In Dreams of My Russian Summers, Andreï Makine, who left the Soviet Union and sought refuge in Paris in 1987, recalls the “pure and simple literary hoax” that finally got him published in France. He says that his novels “had been written directly in French and rejected by publishers. I was ‘some funny little Russian who thought he could write in French.’ In a gesture of despair I had then invented a translator and submitted the manuscript presenting it as translated it from the Russian. It had been accepted, published, and hailed for the quality of the translation.”
“Where did you learn to speak such good English?” is a question that one hears not infrequently in Canadian literary circles even if it’s now considered déclassé in other parts of our mixed society to ask it. That question oughtn’t to surprise us even if we happen to be born in Canada. Despite the many cultures that make up this country, the official “culture industry” still operates in the English-French modality. After all, this isn’t India with its 20+ officially recognized languages (English being the national working language) and 50,000 dialects. True, there are many more languages spoken here but they might as well not exist. Bilingualism and multiculturalism: that’s the crux that needs to be reconciled.
As part of decolonising the region and the mind, Ngugi wa Thiong’o asked African writers to write in native languages in order to reach the masses. Premchand switched from writing in Urdu to Hindi to appeal to more readers. André Brink refused to write in Afrikaans to signal his dissent over what the Boer government was doing to the people in South Africa. What choice do we have? For those of us who are rooted in English English, Indian English and Canadian English and know a bit of Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, and Farsi or Persian and a number of other dead or arcane eastern and western languages which have all but disappeared leaving just the dregs of English, there isn’t a simple or even a polite answer. Do folks forget that Mootoo, Ondaatje, Mistry, and Vassanji are part of the Canadian canon that’s written in English?
Although Walter Mosley thinks it gets easier the second time around, we have enough experience to suggest that it doesn’t really and that one’s status will always be interrogated. Keep your guard up and your smile pasted on. The questions will keep coming.