Image of smoke against a black background. Text: The ghosts of bilingual writing. Daniela Castillo.

The ghosts of bilingual writing

Writing in a language different than your own is either an act of faith or self-destruction. After only few weeks into my Creative Writing degree I realised that, for me at least, it was the latter.

We were studying in the middle of the pandemic back then, so our groups were small. Six or seven people in the best cases. They made us sit in those immense auditoriums, keeping two or three rows in between us. Our faces half-covered with masks, our hands dripping with cheap hand sanitizer. And yet, despite our muffled voices and the space between us, accents still managed to emerge: two Scottish, four American and mine, Mexican.

Imposter syndrome and I were well acquainted by that point of my life.

Still, it was not pleasant to feel it emerge again even before the start of the lecture. I already felt inadequate enough claiming to be a Spanish-speaking writer, but sitting in that room, outnumbered by anglophones, made me feel like a fraud. It suddenly seemed like I was demanding to have a voice in a language that was not legitimately mine.

I was certainly not the first person to write in a “borrowed” language. Milan Kundera, Jhumpa Lahiri and even Samuel Beckett had done it before and more successfully than I did. But that didn’t stop the terror that struck me as I sat in front of a blank page, with the deadline of my first assignment ticking dangerously close.

Fear, like writing, is different in every language.

In Spanish, fear is something that you have. “Tengo miedo” indicates possession; it literally translates to “I have fear”. In English, on the other hand, fear is something that you are: “you are afraid,” “you are scared,” “you are terrified.”

If I could have a choice again, I probably would have chosen fear in Spanish, because it’s easier to lose something you have than to stop being something you are. But, by the time I realised this, it was already too late.

Many people questioned my decision of studying a writing degree in a foreign language and I dismissed their concerns, almost condescendingly. I used to tell them that writing was a process of subtitling thoughts, which didn’t have a specific language. They came in images, memories, sounds; it wouldn’t matter in which language I typed them.

But I was wrong.

In Spanish, I felt confident (or arrogant) enough to treat the language as a workroom. To deconstruct its rules and build them back again, to purposely disfigure the grammar and the syntaxis at my will. In English, on the other hand, I felt that I had no right to do this. I was frightened that what in Spanish could be taken for cleverness, in English it would be mistaken for ignorance. Just as I couldn’t affirm myself as a writer, I couldn’t affirm myself as bilingual. Yes, I had spent some years of my childhood in the United States, but I hadn’t felt truly confident speaking in English until my parents enrolled me in a language school during my teenage years. And, even though I became fully fluent, a “textbook” English felt much more illegitimate than one in my native language, no matter what my Cambridge and the Oxford certificates said.

At the beginning, I tried to overcompensate with an elaborate, even pretentious, prose. I’d craft multiple subordinate sentences and sprinkle my texts with three-syllable words and obscure terms. All in the hopes of blending in as a native English speaker. And, in a way, I achieved that goal: nobody in the group questioned my language skills, but they did my writing ones.

In a desperate attempt to prove that I belonged, I ended up not fitting in even more.

Jhumpa Lahiri once said that she writes in an Italian that’s fake, non-existent. She considers that writing in a new language pushes her to experiment with weakness, but it also liberates her because rules do not exist when she is the only authority behind her work and her translations. It took a few questionable reviews from my peers and several mediocre assignments to conclude that my English was the same. And, if it was fake, I might as well embrace its falsehood. I stopped using English as a disguise, and I welcomed its rawness, its imperfections. Spanish began to slip in my pieces, first italicised, then without formatting. Silent, unannounced, almost unnoticeable. And my peers, instead of rejecting this influence, they celebrated it.

Valeria Luiselli, who is also Mexican but grew up speaking English, decided to use Spanish as her main writing language when she moved to Mexico City. She chose it because she wanted to write herself into the city, but also to inhabit a new language. And yet, Luiselli said that, despite all the years, she’s been publishing in Spanish, she cannot completely separate herself from English.  She sometimes drafts in English and then self-translates to Spanish or vice versa.

For her, translations are ghosts that always haunt her work.

As I began accepting the bilingual quality of my writing, I became more and more conscious of these language ghosts. I realised than that my English was not exactly “borrowed,” but haunted.

The spirit of my native language will always be there.

While relearning how to write in English, discovering new words and ways of expressing myself and embracing both languages, I also became a new author, a new person, almost. By the end of my degree, it was evident that writing in a new language had indeed destroyed me, but only to reconstruct me into a writer that, sometimes, still feels like a stranger.

Glossolalia is a term that relates to spirit possession. As the spirit enters a host, the host becomes able to use words and sentences that are not part of their usual vocabulary. The spirit’s words slide into the hosts’ everyday conversation, until they take over their entire speech. This phenomenon is also known as the gift of tongues. I guess that, for me, at least right now, writing in a new language is a bit like that, like being possessed.

Our blog content is always free to read but if you enjoyed this piece, we kindly suggest a small donation to The Free Black University Fund:

Photo of a woman with long red hair, wearing a red dress with a white collar and yellow shoes, sitting on the ledge of a stone building reading a book.

Dann is a writer, professional overthinker, and a Virgo (in that order). She sometimes draws things, but feels uncomfortable calling herself an illustrator. Dann’s early work focused on magical realism, but she is now exploring other subjects like feminism, immigration and the intersection between language and identity.

Instagram: @the_dreampacker


Share this post