Of Language and Writing

Bookslut links to an article about Panos Karnezis in which he talks about his choice to write in English.

Apart from the commercial advantages of being able to sell English-language fiction worldwide, there are technical reasons, too, for Karnezis’ choice. “The Greek language is a bit like Spanish – more other, much more wordy. It’s common to have very long sentences. As a language, Greek is more dramatic. I try to bring the Greek experience – the bathos, the pathos – into English.”
Is there a tension, then, between the language and what Karnezis is writing about? “Yes, yes. It’s very interesting. You can explain a man’s macho attitude with one word in Greek. You can be much more specific. Here, you have to do it in a few sentences, which I find a great challenge. It’s like building a wall.”

For my part, I wrote in Arabic and French when I was a kid but English superseded those languages by the time I started college. When I wrote in Arabic I found it hard to keep up with the rhythm. Pick up any novel in Arabic and you’ll see that a sentence can run a page or two. I needed the finality of the period, perhaps because I had been already exposed to non-Arabic punctuation from a very early age. In French I wrote mostly poetry, long pieces that were meant to sound like Lamartine or Hugo and later like Baudelaire or Verlaine. I started learning English in high school and liked the mechanics of the language and soon I was reading almost everything I could get my hands on in English. Sometimes I even read French or Arab writers in translation. After a few years English became the language I think in. Sometimes when I talk to my mom my Arabic comes out garbled, like a translation of something I’m conceptualizing in English. (There’s fodder for you Sapir-Whorf people.) Some of my favorite writers are non-native speakers: Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad and more recently Ha Jin and I end up re-reading them almost every year. Sometimes I wonder if language choice affects the kinds of stories I’m writing or thinking about writing. I suppose the only way to find out is to switch back and see. I certainly plan on trying that someday.