A provocative rant by Kemal Kurt (translated by Marilya Veteto) on the subject of the validity and reception of writing by immigrants, with particular attention to Germany:

The assertion that literature is only possible in one’s mother tongue loses its validity more and more in this era of mobility and migrations. Immigrants from North Africa, India, Pakistan, from the Caribbean and various African countries write in the language of their country of choice rather than in their mother tongue. They are increasingly becoming accepted as fully-fledged authors and are not infrequently honored with national prizes. On my copy of Adah’s Story by the Nigerian woman writer Buchi Emecheta it says “Best of Young British Novelists 1983.” The Algerian author Tahar Ben Jelloun received the most prestigious literary prize in France, the Prix Goncourt in 1988. This prize was [also] won by Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese writer who has lived in Paris since 1976 and who writes in French and speaks it with a heavy accent. In Great Britain a Nigerian, Ben Okri, received the Booker Prize in 1991, which was awarded in 1992 to Michael Ondaatje from Sri Lanka; in 1981 it was Salman Rushdie. Mahdi Sharifi and Hanif Kureishi have established themselves as authors in France and England. When the Turkish woman writer Emine Sevgi Özdamar won the city of Klagenfurt’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1992, it was a surprise for everyone and all but a scandal. The competence of the jury came under question.

While the United States boasts of William Saroyan, Derek Walcott and Amy Tan, Great Britain of Jean Rhys, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie, and France of Samuel Beckett, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Julien Green, Germany has only the prime example of Adelbert von Chamisso. Born and raised the son of a French family of nobility, the young Chamisso fled revolutionary France with his parents for Berlin. Though he spoke German with an accent his whole life, Chamisso is numbered among the most well-known German poets. His fanciful novel The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl—in which the hero sells his shadow and from then on is a societal pariah—is on every school’s reading list. The high symbolic value of the shadow gave rise to various interpretations. In light of the life story of Chamisso, who as an artist and as a French emigrant felt he was pressed into the role of the outsider, it is likely that the loss of a shadow emblematizes the loss of his fatherland and his mother tongue.

The acceptance and reception of “authors of other mother tongues” is much different in Germany than in France and England. Here there is no tradition of this, for historically there is only one, already cited, example. The list of foreign authors living in Germany and writing in German who have found a broad readership begins with Chamisso, and it ends with Chamisso. In between: nothing. In the past ten years many newly-arrived authors have written their books in German. There is a hands-off approach to them, categories are invented for them such as Guest-Worker Literature, Migrant Literature, Literature of Victims, Literature of Commitment; those who are quite proper use the rather cumbersome “Literature of German-language Authors of non-German Mother Tongues” for it. Separate anthologies, separate publishing houses, separate prizes and separate journals are the result. Critics do not acknowledge these authors—whatever you want to call them, after all, you are a part of it. The number of readers is small.

It ends up with an unconvincing and banal screed about not writing “obscurely,” but what the hell, I don’t ask writers to be right all the time, just to say things that catch my attention and make me think. (Via wood s lot, which also links to Passport: The Arkansas Review of Literary Translation, which not only “publishes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in English translation,” including the Kurt piece, but has its own blog.)


  1. John Emerson says

    Wasn’t Elias Canetti sort of an exception? He apparently started learning German wahen he was 7. Canetti’s mother tongues were Ladino and Bulgarian, and he learned English before he learned German.
    In “Auto-da-fe” there’s a horribly stereotyped Jewish pornographer (and hunchback — or is the hunchback someone different?). It turns out that Canetti was Jewish himself so I can rest easy I guess.

  2. My favorite example of an English-as-a-second(in fact, third)-language author isn’t mentioned: Joseph Conrad. It’s perhaps not *so* new a trend for such authors to be accepted by the English lit. establishment…

  3. Dreiser, Mencken, and Thorstein Veblen were native speakers of German or Norwegian (Veblen). Only Mencken was much of a stylist.

  4. From what I gather, Salman Rushdie’s family spoke English in the home like much of the upper middle class of Mumbai, and so he was a native speaker. I think there’s even an autobiographical reference to this in _Midnight’s Children_.

  5. “What writes worse than a Theodore Dreiser? Two Theodore Dreisers.” –Dorothy Parker

  6. cyberpunks says

    Ayn Rand. Whatever else you think of her, her stuff does have lasting popularity.

