In another fascinating piece for PEN Atlas, Gazmend Kapllani recounts his journey through languages, the difficulties and opportunities of being a multi-lingual author and how the language of the Other goes back to Homer and the birth of storytelling
The “encounter” with your mother tongue is always prearranged, while an encounter with a foreign language is usually a matter of chance or choice. My encounter with the Greek language meant both: chance and choice.
I was born in Albania, under totalitarianism, when the country was one of the most isolated in Europe, similar to today’s North Korea. Learning foreign languages in such an atmosphere had no practical use. It was impossible to talk to the few visitors who ever managed to enter Albania. They were strictly monitored by plainclothes agents of the secret police. We restricted ourselves to observing them and trying to catch words of their languages from a safe distance. The truth is we watched them as if they were some sort of extraterrestrials.
However, by adolescence I had already learned two foreign languages: Italian and French. I learned Italian when I was a child, thanks to an older cousin who had studied in Italy in the 1930s. Then, I learned French on my own. Italian and French were not just “foreign languages” for me. They became like underground tunnels or small windows which, suddenly, I could open in the wall of our totalitarian jail. Because of these openings, I could reach the world-beyond-the-border.
I could listen to Italian and French radio stations, secretly of course, thanks to a Chinese radio, which further broadened my world-beyond-the-border. All of the ‘forbidden books’, which were banned by the regime, and were so essential in stimulating my creative imagination, I read secretly in Italian and French. I still maintain a special relationship with both languages. In the memoirs of former prisoners of the Albanian gulags, I read how some of them developed a secret code, a secret language, in order to communicate between their cells. They used to form sentences by knocking and scratching on the walls of the cell. The character “A” was one knock on the wall and two short lines. “B” two knocks and two circles and so on. They say that they still maintain a special relationship with this private language. Sometimes, I have the impression I have maintained the same relationship with French and Italian.
When totalitarian borders were collapsing in Albania and Eastern Europe, toward the end of the 80s, I was learning English. But I did not have any more time to study languages. It was time to escape. I was in a hurry to cross the monstrous border – after so many years of closed borders, we couldn’t believe that they would remain open for long. I crossed carrying an English grammar book in my hands.
I went to Greece though I didn’t know a word of Greek. In my naïve imagination I planned to stay in Greece for 21 days at most and then continue my trip further west, to Italy, France or some English-speaking country. Last January, in 2012, I reached the 21-year mark of living in Greece. Life, often, does not follow schedules and plans. Unpredictable events and coincidences, often, change your travel plans and seduce you the way Circe seduced Ulysses.
I have written and published three novels in Greek: I decided to write in the language of the country I was living in. I don’t regard the Greek language as my ‘adopted’ mother tongue anymore. Our relationship, I’d say, is that of a man and his lover. It has the passion, the devotion, the element of surprise and small gifts that tend to mark a courtship. At the same time, it carries all the pitfalls, the vacillations, the hints of suspicion and betrayal, the uncertainties and mistrust that are typical of such a romance. Looking back at it now from some distance, I can say it was an ardent yet arduous affair. I fell in love with a language spoken by people who considered me undesirable, due to my immigrant status. I wasn’t some Western, French or English or German anthropologist in Greece: I was an Albanian immigrant; I was the scapegoat of the time; my mother tongue was the tongue of the scapegoat.
An Albanian is modern Greece’s country bumpkin. Except that this country bumpkin doesn’t speak the local vernacular; he speaks Albanian; he is the embodiment of the unbearable likeness of the “Other’. Ironically many of the ancestors of today’s modern Greeks, who show contempt for modern Albanian immigrants, used to speak Albanian themselves.
It was back then that I fell in love with the Greek language and mastered it. That’s most likely to be the reason that my relationship with Greek became so special. Faced with rejection, many retreat into their shell like turtles. There are also those who face rejection by digging in their heels and developing an appetite for “conquest”. Instead of countering with rejection, they respond to it with a desire to charm. Perhaps they are not comfortable with the status of victim. So the Greek language gave me this ability to conquer, to charm, to amaze, despite a climate of rejection, and my relationship to it became so special because it offered me the means to evolve from “scapegoat” and “undesirable” to interlocutor and storyteller. I wanted to be heard. I wanted to tell stories, mine and those of others.
