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Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue

edited by Wendy Lesser

Pub Date: July 27th, 2004
ISBN: 0-375-42238-2
Publisher: Pantheon

Fifteen original essays of varying quality from writers who learned English as a second language and now employ it more or less full-time.

The purpose of this uneven collection, writes editor/critic Lesser (Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering, 2002, etc.), is “to uncover the sources of writing in writers I admired.” Okay. Give points, first of all, for diversity. First languages here include Bangla and Chinese, Italian and Czech, Yiddish, and Korean. Several authors believe that their native language made learning English more difficult; Koreans negotiate the first-person singular in much different fashion, notes Ha-yun Jung, and English has sounds that do not exist in Korean. Bharati Mukherjee (Bangla) envies the tenses available in English. Some of the writers, unsurprisingly, seem to have as keen an interest in promoting their books as in talking about their first language. But others present engaging ideas in finely crafted, even lovely, sentences. Bert Keizer (Dutch) admits that he initially found the writing of English to be “like trying to plough a stretch of marble,” while Luc Sante (French) avers, “Elegance and precision are necessary allies; together they indicate the presence of truth.” In one of the most entertaining essays, Gary Shteyngert (Russian) links words and ways as he wistfully recalls how the popular culture of America lured him into the language. Ariel Dorfman’s piece about being bilingual (Spanish and English) must have been fun to contemplate but emerges as awkward and off-putting; he sends readers back and forth so frequently between text and massive footnotes that his clever point about two perspectives is lost in the underbrush. The collection closes with a touching and humorous piece by the late Leonard Michaels (Yiddish), who manages to put Elmore Leonard and John Webster in the same sentence—probably a first.

Sometimes fun and often instructive, though occasionally sluggish.