  7. Conrad is mentioned in the first long paragraph: “One of the most significant English novels of our century, Lord Jim, was written by the Polish sailor, Joseph Conrad, who-by his own account-brought his ‘English sentences out of the black night into daylight’ like a mine worker.”

  8. The first time I stumbled across this question was in 1991 when Emine Sevgi Özdamar won the prestigious Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis for her novel Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei hat zwei Türen aus einer kam ich rein aus der anderen ging ich raus. The title alone shows that Özdamar takes liberties with Standard German. This triggered a bit of a polemic in Germany — about how the home-grown German-language writers were not as fresh and vigorous as the “incomers”, even though the latters’ “mastery” of German was (considered as) incomplete.
    My best friend tells me that Milan Kundera has taken to writing in French, but she likes his translated novels better than those written directly in French. This might be an issue of artistic development more than of language though.
    I’ve been mulling over this question for myself. I’ve always liked writing in English, even when my English was much less idiomatic than it is now. “Should” I write in German instead? Is there some sort of imperative to use one’s native language when creatively expressing oneself?

  9. michael farris says

    “Is there some sort of imperative to use one’s native language when creatively expressing oneself?”
    No, of course not. Though in terms of professional writing (being paid for it and having people read ir for pleasure) writing in a foreign language is going to be an insurmountable obstacle for most people.
    For every Conrad (or even Dreisser) there are dozens and dozens of writers (I’m being very conservative) who really shouldn’t handicap themselves that way (some of them might not have a choice, I realize).

  10. Although Bob Marley spoke English natively, the injection of Jamaican patois into his songs made some of the expressions sound exceptionally fresh.
    No Woman, No Cry, Lively Up Yourself and Them Belly Full but We Hungry are but three expressions from his songs that I can think of that sound like clumsy English to this Australian ear, but work so delightfully well regardless.

  11. Weigl’s Ozdamar example looks oral and colloquial to me, but my German is weak. Is it also foreign-sounding?

  12. Part of the argument here is the romantic preference of the mother-tongue to “culture languages”. This is a complicated argument because mother-tongues without printed forms often are parasitical on culture languages for a lot of their vocabulary. In some cases (e.g. Inuit) the mother-tongue might have specific strengths derived from a unique way of life (no, NOT the HWFS!), but in other cases, not. For example, the dozens or hundreds of languages of the Caucasus are spoken by people with fairly similiar ways of life.

  13. [If I’m going to be called “Waigl” (or “Weigl”) here, I’ll go back to signing with my first name plus last initial.]
    @John Emerson: It’s first of all missing punctuation, which is indeed a marker of language- (or literacy-)insecurity. It also has (like the entire book) a very slight touch of unidiomaticity: you wouldn’t say “aus einer [Tür] kam ich rein”, though it’s not necessarily wrong in every case. “Durch eine [Tür] kam ich rein” would be more typical.

  14. Sorry, Chris.
    Leaving out the punctuation is sometimes used to get a feeling of stream-of-consciousness, but even to me “aus” does seem odd, and “durch” much better. Thanks.

  15. Why is Amy Tan included as an American example? She was born in Oakland, California.

  16. Both Amy Tan and William Saroyan are native speakers of English born in California. Why not include Phillip Roth? It would make more sense to include James Joyce on the list, who had at least one of his characters muse on his permanent alienage when it came to English.
    Amy Tan not only is an English-speaker, but her themes, mother/daughter conflict and immigrant/native-born generational tension, are thoroughly American and not at all Chinese.

  17. sredni_vashtar says

    aren’t they missing all the stars? what about Nabokov, what about Beckett and Ionesko?! what about Andrei Makine – the first writer to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis for the same book?

  18. sredni_vashtar says

    ah, ok, sorry, they did mention Beckett. Which creates the impression that they deliberately left out writers of East European descent.

  19. I think that there is an area of ambiguity regarding writers who didn’t speak English at home, but learned it in the neighborhood or in school. Dreiser, Veblen, and (I think) Mencken fell in that category. Maybe Amy Tan also; IIRC Maxine Hong Kingston learned English in first grade in Sacramento.

  20. Nabokov spoke English from the beginning — in fact, he learned to write English before Russian.

  21. Right you are, LanguageHat, but you can hardly call English his mother tongue.

  22. I don’t know why not; Boyd says “At this time [the early 1900s], though not for long, Vladimir actually spoke English better than Russian.” Of course, the whole concept of “native speaker” is contentious.

  23. Hanif Kureishi was born and grew up in England, so I’d imagine he’s a native English speaker. (A better choice might have been the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif.)

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