16 January 2009
Here is a sentence from the short story "Envasado al vacío" ("Vacuum Packed") by Teresa Bevin (first language, Spanish; second language, English), author of the novel Havana Split: "Se derrite, se derrite, se derrite" which she herself translated into "She's melting, melting, melting." Bevin has won literary prizes for her writing in Spanish and English, so there is no doubt that she writes well. The two sentences, however, are miles apart in terms of literariness. The Spanish has a rhythm that the English does not have. The meanings are almost the same, although a more severe critic might point out that the Spanish has an ambiguity that is too obvious in the English (the ice cream is physically what is melting, but it is really the main character that is). Bevin herself realizes that there is a crucial difference. She is quoted as saying this: "At one time I might have said 'I have two hearts -- one the U.S. and the other Cuba.' That was before I understood my own nature and being," she explains. "Now I know that I have one heart and that both countries are a part of it -- one I chose and the other chose me." She could have been speaking of the two languages, rather than just the two countries. When a language chooses a writer, the writer is enveloped by it, becomes a slave to it, remains unable to break free from it, but when the writer chooses a language, s/he (in the words of Philippine poet and critic Gemino H. Abad) "colonizes" it, makes it her/his own, makes it her/his slave, and breaks away from it at will.