Note: On 13 June 2018, I was invited to give a 20 minute conference paper at the Language Acts and Worldmaking conference Languages Memory, King’s College London, London; the paper was part of the session on ‘Embodiments’ (chaired by Prof. Debra Kelly, University of Westminster). In the paper, I presented for the first time to a mixed audience my approach to writing and my multilingual writing process. The full version of the recent paper in English can be accessed here.
For a very long time, I could not choose my language of writing. I had Croatian, French and, later, English at my disposal as writing tools, however, choosing one language for me always meant sacrificing my other languages, other cultures, other identities, other parts of Self. I don’t want to sound complacent; my experience is by no means exceptional. The question of language choice and/or language loss has been and still is a recurring one for many writers who have either inherited or have come into a prolonged contact with more than one culture / language / identity. Much later, I came to realize that the problem of language choice is a false problem for me as a writer. It would therefore be more true to say that for a very long time I thought I had to choose a language of writing. As, although I was not explicitly forced to think that way, everything around me led me to believe that I had to so. I felt compelled to choose one language; the monolingual was, and still is, I think, the “default” option, the standard, the norm. So, I tried, and tried again to write in one language, and I failed, and failed again; I felt that when I was writing in only one of my languages I was always losing “something”. That “something”, I fully understand this now, is made up not only of notions and concepts, but also of sounds, images, smells, emotional, cognitive, pragmatic and kinetic resonances of the words and the worlds I live in. Each of my languages has its own archeology; one of them contains my sensory and sensual memories, the other inhabits my thoughts, my Self, my consciousness, the third has primarily cultural resonances for me that I identify myself strongly with. Only after I decided that I would not or did not have to choose a language in order to write, did I arrive to writing, or more precisely, did I arrive to writing poetry.
The process of writing multilingual poetry is for me a poetic and linguistic experimentation, a play with language and a language (inter)play. Each of the languages I inhabit has its own timbre, voice, rhythm, it has its own harmonies and melodies, its own colours. Each language mediates my experience(s) of the world differently. This is perhaps why, when I move in a space between languages, I still experience this feeling of loss. At the same time, from this loss, from this lack, also comes creativity. Creativity comes in this space of in-between language.
It may seem surprising that I always first begin by writing a poem in English, a language that I acquired much later than my native and mother tongues, Croatian and French. However, writing in the English language has become natural for me; it is the language I feel closest to, at one level, and one that I feel most comfortable in inhabiting. At the same time, words in English possess no emotional resonances for me. To compose poetry in a language that has no emotional resonance for me as a writer may sound paradoxical, yet, I have found this lack liberating. My process of writing goes as follows: I first write a poem in English, then I translate it into or rewrite it in Croatian and, finally, in French. This process of translation and/or re-writing, of a constant moving between languages, is quite an interesting one. Only after translating a poem in English into Croatian, am I able to go back to the English “original” to perfect it. Through that process of translation, new echoes, new resonances emerge, rendering the English version more precise, more real, but also enriched with an emotional layer I feel that was lacking there before I moved to translating it into Croatian. With that also comes the realisation that maintaining the concept of the “original” (language) in the process of translation is an illusion; the concepts of the original and of the translated language become meaningless in the space of the multilingual. Furthermore, all three versions of the poem that I have written become translations of something that does not reside at the level of the linguistic; they become representations, reflections of a non-linguistic form of thought, of a series of images that exist “before” language and that only acquire their meaning and linguistic form in the system of language. Another, equally interesting observation I made during my writing process, is the realization that contrary to what I expected, my relationship to the French language has become more neutral; sounds, images, words and phrases in French now have less emotional resonance for me (although French is my mother tongue or my mother’s tongue), except for a few images, or words, that somehow retained that status. Such is the status of the word, image, concept of “écume”, for example, motivated, no doubt, by my reading of Boris Vian’s L’ecume des jours that marked me so profoundly in my youth.
Finally, writing poetry in my three languages was for me an experiment on the path of identity recovery and re-discovery. It was a return to my earlier Self; a return to my Algerian, but also to my Croatian roots that I thought I had lost for the most part through the experience of moving out of the country and (involuntarily) suppressing these parts of my identity. My Croatian has always been in competition with my French; when I arrived in Great Britain, I became much more preoccupied with losing my French than with losing my Croatian. Gradually, Croatian took a more prominent position. The unique present of French language that my mother gave me (and my siblings) is more precious than anything else she could have given me; yet, I have never felt very close to that language on an emotional level. I always viewed French as the language of literature and culture, but I also feel a sense of inadequacy in relation to that language; I feel like I am an intruder in that language. Equally, I cannot relate the memory of French to my Algerian roots. Some of my earliest childhood memories go back to summers in Algeria. I remember the intensity of dark red, blue, ochre colours, smells of jasmine and bougainvillea, the garden of orange and lemon trees, my grand-mother’s cooking outside and my grand-father’s driving. Yet, I do not relate these experiences to speaking French. Now, I can only hear echoes, traces of sounds in Arabic; although I do not speak it, Arabic resonates with me, it feels familiar.
Both as a writer and as a researcher, I am fully conscious of the fact that one can very easily fall into the trap of nostalgia, sentimentality, something that I have always been trying to avoid. All through my adult life I refused to be nostalgic about my Croatian and French/Algerian roots. Except, deciding that one is not going to be nostalgic and sentimental about its roots, culture, identity, does not actually resolve anything. After this multilingual experience of writing, I can freely conclude that reviving the sounds, the images, the smells and the colours of my earlier identities and memories through the kind of poetry I was trying to write allowed me to tap into the parts of my identity that I thought I had lost irrevocably. And it is only when I started writing in Croatian (again) that I realized to what extent I had lost that part of my identity and memory. I think it is through the sensory, sensorial processes of memory recovery that was born the realization of loss of my Croatian native tongue, the part of Self that I had suppressed, as I was trying not to lose the other equally important part – the French one.
Finally, I wish to say a few words about my multilingual collection ‘Gazelle’. The collection takes the reader through the worlds and the words of poems in three languages. Rather than listing the poems in each language separately, I wanted the reader to move between languages whilst reading the same poem, thus enhancing the experience of a multilingual reading and language interplay. I am conscious that most readers will not read all three languages, but I hope that they will still be able to experience the poems in a multilingual context as an invitation to embrace the “unfamiliar” signs on paper through play rather than through fear and uneasiness. This cross—cultural, spatial type of reading may require more openness and concentration, but I hope it is also one that will be more enriching.
Mina Ray, 10 June 2014