Difference is an Asset: Writing in a Second Language

19 July 2017 — Leave a comment

A guest post by Rachele Salvini

The first time I watched my own fiction writing coming out of a printer, I could not believe it. The printer belonged to the library of a well-known liberal arts college in New York, and it was weird for me to even be there. I was an Italian girl alone in the United States, and I was about to show that same writing to a bunch of students who would then give me feedback. All this, of course, would take place in English.

Maybe this does not sound like a big deal. That is how every creative writing workshop works and, in the end, the feedback I got was not bad at all. I can remember the story I read and most of what was said by my classmates. I went home happy, but my initial worries were absolutely legitimate. I had been reading books in English for a long time and I was pursuing a degree in English language and literature, but I had always written in Italian. Writing in another language was a completely new challenge.

Creative Writing Abroad

 There are hundreds of thousands of students who embark on semesters, years or whole degrees abroad in English speaking countries. Those students need to write papers and essays in English, take tests written in English and speak this language in an academic environment.

If this does not seem hard enough, it may happen, just like it did to me, that an international student discovers the world of creative writing programs and falls in love. Maybe that same student comes from a country where creative writing is considered a hobby at best, just like in Italy.

After a semester at Sarah Lawrence College and a bunch of classes in a small cabin, where writer Carolyn Ferrell would give us feedback on our work, discuss the development of the plot, the strength of the characters and the power of dialogue, I decided to return back to Europe. More specifically, to London, where I could pursue an MA in Creative Writing. I did not care about the never-ending debate regarding the effective usefulness of a creative writing program in a writer’s career. Louis Menand wrote about it in The New Yorker, and there is no need for me to add anything to what he said. I wanted to study the subject I loved, and even if it was difficult to explain the kind of degree I wanted to pursue to my Italian friends and family, I headed to London.

But then, another problem came up. I really had to write creatively, and at length, in a language that was not mine. As Bridget Jones would say: DOOM.

Creative Writing in Another Language

Of course, I am not the first person to write in a new language. Many writers –many great writers – wrote in other languages than their native one. In In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri said that for her writing in Italian means bumping constantly into imperfection.

If you are familiar with creative writing exercises, you will know that tutors and teachers love obstructions and limitations that challenge students and force them to channel their creativity into new, unexpected forms.

For me writing in another language is the biggest obstruction I can imagine, and yet it can also be a great liberation from all the conventions of good writing that we had been taught for years.

Having to deal with a different vocabulary, syntax, structure and grammar is a mess. It forces me – and many others – to edit and re-edit and to try not to stick to those forms that I already know, looking for the more appropriate and refined ones that a native would use instead.

I knew it was going to be hard, but I thought about Joseph Conrad, who was born to Polish parents and wrote some of the most important books in the British canon, after learning English relatively late in his life. And then I thought of Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote both in Russian and English, and was always dissatisfied with his work because of the imperfection of his English. (Come on, dude. You wrote damn Lolita. Seriously.)

Second Language Writers: Doom.

My classes at University of Westminster, London, were probably not that different from traditional creative writing workshops. We would sit down, give feedback on each other’s work and try to live up to the expectations of those teachers who gave us exercises in class.

Just like the time when I looked at my own work coming out of the printer in New York, I felt ashamed and nervous about showing my writing to the class. My sentences were weird, my vocabulary lumpy. I felt like my jokes would not work in English in the way they did in Italian. I felt discouraged and inadequate and sad.

The issue of the value of creative writing programs hammered in my head again. “You decided to do something useless and stupid” a horrible high-pitched voice would scream in my ears. But this is what I learnt during my MA: writing takes courage. It takes courage to pursue a degree in a subject that does not exist in your home country. It takes courage to write in a language you don’t speak as a native. It takes courage to proceed by carefully limping through every sentence to arrive at the full-stop, hoping to get to the end of the story showing exactly what you had in mind. But this is writing in general, right? It takes courage to put your thoughts and ideas on paper, to organise them and choose the right form for them.

So I decided to make the most of that courage. I kept on writing and reading in English. I showed my writing to my classmates, the best editors I could have. We met in smoky pubs of East London or in the cool cafés of the West End. They made fun of my mistakes. We laughed. I kept on bumping into imperfection, as Jhumpa Lahiri said about writing in Italian.

I also joined a small group of writers in my neighbourhood, called Newham Writers’ Workshop, and they helped me a lot as well. They encouraged me, they explained why some forms were better than others and they told me what words meant. My English vocabulary had never expanded so quickly before.

Difference is an Asset

At the end of my MA, I knew I could write in English. I would always need some good editing, like every writer does, and maybe, for me, a bit more than others. And I would need courage, as everyone does as well. I would need the humility of always been keen to learn.

When I met Courttia Newland, a British writer of Jamaican and Bajan heritage and the tutor for my dissertation, I told him about my concerns. It was a sunny day of the beginning of June, and we were having a coffee in a café in Soho. He looked at me and smiled, then told me that I needed to see my condition as an asset, not as a weakness. Brexit was coming. The destiny of thousands of Italian and EU migrants was to be decided very soon. There was plenty to be said, even if in a lumpy sort of Italian English.

English is a great language and it changes quickly. In the multicultural world where we live, writers of different heritages and languages want to express themselves in this universal language. It is understandable and legitimate.

As I took a sip of my coffee, I decided I would write my first novel in English.

Italian-born Rachele Salvini completed an MA in Creative Writing at University of Westminster, London, in 2016, and is about to commence her PhD in English at Oklahoma State University. Her work has been published in several literary magazines including The Machinery Literary Magazine and The Fem Literary Magazine. She blogs at rachelesalvini.wordpress.com and describes herself as a PhD student who writes rom-coms. 


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