The writer as a chameleon: bilingualism and the many cultures encountered by the author on the three continents where he has resided
THE WRITER AS A CHAMELEON, A BILINGUAL AND PLURICULTURAL ITINERARY ACROSS THREE CONTINENTS: by Albert Russo ********************************************************
When you mention 'place', the words that initially come to mind are: 'home town', ‘roots', 'environment', 'culture’, the country you grew up in. The extended meaning of place, however, encompasses childhood, a 'territory' that is at once self-contained and very loose, because it is so unique to each one of us and so difficult to circumscribe, and to some, unfathomable. But place, to many of us, also conjures up the notion of exile, whether forced or not, and thus place becomes first and foremost language. For a number of reasons - one thinks of holocaust survivors or political refugees - some, after having acquired the language of their adoptive country, choose to relinquish their mother tongue, others, instead, cling to it with such fervor that it becomes a stumbling block. The choice of language in this case depends not only on economics or your acceptability on the part of the host nation, but upon a factor that is primariIy emotional, such as the attitude of your immediate family and what you wish, most of the time subconsciously, to conserve or to erase from the past.
A biIingual author - I write poetry, fiction and essays in both English and French, which I consider as my two mother tongues -, and a polyglot - I speak five languages with various degrees of fluency: the aforementioned, Italian, Spanish and German, in that order, with a smattering of Swahili and Dutch, and reading abilities in Portuguese -, l've had to confront a rare type of prejudice, mainly on the part of French editors and publishers, which is not the case, l'm glad to admit, in North America. Monolingual editors, however erudite they may be or appear - some, among them, can read in a foreign tongue often have difficulties in conceiving that one is capable of creating equally weIl in two languages. What makes the situation thornier is the relative scarcity of truly bilingual or even trilingual writers. Conrad, Nabokov and Beckett are the classical examples.
At a symposium held in Paris a few years ago on 'Writers and the Sea', Robert Cornevin, an eminent historian, literary critic and africanist, lamented over those French publishers who, through their stupidity and shortsightedness, had let Joseph Conrad exile himself into the English language, pointing out that the Polish writer had mastered French long before he could read Shakespeare in the original version. "We thus lost a monument of world literature to the British, he concluded, somewhat bitterly. In spite of arising nationalism, the situation, fortunately, is evolving and there is an increasing number of writers who no longer shy away from bilingualism. In the States, one can witness this transformation: there are more and more authors of hispanic background who choose to write in both Spanish and English. We're still talking, of course, of a tiny minority and for a long time to come, people who create in two languages will have to fight to impose their dual status. It is ironic that what ought to be considered an enrichment is too often looked down upon in the profession.
Where I’m concerned, it is only relatively recently that I have been accepted as a bilingual writer by the French critics, and consequently
by publishers in Paris - I insist upon the 'consequently'. An eclectic writer, I escape any sort of labelling, which editors find very annoying, if not downright impertinent. So, many decide to ignore me altogether, the more adventurous pay some attention, whilst still keeping a comfortable distance. This lukewarm, noncomittal attitude may explain my propensity to take part in so many literary contests in the US, Britain and France, principally. Garnering prizes for me is an act of defiance, defiance against apriorisms. There is no fairer test than that of being judged anonymously. It is, l'm afraid to say, not at aIl the case with some of the national contests like the prestigious Prix Goncourt or the Prix Renaudot in France, which smack of pre-election scheming and reward, year in and year out - exceptions do occur once in a blue moon - the same three or four publishers, which I calI the sacred quartett, for the Prix Goncourt is more a publisher's prize than an author's. So much said for ethical practice.
Reverting to the notion of place and language, I have to smile when, having won an award, l'm referred to as an American writer or a French one, depending on the country in which the contest took place. Then there is the instance where the US editor, partially aware of my background, sends me a letter of rejection, with the pretext that my style is too European, whatever that means.
Born in the former Belgian Congo (contemporary Congo/Zaire) of a Rhodesian mother and an Italian father who came originally from the island of Rhodes, with sephardic roots that go back to the period of the Spanish Inquisition, I could never adhere to any notion of race, regardless of the color of my skin. Having spent my formative years mainly in Congo and Burundi, with frequent sojourns in Zimbabwe and South Africa, I consider the Black Continent not only to be my birthplace but the cradle of humanity. Africa has left an indelible mark on me and I deem it part of my heritage. Having known its beauty, the generosity of its peoples, and witnessed the turmoils of Independence in at least four countries, I cannot remain insensitive to its development, its tragedies and its hopes. The fact that apartheid is now history can only make me rejoice, which does not mean, of course, that the problems in South Africa will be resolved during this generation.
