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Native Speaker 

How knowing a second language can haunt English writers

Wednesday, Jul 28 2004
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English is my first, last, and only language. I don't say this proudly, and it's not for lack of trying. I took Spanish in high school and remember enough of it to ask for a drink and a room (or to ask, in my husband's token, jokey Spanish, "¿Donde estan los baños grandes?"). I took Hebrew as a 12-year-old in preparation for my bat mitzvah and then again for a year in college, but I can barely read it, let alone understand it. And I attempted a course in German at City College last year in an effort to get close to my in-laws' Swiss German (solely an oral language, so you can't take a class in it), but quit when the teacher started making sadistic fun of the students. I'll try again, but for now, English it is.

The only time another language has set me off from my peers is when a co-worker tried to use Yiddish to appeal to my Jewishness. When this woman, who is now a dear friend, was first courting me, I was standoffish. She kept trotting out Yiddish words and phrases as if they were a secret code (I know a little of the language, mostly from expressions my mother used when I was a kid). She did it, I suppose, to make us a club of two, to say, "We understand each other." But even if I did understand her, I didn't want to be set off; I wanted to fit in. I didn't want to be the Super Jew in an office full of nonreligious types.

So when Wendy Lesser's new book, The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues, arrived, I was eager to read about how people with far more troubled linguistic histories than mine came to compose in English. I figured I'd see in these authors' struggles with bilingualism an echo of my own struggle to expand my horizons yet keep my identity. As one writer quotes Wittgenstein, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." But as Genius proves, when you move into a broader world, you leave a little of yourself behind.


Most anthologies like this -- that is, some number of writers on (insert subject here) -- are crap. I can say this with authority because I check them out often. The idea of the round table, the "symposium" (as Lesser's quarterly literary magazine, The Threepenny Review, calls it), is very appealing to a lone reader like me. It's also appealing to an editor, because you can put big names on the cover at a fraction of the cost of a whole volume from each. But more often than not the result is a mixed bag, with some brilliant pieces and some duds, and too-short excerpts that leave a reader unsatisfied.

Not only is The Genius of Language a better anthology simply by virtue of having been pulled together by Lesser, who knows a higher caliber of writer than most anyone in the Bay Area, but it's also better because she stretches the concept. Each essay is a little world unto itself, rather than an excerpt, and the theme plays out in many directions at once. Lesser (who's written six books and edited one more) admits in her introduction -- which reads a little defensive, apparently because she had to argue the point with her own editor -- that she "allowed [herself] to break the rules in acquiring the essayists, and the individual authors went on to break more rules in writing their essays."

When I met Lesser at the Threepenny offices in Berkeley, a converted house on a tree-lined street near Chez Panisse, its walls stacked high with papers and books, she explained her decision. She wanted to work only with writers she "liked and had read" and she wouldn't compromise her "literary principles" to meet some preconceived topic. (The book's guiding scheme had come from an editor, something Lesser doesn't usually accept.) That means these authors don't fit a single pattern: Some learned English young and went back later to their mother tongues; others learned another language and English simultaneously or still write in their first. Nor did Lesser aim for comprehensiveness -- "whatever that might be in a world occupied by approximately 6,000 different languages," she points out in the introduction. She encouraged her authors to be "as autobiographical as [they] want." And she didn't hire linguists: She hired novelists, playwrights, poets, and essayists, people with a sense of humor and pathos. As a result, the book is consistently insightful and funny.

At first, Lesser hoped to understand how these people came to do what they do: "It is the crossing of a boundary, the alienation from the original tongue, which made writers of them." She wanted to understand what it is to be "embraced or enveloped by English," and to have the authors "express in English the singular characteristics of their mother tongue." (Like me, Lesser calls herself "embarrassingly monolingual.") But the essays tell a larger story.

The Genius of Language is made up of 15 miniature memoirs, often about the writers' youths. As Lesser explains, "[B]ecause most of these writers have actually been exiled from their childhood place, they seem to feel that something of that lost experience still exists somewhere, accessible (if at all) only through language." Bharati Mukherjee, who teaches at UC Berkeley, writes in her essay, "The Way Back," about the internal split that being bilingual causes: "Two selves exist within the language-adoptee ... -- what might have been, what was lost, and the good fortune, the delivery from want and frustration." Several writers mention something like what Thomas Laqueur, a professor at Cal, does in "Prelude," that their mother tongue (in his case, German) is "the language of a world -- real, remembered, and misremembered -- that my parents lost."

This is how I feel about Yiddish. My mother's mother and grandparents, who came from Poland and Russia, all spoke it, and she picked it up from them. My father's parents, also from Poland and Russia, spoke it to each other when they didn't want my dad and his brothers to understand. The language, as the late Leonard Michaels (a retired Cal professor at the time of his death last year) explains in "My Yiddish," "has no territorial boundary." It doesn't come from one country -- "with its elements of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Rumanian." But its universality didn't help the people who spoke it: "Yiddish is the language of children wandering for a thousand years in a nightmare, assimilating languages to no avail." Everyone who speaks it has already lost something, and I don't like to be reminded of that loss at work. It's hard to concentrate when you're feeling haunted.

Bert Keizer, an Amsterdam doctor, probably does the best job (in "Circus Biped") of explaining the peculiar way that knowing a second language can infuse how you think about writing: "Well, it's the difference between a natural biped (man) and a circus biped (dog). You wouldn't ever say to a human that you admire the way he manages so well on two legs, while a dog is applauded for just this feat. The dream of a foreign writer using English is that the natives will forget about his dogginess and say to each other: I just love the way he moves." The thing is, that's also the dream of the native writer using English.

And that brings us to what kills me about The Genius of Language. Each of these authors wants nothing more than to be heard. Ha-Yun Jung, in "Personal and Singular," puts it this way: "I have a fear, constantly, of not quite being understood in just one language." But who hasn't had days when everything you say comes out wrong, when every person you encounter looks at you like you're speaking Martian, when your writing seems churned through a mill? Most of the essayists in Genius are grateful to know English and feel that it has, in some way, brought them back to their mother tongues. They know they may never be 100 percent clear in either language; fluency is not a given. Yet they leave their pride by the wayside and stand up on their own two feet. I love the way they move.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher

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