A few months ago I decided to create a Russian version of this blog. I am Russian after all, so why don’t I write in my native tongue? After setting everything up, the IT guy told me that my articles read as if I am not a native Russian. Awesome! Just what one wants to hear after presenting her creative work to the world.
He didn’t mean to offend me. He said something along the lines: “Anyways… one can feel that the articles are not written by a Russian… I mean Russian-speaker…” “But I am both a Russian and a Russian-speaker” “Well… you think differently after living abroad for so long…” Aaaaand it all circled back to the identity crisis of being an immigrant and living away from my homeland. If you read my post on being homesick and the real cost of living abroad, you know that these kind of comments hurt. A lot. But today I am not going to concentrate on that. I made my peace with it. Sort of. Not entirely. I am working on it.
I started this blog three years ago and chose English as the primary language because of all the wrong reasons. I though my audience would be bigger. Before that I had never written any long-form pieces in English bar the how-I-spent-my-summer type of essays for school. It took me half a year to overcome my fear of writing in a language that is not my native and stop stressing about some prim English-man commenting “That is not how you say it. Who do you think you are to write in the language of Shakespeare with so many stupid mistakes?” But as they say, practice makes perfect. Ok, practice makes decent, readable, occasionally-rather-good kinda stuff.
Over the past three years I made significant progress in my English writing which I am extremely proud of. At the same time, I do realize that “perfect” is unachievable for me. I am not being pessimistic or negative or setting myself up for failure. It took me 21 years to get to the level where I am today — I started private English classes with a tutor at the age of 9. And although I am entirely comfortable expressing myself in English, once in a while my foreignness waves its hand.
Here I am swallowing novel after novel by American writers, next I come across “Sophie’s Choice” and have to hold a dictionary in hand while laboring my way through every sentence. One day I am arguing in English using the most sophisticated words in my vocabulary (the likes of “uttermost” and “abomination” if you were wondering), the next day my friend is surprised I’ve never heard of the term “love handles”.
One day I am proud of my latest post about the women behind one of my favorite cafes in Colombo, the next day I come across a New York Times restaurant review according to which “The cooking, like its decor, is rough-hewn and self-consciously so…” and think to myself: “I will never write like that”. First of all, I don’t know what “hewn” is. Second, I had no idea cooking (or decor) can be self-conscious. I thought that quality is reserved for human beings. As in: I am self-conscious about my abilities to write pretentious restaurant reviews. That’s why I don’t write restaurant reviews. And when I do they have very little to do with actual reviewing and much more with me complaining how expensive bread was ($4 for 3 slices, people!).
None of this frustrates me. I am ok writing about my love for mayo, the weird wobbly meat jello that is Russian kholodets, and my inexplicable fury when people offer me help in the kitchen. I am not ok when someone tells me my Russian isn’t Russian enough. To be clear, I am not angry with my IT guy. I am angry with myself. You see, Russian language used to be my thing.
Not to brag or anything, but at school teachers would read my book reviews out loud to the whole class. The reason I got into University was because my essay was one of the few that received 10 out of 10. Ok, I am bragging, whatever. The point is, 9 years out of University and my essays in Russian don’t sound Russian?
Apparently, while I was working on perfecting my English, my Russian became rusty. I haven’t written a single piece in my native tongue in the past five years. I can’t say I speak Russian much either, mostly on Skype with my family and friends, a lot of whom are based in the USA and struggle with the same problem as I do, namely, after 9 years abroad it is easier sometimes to express your thoughts in foreign English than in native Russian.
It is a problem only when you make it one, though. Some of my friends sprinkle English words into their Russian speech and feel fine about it. I, on the other hand, make it a point to always find a Russian alternative, even if takes me a second to think of one. Why is it so important, though? I don’t have a problem inserting Russian words into my English speech. I even taught my husband the words “kolbasa” (“salami”), “kolgotki” (“pantyhose”), and “sobachulya” (“doggie”) over the years, and now both of us use them unconsciously. (I know, my choice of words to teach my husband is questionable).
It all comes back to my desire of being perceived as Russian. If I start using English words in conversations with my friends back home, it won’t be long till someone notes that I have “Americanized”. And that is some insult, I tell ya.
The most commonly asked question I get from Russians is “In which language do you think?” As if my thinking in English would be the ultimate proof and the last stage of my gradual “Americanization”. Yesterday, I finally found the answer in an interview with Vladimir Nabokov, one of greatest writers of the XX century:
“I don’t think in any language. I think in images. I don’t believe that people think in languages. They don’t move their lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates. No, I think in images, and now and then a Russian phrase or an English phrase will form with the foam of the brainwave, but that’s about all.”
How did I not think of Nabokov earlier? A Russian-born writer whose family fled the country after the 1917 revolution first for Germany and later for the USA, Nabokov successfully wrote in both Russian and English, as well as translated his own novels from one language to another. His first nine books were in Russian, but after immigration to the USA Nabokov almost exclusively wrote in English, and it is his novels in English, like Lolita and Pnin, that brought him international fame.
What it feels like to leave your native language to write in a foreign one, Nabokov summed up in the afterword to Lolita:
“None of my American friends have read my Russian books and thus every appraisal on the strength of my English ones is bound to be out of focus. My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”
It is strange to read these lines, knowing Nabokov’s mastery of English and taking into account his Nobel Prize nomination. When 12 years later Nabokov translated Lolita — or rather rewrote it in Russian — the afterword to the Russian edition was full of self-doubt yet again:
“Alas that ‘marvelous Russian language’ that I thought had awaited me somewhere, blossoming like a faithful springtime behind a tightly locked gate whose key I had kept safe for so many years, proved to be nonexistent, and beyond the gate are nothing but charred stumps and the hopeless autumnal vista, and the key in my hand is more like a jimmy.”
Reviewing Nabokov’s works written in Russian, many critics acknowledged his brilliance, yet found his novels to be “un-Russian”, influenced by the years of living in Europe and speaking English and French as the first languages.
Isn’t it fascinating to hear discontent in the voice of one of the greatest writers of the XX century as well as to read about his “un-Russianness”? Nabokov is my proof that one can write in both his native language and a foreign one successfully, even while being critical about his own abilities and constantly questioned for identifying with more than one culture.
In the end, does it really matter which language I choose for expressing myself? Isn’t language for a writer just a medium, like oil, watercolor, or chalks for a painter? One can achieve different results by using different mediums, but is one really better than the other? And why can’t I combine the two?
In his 1966 interview, Nabokov answered the question about his identity as a Russian or American writer with the following:
“I have always maintained, even as a schoolboy in Russia, that the nationality of a worthwhile writer is of secondary importance… The writer’s art is his real passport”.