Here is an excerpt from my story THE EXAMINATION (it appeared in Short Story International) which evolved into a novel entitled LE CAP DES ILLUSIONS (DEVIL'S PEAK), published a few years ago by Editions du Griot in France.
“Jan, she insisted, "we can't keep Prudence on the farm any more. She'll be ten soon, and she hardly knows how to read. The child needs an education. Really, I don't want her getting entangled in this mediocre existence of ours. With a degree in her hands, she will be able to make her way in the city, and we will follow her ... Oh, how sick I am of this life!” Martha complained, bitterly. ...
That morning, aIl three of them were up before cock-crow. The little girl's seagray eyes sparkled; she was aIl prepared to go, squeezed into a short dress with puffy sleeves; a satin ribbon held up her frizzy hair; out of white socks rose a pair of bony, sunburnt legs. She stood leaning against the door of the pick-up truck, fidgeting with impatience. Yes! They were going to teach her to count and write properly. She was going to penetrate the mystery of books, and play with other children at blindman's buff. A beatific smile disclosed her teeth, which seemed to capture at a stroke the freshness of dawn. Jan tossed a checkered canvas valise on the luggage-rack.
"So, here we are on the road to high adventure” he said in a raucous tone, pinching his daughter's cheeks, more to convince himself than to reassure the child. Wedged in between her parents, Prudence embraced the undulating hills, as if for the first time.
Ablaze under a copper sun, the veldt gradually slipped away behind them in spirals of dust. ...
Classes began the following morning, in a relentless heat. Although gifted with a keen intelligence, the newcomer was admitted into first grade; as a result, she was taller and older than her classmates. When the bell rang for recess, Prudence rejoined the third graders, knowing that she'd feel more at ease in their company. She was soon approached by Greta and yolande who took to her immediately; they talked about the customs and the rules of the school, and about their friendships.
A scrawny redheaded boy unexpectedly accosted the three girls; his wavy hair was shot with bronze gleams, his pug nose looked as if it had been polished by a file.
"Hey, firstgrader! You’re pretty big for your class, if you ask me. What hole did you crawl out Of?” he jeered at Prudence in a nasal voice.
“Pay no attention to that little snot, Prudence; picking on girls is aIl he's good for," Greta interposed unceremoniously. The boy pretended not to hear. He went on addressing the new girl: "Lost your tongue, huh? Say, you’re kind of dark, though, aren’t you? Actually, you remind me of my maid. No, your hair isn’t as kinky as hers. AlI the same ...”
Outraged, Yolande blurted: “Just what are you getting at? l saw her mother and father yesterday; they're as lily-white as you. Oh, leave us alone!”
During class a phrase echoed in Prudence's mind like a hammer thumping against a wooden board: "I AM NOT COLORED, l AM NOT COLORED, l'M AN AFRIKANER! ...” Petrified, the child was undergoing a slow metamorphosis; she no longer understood the sole language she possessed, a language that had become aIl at once hateful to her ears. The thumping resumed in her head. She saw shadows closing around the assembly, then thought she heard claps of thunder: one, two, ten salvoes, succeeding one another as though vomited from an invisible machinegun.
"Show me your fingers, l won1t bite you," ordered one of the officers. "Look at her nails,” said his colleague, "there's no doubt about it, the blue halfmoons constitute irrefutable evidence. This kid’s got mixed blood!"
After Africa, my family moved to Milan, Italy, where l spent eight years, then l went to settle in New York City for about the same length of time, and here l am finally in Paris, France, where l've been residing for the past twenty-three years. In between, l have to mention the academic year spent in Heidelberg, Germany, and another one in Belgium, not counting trips to the People’s Republic of China, India, Sri Lanka, the Mediterranean and Continental Europe.
Place can be the atmosphere of a city or the figment of one’s imagination. At times, to escape reality, l write fantasy or science-fiction, with forays into surrealism and absurd humor, or a combination of the last two.
