Once upon a time there was a young woman who arrived on the shores of Australia with barely a world of English. For someone who, according to her mother, had been ‘born talking’; someone who had grown up with her head buried in novels, who wrote her first award-winning poem (in Spanish) at the age of 10, finished writing her first novella at the age of 14 and won her first national writing competition at the age of 15; someone who had always understood the world around her in terms of metaphors and grew up dreaming of becoming a professional writer, having to find a voice in a new language at the age of twenty appeared to be an insurmountable challenge.
During my first years in Sydney, I found consolation in writing poetry in my mother tongue. To my surprise, my poetry won awards, including a grant from the Australia Council of the Arts. My poems appeared in the Spanish language press and were read on SBS Radio; I was invited to read my poetry at festivals and to participate in anthologies. In my verses, I explored the themes and metaphors that reflected my new status as a migrant: grief, death, rebirth, reincarnation, reinvention, becoming 'lost in translation'.
It was tempting to stay within the boundaries of my community, where I even had a small ‘fan club’ among Spanish speaking immigrants who admired the way someone my age could find the words to express so well their experience of exile, but, as Paul White wrote in the introduction to Writing across worlds – literature and migration (Rutledge, 1995) “why migrate if such movement does not result in change, or does not accommodate an identity change that has already occurred”?
Hesitantly at first, I began writing for a mainstream English-speaking audience. When I submitted my first essay for publication to the Australian literary journal Quadrant in 2006, the then literary editor, celebrated poet Les Murray, wrote the following comment in the note he sent back with the manuscript: “Your English is impeccable and obviously adequate for literary writing in your new(er) language”. Admittedly, he said this as a prelude to rejecting the afore mentioned piece, but I still treasure the note, not just because it was handwritten by Les Murray himself, but also because a few years earlier, when I was still struggling to grasp the use of everyday English, I often despaired thinking I would never be able to write ‘literately’ in my second language.
With renewed confidence, I wrote and submitted a second essay, and this one, ‘An Exile’s view of Bolivia’ was accepted for publication in the July-August 2007 Issue of Quadrant – and I even received a cheque.
In the intervening years, I have been writing solely in English, but every time I compose a sentence there is a hint of doubt – which I told myself would be natural for anyone writing in their second language. I was amazed to hear that Ian McEwan, a world renowned, Booker prize winning author, was plagued by similar doubts when he started writing - in his first language! In a recent TV interview with Jennifer Byrne, he discussed Mother Tongue (2001), a deeply personal essay in which he remembers his mother having an 'uneasy relationship with words', which rubbed onto him, making him distrustful of language. In the essay he says:
When I started writing seriously in 1970, I may have dropped all or most of my mother's ways with words, but I still had her attitudes, her wariness, her unsureness of touch…. I would sit without a pen in my hand, framing a sentence in my mind, often losing the beginning as I reached the end, and only when the thing was secure and complete would I set it down. I would stare at it suspiciously. Did it really say what I meant? Did it contain an error or an ambiguity that I could not see? Was it making a fool of me? Hours of effort produced very little, and very little satisfaction.
In April 2013, my family and I celebrated a quarter of a century in Australia. Reflecting upon this milestone, I realised that I no longer feel divided between two languages and two cultures. The transition has taken a long time, but I have managed to learn fluent English, acquire advanced degrees at university, find well remunerated professional jobs and form an Anglophone circle of friends and relations. I have embraced this country, its language and its society, and they have embraced me back.
The crossing of the bridge between languages hasn't been exactly smooth; yet it continues to be a rewarding and fascinating journey, thanks to the relationships forged, lessons learnt and successes achieved along the way. Writing and publishing a full-length novel, Exuberance, in my new(er) language and on a theme other than migration, has been one of the achievements. There have been losses of course; in the effort to ‘assimilate’, I have lost important aspects of my cultural identity. Yet I have also discovered that there are many other dimensions of this identity that, along with my accent and my appearance, cannot be discarded or replaced.
25 years on, I have come full circle, and have now taken on the challenge of translating Exuberance to Spanish, in an effort to regain my fluency in that beautiful language. My mother tongue will always be a significant tie that binds me to my origins, and it is important to preserve it.
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,