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Exophonic Authors, or Writing in a Language Not Your Own

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on October 17, 2017


It’s not easy to be a writer, nearly impossible to make the best seller list, no less become a celebrated author. Yet some manage to do so, even with an additional obstacle. Exophonic writers work in a language that’s not their own. Some choose to do this, while others have no real choice in the matter. Exophony isn’t common—at least in the English-speaking world—but it is fascinating.

Chinua Achebe’s story is, among African writers, not unusual. He was born in Nigeria as Albert Chinualumogu. His name—half-English, half-Igbo—is a foreshadowing of the linguistic complexities to come. Achebe’s parents were Christian evangelists, but he was also exposed to traditional Nigerian culture and religion. He began studying English at the age of eight. An excellent student and voracious reader, he earned a scholarship to study medicine, but quickly abandoned his degree—and the funding—to study English Literature. Achebe began writing, stopped using his English forename, and, after graduation, worked in London for the BBC. His first novel, Things Fall Apart, was a major success. It was written in English and, like much of his subsequent work, grapples with the paradox of post colonialism. Achebe and his characters live between two worlds—past and present, tradition and modernity, colonizer and colonized, native and foreign culture, Igbo and English. The self is a shifting, ambiguous, murky thing. Achebe writes in English and uses the structure and tropes of the Western novel, but he infuses his work with Igbo characters, words, history, folklore, adages and point-of-view. In an article entitled "The African Writer and the English Language", Achebe writes: I have indicated somewhat offhandedly that the national literature of Nigeria and of many other countries of Africa is, or will be, written in English. 

Why? Because Nigeria is a British creation that unified a variety of peoples and languages and these communities used English to speak to one another. 

Before Achebe there was Equiano. Known as Gustavus Vassa during his lifetime, he came from an Igbo village in Nigeria. Born around 1745, Equiano was sold into slavery at a young age and taken to America. He eventually purchased his freedom and moved to England in his early 20s, where he began learning English. He converted to Christianity and married a white English woman named Susannah Cullen, with whom he had two daughters. In 1789 Equiano published the English-language book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, which described, for a white audience, everyday life in his village. Equiano was telling his story and that of his homeland, but he was also refuting the lies told by Americans and Europeans to justify slavery. The Interesting Narrative sold well and was regarded as an elegant, polished memoir. Susannah died in 1796; Equiano, the following year. Some scholars believe Equiano was actually born in South Carolina, but the issue has never been settled.

Joseph Conrad, born Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski, in a region of the Ukraine that was governed by Russia and had broken off from Poland in 1793, led—as the first part of this sentence implies—a rather convoluted life. After his parents died when he was 12, Conrad was raised by an uncle and, a few years later, moved to France to become a merchant marine. In his early 20s he sailed for England and gradually learned English. Here’s what Conrad wrote about the issue in a letter to his French translator, Abbé Joseph de Smet:  

My first English reading was the Standard newspaper and my first acquaintance by the ear with it was in the speech of fishermen, shipwrights and sailors….in 1880 I had mastered the language sufficiently to pass the first examination for officers in the merchant service, including a viva voce of more than two hours. But “mastered” is not the right word; I should have said “acquired.” I’ve never opened an English grammar in my life.

Conrad tried and failed to secure Austrian citizenship and he couldn’t return home because of his father’s politics so, in 1878, he settled in England and became a citizen. Like Vladimir Nabokov, he became a grand master of English prose even though it wasn’t his mother tongue. The final 100 pages of Nostromo, in particular, are a stylistic tour de force that few writers have matched.

Jack Kerouac, another merchant marine, was born in 1922. His family was French-Canadian, from the industrial town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Kerouac spoke only French until the age of six, when he started school. Until then, he was called Ti-Jean—Little John—and knew only Joual, a nonstandard dialect of Quebecois. Although often presented as an icon of cool, he was shy, socially awkward, an inveterate momma’s boy, and uncomfortable speaking English until college. Kerouac is best known for his English-language work, but he also wrote poetry and fiction in French. As he grew older, the desire to return to his roots became more strong, and he used French more often. He also turned away from the countercultural “Beat” ideals he helped popularize—drugs, Buddhism, travel, exploration, hedonism, liberalism—and became increasingly conservative, Catholic and hermetic, living with his mother and succumbing to alcoholism.

