Sayed Kashua’s Let It Be Morning and Dancing Arabs

The latest issue of the Boston Review includes my essay about writing in a non-native language, looking specifically at Sayed Kashua’s novels Let It Be Morning and Dancing Arabs. Here’s an excerpt:

Those who write fiction in a language other than their own are often asked what motivates their decision, even though this literary choice has a long and rich history. Joseph Conrad, for instance, did not write in Polish, his mother tongue; instead, and after 20 years of world travel, he settled in England and embraced its language in his work. Milan Kundera chose French rather than Czech for his later books because he wanted to free himself of expectations and censorship. Elias Canetti, whose native language is Ladino, opted for German, though he lived most of his life in England and Switzerland. But for others, the decision to give up their mother tongue was not a choice at all. It was the inescapable result of colonial education—witness, for example, the vast literature in French that came out of Africa in the wake of France’s century of hegemony: Assia Djebbar, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Camara Laye, and Léopold Sedar Senghor, to name just a handful.

What is striking about these shifting linguistic allegiances is that they tend to favor the language that is culturally dominant on the international scene. Thus, despite the great diversity of reasons for writing in a foreign language, the writer’s choice is often interpreted as a political statement, and in particular as a form of capitulation. This was precisely what prompted the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o to abandon English and return to Gikuyu, his native tongue, and what led him to argue, in Decolonizing the Mind, that other African writers should do the same.

But does creative expression in a foreign language always equal the rejection of native culture and the embrace of another? Or can it also be a way to challenge readers’ assumptions? The work of the young novelist Sayed Kashua raises just these questions.

Read the rest here.