As an illustration, l'd like to read a story l've Ititled NEW YORK BONUS (published in Dreams and Visions, in Canada):
Gladys felt radiant on this last summer evening, strolling through Central Park. It was her fifth day in Manhattan and she'd seen a lot of the city already, discovering its museums, going to Broadway shows, visiting Wall Street and the Village. She dared to take the subway a couple of times at noon, but mainly she traveled by bus and on foot. She marveled at the diversity the metropolis offered, at its stark contrasts, from posh Fifth Avenue to the seedy atmosphere of the Bowery. The only organized tour she took was to Harlem and the Cloisters. She'd heard and read a great deal about the dangers of New York City. In the lower East Side she did come across a few drunkards, cussing hobos and drug addicts, but accepted them as part of the city's folklore. Though she never ventured in the so-called hot spots after sunset, she was surprised to find how communicative and helpful New Yorkers could be. Even the squirrels in the Park seemed to beckon her with the greeting, "Welcome to the Big Apple, stranger!" Yet, amid the motley crowds, she very soon shed her 'foreign' look and meshed with the surroundings as if she'd lived there for years. Had she not won that lottery ticket at the Senior Citizens' charity dinner, Gladys would never have dreamt of leaving the perimeter of her Welsh village. And there she was, at seventy-five, awakening to a whole new gamut of emotions. "How splendidly resourceful is the human soul," she remarked to herself when a tall bulky fellow accompanied by a boxer swung the door open for her as she entered the lobby of her hotel.
The man, a middle-aged negro, clad in an expensive beige suit - double-breasted jacket, satin shirt and matching brogues - kept his dark glasses on and silently led Gladys into the elevator whilst the boxer blinked up at its master with expectant watery eyes. "Stop fretting, Lady!" the man commanded in a stentorian voice. Gladys' gaze instantly leapt towards the ceiling, searching for an escape, and finally settled on the floor directory. The words still vibrating against the metallic walls whithin which she felt trapped, Gladys stood petrified. As her breathing slackened, like that of a hibernating lizard, her mind began to brim with apocalyptic images and flash warnings that translated into newspaper captions: "Welsh septuagenarian assaulted by black mobster and his mongrel ... Foreign matron mugged in hotel elevator then raped and stabbed to death ..."
At this point a second order was fired, more ominous than the first one: “Sit, Lady, l said SIT!” It appeared at once that a blizzard invaded Gladys' head, emptying it of aIl thoughts. Eyes glued to the floor directory which had just marked number 14, the old woman, slowly, very cautiously, slid into a crouching position. Her knuckles squeaked like a pair of absorbers that badly needed oiling. Reduced as she was to the state of an obedient robot, she ignored the lament of mortal flesh. ‘35’, read her lackluster eyes. A moment later, the now familiar voice boomed again, hoarse and ominous: “Lie down, Lady, it's an order!” It took only seconds before Gladys stretched herself on the elevator's thick carpeting. ‘39’, indicated the directory. Though she did not move, Gladys had the sudden and disagreeable impression that she was being immersed in a pool of sweat, or was it blood? She then perceived strange noises which grew closer and closer, like a veiled growl. She felt very wet and realized that someone or something was slobbering aIl over her face, more something than someone. Could it be ... a dog's tongue? The elevator beeped to a halt.
The next morning Gladys found herself in a quandary and kept asking herself, “Was that a nightmare, or did i t really happen? It seems impossible.”
As she crossed the lobby towards the reception area she noticed an envelope in her key slot. “Here, Ma'am,” the young employee said, “There’s a message for you” “A message?” she repeated, incredulous, “but I don’t know a soul in this town.”
This is what the note contained: “Dear Gladys, l hope you don't mind me calling you by your first name. Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience my boxer, Lady, and l caused you yesterday in the elevator. l must confess however that never in my life have l laughed so much. So that you may forgive us both, l'd like to extend you this invitation. You are personally requested to dine this evening at the ‘Top of the World’ where my jazz band performs. You cannot miss me, l am the saxophone player.
Cordially yours, L.J.J. (yes, the famous L.J.J.)”
To conclude, I shall refer to two of my stories - they are included in my collection, The Crowded World of Solitude, volume 1 (www.xlibris.com): VENITIAN THRESHOLD, with a strong sense of place, since the action oscillates between wartime Germany and contemporary Venice (this story has appeared in US, English, French, Belgian and Greek reviews and was selected by the Auschwitz Foundation}, and a tale of absurd humor entitled INTERACTIVE RIPOV, where place is aIl in the mind.