Writing in a second language
I recently read a piece in the New York Times by Mr. Corstica Bradatan, a Bulgarian writer. Having moved from Bulgaria to the US, he talks about the difficulty of finding a voice in a new language:
“ When you become a writer, you don’t do so in abstract, but in relation to a certain language. To practice writing is to grow roots into that language; the better writer you become, the deeper the roots. Literary virtuosity almost always betrays a sense of deep, comfortable immersion into familiar soil. As such, if for any reason the writer has to change languages, the experience is nothing short of life-threatening”.
I understand this feeling completely: Growing up in Mexico, I was passionate about the Spanish language. I loved reading ever since I can remember, and I started writing short stories when I was 7-years-old.
One of the best traditions of my childhood was that every year, my dad would take me to the International Book Fair in Mexico City. We would spend the whole day combing the aisles, exchanging books, excited at our findings. We would then emerge from the fair carrying a heavy box of books, exhausted but happy, satisfied with our treasures. It is one of the happiest memories of my childhood.
My love for books continued all my life, and when the time came to choose a Bachelor’s degree, I had no doubt to choose Spanish Literature. Then, for 4 glorious years, I immersed myself in the richness of the language, from the works of the Middle Ages to the classics of the Spanish Golden Age to the most recent emergence of Latin-American writers. I loved every part of it.
I pride myself for knowing to write well, knowing by heart the intricacies of the accentuation and conjugation, based of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language. During those years I took an elective course, Latin, and was filled with delight when I learned the origin of a word. It was like polishing a word as if a gem, and discovering what it was made of.
Since I loved writing, I thought I could make a name for myself as a writer. I wrote a novel, a couple of scripts for theater and short stories. I never thought of living outside the Spanish world that I so loved. It never occurred to me to be separated from my beloved linguistic universe.
But fate had other plans, and ironically, I somehow ended up living in the capital of the United States, where my literary references were put out of context. Even though I spoke English, I was not fully comfortable with it. I was, as Bradatan explains, devoid of a language:
“When changing languages you descend to a zero-point of your existence. There must be even a moment, however brief, when you cease to be. You’ve quit the old language and the new one hasn’t received you yet; you are now in limbo, between worlds, hanging over the abyss”.
And hanging over the abyss I was, in the middle of an English-speaking country, equipped with a deep knowledge of a language that amounted to little here. Other than Shakespeare and Hemingway, I had no reference of writers of the English language. I was in a void. I was in limbo.
Then, two or three years after I had moved to the US, my brother Alfonso, who is a musician, approached me with the idea of writing a musical. He would write the music, I would write the script. I jumped enthusiastically at the idea and we started working right away. We both agreed it should be in English. I was intimidated at first but eventually I jumped into the unknown… writing in English for the first time.
Although scary at first, the experience proved to be incredibly liberating. Writing in Spanish had carried a lot of gravitas, to the point of being paralyzing. I had such respect for the language that I feared disappointing the great masters. What would Cervantes think of this? I would anguish. By contrast, my lack of knowledge of English literature allowed me to write more freely, without imagining anyone looking over my shoulder. I found out that writing in English gave me the bliss of ignorance.
I finished the script and went on to write short stories and memoir pieces for my two girls. I surprised myself by choosing English to do so. Again as the Bulgarian writer says: “To abandon your native tongue and to adopt another is to dismantle yourself, piece by piece, and then put yourself together again, in a different form.”
That was exactly me, forced to look at what I knew, dissect it, discard some things, hold on to some and and put everything back together in a way that was still me, but a little different. For example, literary embellishments and excessive adjectives don’t go well in English, so writing in this language forced me to see the world through different eyes, in a more objective and matter-of-fact way. The result was a new way of writing, made of bits and pieces of the old me, plus elements of my new environment.
As Bradatan observes:
“In the end, you don’t really change languages;
the language changes you”.
In my case, it did.
MAYU MOLINA LEHMANN was born and raised in Sonora, Mexico. Developing an early love for literature, she wrote her first story at age seven. The anthology De Niños Para Niños (Ediciones del Plumicornio) includes some of her earlier works. She authored an unpublished novel La Hija del Candidato, and is writing the script for a musical about Latino immigration.
Mayu has a BA in Spanish Literature from Tec de Monterrey (ITESM). After moving to the US she worked at the Organization for American States in Washington, D.C., where she currently lives with her husband and two young daughters.
Please visit Mayu’s Website
SONIA MARSH SAYS: I know everyone reading your story will admire your writing skills. I can relate in a different way as I grew up speaking three languages: English, French and Danish, and struggled with my vocabulary and reading skills in those three languages. What struck me as interesting was your mention of:
“My lack of knowledge of English literature allowed me to write more freely, without imagining anyone looking over my shoulder. I found out that writing in English gave me the bliss of ignorance.”
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