There was an interesting post in The Economist’s Prospero Blog about why writers abandon their native language. The article gave examples of Samuel Becket who wrote in French, Nabokov who in English and Lahiri who recently started writing in Italian and, it got me reflecting on why do I write in a language that is not my mother tongue…
My native language is Serbian yet I write in English and for me the simplest although not the most accurate division would be public and private. English has been my public or professional language for nearly two decades, and it appears that it will remain as such. Seven years ago, English has also become partly my private language as I speak it at home too, with my husband.
But Serbian is my deeply private, inner language, the language of my core. I use Serbian-only for terms of endearment with my children or when I tell them that I love them or miss them and I use Serbian-only when I swear (well, mostly) and when I’m arguing. This does not mean that I cannot have an argument in English very well too, it’s just that in Serbian, I get rid of the emotions better, faster and in a much more expressive way.
I speak Serbian with my children, I read to them in Serbian, and it is the language that I want to teach them because it is part of their identity. It gives them a whole new set of ideas, beliefs, traditions and customs, as it broadens their sense of humour and extends their emotional pallet. Not that they will feel differently in different languages, but they will be able to finely differentiate, understand and express their emotions, concepts and ideas.
They are only toddlers now, but I can already see that the associations they have are of a broader spectrum than say mine. They explore the world in two languages, they develop in two languages, and they learn in two languages as opposed to me or anyone else who learnt another language at a later stage. And no matter how fluent I am or I become, they will always have the advantage of feeling both languages to the same extent.
Why do I write in English? A friend of mine recently asked me if I was writing my book in Serbian and I was surprised by the question. Yes, I understand where she was coming from, but ever since I started thinking about writing, it never occurred to me to write in my native language. The written material that I have produced in the past twenty years or so was in English; reports, analyses, essays, my exams, everything, except a few birthday cards and some Facebook statuses. My writing is in English, and as much as I feel my emotions in Serbian, I am more open and comfortable in exposing them in English.
If there was a pie chart to depict my usage of Serbian and English, no doubt that the English section would cover way above 50 percent of it. The only two people that I speak Serbian to every single day are my children. Others that I speak exclusive Serbian to are my family and my Serbian friends, but that is not on a daily basis. Thus, the rest of the time, I speak, read and write in English.
Both, Samuel Becket and Jhumpa Lahiri said that for them, writing in French and Italian respectively was easier because in these languages they can write without a style. I find it humorous, but maybe that is what I do – not that I want to or deserve to be compared in any way with any of the two writing masters of their time. Maybe I write in English without a style to protect myself from failure in a way. Hypocrisy? Perhaps not, remember? English is not my native language, and I may get the meaning of the word hypocrisy incorrectly…