greece choosing to write and publish in English for strategic or for purely personal reasons, whether or not they live in an English-speaking country.

For many years, I’ve been fascinated by the example of Kay Cicellis, born in France to Greek parents and brought up in Greece, who chose for many years to write mostly about Greece in English, addressing a distant readership, as she had never lived in an English-speaking country and never would for any length of time. Even in those years, however — like Suyin’s, her career and reputation developed in the ’50s — English was read everywhere and publishing in London an assurance of a cosmopolitan audience.

These are examples of writers faced with a task with which many storytellers are familiar: working in an idiom entirely alien to the setting, customs and landscapes depicted. It’s a challenge to escape exoticism and stereotypes while doing this, as we might notice if we compare the unintentional quaintness of Pearl S. Buck to Suyin’s far more authentic attempts to chronicle her Chinese past; in our own times, the works of recent Chinese migrants to America, such as Ha Jin and Yiyun Li are significant examples of the hazards and achievements of cultural translation.

But what of those writers who choose to work in an entirely foreign language of no particular international dominance? Last year we heard of how Jhumpa Lahiri, a native speaker of Bengali who was educated entirely in English, moved to Italy and trained herself to write in Italian purely for the pleasure of the experience. She then produced a memoir in Italian. I was reminded of an odd moment in my own life: at the age of 22, when I began to write fiction, I spontaneously wrote in Italian, because it was a language I was teaching myself; I travelled frequently to Rome and Milan, and I wrote to amuse Italian friends. Only in retrospect would I realise that like many before me I was escaping dichotomies, in my case that of a cultural bilingualism that was in some ways similar to Lahiri’s. Writing in an entirely foreign language is equivalent to choosing an eternal present, unless you choose to portray your own culture or to immerse yourself in the culture of the ‘other’. On one hand, I found that in Italian I would and could never portray my culture to my satisfaction; on the other, I had no intention of moving to Italy or immersing myself in its heritage so that I could write like an insider.

This brings me back to my earlier subjects: dominant languages and those considered peripheral. I’m intrigued by the story of Julien Columeau, a Frenchman who made a literary niche in Urdu, immersing himself in its heritage and literary traditions. Unfortunately, I have only read excerpts of his work, but enough to know that it is firmly rooted in the cultural ethos and poetic traditions of the subcontinent. I am interested, too, in the complex explanation of how he composes his stories. Does he write in French, and then translate his words into Urdu? Does he dictate his fictions, or transcribe them in Roman script?

There are many versions of his method: as we say in Urdu, “jitnay moonh utni baatein”. Recently, a critic commented Urdu writing had an intimate connection with the use of its script; and though I largely concur with that, I have, myself, experimented at different times with writing Urdu in Devanagari, Roman and Nastaliq scripts for purely practical reasons. Whatever our preferred scripts may be, what we read on the printed page is still Urdu. And whatever his working method, Columeau has chosen to work in a language which, for him as for me and many others, is far from hegemonic or dominant.

Only recently, a singer famous for her renditions of classical ghazals and modern nazms, complained to me that at the elite establishment at which she was educated Urdu was despised and ridiculed, and English was definitely the favoured mode of communication. A few days later, I also read an interview with a writer who complained that in the hierarchy of languages in Pakistan, Urdu came first, and her native tongue, Punjabi, in which she was now beginning to write, was marginalised. The longing for a mother tongue is shared by many: and though the stories of those who make the journey back to neglected or rejected originary languages are fewer than those who chose linguistic migrations, there are significant examples of those who’ve reached this goal: Ngugi wa Thiong’o from English to Kikuyu and Rachid Boujedra from French to Arabic come to mind; Cicellis, too, finally wrote in Greek.

However, our Punjabi writer went on to say that Urdu, too, came second to English in today’s Pakistan. Increasingly, writers from Punjab, Sindh or KP who are faced with two languages they consider hegemonic may opt for English as the greater guarantee of commercial success, if they have the required fluency or credentials; or they may prefer to develop their skills in their mother tongues. What the writer ultimately and ideally needs is a real love of the language in which s/he writes, like the Lahori writer who recently told me that Punjabi was his mother tongue and Urdu his exclusive language of choice. But those of us who, in our multilingual and increasingly nomadic world, navigate between one or more tongues, are sometimes led to different modes of expression according to mood, circumstance and contingency. Qurratulain Hyder wrote in both Urdu and English throughout her writing life; Sufi Tabassum, Munir Niazi and Faiz wrote in both Urdu and Punjabi; Shaikh Ayaz, probably Sindh’s foremost 20th century poet, produced, among other works in Urdu, a superbly original rendition of Shah Abdul Latif’s Risalo. The language we write in should be neither a chain nor a cage but a pair of wings, and for those of us with our sights on varied landscapes, the possibilities of flight are endless.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 12th, 2016