Prune to Grow: How writing in a second language can promote development

There’s no better way to feel fresh and awakened than to shed what’s old and familiar. For this reason, some writers take on writing–and publishing–in a second language. In her piece “Writing in a New Language, Writing Anew” for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lucy Ferriss discusses several writers who follow this ambitious path.

Our native tongue leads us to common ideas. Do we favor styling of affect over creating meaning? Do we become lethargic about achieving what we intend to convey? Ferriss paraphrases several writers who describe writing in a second language as going “without style”. In a new language, we are stripped bare of the comfortable spaces we can hide–among idioms and other devices that might obscure clarity and originality.

Ferriss says of the collected quotes from writers in a second language “What these comments share is an appreciation for what’s left out of the writing when composing in a second language: style, or description, or sophistication — all

things we tend to strive for when we try to write eloquently in our native tongue. I do think we tend to lose sight, in a language that has shaped our world since we were born, of language’s central task: to make meaning. We take for

Jhumpa Lahiri

Author Jhumpa Lahiri has turned to writing in Italian. Photo: Courtesy of Random House.

granted the multiple choices we have; we ramp up the prose; we lose sight of the roots of the words we’re making flowers with.”

It is as if this pruning of the familiar language encourages new vitality, much like a flowering shrub benefits from pruning back its old growth. Ferriss describes author Jhumpa Lahiri’s decision to write in Italian: “Using the metaphor of Daphne from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she adds, ‘I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.'”

As a lover of literature and a student of French and Italian, I have been humbled by the experience of trying to understand–and be understood–in a foreign tongue. It’s ambitious but rewarding for one to practice her craft assembling the childlike blocks of comprehension gathered in a nonnative language, and seeing what she can build.

Writers, Please Stop Romanticizing Rejection

In her Atlantic article “Why the Literary World Shouldn’t Romanticize Rejection”, Kavita Das skewers the idea with a multi-pronged argument. Too often, it’s difficult to be heard in the literary world, especially if one is a minority or woman. The industry has also proven to be resistant to change, and continues to pass over talent without evaluating their virtues based ostensibly on marketing to the American public.

“Time and time again, the literary establishment seizes on the story of a writer who meets inordinate obstacles, including financial struggles, crippling self-doubt, and rejection across the board, only to finally achieve the recognition and success they deserve. The halls of the literary establishment echo with tales of now-revered writers who initially faced failure, from Stephen King (whose early novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before being published), to Alex Haley (whose epic Roots was rejected 200 times in eight years). This arc is the literary equivalent of the American Dream, but like the Dream itself, the romantic narrative hides a more sinister one. Focusing on how individual artists should persist in the face of rejection obscures how the system is set up to reward only a chosen few, often in a fundamentally unmeritocratic way.”

Where many will laud the persistence of the few who can endure the rejection and find a place for their work in the mainstream publishing houses, Das argues we should critique the zero-sum thinking driving these trends. Who says there can be so few minority and female voices heard? And why do publishers underestimate our desire to hear these and other diverse narratives?

In my opinion, publishers can and should expect more of American readers. We want to see the warp and weft of contemporary life and perspectives, rather than just the embroidery emblazoned on top. So what can be done to end the excessive rejection so many talented writers face? Publishers can publish more (and more diverse) first-time writers. Agents and publishers can forgo the old market segments, urging crossover. And finally writers can begin to draw their audience in channels outside of the major houses, including smaller publishers and online self-publishing.

Photo Credit: Francisco Puente. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.