The Return of the Lost Daughter: Can I Write in English?

By Natalie Nera

Natalie Nera

I have been obsessed with this question for many years. I have read books about it. I have read what other authors think and say. I have written several essays on the subject. Sometimes I wake up at night, deliberating on many aspects of this issue, having furious arguments with myself. One of my passions, yearning to understand and unravel something that is perhaps in essence unknowable.

When I moved to Britain fifteen years ago, – and my reasons were entirely personal -, I was clueless about the price I was going to pay. I was a young woman with eight years of work as a journalist behind me, one translated and published book (9/11 by Noam Chomsky) and a stack of magazine publications.

All of a sudden, the tool of my trade was not there, I was taken out of the business that works almost entirely on personal recommendations and contacts. I tried a correspondence course in English to improve my chances, and gave up after the first assignment because I hated everything about it; I joined a local writing group who generously tolerated my lame attempts with word for word translations into English. It took me the best part of those fifteen years to get to the stage when I felt: “Now, I can try this. I am as ready as I will ever be.” I don’t write conventionally like a native speaker and never will. My limitations are obvious and frustrating but also bring out another part of my creativity. I am an artist who can only paint with her feet. I am a deaf composer. I am a blind architect.

This very personal experience of being imprisoned in a stalemate situation where I have many skills I cannot use because they are language and culture-dependent, is also another reason for my preoccupation with this matter: can you write creatively in your second language?

The simple answer is ‘yes’. There are many literati around the world who produce beautiful prose, scripts or poetry in a language different from their mother tongue. Kapka Kassabova in Britain and Ilya Kaminski in the USA prove that it is possible. Milan Kundera? Vladimir Nabokov? Or more recently Aleksandar Heman? Indeed, a very simple answer with complicated and entangled explanations. It is not enough to tell people it is possible. The question posed should be about how likely it is. Not everyone can become a success story.

Josef Škvorecký, one of the most underrated authors of the XX century, an émigré, a scholar, translator, noted that many great writers in exile failed artistically.[i] Failures don’t make it into textbooks. Only fantastically talented artists, who achieve fame, do.

I am not a great writer and my exile was self-imposed, an act of unintended self-harm. But I understand. You don’t know what you have lost until it is gone. You might think that, at the age of computers and the Internet, it should not matter, that you can continue writing, uninterrupted, anywhere. But you can’t. You can’t compete against the locals. You have nothing special to offer and more deficiencies to care to mention. Your context is gone. Your words are slowly going too, being replaced by a peculiar hybrid of multilingual stew. You become a stranger in your own homeland. You are a stranger in your new land. Your path is murky, grim, perhaps finished forever, those promises and endless opportunities taken by someone else, and you don’t know who you are anymore. Your stint at the call centre. Cleaning B & B. Washing up in the local accommodation place. Teaching Russian in the evening at the local college. Freelance jobs nobody ends up paying you for although you had spent nights slaving over them.

Depressed? Oh God, was I depressed? Yes. It could have broken me. It nearly did. Here I am now with three published books in my mother tongue under my belt, several magazine publications in English and my translations of Czech poetry begin to get noticed, too. It sounds grand but, trust me, it is not. Having said that, I am more confident in my ability to do my job. I am also more confident at not succeeding: rejections are an opportunity to improve. They mean that I have to work harder. Re-draft. Try again elsewhere. In that, I find a weird obsessive joy that finally there is a clear direction I lacked all those years ago.

[i] Josef Skvorecky,. “At Home in Exile: Czech Writers in the West.” (Books Abroad 50.2, 1976), pp. 308-313


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