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Leonora Carrington's How doth the little crocodile

Leonora Carrington—painter, writer, oddball—was born in England in 1917. She could write backwards with one hand while also writing forward with the other. She was a peculiar, incorrigible child, expelled from a variety of schools. Enthralled with surrealism, when she met Max Ernst at a London party in 1937, she ran away with him to Paris. Like many interesting, talented people, Carrington traveled widely, lived in several countries and endured poverty; she was also institutionalized on multiple continents. Once, she secretly lopped off a houseguest’s hair during the night, and fed it to him in the morning inside an omelet. She spent most of her life in Mexico, where she died, like Ambrose Bierce, another committed nonconformist. Her fiction, like her painting, is surreal. Women get undressed, all the way down to their bones. A hyena attends a debutante dance, wearing the face of a dead maid. Carrington began writing in English, but lost some of her work and later wrote in French and Spanish. In her introduction to Down Below, Carrington's memoir about being in a mental institution, the writer and critic Marina Warner said that Carrington wrote cautiously and sometimes with great effort, in acquired languages: “Unfamiliarity does not cramp her style; rather it sharpens the flavor of ingenuous knowingness that so enthralled the Surrealists.” Her tentative grasp of French and Spanish was useful; it helped shape and fuel the complexity, ambiguity and unsettling nature of her dreamlike stories. As Carrington writes, “I was not hindered by a preconceived idea of the words.” A smaller vocabulary and stilted grammar didn’t weaken her art, but liberated it.

J.M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. His parents, from Dutch, Polish and Germany ancestry, spoke both English and Afrikaans at home. Though English was one of Coetzee’s native tongues, it was a South African dialect heavily inflected with nonstandard idioms, a polyglot English. He never felt completely at home in the language because his version isn’t Standard Formal English. At the same time, he never felt comfortable writing in any other language. In Here and Now, a collection of letters between Coetzee and Paul Auster, both writers address the peculiarity of not being a “real” English-speaker. Many of his fictional characters also reflect this linguistic paradox. The protagonist of Slow Man says:
English has never been mine in the way that it is yours. Nothing to do with fluency. I am perfectly fluent, as you can hear. But…I have always felt myself to be a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy. It is not I who speaks the language; it is the language that is spoken through me.

This feeling of distance and alienation from his own language may account for the spartan, formal almost clinical quality Coetzee’s prose. He writes in an idiosyncratic, disembodied style, like an anthropologist demonstrating an arcane cultural tradition. Beautiful, but strange. Like many other exophonic writers, he has moved frequently, living in the US, Britain and finally settling in Australia. Interestingly, his PhD dissertation was a stylistic analysis of Samuel Beckett, a fellow exophone.

Samuel Beckett was born in Ireland in 1906. He studied French, Italian and German, traveled widely, spent much of his adult life in France and even joined the resistance during World War II. He wrote poetry, plays and fiction in both French and English. His second novel, Murphy, was written in English, but he translated it into French. His most famous work, Waiting for Godot, was originally composed in French as En Attendant Godot. Beckett liked writing outside his mother tongue because it allowed him to write “without style.” In a letter written in 1937 he discusses this:

More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask.

More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask.

He was able to abandon the complex wordplay and circumlocutions of his early work to write in a more streamlined manner because he simply didn’t have as much facility, or such a large vocabulary, in French. Instead, he could focus on conveying ideas, simply and without adornment.

There are other notable exophones: Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky, Kahlil Gibran, Khalid Hosseini, Nancy Huston, Ha Jin, Arthur Koestler, Agota Kristof, Milan Kundera, Voltaire, Ayn Rand, Gary Shteyngart, Anna-Kazumi Stahl, Tom Stoppard, Yoko Tawada, Sholem Aleichem, Nadeem Aslam, Najat El Hachmi, Aga Lesiewicz and Téa Obreht.

They write outside their native tongue for a variety of reasons. Yuko Otomo, a Japanese writer who works almost exclusively in English, appreciates the egalitarian nature of the language. Japanese, on the other hand, is more strict and hierarchical: “I am elated,” she writes, ”to address a professor and a dog with the same pronoun ‘you.’” 

Jumpha Lahiri—who was born in Britain to a Bengali family but grew up in the US—originally wrote in English but switched to Italian. She claims this has made her “a tougher, freer writer.” For each of these writers, exophony, even if preferable, is a paradox and a struggle. But perhaps the language of composition isn’t as important as the act itself. As Franz Kafka wrote to Max Brod, Jewish writers were forced to confront four impossibilities, “the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German…the impossibility of writing differently, and…the impossibility of writing at all.” 

Freelance writer (food, drinks, travel, culture) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, Dubai, ... Show More