Anglos Abroad: Memoirs of Immersion in a Foreign Language

By Besemeres, Mary | Biography, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Anglos Abroad: Memoirs of Immersion in a Foreign Language


Besemeres, Mary, Biography


At a time when English has acquired the status of a global language, literature in English is increasingly being written out of experiences of non-Anglophone cultural worlds, as acclaimed novelists as diverse as Kazuo Ishiguro, Ha Jin, and Ahdaf Soueif attest. (1) Anglophone writers whose memoirs explore experiences of immersion in other languages and cultures are interesting because of the ambiguous position they occupy in this context. They are in one sense representatives or carriers of the dominant language and culture of contemporary experience. Yet in another sense they can be seen as part of a wider resistance to the ascendancy of English, because they willingly traverse or are carried beyond its borders to explore other ways of being-in-the-world. In this paper I compare some recent narratives of language immersion by authors from Australia, Britain, and the United States. While one of the authors writes about aspects of his adopted culture with a condescension that may be related to his speaking a global language, the other narratives resist being read as colonizing of the encountered "Other," revealing rather a dialogical, self-questioning stance.

Towards the end of her influential study of Western travel writing, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt offers an incisive critique of a passage from celebrated Anglo-American travel writer Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express. The passage dwells on what Theroux sees as the monotony of the Patagonian landscape ("this place had no landmarks, or rather it was all landmarks, one indistinguishable from the other--thousands of hills and dry riverbeds, and a billion bushes all the same"), and ends, sardonically and damningly: "I looked for guanacos. I had nothing better to do. There were no guanacos" (qtd. in Pratt 218). "Theroux constructs Patagonia out of paralysis and alienation," Pratt comments, and asks: "If he knew Spanish, would he have had something better to do? Would everything have been less interchangeable?" (218). Inhabitants of Patagonia are not invited to share their view of the landscape with Theroux, Pratt implies, because he travels in and writes about the region without feeling the need to learn Spanish. In fact, in The Old Patagonian Express, Theroux does occasionally refer to conversations that he had in Spanish with local residents (e.g. 48, 272). And yet, Pratt's commentary remains apt, for the outlook conveyed in the book, despite the author's knowledge of Spanish, is essentially a monocultural one, rather than one of openness to the experiences of people living with another language.

Pratt's point helps to place the memoirs of cultural and linguistic immersion that I am concerned with--narratives of what might be called "language travel"--in the context of contemporary Anglophone travel writing. Unlike the writings of Theroux and of other popular travel writers like Bruce Chatwin and Redmond O'Hanlon, immersion narratives represent an attempt to communicate with people of another culture on those others' own terms. They can be seen at once as a subgenre of travel writing and as a distinctive genre in their own right, related to memoirs of language migration like Polish-born author Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. (2) Through their focus on the experience of learning another language as a foreigner and cultural outsider--and translating the self in the process (3)--memoirs of language immersion arguably extend the possibilities of the larger travel genre, possibilities foreclosed in the canonical, often monolingual writers whose narratives typically observe and comment on, rather than engage with, cultural others.

In this paper, then, I want to illustrate how life writing by "language travelers" may go beyond the monologism so trenchantly brought out by Pratt in relation to Theroux. Here, I am in sympathy with Dennis Porter, who in Haunted Journeys: Desire and Transgression in European Travel Writing suggests the limitations of Edward Said's "discourse theory" in Orientalism for reading the "works of [his] corpus":

    The implications of the discourse theory deployed by Said are such
    that if he were right, no alternative to Orientalism . … 

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