by Maggie Tiojakin
Years ago, while walking down Washington Street toward the T station in Downtown Crossing, my then-boyfriend (let’s call him Bern) — who is European and speaks fluently in three different languages — asked the question, “Why English?”
I was in my early twenties and my short story had just been accepted for publication at a small writerly journal based in Seattle. When I told Bern the news the day before, I felt both elated and confused. Being published was a good thing, I was certain of that — but then I wondered whether the editor who had chosen my work to be published had somehow made a mistake. Was my English good enough for publication? Did it even make sense? Did the story make sense? Mostly, I worried about the consistency of my grammar; the choices of words; and the sensibility of the English language in relation to how I used it.
A computer analyst, Bern found some humor in my series of neurotic questions addressed primarily to myself. He congratulated me, and pulled me into a hug. “Great job, darling,” he said.
Bern struggled with my love for words, and my utopian dream of living in a perpetual transit between joy and sadness. He didn’t understand why I thought sad movies were good movies; or why I loved constructing conflicts. He thought Hemingway was an asshole; and Shakespeare a melancholic bastard. When I dragged him into my favorite bookshop on Mass. Ave he would go straight to the Science shelf and pored over pages after pages of Stephen Hawking’s books. He gave me a copy of The Universe in A Nutshell for my birthday and said, “This book is going to change your life.”
It didn’t, but I didn’t tell him.
As an analyst, he loved numbers and data — things that are sure and exact and dependable. An idea is a concept that must be put through a series of rigorous tests before it can be executed. A theory is the foundation of how human beings process the world; and his view of life was one largely built by strings of theory that were not his own.
Bern also struggled with my love for English and my affinity for American culture. Throughout our relationship — which lasted seven years — he had had to make the sacrifice of journeying across the Atlantic every couple of months. By that time, I had been living in the United States for two years and a half. Our relationship was entering its second year. He was floating the idea that I would probably be happier living in Europe. “The culture is richer,” he said. “And you will be exposed to many other languages. Beautiful languages.”
Back then, his question seemed harmless enough. But I didn’t know what would be the appropriate answer. Here’s the truth: I didn’t decide to write in English. I didn’t even see myself as a writer — all I knew was that writing gave me an out. I could transport myself at will, away from my own reality.
English became a language of escape and I did not resist its allure. Over time, I found that the language has enriched my view and sense of belonging toward my mother tongue.
Today, as a writer who actively expresses herself in both languages, I am often exposed to the irritating question which never fails to pin me between desire and duty. It is my desire to express myself in whatever language is comfortable to me; but it is somehow perceived as part of my civic duty to embrace my mother tongue exclusively as a language of expression.
But let’s not talk about the Nabokovs, Conrads and Becketts of the world (not that I dare to compare myself to these giants). They too spent much of their literary careers expressing themselves in a language other than their mother tongues — and they seemed to do just fine.
Let’s talk about the linguistic room in our psyche, in which we may, whether now or later in life, discover our preferred language to love, express and just be.
My first reaction if someone were to ask me today about the reason I support people who write in English as a second or foreign language is this: “Why not English?”
To deny us, or anyone, this shared space on account of some technicality doesn’t seem fair to me. The fact of the matter is this: some of us find our voices in English — so, you know, live with it. And some of the things we discover by developing this bilingual approach toward self-expression are quite mind-blowing. Perhaps that should be reason enough to allow us the space to grow.
In the last couple of years, the question “Why English?” has become more pronounced now that I am running an educational institution which primarily deals with English writing studies. On the business side, it makes sense. Globalization forces us to embrace the international lingua-franca if we wish to connect with others. On the creative side, especially when it comes to literature, the use of language other than one’s own is seen as some sort of betrayal. There is a growing perception that by embracing the English language, we are sacrificing not only our own language, but also our culture and tradition and ways of life.
I don’t know which is more demeaning: the idea that we are unable to hold on to our sense of self, or the idea that we need to be saved from ourselves. This is something that requires a longer piece to dissect. Perhaps I will revisit it again later.
But I wish I had been more succinct in delivering my answer that afternoon in spring when Bern asked me the question. Snow had fallen the day before and the streets were wet with bits of yellowing slush. I had one arm linked around his arm and we walked like penguins down the sidewalk, avoiding the puddles of slippery ice. At first, I didn’t respond to his question; but then when we got on the T and stood against the door and he was looking at me with his smokey green eyes, I said, “Because I like it.”
As if it were an afterthought, an ice cream flavor, or a kiss on a warm summer day. TBC