When You’re Strange

by HRM on March 21, 2012

By Anne Marsella

I’ve entitled this talk “When You’re Strange” because what I would like to discuss is how the experience of living outside one’s language, and of being immersed in another tongue, can and inevitably does change one’s mother tongue or in the very least one’s relationship to it.   I will argue that for the writer, this experience of allowing one’s language to open its gateways to an adopted language is salutary because potentially liberating.

What exactly is it that happens when you’re strange?   Well, it’s a bit like Alice in her Wonderland: first you shrink, then you expand.   Distant to was once central to your identity and sense of self (family, customs, language etc.) you start off by treading on unsteady terrain, navigating the newness, learning in a sense to walk and talk again.   The foreigner finds herself forced to revisit the sensations of childhood, its insecurities and its delights.  In my novel Remedy, the  20-something heroine remarks that her good friend, the blind Sister Dagobert, thinks she is a child because she speaks French with an accent.  When we are foreign we find our powers of mastery and linguistic expression diminished.  No matter how bi-lingual or integrated we’ve become we are always capable of that false move, of using, when exhausted or in a hurry a “le” when a “la” is correct, of giving ourselves away.   A wedge of doubt separates us from the natives, but we’ve been creative with our uncertainty; we’ve grown a double so to speak, gone from the singular to the plural, and now we see that what our old self had once thought set in stone was merely etched into the sand.    Strangerhood, if I may call it this, is tricky business and not everyone will be up for the adventure.  It also has particular consequences for the writer, who struggles to reflect the experience through her language or  “languages.”

Cafe Cherie reflectionThe question of foreignness or strangeness in my work hinges on the experience of writing and living between two languages: English and French.   I purposely use the preposition “between” rather than the more usual “in”, for when I write “in” English, I am always, to a certain degree, writing “in” French as well, and on the one occasion I wrote “in” French, producing my novel Patsy Boone, it felt as if I were sifting my English through a sieve to see which particles the French language might keep.  It was not a matter of translation, but of testing what aspects of my language and “Americanness” might pass through French borders.   As it transpired, I encountered a strong resistance; the weave of the sieve was tight, and yet something was getting through, for when I asked my trusty reader what he thought of some little ambush I was plotting on the passé simple, he commented,  “ce n’est pas la peine, ton livre est déjà suffisamment étrange.”

Perhaps such a comment would worry another writer, but I was reassured.  Now I knew I was on the right path.  Strangeness has to do with perspective, a particular lens and angle allowing the eye to view the world in a different way; it implies a distance from the center and a displacement of the objects and actors in that center; inevitably it challenges what we think we know and see.   For some the foreigner is a pariah because he interrupts their viewing to such an extent they can no longer tell which channel they are watching.   Others welcome him because they crave a change in scenery, a taste of exoticism; they are more than happy to switch channels – at least for a time.  For the fiction writer, particularly if she is polyglot, otherness opens a field of freedoms the most impressive of which is the liberty to become someone else.   When Flaubert said La Bovary, c’est moi, I don’t think he meant he had created a character in his image, but rather that in writing Emma Bovary into existence he had the experience (unpleasant apparently) of becoming her in some way.  This is Pygmalion in reverse.  A writer slips into different psyches and consciousnesses through her medium: language.  I will venture to say that the more languages she has at her disposal the wider her range, the looser her boundaries, the bolder her adventure of becoming someone else.  The border control folks, be they in the guise of editors, critics or common readers may refute me, but what I can say for certain is this:  writing and thinking in French has expanded my English in a way that has allowed me to subvert my mother tongue’s domineering tendencies.  All languages run the risk of setting up their supreme regime and I believe it is the writer’s job to make sure they fail to do so.

Cafe Cherie

When I came to Paris as a graduate student, I spent my Saturdays attending the all-day seminar of French writer and Feminist Theorist, Hélène Cixous at the Collège de Philosophie.   Unlike America, France venerates its prominent intellectuals and includes them in its star system; we see these beacons of the life of the mind on television, hear them philosophize on the radio and read their columns in the press.  Hélène Cixous is one of these Parisian luminaries.  I was fascinated by how she arrived imperious in an ermine coat to hold court in the amphitheatre, and how students of all ages and nationalities manically wrote down every word she uttered as if it were of the greatest urgency.  Often she would pause meaningfully mid-sentence and shake her head, which had the effect of adding gravitas to an already weighty thought, before continuing on, linking ideas, often by way of puns.  Looking back, I see that many of the writers we read and studied together either wrote in second languages as in the case of Kafka, Karen Blixen, Clarice Lispector, or were fundamentally concerned with questions of alterity.  Rilke, Joyce, Shakespeare, Jean Genet, Marina Tsvetaeva and Thomas Bernhard were among these.   Cixous put the question of how we relate to Otherness at the heart of her investigation of what she called “écriture féminine” or feminine writing.   While a discussion on feminine writing exceeds the scope of this brief talk, I’ll just say in passing that Woman’s position in history as the Other, does, according to Cixous, situate her at the margins of dominate discourse, into which she makes disruptive incursions, a bit like the foreigner interrupting a smooth, complacent conversation between natives.   My Saturdays at the seminar and my encounter with the remarkable writers we read, all of whom, in their own ways, wrote their foreignness into their work and transformed the literature of their times, was the best education a budding writer living abroad could receive.

