Tuesday, 1 March 2011

More than a Mother tongue: Exphonic writing in English

Last month I came across an article published in the Guardian written by a writer named Dan Vyleta. Vyleta has an interesting pedigree. Born in what was then Czechoslovakia in a Jewish family, Vyleta moved to Germany (probably West Germany) in the late 1960s. He grew up in Germany and went to University in the UK. He lives in Canada now.  

Nothing out of the ordinary in this biodata you might say (unless the family’s flight away from the Iron Curtain is a riveting and ultimately life-affirming tale of fluctuating fortunes, fortitude, and triumph of human spirit over adversity). But that is not all. There is more to Vyleta than just continent-hopping. Dan Vyleta is also a writer. ‘So what’s the big deal?’ I hear you wondering. ‘There are many people, a proportion of whom of Jewish descent and originating from the former Czechoslovakia, must be writing fiction and non-fiction. What is special about Vyleta?’ The special thing about Vyleta is that he writes in English, which is not his mother-tongue. He has published two novels, both in English, one of which, his debut novel, was translated into 13 languages. (I wonder whether one of the 13 languages was his native Czech? Did he translate the fiction himself?)

In the article in the Guardian Vyleta talks about ‘exphonic’ writing, and gives the list of his top 10 books written in English, exphonically. I must say I did not exactly know what ‘exphonic’ meant, and I was none the wiser after I googled the word. However I cleverly deducted from the subtitle of the article that Vyleta was talking about those writers for whom English was their second language.

Why would a writer choose to write in a language that is not his first language? One obvious reason would be the writer has grown up in a culture where English is the language of the culture, and, even though the writer spoke a language different from English at home, he was also exposed to English from an early age. An example would be Kazuo Ishiguro. Born to Japanese parents, Ishiguro moved with his family to England when he was five and has lived in England ever since. Presumably he spoke Japanese at home when he was growing up, but he was also speaking English from an early age. All of Ishiguro’s novels are written in English, but it may be argued that he is not a genuine ‘exphonic’ writer. Vyleta certainly would not consider him to be an exphonic writer. Vyleta’s definition of an exphonic English language writer is quite stringent. A writing in English is genuinely exphonic only if the writer had no early (i.e. in his childhood) exposure to English. Many second generation writers of Asian stock (for example, Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer award winning writer, who is of Indian descent, but, I am assuming, grew up in America) would come into this category.

Dan Vyleta probably did not learn English when he was growing up. Although it is not made explicit, he considers himself an exphonic writer. Why does he write in English? The straightforward reason is, as he makes it clear in the article, he now considers English as his own language, never mind when he learnt it. That is to say he feels comfortable and confidant writing in English. The fact that he now lives in Canada where English is widely spoken may also have something to do with it. Not all writers are prepared to take this step. The 1983 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Elias Canetti, was allegedly very fluent in English, although he did not learn it in his childhood. Born into a family of Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria, Canetti came to England when he was a child; however he left England within a couple of years after the sudden death of his father, and his subsequent education was in Switzerland. Canetti was fluent in several languages, English being one of them. He however chose to write in German, which was strictly speaking not his mother-tongue. However, as we learn from Canetti’s excellent memoir, he was exposed to German from an early age. Both his parents chose to converse, even at home, in German, which they considered to be a cultured language. You might therefore say that German, though not his mother-tongue, was not an exphonic language for Canetti. In his young adult years Canetti lived in Germany. He came to England around the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, and lived in this country for decades. He made his reputation as a writer of exceptional class when he lived in England, and he was a UK resident at the time of his Nobel triumph. Yet he chose to write in German rather than in English. Auto da Fe, Canetti’s only full-length novel, which I have reviewed on this blog, was written in German in the 1930s, when Canetti lived in Germany. The novel became more widely known after its English translation was published in England in 1946. Canetti did not translate the novel, but (and this is mentioned in the introduction to the novel) that he personally supervised the translation into English. Why did Canetti not write subsequently in English, like Nabokov? Again, the obvious answer is Canetti must have felt more comfortable writing in German. However, there is also the possibility that Canetti wrote in German because he believed that German was a superior language. Whatever might be the reason, I think it takes a certain amount of self-belief (in Canetti’s case it probably bordered on hauteur) to take a decision not to write in the language of the culture you live in even if you are fluent in that language. Another (slightly more recent) example would be W.G. Sebald, who tragically died in a road accident in 2001. Sebald was born and brought up in Germany, and German was his first-language. He came to England in his adulthood and decided to make his career here. At the time of his death Sebald had published a number of acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction, and he was the head of the Department of European Literature at the University of East Anglia (UEA). I am assuming that Sebald, although he did not learn English in his childhood, was fluent in it. Yet he chose to write in German. He became more widely known to the English-speaking world only after his books were translated into English, which happened several years after they first came out in German.

