Of Language and Writing
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For my part, I wrote in Arabic and French when I was a kid but English superseded those languages by the time I started college.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.