Writing Lessons

Writing like a Foreigner

By Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough | May 19, 2014


Writers who don’t write in their native language often harbor misgivings about the unnaturalness of the endeavor, no matter what motivated them to make that decision, geopolitics or personal history. It’s no wonder they ponder such questions. Writing, after all, arises out of our most intimate core, and what can be more intimate than our internal relationship to our mother tongue? Some years ago, at a translation seminar sponsored by Boston University, I heard Rosanna Warren say that she urges the young poets in her classes to approach English as if it were a foreign language. When I write, I have no choice but to follow that directive because English isn’t my first language. If I ever envied native speakers, Rosanna Warren’s words made me appreciate the advantages of defamiliarization. I feel comfortable writing in English, but I have none of the nonchalance toward it that I show in my first language. I am more diffident and circumspect, and I often feel like a tightrope walker.  I’m not saying that only foreigners have that experience—all writers treat language with awe and reverence—but foreigners don’t have to be reminded to heed that advice, which is part of their normal interaction with their new language. Since they’re acutely aware of its linguistic perplexities, they never take it for granted.

Before I immigrated to the United States I was an avid reader of fiction and poetry, and if I ever fancied becoming a writer, I saw myself as a novelist. It’s the essay, however, that became a perfect vehicle for dealing with my epistemological situation,  fostered my compulsive retrospection and introspection, and at the same time offered structural and stylistic freedom. For the sake of candor, I’d better add that I may have turned to the essay to cover up my linguistic inadequacies and keep myself from exposing my unease with the more colloquial cadences. Whereas a novelist has to be able to move freely among all levels of language, an essayist doesn’t have to change her clothes: she can freely parade around in her cocktail dress.

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