Canetti and Sebald are two examples of writers who in all probabilities would have become, like Nabokov, great exphonic writers writing in English, but chose not to. I was interested to see Vyleta including Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon in his list of great exphonic novels. Darkness at Noon, the second of the trilogy Koestler wrote, is without doubt one of the greatest 20th century novels. But it was not written originally in English. Koestler, a multilingual, wrote the three volumes of the trilogy in three different languages, the last of which was in English. Darkness at Noon was written German. I guess Vyleta included it in his list because it is a great novel and Koestler, unlike Canetti, did write in English (which was not his first language). But strictly speaking Darkness at Noon should be classified as a ‘translated novel’ rather than ‘exphonic English’.

I was interested to note that Vyleta’s list did not include a single Indian writer writing in English. I guess it is because India is a partial English speaking country and many Indian writers writing in English have been exposed to English from an early age, for example in school, and it may be argued that they are no different from someone like Ishiguro. English, for them, is not a genuinely exphonic language. I do not fully subscribe to this view. India is only a partial English-speaking country. English is not India’s national language and I do not believe that it is the lingua franca in India. In the television programmes on India, frequently, the Indians speaking to the camera or the interviewer do not speak in English. I suspect it is very much class-related. Those born into middle or upper classes probably have exposure to English from an early age. Does this mean that the Indian writers writing in English all belong to the middle or upper class? My Indian friends inform me that India has a rich tradition of literature in non-English, local, languages, and there are awards, equivalent to the Booker, for books written in local languages in each state. There is also a national award, the Janapith (you might say it is India’s equivalent of the Nobel), which is not restricted to those writing in English. The writers writing in local languages far outnumber those writing in English. These writers, I am informed, are more widely read in India and are better known.

Whether or not the Indian writers, living in India and writing in English, can be considered genuinely exphonic, the question that comes to my mind is why do they choose to write in English, as opposed to their mother-tongues? First and foremost, they must be comfortable writing in English. The second reason (I think) is that these writers desire wider recognition that goes beyond the confines of India. English is truly the world language, and you are more likely to reach out to a much wider audience (and also get more lucrative book deals) if you write in English than if you write in one of the twenty odd languages spoken in India. A writer writing in the vernacular, I should think, will not be very well known outside of his state even in India.

In my view Indian writers residing in India and writing in English could be considered as exphonic writers. The same goes for African writers who grew up and lived in Africa. It is not as straightforward, though, as that. It is probable that many of these writers were taught English at school from an early age. I should doubt very much, however, that they spoke in English outside of their class, and, were perhaps not proficient in English when they were growing up.

Are writers of Indian descent who come from the erstwhile British colonies exphonic? Should V.S. Naipaul, the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, be considered an exphonic writer? I wouldn’t consider Naipaul, who was born and brought up in Trinidad until he moved to England at the age of 18, an exphonic writer because, while English was probably not spoken in Naipaul’s home, he must have picked it up from an early age, as it was the official language of Trinidad. Naipaul thus is no different from Ishiguro.

