Watch Your Language
In her review of Thomas Mann’s War, by Tobias Boes (“Mann in America,” December 22), Elizabeth Powers writes of Thomas Mann’s literary career as anticipating “the present global publishing market, which increasingly erases the long-established identification of writers with specific languages and literary traditions.” The implication is that when writers “bypass their native publics and market their works to an international readership” in English, they impoverish the culture of their mother tongues.
Another way of looking at this is to argue that these writers were impoverished of a mother tongue to begin with. I, for example, come from an immigrant family, and although I often state on my résumé that Dutch is my native tongue, I feel little connection to that alien language. I feel equally foreign in my other native tongue, Cantonese, of which my vocabulary is limited, and of which the number of words I can read or write is: zero. Growing up as a child in an immigrant family, but without having the status of an immigrant yourself, often means that people assume you somehow pick up the language of both your family and your residential country naturally. This is far from the truth. At least in my experience, English was the first language that was taught to me properly and that I felt I could understand properly. Through engagement with literature and TV shows in English, I gradually became more at home in that language.
So I imagine that many writers bypassing their mother tongue are not “bypassing” anything; they’re writing in that language that they feel is truly theirs, that can express their thoughts and feelings best. This sentiment of being unable to write for the place one was born in and in the language one is supposed to be fluent in is for many the drive and obsession in writing — albeit in another language and for another public.
Elizabeth Powers responds: There are so many issues that this letter raises — thank you very much! — that I regret that I cannot respond at length. Yes, immigrants today are often linguistically rootless, “impoverished of a mother tongue,” as Mr. Lee writes, and what he says concerning his experience with English literature and TV confirms that English is becoming the universal language par excellence. This means that a great many people in the world today, aside from native English speakers, are bilingual. While many such bilingual speakers live in countries possessing a long literary tradition on which they can draw (such as the Germany in which Thomas Mann came of age), many choose to write in English. I speak not so much of Europeans — French, Italians, Germans, Dutch, and so on, who still enjoy large native reading publics — but of non-Westerners. Salman Rushdie’s mother tongue, for instance, is Urdu, spoken today by 100 million people, mostly in Pakistan, which has its own classical canon, mostly in drama and poetry, reaching back to the 14th century. For Rushdie and many others, however, English as well as the novel (increasingly the universal literary genre) are the vessels in which their feelings and thoughts are best expressed. Languages transmit a history of truth and also fiction, of knowledge and invention, that will cease if languages with a rich literary legacy become, like Latin, dead because no one writes in them anymore.