“Why is this all in English?” The German woman at the press office asked me sternly as I presented my published work as proof of employment, the last step in getting my German press ID. She shook her head. I felt an overwhelming urge to apologise. I had nothing else to offer her. She stapled my articles together, which constituted a short lifetime of work and pitches and interviews and anxieties, and dropped them into an open cabinet drawer. “Hopefully no one will mind,” she said. I’d find out if my application was accepted next week. I walked out of her office and offered up a little prayer in penance: “Entschuldige, bitte.”
Our language is a vehicle through which we navigate both the intensely public and the excruciatingly private. It’s no wonder we can get pretty neurotic about it. When the author Jhumpa Lahiri decided, in 2012, to move to Italy, she wrote that at that point the Italian language, which she had no personal connection to, was already “an infatuation,” torturous and consuming. It was “as if Italian were a book that, no matter how hard I work, I can’t write,” she wrote. Lahiri felt that Italian gave her a freedom to become a different kind of writer. It was an arduously earned freedom that came after many years of grammar books, clumsy attempts at conversation and even clumsier attempts at understanding them, stunted vocabulary, and finally, a novel written entirely in Italian. “I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way,” she writes.
English is not my first language. It’s not even my second. I learned English early on, in school, while my life at home and on sidewalks and in shops and cinemas and restaurants of Argentina and Germany were dominated by Spanish and German, the languages of my mother and of my father. It is therefore rather bewildering to them, and to me, that I’ve chosen to make my living writing in English. But here we are. I pitch in English. I write in English. I publish in English.
Part of it has to do with my education: I attended schools where English was a major instructional language. Shaped in this environment, I set my eyes on New York. I lived there for four years, and I got my start in journalism there. And so my life in English became completely separated from my life at home, a linguistic border keeping my profession and my culture apart. I’ve been tempted to write professionally in Spanish and German for a while. But in the end, old habits prevail, and the border stays strong, even after I moved back to Berlin. At times, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. Other times it feels like a dirty secret.
My parents have never read a single thing I’ve written. To my German and Argentine parents, “freelance journalist” is a nice way of saying you’re unemployed. That miscommunication is further exacerbated by the fact that my parents aren’t comfortable with English. They can speak it rudimentarily, if need be, neither of them are really equipped to read it. And so, my parents have no window at all into my professional life.
On the one hand, it can sometimes be frustrating to feel like I have nothing concrete that I can show them to prove that yes, somehow, somewhere, someone wants to read what I’m writing (God bless you, whoever you are). On the other hand, it’s a downright dizzying freedom to have. I have the option to write without having to worry about my parents feeling I wrote something distasteful, or private. That little voice that so many writers have in their heads that whispers “how dare you,” that little face of their mother and father sighing in disappointment, I don’t quite have those.
I’m hardly alone in leading a linguistic double life. In addition to Lahiri, some of the more famous members of the exophone club include Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, and Samuel Beckett, just to name a few. They wrote in English for different reasons: Nabokov was forced to switch to English after being exiled from Russia. “My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern,” he wrote, “is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom.” Conrad’s reasons were more pragmatic: his readership in Polish was a quarter of what his readership in English would become.
In other cases, such as with Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the double life of writing in English was burdened with a colonial legacy that became unjustifiable. “When I looked at the history of colonialism, the colonizer not only imposes his language, but he denigrates and represses the languages of the colonized,” he said in an interview in 2018, explaining why he now writes in Kikuyu. Writing in English had made him feel complicit in the “unlearning” of his own mother tongue. For other writers confronting the English language’s legacy of violence, writing in English can be a tool for “writing back against the Empire,” using the colonizer’s own tools against them, as Chinua Achebe believed.
My writing in English feels much more like an accident of education, chance, and opportunities. And one I feel guilty about every day.
I recently spoke to an author who also is a Spanish native speaker yet often writes in English. We talked about this guilt, about feeling like we had to earn the right to do something as personal and as vulnerable as writing in a language that wasn’t “ours.” We talked about the guilt of neglecting “our” languages, and how the more we write in English, the less those languages feel like “our” languages. We worried we’d find ourselves operating on a plane where we could lay claim to nothing, language-less writers in a linguistic land. Writing in English sometimes feels like my own little battlefield: with myself, with the past decisions I’ve made that led me to this place, with my inability to never be “enough” for one culture, one language.
I think about my aunt from Argentina when I write. She was a writer who loved the Spanish language fiercely. I’ve often wondered if she minded that I’ve neglected my lengua materna for English. I never did get a chance to ask her. I think about my parents, who speak the languages of Cervantes and Schiller and Ocampo and Brecht. I’m ashamed that I’ve been neglecting them in favour of a language that isn’t my heritage.
But what does that even mean? What is my heritage then? Lahiri said that no matter how proficient she became in Italian, she couldn’t “become an Italian writer.” I can write all I want in English, but I will never be an English writer or an American writer. But neither will I ever become an Argentine one, not really. No matter how much I write in Spanish. Nor a German one.
The Spanish-speaking writer who writes in English told me that perhaps that’s the whole point: to exist on these peripheries, to never truly feel comfortable with any claims of heritage, to observe from the sidelines and not be completely at home in any one space. To subject ourselves to the uncomfortable in-betweens, to embody that discomfort in the way each language shapes our writing, our speech, and our thoughts. To think about those who came before me, and to be blessed to be able to sample from “these huge buffets of language, which I have every right to use and to not use,” as novelist Marlon James said in an interview with the New Yorker. To write freely and understand that I can carve a space for myself where I have the permission to write in English or in Spanish or in German not because I asked for it, but simply because I can.
So perdóname, mi lengua materna. Ich bitte um Vergebung, Vaterssprache.