What about Salman Rushdie? Rushdie moved to England with his family when he was 11-12 years of age. I would not consider Rushdie as a genuine exphonic writer either because, like Ishiguro and Naipaul, he grew up in a culture (at least partly) where English was the spoken language.

When I began writing this post I thought I would make my own list of my favourite ten books written in English by writers for whom English was exphonic. It is not an easy task though if your definition, like that of Vyleta, is very restrictive. Nevertheless I shall have a go.

The list below is in no particular order of preference.

For me, this is Nabokov’s masterpiece. I have reviewed it on the blog. Nabokov’s early novels were written in Russian. He switched to writing in English after he immigrated to the USA.

Joseph Conrad’s exploration of the darkness at the core of human mind is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. This novel too has been reviewed on the blog. English was probably Conrad’s third or fourth language.

A Bosnian, Hemon moved to America after the civil war in Yugoslavia, and switched over to English. He, like Conrad, is a truly exphonic writer. I am not sure, however, whether The Lazarus Project, Hemon’s ambitious study of the immigrant experience in America, is a great novel. However, it is very entertaining in parts, and Hemon summons English to convey his ideas in an interesting way, much the same way, I think, as Tibor Fischer (who is not included in this list because, although of immigrant stock, Fischer grew up, proabaly was also born, in England).

Like Hemon, Ha Jin is a truly exphonic writer, who moved to America after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and taught himself English. Whether Waiting is great novel is a matter of opinion. I read this novel a few years ago. I don’t remember much about it; but neither do I remember thinking it was an awful novel. Also, I can’t think of any other novel I have read and liked that is written exphonically in English.

A bitter-sweet memoir and travelogue (two for the price of one) of a girl who grew up in Communist Bulgaria. Eminently readable.

I can’t think of any more exphonic English language writers (I ought to read Dan Vyleta to improve the numbers). So I am going to relax my rules and let in a few Indian and African writers to complete the list.

Achebe’s portrayal of the devastating effect of modernising European influence and Christianity on the customs and beliefs of Africa is one of my most favourite novels. Achebe is Nigerian and for the best part of his life lived in Nigeria; hence he is an exphonic writer.

Anita Desai is one of the most under-rated writers writing in English. This story, of a relationship between a poet who is clearly past his prime and his hapless put upon fan, is one of her best. It was also made into a film by Merchant & Ivory productions. Born to Indian father and German mother, Desai was brought up in India.

Adchie’s 2003 novel, thematically similar to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, is a powerful portrayal of the clash of religions and culture in post-colonial Nigeria. Adichie who lives in Nigeria went on to win the Orange Prize for her subsequent novel, thereby proving that her debut novel was no flash in the pan. She is one of the most exciting new talents writing in English.

Family Matters is a moving account of a Zoroastrian family in Mumbai struggling to cope with an infirm and bed-ridden father. A Zoroastrian born and raised in Mumbai, Mistry moved to Canada in his young adult years. All his published novels which have India / Mumbai as the backdrop were written and published in Canada. I have included Mistry in this list because he migrated to Canada as an adult. Therefore he is an exphonic writer.

An entertaining and readable account of the death of a man called Vishnu in a building in downtown Mumbai. Born and raised in India Suri is now settled in America. I don’t think that he is a ‘full-time writer’, as he holds an academic position as a mathematician.

Graham Greene’s favourite author, Narayan was also the first writer from India to achieve international fame. The simple world he depicted in the fictional town of Malgudi (published in a series of novels published in an omnibus entitled Malgudi Days) is a pleasure to read. I am including Narayan in this list because he lived in India all his life.

Another non-fiction book in the list. I came across this book while browsing through a second-hand book shop. A great piece of political and literary detective work, it tells the story of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation. It is a superb book; reads like a thriller, a real page-turner. Malgonkar, who passed away last year at the age of 97, was a contemporary of R.K. Narayan, but started writing rather late in life. When I googled him I discovered that he had written a number of novels in English, all of them out of print and available at prices I can’t afford from second hand book sellers.