My books, written in Greek, are translated into several languages. But they are not available in Albanian. This is a sort of Balkan linguistic nationalism I guess – some of the Albanian publishers feel vexed and can’t forgive me for having written my books and building my career as a writer in a Balkan language other than Albanian. They treat me as a traitor to my mother tongue…
When you write in a language that is not your native tongue, you recreate and refresh your identity – your cultural identity, but mainly, the identity of the narrator. Immigration means starting from scratch. To write a narrative in a language that is not your native tongue, is like starting the narration of your life from the beginning. That is why I felt as if the Greek language was a new pair of shoes which gave me the desire to run. Narrating in a “foreign” language, I felt not only like a participant, but like an observer of my own experiences. Greek offered my narration a different style and pace. But mostly, Greek offered me the distance I needed to reshape and re-read my previous and current experiences. And sometimes, this distance is like a savior for the narrator. Probably, because it transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar. The “foreign” language does not carry the historical weight of your native language. When writing in a foreign language, especially about your own life, you feel as if you have acquired a layer of protection from the dangerous weight of your own experiences.
I now have read many novelists, of the current and last century, who write in languages which are not their mother tongue, like Conrad or Nabokov. But in the matter of writing in another language I often think about Homer – the archetype of all storytellers*. Who was Homer? Maybe he was a myth. In the imagination of the people he was more of an archetype. A man without a name, a foreigner – Greeks may have found his foreign name difficult or unworthy to utter. He was, according to legend, a hostage of war, a slave without a past and without rights. It seems that he had a talent for learning languages and telling stories. That’s how he gained his freedom. The natives were charmed not only by his stories but also by the fact that he could tell the stories so well in their own language.
Many times, he must have heard compliments such as “you speak our language so well!” I imagine, hearing him telling stories in their own language, the natives must have felt the caress of their own narcissism. By mastering their language, the language of the Other, Homer remained in their history. But we will never learn his personal history. Maybe the no-named “Outis” (“Nobody”) the pseudonym of Odysseus when he fought Polyphemus the Cyclops was a sarcastic comment that Homer made about himself?
Currently I live in America – as a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. An ideal place to write a new novel. That’s exactly what I am doing. I don’t know whether I will extend my stay in America or return to Greece. I don’t feel that I have many good reasons for returning to Athens at the moment. For years now, I have been blacklisted by the neo-Nazi gangs of Golden Dawn and fascists, which unfortunately are gaining support and having a huge impact in Greece. Moreover, after 21 years of living, writing and paying taxes in Greece, the Greek state has repeatedly refused to grant me Greek citizenship.
On the other hand, being in the US has caused a “language crisis” for me. Will I continue to write in Greek or will I start writing my novels in Albanian? My books have been translated from Greek into several languages and it’s important to me to know and work with the translators. If, from now on, I write my books in Albanian, where will I find translators?In the meantime I feel more and more tempted to write in English. Since childhood I’ve been drawn to the languages of the Other. Above all, I like writing in the language of my everyday life. So, living in a kind of linguistic suspension, the new book I am writing is becoming a patchwork of three languages: the largest part of it is in Greek, interrupted by big paragraphs in Albanian and English.
Every time I write something I don’t like I blame my English. When this happens, I regard my latest language as a scapegoat. I feel frustrated and I swear to give up writing in English, once and for all. But after an hour or so my frustration is replaced by stubbornness and a desire to make it work. Then I sit down again in front of the blank page, filling it with English phrases and words. How does it feel? Fascinating like discovering a new continent, and at the same time insecure like running barefoot on a minefield.
Ultimately, what does it mean to write in the language of the Other? It means many things at once, I guess. It makes you travel through sounds and words that you would never have had the chance to discover otherwise. The most precious gift that the new language gives you is the fact that you never take it for granted. You will never consider it your own in the same manner that natives do. That’s why your relationship with the foreign words will never become unequivocally familiar. That’s why it will also never become routine. I often feel like a debutant in face of foreign words. Then, when I begin writing, I forget what language I’m in. Because, the most important thing when writing, is what you say and not the language in which you say it.
About the Author
Gazmend Kapllani teaches History and Creative Writing at Emerson College in Boston. He has published two poetry collection in Albanian and three novels in Greek. His first book – A Short Border Handbook – has been published by Portobello in the UK and has been translated also into French, Polish and Danish. His second book – My name is Europe – has been published recently in French and will be published in English in the fall.