I don’t normally post about things hidden behind paywalls, but Yiyun Li’s “To Speak Is to Blunder” (New Yorker, January 2, 2017) is so good I’m making an exception. It’s one of the best things I’ve read about someone’s personal relationship to language; I’ll provide a few excerpts so you can get the feel of it:
Years ago, when I started writing in English, my husband asked if I understood the implication of the decision. What he meant was not the practical concerns, though there were plenty: the nebulous hope of getting published; the lack of a career path as had been laid out in science, my first field of postgraduate study in America; the harsher immigration regulation I would face as a fiction writer. Many of my college classmates from China, as scientists, acquired their green cards under a National Interest Waiver. An artist is not of much importance to any nation’s interest. […]
Nabokov once answered a question he must have been tired of being asked: “My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom.” That something is called a tragedy, however, means it is no longer personal. One weeps out of private pain, but only when the audience swarms in and claims understanding and empathy do people call it a tragedy. One’s grief belongs to oneself; one’s tragedy, to others.
I often feel a tinge of guilt when I imagine Nabokov’s woe. Like all intimacies, the intimacy between one and one’s mother tongue can be comforting and irreplaceable, yet it can also demand more than what one is willing to give, or more than one is capable of giving. If I allow myself to be honest, my private salvation, which cannot and should not be anybody’s concern, is that I disowned my native language. […]
The tragedy of Nabokov’s loss is that his misfortune was easily explained by public history. His story—of being driven by a revolution into permanent exile—became the possession of other people. My decision to write in English has also been explained as a flight from my country’s history. But unlike Nabokov, who had been a published Russian writer, I never wrote in Chinese. Still, one cannot avoid the fact that a private decision, once seen through a public prism, becomes a metaphor. Once, a poet of Eastern European origin and I—we both have lived in America for years, and we both write in English—were asked to read our work in our native languages at a gala. But I don’t write in Chinese, I explained, and the organizer apologized for her misunderstanding. I offered to read Li Po or Du Fu or any of the ancient poets I had grown up memorizing, but instead it was arranged for me to read poetry by a political prisoner.
I love the deadpan “instead it was arranged” of that last sentence (no, you can’t read the great poetry you love, you must read the politically relevant stuff we want to hear). The whole thing only takes up four pages in the print version, and I personally think it’s worth getting the magazine to read it. And this (one of several quotes from Katherine Mansfield’s journal) makes me want to read Mansfield:
It is astonishing how violently a big branch shakes when a silly little bird has left it. I expect the bird knows it and feels immensely arrogant.