In the fall of 2016, I attended a lecture given by Jhumpa Lahiri at Hofstra University, Long Island, New York, as part of a Great Writers, Great Readings event. She spoke of her falling in love with Italian, her adopted language, and shared a fragment of her writing. An American author of short stories, novels and essays, she had started writing in Italian after a visit to Rome. I was in New York on my MFA in Creative Writing where the work I produced was in English, my adopted language. Back home, I had a life that unfolded in Romanian in every aspect, except for writing poetry. The lecture made me question the reasons behind writing in an acquired language and whether I had the permission to do so. And what was I trying to accomplish?
A couple of years earlier, my mother had died of breast cancer after a four-year long suffering. All of a sudden, personal loss and grief found their way on the page in English which, at first, gave me a degree of anonymity and the freedom to write as myself.
I looked into this matter of exophonic writing and found out there were writers of the world who, either intentionally or unconsciously, embraced a language other than their mother tongue. In some cases, the complex details of ethnicity/nationality stood proof of their decision. For others, it marked a sort of personal, socio-political or geographical displacement. In my case, poetry just ‘happened’ in English. The survival instinct had pushed me to shed my mother tongue. Unable to curate grief, I started to write. Working outside the mother tongue gave me the confidence I lacked, the right to write as another and find a coping mechanism for loss. However, would I be taken seriously? Who would be my audience?
In her article On Living, and Thinking, in Two Languages at Once, Camille Bordas encourages writers to write as if their parents were dead. She believes it gives them a fair degree of distance between themselves and the familiar. In my case, writing in English, which my father did not speak, gave me the space to exorcise my grief, unafraid of hurting his feelings. When I told him about this new habit, my father only showed concern for my lack of time, and feared I was neglecting my family responsibilities. In the end, however, he grew curious about what I was writing. Were my poems about him and, if they were, why didn’t I write in Romanian so that the whole family could enjoy them?
I am not sure poetry would have happened, had it not been triggered by personal events. I remember, in school, poetry was at first propaganda, and took the form of long, sentimental odes to our beloved communist leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Later on, poetry was a sterile encounter mediated by some uninspired teachers. But I fell in love with English and decided to become a translator. This gave me the skills to navigate between the two languages and once English became my literary language, translating proved crucially significant to my poetry writing.
Translating from Romanian into English sharpens my senses and makes my poems richer, more attuned to their inner movements. To me, poetry is born in the mouth, and its process is as flimsy and volatile as ever, subject to many iterations. Each shedding feels skin-deep. English, as my second language, has penetrated all the intrinsic details of my life and a sort of colonization has begun.
For writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, giving up English began as a language-learning experience. In Italian, her third language, she found herself rooted in the flavor of the newly-acquired language. Writing my poems in English was also about escaping the prison of my identity, transcending my limitations. And if I wanted to be taken seriously, I had to embark on a program that gave me the space to produce writing and have it performed in front of an English-speaking audience. It turned out to be a useful experience though I always had to explain to the graduates in the program, or the poets/writers I met, that I never translated my own work from Romanian into English. And yes, I was very serious about the whole thing. At times, it felt like a looming shadow I couldn’t shake, but I simply kept writing, revising, and submitting to journals and magazines.
One professor introduced the concept of hybridity as a way to describe my cultural identity and spoke of this “third space” I was writing in. She believed it to be a complication at language level, but since she was also bilingual, she could relate to certain poets’ innate hybridity. This sort of displacement and pendulation between spaces/languages/cultures not only enriches the poet, but the outcome, as well. Stemming from personal events, my poetry helped navigate grief, but the entire process of switching between languages, the way they worked on each other, against one another, had also kept me in a state of constant need to accumulate, polish, thrive – a sort of never-ending revision process which, by the end of MFA program saw my thesis, a poetry collection, accepted for publication by Dos Madres Press in Ohio.
Back home, family and friends politely asked me to translate my poems into Romanian for them or even to produce poetry in my native language. Others frankly suggested I was disloyal to the Romanian language and culture. Writing in English is not, however, a cultural betrayal or an abandonment of the mother tongue; rather, it is in inhabiting this third space where my work as a literary translator, my organic love for languages and my own manner of granulating loss cohabit. My path into poetry writing has shown me that language, much as it is a mark of one’s heritage, is, on another level, merely a vehicle to creativity.
Clara Burghelea, Blue Nib Poetry Editor, speaks about the struggle and the freedom of writing in a second language.