Some of my earliest memories of the English language are of me staying up late and, armed with only a brick-sized Russian-English dictionary (this was 1990s post-collapse Russia, so no Internet/computers at home), translating my favorite Queen songs.
One. Word. At. A. Time.
Drowse was one the first song I tackled, but no matter how hard I forced words into meaningful sentences, nothing beyond the “it’s the sad-eyed goodbye” opening line made sense. I never got frustrated though—I was already madly falling in love with English.
After Queen, came science fiction. English books were a scarce commodity, prompting my parents to acquire anything they came across, ending up with an eclectic collection: our bookshelves held picture books side by side with American poetry, and next to classical science fiction volumes, heavy on Asimov and Heinlein. My grasp of English was getting better by then—in fact, it was good enough for me to comprehend Heinlein’s Crooked House story about a building that had one dimension too many. Reading it burnt the fear of the “tesseract” deep into my subconscious, my mind to this day associating the word with that claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a small space, chased by malicious shadows.
Since most of my early encounters with English were through music and books, I came to conflate this language with creativity, my native Russian reserved for academic studies and home/public life. Eventually, my use of English for creative pursuits became symbolic of doing something that was entirely my own, free of external expectations and constraints.
Later, as I embarked on my exchange year in the US, migrating to Australia soon after, English morphed into my dominant language, but that initial feeling of being enamoured with it didn’t evaporate, finding instead its permanent home in my writing. A major milestone of my relationship with English as a bilingual writer is my first book, a Young Adult genre-bending dark fantasy, What The Woods Keep, out this September.
I haven’t given my bilingualism much though while writing What The Woods Keep. Aside, that is, from a deep-seated worry that I’d somehow be “outed” as a fraud, once agents and publishers discovered that English wasn’t my first language. While this didn’t happen, my editors did comment on my at times unusual uses of language—things like sentence structuring or odd adjective choices—which made me wonder for the first time exactly how my bilingualism influenced my process. In retrospect, I can say that it did so in ways I wasn’t even aware of at the time of writing!
Hayden, the protagonist of What The Woods Keep, must discover (and come to terms with) her family’s legacy. Unlike me, Hayden is a native English speaker. Though as she comes closer to the mystery at the book’s heart, she learns about an entire new dimension to herself—and language plays a big part in her journey. From the novel’s first pages, Hayden feels it, that visceral pool of otherness—of another language. It starts like a haunting, soon growing flesh, imprinting itself on Hayden’s very sense of self.
Was writing about Hayden’s grappling with this ghostly presence of a language my subconscious way of articulating my own intense relationship with my native tongue, the way it slips away but is never gone?
Language is a big part of our identities. It influences the way we perceive the world—and ourselves. Even our personal ethics and morality can be affected by the language we speak, while emotional upheavals of the past prompt us to associate one language with warmth and happiness and another with sadness and longing. As Nadeem Aslam, the author of The Blind Man’s Garden, reflects on his relationship with English formed after his migration to Britain from Pakistan for political reasons, “English for me is a language of rage… but it is a language of love, too.”
The history is awash with many other examples, distant and recent, of writers having to switch from their mother tongue to another language, either out of their own volition or because they had to. Take Joseph Brodsky, a poet, who at the time of his exile from the Soviet Union proclaimed he “belong[ed]to the Russian language”, fearing that writing in English would diminish his memory of his beloved native tongue. However, as eventually he came to write his most poignant essays in English, Brodsky ‘justified’ his change of heart as his way of paying his respects to his idol, W. H. Auden, and not a move brought by necessity (as was the case of Joseph Conrad), ambition (as attributed to Vladimir Nabokov) or “for the sake of greater estrangement” (as reasoned by Samuel Becket). More recent examples of writers existing in the space between two (or multiple) languages are also plentiful, but it was my own experience with What The Woods Keep that made me want to reach out to my bilingual contemporaries and compare notes. I did just that. The results are fascinating.
Take my fellow 2018 debut, Kristina Pérez, who grew up speaking Spanish, Norwegian, and English. As a medievalist, Kristina’s also no stranger to Old French, Occitan, Old Norse, Middle English, Middle Welsh and Old Irish! Being multilingual influenced her YA fantasy debut, Sweet Black Waves:
“I have three primary languages that my characters speak and each of them is imbued with its own culture and historical background. Since the world of Sweet Black Waves is a second-world fantasy based fairly closely on Post-Roman Britain and Ireland, I created languages based on Latin and the Celtic language groups. I also imbue my characters with own experience of switching between languages and how that affects their personalities and relationships. We articulate our identities through language and as languages change, so do we.”
Another 2018 debut, Saadia Faruqi (author of Meet Yasmin!) is an English-Urdu speaker. While Saadia considers English her first language, she recalls how she turns to her grandmother’s Urdu books for inspiration whenever she needs a creativity boost and often finds herself “thinking the plot and dialogue through in Urdu, then writing it in English”.
In the experience of Demetra Brodsky, whose debut Dive Smack hit the shelves in June, “growing up bilingual, as well as the daughter of Greek immigrants, instilled an appreciation and respect for people of other nationalities and races from a very young age—and having an open mind and appreciation of that kind always helps writing.” Another Greek-English-speaking 2018 debut, Eleni Hale (her #ownvoices novel Stone Girl is about teen experiences in foster care) had a complicated relationship with both languages:
“I grew up on the island of Crete where I knew little to no English. At about eight all that changed with my parent’s divorce when my Mum left my Greek father and returned to her home country of Australia. My sister and I came with her and I had to learn English and learn it fast. I couldn’t understand anyone and this made going to primary school an intimidating experience… I became quiet, watchful… disappeared into my imagination. Once I learnt English, I loved it… I also understood what it was like to be silenced by a lack of language and was spurred on to comminute as much as I could. I didn’t want to be made silent again.”
A 2019 debut, Argentine-American Sara Faring grew up speaking English at school/in public and Spanish at home. This duality of experience made her “feel like a spy”: “I could call up an entirely different mode of communication and thought, unknown to the vast majority of my friends growing up. Here was a second self I could identify—one of many I believe wait inside every person”. Sara’s first novel The Tenth Girl is inspired by her Argentine family history and lore, following a young woman fleeing the country’s 1970s Dirty War who joins the staff of a notorious haunted boarding school on a remote icy cliff in Patagonia.
Finally, Samantha Heuwagen, a Spanish-English speaker, wanted her bilingualism to be reflected in her debut, Dawn Among the Stars: “I made sure language played a huge part in the book, whether it was someone speaking in Spanish/English or the alien language that was created specifically for the series”, while Kelly Yang (author of Front Desk), an English-Chinese speaker, wanted bilingual protagonist to give strength to others in similar situations:
“One of the things I struggled with as a bilingual writer is this fear that I may not be as good in either language. I wrote Front Desk to try to dispel this fear. I hope that when bilingual kids see more examples of writers making it in their adopted language that they’ll feel empowered to embrace their bilingualism and not be ashamed of it, because to know more languages is a beautiful thing!”
Learning about my fellow bilingual authors’ experiences of capitalizing on their relationship with languages to fuel their creativity gave me a greater insight into my own process. In What The Woods Keep, Hayden learns that while she can’t escape who she is, she can draw strength from her heritage while still making her own choices. Writing Hayden’s story also helped me understand where I come from—and where I’m going. And while I don’t see myself writing in my native Russian in the foreseeable future, I also can’t wait to see in what ways my bilingualism will show up in my future books, because let’s be honest, it’s likely it will.