As a fourteen-year-old girl in Sweden, I sat entranced in the classroom as my teacher told us that Joseph Conrad, a Polish émigré to England, wrote Heart of Darkness in English, his second language. I was completely blown away, both by the depth and the ambiance of the book, but also by the amazing feat that its author had written it not in his mother tongue, but in English. As I grew up and studied French, German, and English, I enjoyed very much reading authors in their original language. Never, ever, would I have imagined though, that one day I would take up the pen and write and have published, in English, a book of my own.
Every child in Sweden starts learning English in fourth grade, and from the beginning, the new language pulled me in. Growing up, I read Whitman, Dickinson, Tennyson, Eliot, wide-eyed, lingering over their words. Inspired by these poets I even made attempts at writing my own poems, in English, and I even had a ‘Shakespeare period’ in my teenage years, when I memorized my favorite sonnets and tried to imitate their melodious iambic pentameter. I think that to this day you could wake me in the middle of the night and I would be able to recite: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day … I felt envious of people growing up in English-speaking countries: to be given this treasure for free: a melodious, nuanced and rich language with words as gorgeous as serendipity, ethereal, and epiphany. I often felt that Swedish, in comparison, was blunt and sparse in words. Speaking it was like picking delicate flowers with heavy gloves on.
Despite my love affair with English, I barely dared open my mouth to speak this new shimmering language, fearing that I would sound like the Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show I watched as a kid: hum-di, hum-di, hum-di, seemed to be the only utterings discernable from his mumbling. I could hear my painfully evident Swedish accent in every word I uttered. I loved watching Hollywood movies with Swedish subtitles and listening to my favorite American and British bands, basking in the words of the actors and the musicians, but at the same time feeling that they stemmed from a language that was mysterious and out of my reach.
It took a move to the U.S. when I was 31 to shake me out of this feeling of awe and to start using the language for real, to dare speak it. In the beginning, I had to force every sentence out of my shy mouth, but slowly, my brain and my tongue got used to the strange sounds and I started to feel like maybe this treasure was meant for me too. But this gift, the ability to speak English, was superseded by another gift from the U.S.
It turned out that I had lived all of my life with an undiagnosed fatal heart condition, that doctors in the U.S. discovered, and treated, all within a couple of weeks. The country saved my life, literally, and three years later, I was still so filled with gratitude that I felt the need to offer my own gift, my story, in return. I reached for my new treasure, the English language, and started writing. The words came to me, page after page. I pushed away the fear of failing, of disappointing, of not being enough. I could almost feel Joseph Conrad smiling over my shoulder, encouraging me: Yes, now you understand, the story is burning inside you and all we can do is throw in all that we have, our words like flames in the night.
This is ultimately what my book, Beautiful Affliction, is. A thank-you note I am sending to the world. Thank you for saving me. Thank you for this life.
Here are a few tips for writing in your second, or third, or fourth language:
- Throw away your fears! Everything is possible! Look to Conrad, Beckett and many other authors who paved the way, I am sure they’d be willing to lend themselves as muses.
- Write in your own style, your own words, even in the new language. This is a very rewarding creative experience, as you will need to reinvent your language, instead of “translating” your native tongue to the new one.
- Find a good editor, whose native language is the one you are writing in. No, find two good editors.
- Get used to the feeling of constantly swimming in deep water, it’s okay; you won’t drown, you have your wonderful editors holding you up (this is why you need two).
- Enjoy the sense of accomplishment! Pat yourself on your shoulder often, telling yourself: I did this!
Number 5 is something I am still working on. I tell myself: Yeah, I really did this! It’s Joseph Conrad and me, baby! And even the Swedish Chef is invited to the party. Writing, perhaps especially in your second language, instills a tremendous sense of humility. Swedish, English, German, French, all languages: are at the center of our humanity. To carefully and meticulously, usher people, places, struggle, heartbreak, poetry, joy, stories from the ink is to pave the way to common ground, no matter where we come from. It is a miracle really. A miracle I am tremendously happy to share with you.