Hetero-linguality & “The Last Samurai” by Helen DeWitt
When I was working at the Harvard Bookstore just out of college, a co-worker, who happened to be a voracious reader, was getting very slowly through The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. I happened to be in the break room with him when he finished, and he closed the book and very calmly (but emotionally) told me, it was the best book he’d ever read in a long time. That was six years ago, and a few days ago, after going a couple of months (at least) without reading any fiction, I finally decided to try out the book.
So far it rules. But it wasn’t until I came across this passage that I realized I would have to write something about it here, because it so uncannily addresses the problems I have been dealing with as a writer myself. The issue is one of mono-linguality or, more specifically, English hegemony, something that we talk about not infrequently in this blog, usually in terms of translation.
I said that it seemed very quaint that in England books were in English & in France they were in French and that in 2,000 years this would seem as quaint as Muchkinland & the Emerald City, in the meantime it was strange that people from all over the world would go to one place to breed a nation of English writers & another to breed writers of Spanish, it was depressing in a literature to see all the languages fading into English which in America was the language of forgetfulness.
what’s more…it was preposterous that people who were by and large the most interesting the most heroic the most villainous the newest immigrants could appear in the literature of the country on as character actors speaking bad English or italics & by & large both they & their descendants’ ignorance of their language & customs could not be represented at all in the new language, which had forgotten that there was anything to forget.
Last night at the bar Drop Off, I happened to speak to a Bosnian-born woman who spoke German and English fluently. Though she didn’t say so she clearly had literary ambitions but she said she was anxious about her English/German/Bosnian and was working on getting one language good enough to write in. it. I’ve been meeting so many people with similar issues (granted, most of them have been Korean transnationals who studied in Western countries but also spoke Korean fluently). Obviously you have the Nabokovs and the Hemons who can survive the transit but I can’t help but wonder (again, in these transnational times — forgive the buzz word) why writers (including myself!!) who are fluent (or even semi-fluent) in other languages can’t embrace the idea of writing a fully hetero-lingual book.