Newspaper article International New York Times

Writers without Borders ; at Play in a New Culture and a Second Language, Imagination Takes Flight

Newspaper article International New York Times

Writers without Borders ; at Play in a New Culture and a Second Language, Imagination Takes Flight

Article excerpt

For a growing number of authors, imagination takes flight at play in a new culture and a second language.

In "The Other Language," the title story of Francesca Marciano's new collection, an Italian teenager named Emma falls in love with English. The attraction has a lot to do with the person speaking it, an intriguing English boy at the Greek beach resort where Emma is staying with her family, but it's hard to separate the strands of desire. Is the boy her entry ticket to English, or vice versa?

Emma stalks the little English colony, ears open. She listens intently to Joni Mitchell records. Before long, her linguistic love affair is consummated: She finds herself speaking and understanding English. Transported, she steps into another life.

"She didn't know what she was getting away from," Ms. Marciano's narrator observes, "but the other language was the boat she fled on."

That same boat is carrying a lot of writers these days, most of them working in English, but others in French, German, Spanish, Japanese or even Dutch, enriching and expanding the literature of their host cultures. Some have left their native language behind after being displaced by political unrest or repression. Others have relocated and plunged into new cultures in a spirit of adventure, encouraged by the freer movement of people and ideas over the last quarter-century. A new literary diaspora has taken shape, propelled, as Isabelle de Courtivron has written in "Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity," by "immigration, technology, postcolonialism and globalization," powerful forces that have "dissolved borders and increased cross-cultural mobility." Ellen Litman, an emigre from Russia whose novel, "Mannequin Girl," was published in the United States in March, said: "I'm not sure what I call myself. I've lived in the U.S. longer than in Russia at this point, and the longer I'm here, the further I am from that experience."

Ms. Marciano, who grew up in Rome, acquired English more or less as her heroine Emma did, as a teenager infatuated with the language. She lived in New York in her 20s and, while spending 10 years in Kenya, wrote her first novel, "Rules of the Wild," in English after a failed start in Italian. Today she lives in Rome, but English has become her second skin.

"You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language," Ms. Marciano said. "I am a different person because I fell in love with English. I cannot revert. I cannot undo this. I am stuck."

Two waves of emigration from the former Soviet Union, the first in the late 1970s, the second after the nation's collapse two decades later, have yielded a bumper crop of Russian writers who have made English their own. Some, like Gary Shteyngart and Boris Fishman, whose first novel, "A Replacement Life," is being published by Harper in June, came to the United States as children and absorbed English by osmosis. Others, like Ms. Litman, Lara Vapnyar, Kseniya Melnik, Olga Grushin and Anya Ulinich, left the Soviet Union in their teens or early 20s, late enough in life to make the transition to another language a conscious effort.

"They are all very fluent, but their sense of the language is different," said Karen Ryan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Stetson University in Florida, who has written extensively on Russian emigre literature. "There's a sense of play and inventiveness, which is true of all transnational writers."

The Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, stranded in Chicago when war engulfed his hometown, Sarajevo, took on English at the age of 27. At the time, he said in a recent interview, "I spoke like a capable tourist." Today, Mr. …

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