Estranging English: Mandy-Suzanne Wong on Constructing New Literary Languages
"When you are a foreigner, nothing around you is necessarily what it is."
Writing as a foreigner in one’s own language doesn’t mean, for Antoine Volodine, writing stories of “the other” facing off against the familiarity of the homeland, the security of the native or the citizen, whatever you want to call the insider position whence “identities” are defined and bestowed (Antoine Volodine is a pseudonym). According to Volodine, creating in French a literature foreign to France, “écrire en français une littérature étrangère,” means writing as if in translation from the perspective of no particular culture but from a fantastical perspective wherein polyphony and defeat—subversive cosmopolitanism and defeat—have turned language into a post-nuclear landscape of tones. In the language of Volodine’s novels, the tones of what were once distinct cultures thicken the air with their particles like ashes of an explosion, infecting people with all their motley influences simultaneously, so that nothing is exotic because everything is: he told the Paris Review he writes “from nowhere to nowhere.” Characters with irreducibly foreign names, like Irina Echenguyen and Iakoub Khadjbakiro, think in “a language diverse [variée] and sometimes [pauvre] pitiful or impoverished, sometimes mutilated or, on the contrary, luxurious and baroque…not a national language but the transnational language of storytellers, outcasts, prisoners, madmen, and the dead.”Englishing under foreign influences weakens English’s claim to be the only language of “legitimacy.”
There is something deeply resonant for me in Volodine’s idea of estranging one’s native language from itself by writing it as if its secret core is somewhere else—and by resonance I mean an indeterminate affective touch. Reimagining his own tongue as a foreign “other,” Volodine hopes “to sabotage reality;” to undermine this world of ours in which us versus them remains the ruling logic. His objective in writing as if in translation is the opposite of a quest for self-affirmation, for elucidation of an “identity” (Antoine Volodine is also Manuela Draeger and Lutz Bassmann), or for a sense of “belonging.” Even within the Anglophone literary cosmopolis, wherever fiction functions as a provocateur, more Englishes are possible beyond the Englishes of conquerors and myriad dialects of the conquered. In such spirit, I’ve been experimenting: infecting my Englishes with foreignness by reading reams of translated literature and, in my novel The Box, writing as a menagerie of minor characters whose voices may mark them all as foreigners.
Each in their own way, The Box’s narrators exist at their societies’ margins. Theirs are vulnerable Englishes under the influence of strangers, including other Englishes which, outside of literature, aren’t necessarily spoken anywhere. Some of their tones are anachronistic, hearkening to English’s literary dead, weakening English’s sense of itself as a contemporary matter and a phenomenon of integrity. An excellent example of infectious anachronistic dissonance is Daisy Rockwell’s novel Taste, the story of a decorative Victorian table which, in the contemporary US setting’s sleek décors, consistently fails to belong. The narrator narrates in Victorian-scented English despite being an American of the twenty-first century. He speaks his native language as a foreigner from another time, causing the novel’s narrative tones to clash with the setting so that from the start the reader is uncertain of when they are.
Rockwell’s Englishing under the influence of foreign times asks you to wonder what “contemporary” is, what it means to be of a particular moment. Her desire to riddle her US-American English with internal dissonances was born of the joyful bemusement she discovered as a translator of Hindi and Urdu literature. “As a translator you’re always expanding your own language,” said Rockwell in a University of Michigan symposium, referring not to widening English’s exclusive territory but to English being made to stretch, bend out of shape, grow thin and porous. In part because writing in translation encourages “see[ing] language in this elastic way,” Rockwell believes Hindi and Urdu authors to be her greatest tutors in the creation of her Anglophone fiction. For just as creating Taste required listening beyond the present for bygone wavelengths; translating, for example, Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel Tomb of Sand obliged Rockwell to listen across vast distances for strange vibrations and invite them to dislodge English from its comfort zones.
The Box moves to rhythms of literature translated into English from other space-times; tones and timbres of outer sides seep into my narrators’ untranslated English-in-translation as they go about telling tales of a little paper box. I don’t mean that language is music, but there are ways in which certain foreign texts Englished by sensitive translators resonate as if in those bones and bedrocks of mine which are sensitive to music. By resonance I still mean indeterminate affective touch. More than that I can’t explain. The textual causes of this experience are unknown to me; I suspect they are inconsistent and have less to do with meaning and context than they would if the experience made sense. It does have somewhat to do with paragraphs’ modulations, novels’ contrapuntal shenangians, sentences’ melodic riffs and cadences: with dhvani.
