Writing in Someone Else’s House
Editor’s Note: Click here to read the poem discussed in this essay.
Four years ago I published a book of poems, in one of which the following lines can be read: “Given that I write in a language / I learned, / I need to awaken / when others sleep.” Later, in the same poem, this same idea is reiterated in other words: “I write before dawn, / when I am almost the only one awake / and I can make mistakes / in a language I learned.”
My editor called me by phone to question the relevance of the phrase: “in a language I learned.” All languages are learned, he told me, including one’s own. I was at a loss and for a moment I thought he was correct. It’s true, one’s mother tongue is also learned. However, something told me that this phrase in my poem was not entirely arbitrary. While it is undeniable that one also learns one’s mother tongue, it is not learned in the same way that one learns other languages. To begin with, along with one’s mother tongue one learns about language itself, and that spectacular education—of the greatest transcendence in the life of a human being—only happens once. The other languages that are learned are necessarily subsequent to that first and fundamental acquisition, and even if they are learned from an early age, they are languages born in the shadow of that first language and will always be a degree subordinate to it, because they were learned after the acquisition of language. And does one truly learn to speak? In the strictest sense, yes, just as we learn to stand up on two feet and walk, but I never heard a mother say that her child was learning to walk. A mother would say: “He’s starting to walk” or, more often, “He’s already walking,” even if the child still needs to be supported. To a mother’s eyes, the fact that her child feels the need to stand up already entails that they will now walk, and of least importance are the days or weeks it takes until the child can do so. The same thing happens with language. To a mother, the child is not “learning” to speak, but instead “has already begun” to speak, and more often, “is speaking already” even if the child says but two words. Therefore, in concordance with maternal wisdom, we “burst out” speaking after a certain moment of our development, but we don't “learn” how to do so.
Therefore, in one sense, my verse was not entirely incorrect. I can say that I write in a language that I learned, in a language in which I didn't “burst into speech,” which no one gave me, and I did so at an age (fifteen) which to some might seem very early and to others very late. To those who inquire, I always answer that, with regard to Spanish, I have the sensation of having caught the last train, and I add that the train had already started moving and I had to run so as not to lose it. Perhaps I’m wrong and the train did in fact leave without me. It is a doubt I can’t stop thinking about and perhaps the one that underlies much or all of what I write. That very phrase I’ve just written: “Es una duda que no puedo quitarme de la cabeza” (“It is a doubt I can’t stop thinking about”) made me hesitate, uncertain whether to put “no puedo quitarme” or “no me puedo quitar,” when the precise placement of the pronoun “me” isn’t a grammatical question, since its use is valid in both cases, but is rather a question of empathy with the language, of fluency, and of the desire for total identification with the Spanish language. I wonder if a dilemma like this is not something inherent to all who write; I wonder, therefore, if we who write are not all native speakers of another language and we write to cauterize a wound that separates us from the language and, thus, to feel again as if a language were our mother tongue, and a reality, which at some moment were revealed to us as foreign. And I also wonder if the fact of actually coming from a foreign language, as is my case, translates into an equal or greater ability as far as the goals of writing, or I suppose, on the contrary, a certain impossibility to undertake it. In other words: for those who write in a language not their mother tongue, doesn’t the fact of their encountering any expressive difficulty as a result of their later arrival at the language in which they write and of seeing in every stylistic dilemma an undercurrent of their lack of roots and adaptation grant them an urgency, a feverishness, which native writers, who never doubt their familiarity with the language they speak, must conquer through other means? However it may be, writing in another language is a gesture almost always preceded by stuttering, which reflects the subject’s fear of crossing a line that will make them lose something special of themselves, in particular their childhood, in the face of which the writer who writes in another language finds themselves in the particular situation of having to recover it with a language that has no correspondence with what they lived during those years in which the fusion of language and things is more intense than ever. Thus, the upstart writer feels that they are recreating their past in a way which makes it unrecognizable, as if someone else and not they themselves had lived it. To this one must add the action of closure that writing performs upon memory. Any written thing—whether a poem, a story, or the simple recording of a memory—in transforming a specific episode of our past, condemns it to a great degree to survive in that form in which writing crystalizes it, and from then on, every time we want to recover that fragment of life through the memory, it will emerge deformed by the words with which we’ve summarized it. But if this transformation were done in a foreign language, that closure will have an even greater weight, for the words have passed through a double filter: that of the writing itself, which has crystalized them in a hard piece of fiction, and that of the second language, which operates like a second fiction, with its words and laws that are alien to the verbal universe of the original. Therefore, no one like the writer who comes from another language is as sensitive to the voracious and demanding nature of writing. Experiencing in the first person writing’s ability to disfigure a lived experience, reinventing it from the root, their awareness of style will be in principle much sharper than that of the native writer. Through style, the writer parvenu traces a kind of language of their own within the host language, symbolically recovering the naturalness of the mother tongue, the unaccented language. For them, therefore, style is everything. In reality, a stylistic problem is also a problem of roots for the native writer; otherwise, they wouldn’t be a writer. Because a writer is not just one who writes, but one for whom writing has become their only form of identity. Thus, the native writer could answer the upstart writer more or less on the same terms: you are not special for being a writer who writes in another language, but for being a writer, and what we writers have that is special is that we express ourselves not in our language, but in another.
Translated by Lawrence Schimel
Fabio Morábito was born in Egypt to an Italian family. When he was fifteen, his family relocated from Milan to Mexico City, and he has written all his work in Spanish ever since. He has published four books of poetry, four short-story collections, one book of essays, and two novels, and has translated into Spanish the work of many great Italian poets of the twentieth century, including Eugenio Montale and Patrizia Cavalli. Morábito has been awarded numerous prizes, most recently the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize, Mexico’s highest literary award, for Home Reading Service. His work has been translated into several languages. He lives in Mexico City.
Lawrence Schimel (New York, 1971) is a bilingual (Spanish/English) writer who has published over 120 books as author or anthologist. He has won the Lambda Literary Award (twice), a Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and numerous other honors. He is also a prolific literary translator, in both directions. Recent translations include: into English: Hatchet by Carmen Boullosa and Destruction of the Lover by Luis Panini; into Spanish: Bluets by Maggie Nelson.
The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.