AWP2015: The Stepmother Tongue: Crossing Languages in Creative Non Fiction

 Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMWhat challenges do authors that work in a second language, English being primary, face in the creative process? Panelists crossed linguistic and geographical borders, and transitioned into English from Lithuanian, Spanish, Cuban, Yiddish, Serb Croatian, and Greek. They discussed their experience in a rich, personal way, from the perspective of acquiring a second language (Julija Sukys,) or using an ancestral language (Ruth Behar, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Jennifer Zoble, and Joanna Eleftheriou.)

All writing is in some sense a process of translation of the author’s experience. For a writer who literally moves between languages and cultures, language is a strong component of their identity when it is their ancestral language. For the scholar that immerses herself in the new language it represents a wish to master and belong that is initially accented by a sense of isolation from the native speakers and evolves to a strong wish to share her knowledge of the acquired culture, its people’s history and a mission to debunk myths about contemporary culture. In the selections each panelist read they demonstrated different degrees of use of the original language, challenging their reader to a greater or lesser extent, as they communicated stories and concepts of another culture, acting as ambassadors of that people.

The panelists explored the differing circumstances in their personal relationship to ancestral language illustrating a sense of connection and divergence; that seemed to depend on how adults used language during the panelist’s childhood. In one instance language was used to preserve exclusive communication among adults to the exclusion of the child; in another to enhance communication in a multilingual family by cultivating family members’ fluency in the use of a single language, in this case Spanish.

What was apparent was the presenters’ strong dedication to transmit cross cultural messages, acting as a bridge by the selection of the stories they crafted, the professions they chose (anthropology, teaching and writing CNF) that afforded them access to unfold hidden stories of the native speakers. The bilingual (often truly multilingual) panelists expressed an awareness of experiencing and presenting different personas depending on what language they were immersed in  at the time; this duality of worlds however gave them a sense of comfort, and perhaps the formation of a third, more centered identity in both the majority and ancestral culture.

The panel identified a general intolerance in the USA to the use of foreign vocabulary in its literature, an oxymoron for a country that is inhabited by peoples from all over the globe, with poetry being the genre displaying the greatest tolerance for incorporating foreign words and phrases.

Travel and travel writing offers an opportunity for women to examine linguistic and cultural experiences, meet the world and open their horizons, gaining inspiration and creating opportunities for other stories to be fashioned. One challenge in travel writing is the use of clichés that perpetuate stereotypes about the people and places visited. There is a second challenge, the need for more women of color to author travel narratives, as they are underrepresented in this field.

The panel represents a group of women whose work is very much attuned to the collective unconscious, the exploration of ‘border crossings’ as they bent over languages they love to serve intercultural communication among peoples in the World.

-Sophia Kouidou-Giles

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One thought on “AWP2015: The Stepmother Tongue: Crossing Languages in Creative Non Fiction

  1. […] What challenges do authors that work in a second language, English being primary, face in the creative process? Panelists crossed linguistic and geographical borders, and transitioned into English from Lithuanian, Spanish, Cuban, Yiddish, Serb Croatian, and Greek. They discussed their experience in a rich, personal way, from the perspective of acquiring a second language (Julija Sukys,) or using an ancestral language (Ruth Behar, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Jennifer Zoble, and Joanna Eleftheriou.) Continue reading… […]

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