by Jeremy Paden
Exophony: the practice of writing poetry, stories, or essays in a language other than one’s mother tongue.
In the second book of Don Quixote, the knight-errant meets a father of a well-to-do family whose son, much to the father’s shame, has taken up poetry. In their conversation, Quixote states, “all the ancient poets wrote in the language they imbibed with their mother’s milk, and never went in quest of foreign ones to express their sublime conceptions.” This opinion, as with many of Quixote’s literary pronouncements, is a rather common sense position—behind it stands the truth that one writes in the language of one’s birth because mastery of expression is dependent on intimacy with the language and its various registers.
There was a period in the West when writing in one’s mother tongue was not the
prevailing position among those who could read and write. The centrality of Latin to the educational system, to ecclesial power, and to statecraft were such that one honed literacy in a language other than what one spoke at home. Thomas More, for example, penned his Utopia in Latin and scoffed at Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English—and not just because of the theological and political implications of the project; More also had linguistic and aesthetic complaints.
With the troubadours, we get the beginning of what we call modern literature and begin to see again the development of literature in local dialects. With the printing press and the dissolution of Christendom into nation states that largely tracked along linguistic lines, European literature again found its wellspring in the common tongue. Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, are all central to the formation of Italian, English, and Spanish as literary languages. (This much-too-brief overview overlooks Langland, Chaucer, Ruiz, and other late medieval writers. It also overlooks the tragic politics of minority languages and dialects within these nascent nation states).
While literary innovation can come from many sources (the introduction of foreign genres and forms, as an example), there has been a consistent push to find innovation by bringing common speech into literary diction. Milton’s rejection of archaisms and his use of blank verse for his epic Paradise Lost; Wordsworth’s search for a “language near to the language of men” and his eschewal of “what is usually called poetic diction”; and William Carlos Williams’ experiments with form and his celebration of the American idiom. The list goes on and on.
The struggle to master written expression in one’s native tongue is enough to keep any writer constantly sharpening his or her pen. But it is not always the case that one writes in the language one learned at home. For example, there’s Fabio Morábito, born in Egypt to an Italian family, who at 15 moved to Mexico and learned Spanish, yet has gone on to win such prizes as the Xavier Villaurrutia for his Spanish language poetry. Or there’s the Catalan poet Pere Gimferrer whose first few books of poems (even award-winning books) were written in Spanish, the language in which he was schooled. Yet in the ’70s, he turned to Catalan, his mother tongue, out of a feeling that Spanish no longer had much to offer him in the way of literary expression.
To readers and writers of English, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and Fernando Pessoa are perhaps better-known exophonic writers than Morábito and Gimferrer. Beckett, after living in France for years, famously began writing poetry in French and moved on to prose and drama because it allowed him to write without style.
The challenges each faced are rather different. In the case of Morábito, he learned the language late, and despite the similarities between Italian and Spanish, there is an underlying self-doubt as it relates to expression. With Gimferrer, who was raised speaking Catalan but formally educated in Spanish, what struggle he has had with expression has been one of trying to make Catalan a modern literary language. (The 14th and 15th centuries are regarded as the height of literary expression for Catalan.)
Recently Jhumpa Lahiri’s foray into Italian with her admirable memoir on language acquisition and writing In altre parole/In Other Words has brought exophony out of the academic context of literary criticism and translation studies (much of it written about Beckett) and into a wider conversation. (I do not mean to ignore such writers as the Japanese/German Yoko Tawada, or the Chinese/English Ha Jin and Yiyun Li, or any others.)
Of her own writing, and in response to Beckett’s celebrated phrase, Lahiri has noted, “The problem isn’t the absence of style but perhaps an excess, by which I feel overwhelmed. . . What I lack in Italian is a sharp vision, and so I can’t hone a specific style. Furthermore, I can’t grasp it. If I happen to formulate a good sentence in Italian I can’t understand exactly why it’s good.” This is a form of writing in the dark, a search for precision knowing that failure is inevitable. Yet, she writes about the thrill of discovery—the discovery of another language and modes of expression as well as self-discovery.
Among other things, it is harder to work within the well-established groves of thought and the cadence of what might be called one’s personal voice. It is also harder, unless one is an avid reader of that second language to pull in turns of phrase from literary models. But this blindness and deafness, this struggle over prepositions, adjective placement, adverbial phrases, and word order, deepens one’s understanding of language—in part, because failure is a better docent than success.
Again Lahiri says: “It’s a sort of literary act of survival. I don’t have many words to express myself— rather, the opposite. I’m aware of a state of deprivation. And yet, at the same time, I feel free, light. I rediscover the reason that I write, the joy as well as the need. I find again the pleasure I’ve felt since I was a child: putting words in a notebook that no one will read. In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way. I’m always uncertain. My sole intention, along with a blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself.”
In my own writing, I have practiced various forms of exophony. In my most recent collection of poems, world as sacred burning heart, I translated rough-drafts from English to Spanish and back to English as a means of revision. Perhaps more to the point, Autorretrato como una iguana/Self-Portrait as an Iguana, a forthcoming book is a collection of poems written in Spanish.
For those wanting to explore exophony in their own writing, here are two exercises. Or really one exercise that goes in two different directions. Think, on the one hand of Nabokov, of how his prose crackles with consonants and rhymes or slant rhymes in sentences that flow like water over a precipice. For the other, think of those who pare their writing down to bare minimum: Williams, Oppen, even Beckett. Describe a scene or an object using these two approaches.
1. In the first case, let the writing be, to quote Updike describing Nabokov, ecstatic. Choose your adjectives because they are words you love, not because they are the mot juste, and let the music of these words lead you down what path they might and through what doors or windows these paths might lead. Let the fact that you are writing in a second language give you the freedom to play in ways that the constraints of the pursuit of clear writing in your native language does not allow. Focus on the music, on the surprising image. Revel in the imperfection.
2. In the second case, think of George Oppen’s Ballad, or Raymond Patterson’s Twenty-Six Ways of Looking at a Blackman, or Denise Levertov’s A Cure of Souls, describe the object or the scene as precisely as possible. Try to use native turns of phrase and expression. Regardless of your level of expertise in your non-dominant language, your encounter with self-doubt and questioning might be heightened. Know that this too will be an encounter with failure, but turn that to your advantage.
In the micro-essay by Fabio Morábito mentioned above, Morábito notes that this encounter with “expressive difficulty” because of a late “arrival at the language in which” non-native writers write and that sees “in every stylistic dilemma an undercurrent of [a] lack of roots and adaptation” grants, on one hand, “an urgency, a feverishness,” and on the other, a “stuttering, which reflects the subject’s fear of crossing a line that will make them lose something special of themselves.” He concludes that this problem is a problem of style that both native and non-native writers face.
The case of Morábito, Lahiri, Nabokov, Pessoa, and others is different from those who might dabble in exophonic writing. But only by degree. The challenge to write, and to write consistently, in a non-dominant language can be an invigorating challenge that helps sharpen even one’s native pen.
Jeremy Paden is the author of the chapbook Broken Tulips. His poems have appeared in Adirondack Review, Atlanta Review, Beloit Poetry Journal and California Quarterly. He was a 2013 finalist of the Nazim Hikmet poetry competition. His translations of poems from the Spanish have appeared in Words Without Borders. His articles on Latin American and Spanish literature have appeared in Calíope: Journal for Renaissance and Baroque Hispanic Poetry, Colonial Latin American Review, Review of International American Studies, and Romance Quarterly, among others. He received his PhD in Spanish and Latin American literature from Emory University.