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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Rey

Mother tongue

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Jean Dubuffet - " La campagne heureuse "
Jean Dubuffet - " La campagne heureuse "

The first literary text that I wrote was published in English in 2013, sixteen years after I settled in Australia. It was a commissioned work for Kent Mac Carter for an anthology later published as Joyful Strains. The volume brought together various texts by authors who lived in Australia and wrote in English. We all had in common that we were born abroad. Our birth countries were diverse, as well as the age at which we arrived in Australia. Some emigrated here as children with their family, which enabled them to learn English at school. Others migrated at a mature age. I fell into the latter category.

​Thus, I went sixteen years without writing a literary text in English. I spoke English, of course. Being able to master English was vital if I wanted to make a living. I taught in English and wrote my lectures in English. English was the lingua franca I communicated with. Apart from that, why did I wait sixteen years before I had a text published in English ? The truth is that I kept writing in French thinking that even though I lived on the other side of the world, I would go on publishing in France, and then, be translated and published here, in Australia. Who hasn’t suffered from delusion of grandeur till reality sets in ? I may say that I speak a decent English, yet the literary writing of Virginia Woolf, Patrick White or Dylan Thomas is another world altogether. There is a difference between stammering a language to communicate and absorbing a foreign idiom at a deeper level by being acquainted with its intricacies, its history and its literature. To adopt a language intellectually isn’t enough; it must also permeate the senses, the emotions and even the soul. Or to draw a parallel with the linguistic model of Henri Gobard, quoted in the essay by Deleuze and Guatarri, Kafka, Toward a Minor Literature, to absorb flawlessly the language of the host country entails to gain at once the four linguistic levels identified by Henri Gobard: the vernacular, vehicular, referential and mythic. (I would like to add a 5th level: the poetic.) These four levels of language were beyond my proficiency. French was my home, my sole bearings in a foreign country. Besides, French was the working tool I had been perfecting for years. It had taken me a long time to conquer some sort of stylish writing, to juggle with my three subjunctive past tenses, to collect rare words, to become skilled at convoluted constructions, long-winded sentences, astonishing metaphors and magic tricks to spice up my prose. I felt comfortable in my language, why should I have to leave it ?

Andrew Riemer then Julie Rose translated two of my novels. Afterwards, in 2005, things took a painful turn. I found myself without a publisher. It’s not unusual in a writer's life. To the geographical distance -Paris is a long way away- I would add the existential one. We weren’t any more on the same wavelength. For lack of text, no translation was planned. And sixteen years passed by. I kept writing in French. Writing is my profession. I kept writing for nothing. I blackened paper for nothing. Around me, people sometimes asked me what I was doing for a living. To the question, I’d answer that I was a casual lecturer at the university and a writer. They were surprised, keyed my name on Google: one or two things came up on their screen. Unfortunately, what was said about me, apart from the paragraph in English on the website of the university where I taught, was written in a lingo no one understood, some sort of vernacular spoken in a small country of the northern hemisphere located to the south-east of England. It was called France. After a few years of this cruel game, a chat which always made me feel defeated, humiliated, frustrated, I noticed how the smiles had grown sad. People were silent. They seemed to say: “Come on, it's time to move on! All that is history. You hurt yourself.” Doubt begun to set in. To dodge suspicion, to sidestep people bellowing at me enthusiastically if I’d say that I was a writer: “Ah, you write! Me too, I write!” I left out useless details. I said that I taught French. Full stop. Which was the truth. Because that's what being an immigrant is. The past weighs and continues to weigh for you; but for the others, the people of your host country, the past doesn’t exist. The immigrant has no past. And even when the life before lasted forty-one years, it still doesn’t count. And even though the life before was rich in events, in publications, in literary prizes, or rich in hard-won degrees, in professional experience, it counts for nothing. Whether you arrived in Australia at ten or forty-one years old makes no difference. Before does not exist. Whether you came here with a primary school certificate or with years of experience as a criminal lawyer makes no difference. The life before doesn’t exist. Many of us who graduated in another country - professors, nurses, dentists, lawyers, veterinarians, the list goes on – must get back to the university to retake our exams in English. To live in a host country means to be born when you set foot in it. As if you rose up from the ground overnight. My past was cancelled. And the past of all the foreigners who arrived here as adults is cancelled. Of course, we’d like to say: “Hey! I had a life before. Don't ask me to move on, don't destroy my memory, don’t burn a hole in my heart. The existence I led before I migrated counts as much as the one I lead here. I have a family in another country, many friends, cemeteries where are buried my dead. There, people know me. If you ask me questions about it, I can answer. I live in Australia, yet my home is somewhere else.” But most people don't ask questions. They don't want to know. And if the foreigner gets excited while talking about his homeland, he quickly irritates. Strangers swiftly learn it’s better not to talk.