In her poetic text Entre Ecriture, Cixous writes «Dans ma langue ce sont les langues ‘étrangères ‘ qui sont mes sources, mes émois. ‘Etrangères’ : musique en moi d’ailleurs : n’oublie pas que tout n’est pas ici… Des langues passent dans ma langue, se comprennent, s’appellent, se touchent, s’altèrent, avec tendresse, avec crainte, avec volupté… »  (« Other languages inhabit my language… Do not forget that there is more than what is here.  Languages pass through my language, understand each other, call out to each other, alter each other…)  Cixous is writing en connaissance de cause: born in Oran, Algeria of a German-Jewish mother and French father, she grew up hearing and speaking several languages.   What she refers to as “ma langue” is of course French, but a French expanded to incorporate the music of her other tongues which we witness as concatenating rhythms, cross-linguistic puns and sense-jumbling imagery.   She both celebrates and upholds her biblically borrowed injunction : “Fais que ta langue te reste étrangère. Aime-la comme ta prochaine »  « Keep your language foreign.  Love it like your neighbor.  Here openness to otherness is both intrinsic to the act of writing and an ethical stance Cixous encourages writers to adopt.  But how does one love her language like her neighbor?   How does she make it Other?

This brings me to the very particular relationship between my own two languages: French and English.   It may be that I do not write another book in French simply because my own language is, to quote my aforementioned friend, “sufficiently strange.”   The American poet Wallace Stevens once said that  “French and English constitute a single language.”  Let’s go back to 1066 when William invaded England.   As American writer Paul Auster points out in his book of essays entitledTwentieth-Century French Poetry, if William the Bastard hadn’t won the Battle of Hastings and become William the Conqueror forcing Norman French on the Anglo Saxon and Old Norse speaking natives, English as we know it would simply not exist.  For several centuries following that victory, French was the official language of the English court and its seepage into the indigenous languages proved deep.  We can even go so far as to say that French is part of English’s DNA.

Looking UpEnglish therefore has two linguistic registers: Saxon and French, each with its own flavor and effects.  The Saxon craves the concrete, the tangible and the concise while the French spectrum lends itself better to concepts, essences and lyricism.  Despite the genetic connection between the two languages, the French register nevertheless retains a slight whiff of William, a hint of foreignness that its more ancient and commonly used Anglo-Saxon lexicon and syntax can always sniff out.   Here then is one of the ways I keep my language foreign and how I love my French neighbor as myself:  by playing between these registers, by slipping in Latinate words, phrases, syntax to surprise the Saxon; by constant displacements between the two so that there is an effect of foreignness.   This sort of acrobatics within the English language can create an effect akin to magical realism, even while the story being told does not involve the slightest supernatural element.   This has everything to do with shifting perspectives, of moving from the concrete to the abstract unexpectedly.  And it is one of the ways I attempt to switch channels on myself, and on my reader.

One cannot of course leave Joyce out of a discussion on the polyglot writer.  Hélène Cixous devoted a thick volume to his enterprise and countless academics from all corners of the globe have spent their careers deciphering his oeuvre; I will, therefore, be very, very brief.   Unlike his contemporary Yeats who drove the Irish Literary Revival movement, Joyce eschewed revivalism and its attendant nostalgia.  He would write about Ireland too, but in English, the language of his country’s oppressor.  This may seem an obvious or reasonable choice given he was educated in the language, but I don’t think it was an innocent one, and one merely needs to read a bit of his work to see that he didn’t either.  Having proven himself a master stylist of the language in The Dubliners, Joyce, it seemed, itched for something more.  In The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he began his radical shift toward stream-of-consciousness writing, to which he would give full reign in his complex, webwork of a novel, Ulysses. With his last work, Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce takes us to the very end of the line, or to keep with our earlier analogy; he no longer switches channels on us, he explodes the television.   The book’s complex multi-level, cross lingual puns and recourse to foreign languages beg the question as to whether it is written in English at all.   I think we can more safely say it is written in Joyce.

Which brings me to my next point: that writers, polyglot or not, are called to invent a language of their own within the dominant language they use.   Most often this operation is subtle; and certainly there’s an art to being quiet and unobtrusive about it.  Personally, though, I am always on the look out for bold voices unafraid to be strange, voices energized by the encounter (whether it be a merge or a collision) with other languages and sensibilities, voices that are unabashedly singular, and invent with equal doses of playfulness and seriousness a language we both recognize and hear for the first time.  I listen for the moment when the canonical language cracks and comes alive by a writer who risks injecting it with new rhythms, invented words, or familiar words that have suddenly switched meaning.

When I finished writing Patsy Boone in French, the idea came to me to write my next novel in Spanish.  Part of me was entirely convinced that I could do it though my knowledge of Spanish is rudimentary at best and dates back to High School when Señor Diaz, my Cuban Spanish teacher made us recite by memory the accounts of the conquistadores.  Was my idea to write about the misfortunes of Cabeza de Vaca, or Cortes’ conquest of Mexico?  In fact I hadn’t the slightest idea of what I would write, but I was convinced for a moment or so, that I could pen in Spanish.    Now on the one hand this was a lot of foolishness given my limited lexicon and rusty grammar, but on the other, I think it points to what I’ve been trying to express which is that a writer develops a kind of inner language, personal and singular, which she then takes to the official language.    In attempting to define poetic language, French poet Paul Valéry wrote that it spoke of “things profoundly and secretly felt; a strange discourse that seems to be said by someone other that he who is saying it and is addressed to someone other than he who is listening.  In short it is a language in a language.” When a writer finds his language within the language, a voice emerges from the discovery that will transform his mother – or adopted –  tongue into something rich and strange.

This energetic play within and against a dominant language form has the liberating power to shake free the mind and spirit.   This is what literature does at its best and in this sense the polyglot writer has an advantage.  But only if she values and embraces her unique position as a source of fresh possibilities and a way not only out of the rabbit hole but through the looking glass as well.

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