Dhvani is a text’s “vibrations and echoes” at all depths and in any form, says Rockwell, who prioritizes this phenomenon in her writing. A text’s dhvani is its musicality but also the way in which its resonances make contact with a reader from within. Also the resonances of a text with distant occurrences beyond itself and beyond any particular reader. Playing with the dhvani of foreign-tainted Englishings is a paradoxical experience that depends on close attentiveness to language’s fine details without permitting any language to take itself too seriously.
Beyond a commitment to beauty and othering my perspective, I have no rationale for loving passages like this one from Daniela Hodrová’s City of Torment, Englished from Czech by Véronique Firkušný and Elena Sokol:
Unless there would be yet another shedding, the one Mr. Turek at the Olšany Cemetery talks about, he’s the one who during the Occupation hid behind his Turkish name and then in a tomb, to no avail. From the egg there emerges a larva or nymph, the nymph sheds its skin (sometimes even forty times), the nymph becomes a pupa, and finally the pupa becomes the adult insect or imago. But Mr. Souslik does not yet have any idea about this kind of shedding. And since Mr. Souslik is not an entomologist like Mr. Turek, but rather an etymologist, he marvels at the hieroglyph of the beetle…
Quite a few of my favorite dhvani originate in Eastern Europe. I live in Bermudian English (with my family), US-American English (with colleagues), and British English (the way we were taught to speak, read, and write as children), all of them (my novel Drafts of a Suicide Note uses all three) dotted with my close relatives’ Jamaican English. Therefore: Eastern Europe? Which great love of yours can you explain?A sentence under the influence of otherness says more than it says.
From Eastern Europe also came Soviet rhetoric, under the brassy influence of which, in novels such as Radiant Terminus, Volodine dreams and Jeffrey Zuckerman Englishes morbid parodies “without positive heroes and without the cinematic participation of the smiling faces of miners or anonymous detachments of steelworkers in helmets, without the flag of the working classes waving…” Not long ago in Eastern Europe, every human lung bellowed thusly with the oomph of Souza marches even in private: to “speak Bolshevik” was to proclaim your identity as one of the ruling “us.” Only suicidal madmen would corroborate the honesty of “them” who did not write state-sanctioned demagoguery. To write under the influence of Eastern Europe—not its propaganda but its literatures, which dare “to seek a language that deviated from the one formulated for them,” as Wolfgang Hilbig put it from East Germany in Tidings of the Trees, Englished by Isabel Fargo Cole—is to write without authority, without credibility. Without justification.
This can be liberating, confusing, terrifying. Strangers’ influences unshackle Englishes from common understanding; from the way “real people” talk; from Anglophone mass cultures and the inauthentic air of something like authenticity that their resonances seem to bestow. Under the spell of Hungarian Englishing, my Englishes retreat from those of “superpowers” whose disseminated perspectives are internationally (mis)taken for the truth. Englishing under foreign influences weakens English’s claim to be the only language of “legitimacy” for cultural products and, I hope, begins quietly eroding English’s imperialist pretensions to universality.
The Box lacks any voice of authority. The box as protagonist cannot speak; the plot is articulated in secondhand stories by foreigners telling tales that aren’t their own but which they’ve heard from strangers, thus the story of the box amounts to a smattering of rumors. Few of the narrators’ speculations about the box or even about their own surroundings agree with one another, they are all guessing; and they’re doing it without an obvious throughline in Englishes reverberant with other languages whence The Box did not originate. The language of The Box is a plural English estranged from itself, exceeding itself in its attempts to scamper along behind its foreign inspirations. In thrall to other Englishes performing Mieko Kanai’s Japanese or Collette Fellous’ Tunisian French, for example, a sentence may resemble an anaconda or an endless chain of blastozooids, for it is no longer English.
It is, but it isn’t. When you are a foreigner, nothing around you is necessarily what it is. Rendering Clarice Lispector’s Brazilian Portuguese, W. G. Sebald’s German, or László Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian, English and its components are not what they are: the tilde, em-dash, and comma no longer function just as road signs legislating pronunciations or demarcations. As Gábor Vida says in Story of a Stammer, writing in Hungarian from Romania in Jozefina Komporaly’s English: with “prose behav[ing] like a river running wild,” some obscurity is necessary to eluding capture. A sentence under the influence of otherness says more than it says. You feel more of a sentence than it says, much to your delight or discomfort. You feel, in its morphing and contorting, language being what it is: Vida and Komporaly are right that “language is in fact an enormous living being” with all of life’s vulnerability and inadequacy.
The Box by Mandy-Suzanne Wong is available from Graywolf Press.