03 July 2009

Writing in a second language is unsettling

In his preface to his definitive anthology of multilingual writers, Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft (2003), Steven G. Kellman (the acknowledged authority on translingual literature) writes: "As much as flesh and blood, we are composed of and by words. If Homo sapiens is a species defined by language, then switching the language entails transforming the self. While it can be liberating, discarding one’s native tongue is also profoundly unsettling; it means constructing a new identity syllable by syllable." (p. xiv)

This is a great insight! Multilingual literature (I hesitate to call it "translingual" because that term appears to exclude the mixed-language texts that are becoming more common nowadays and also appears to prioritize authors that try to write in the second language on the same terms as "native speakers" of that language) challenges not just the literary community in general but, more importantly, the writers themselves. Multilingual literature is not just a literary exercise nor a literary phenomenon; it is a matter of life and death for writers, since writing is life or death for writers.


  1. Truly, Sir Isagani : Writing in a second language is unsettling, but liberating, too.

    As for me, I'm a trying hard writer --- and I'm not even worthy to be tagged as one of the best ---- but destiny had put me here. I don't have a choice, but to write, and i don't know anything, but to write ---- and no one can stop me even if they say... I'm not the best --- I would not keep my thoughts, and let them die - I want them to live... to be read, to be shared in any language - my own language, and which I borrow, and those i will borrow

    Writing is a mystery finding words, immersing in a language, being part of space and people, struggling for the next word to come in an empty sheet.

    Moreover, if one couldnt write, one is unsettled. One would do so in any language he could find.

    I speak for myself to share, thanks for inspiring me to think

    Have a nice day, sir.

  2. Also interesting is a study by Pérez Firmat (2003): Tongue Ties. He suggests:
    "The bilingual muse is a melancholy muse; it divides and does not conquer." but he also states "There are indeed some multilinguals to whom Babel looks every bit like Paradise." (p.6)And "emotional balance can depend on alterning between languages" (p.6)
    Extracts of the books are available on Google books.

  3. Thank you! The adventure of searching for kindred spirits continues!