​Three years after I migrated to Australia, I embarked on a PhD in relation to a subject which has been a lifelong source of enquiry: changing language. The three authors I was going to study had respectively abandoned Czech, Romanian and Russian to write in French after settling in France. On rethinking my line of thought today, I realise that I made an unfortunate mistake -most unwillingly- while writing this work: back then, I sincerely believed in choice. I thought that Milan Kundera, Emil Cioran and Andreï Makine had been given a choice. It took me years to see why my reasoning was inadequate, ignorant as I was of a cruel reality. Three years in a foreign country had not yet given me the hindsight to understand that life after will never be the same as life before.

Milan Kundera, born in 1929 in Brno, left Czechoslovakia for good in 1975. His country had been under Russian dominion since 1968. In 1970, held as a dissident, Kundera was expelled from the Communist Party. He lost his appointment as a lecturer. His books disappeared from the bookshops and the libraries. His name was slowly erased. His identity was annihilated. His memory reduced to ashes. Once settled in France at the age of forty-six, he kept writing in Czech. Moreover, he spent years retranslating his Czech novels into French with the help of Claude Courtot, his translator. He was sixty-six years old when he published Slowness, his first novel in French. He spoke French, of course. He wrote in French starting with his lectures at the University of Rennes then at the “École des Hautes Etudes” in Social Sciences in Paris, not counting the many articles he published. Kundera taught for a long time to earn a living. But in 1993, when he took the risk of writing a novel in French, Kundera had no choice, as I had wrongly assumed. He wrote in French by obligation, by constraint, by force. His first work in French published in 1995 was called Slowness. It is written by an author of sixty-six, a biographical detail that strikes me today, in the language of a man who stepped into another one, embracing it cautiously and slowly. Reviews were merciless. His new style was described as stiff, poor, dull, dry, banal. The most upsetting remark is the following one, written by a journalist very critical of Kundera's novel, a cruel sentence indeed: “It's not easy to change language.” A sentence that hurts not so much by its clichéd stupidity, as by the abyssal ignorance between those who have been immerged in the same language since childhood, and those who must write in a foreign tongue in order to continue to write, to exist, to live, to be visible, to be simply credible, when one gets to this crucial point in life where one is forced to stop writing in one’s dialect to survive as an author, as a human being, as a voice. To continue to be credible. To keep creating. First and foremost, to overcome the frustration, the bitterness, the harmful feeling to have failed, and at last wishing be seen as a whole, able to embrace past and present, no longer sliced in two halves. Kundera spent eighteen years in the limbo where many writers who oscillate between two idioms seem to get trapped; a zone of painful discomfort mingled with the terror of having to embrace seriously a foreign tongue because they know too well that they are inevitably going to make stupid mistakes, they will feel shame for having to ask for help around them, embarrassment of having to check three times or more the spelling of a word in the dictionary, doubt will hover over what they write -and sometimes over what they say knowing that they are no longer king in their kingdom, fear that literary critics will decapitate them, accusing them of being unable to write and enjoining them to go back home, an injunction Kundera was given.

​Yes, it took me years to acknowledge the inadequacy of my reasoning, ignorant as I was of a cruel reality that life only could teach me. There is no choice. One doesn’t choose to write in another language when the latter happens to be the idiom of the country where one has been given residency. I did realise it when I was forced to adopt English. Because over the years, I saw myself disappear. I no longer existed as an author. My French had become as useless as an old tool rusting away in the shed which I didn’t want to throw away because it brought back good memories. I was caught in quicksand. The legs had sunk to the knees, and then to the hips and torso, only the hands were visible. I only had one thing to do: catch a language that wasn't mine, like a rope stretched out to me. English was the only rope that would save me. Because I was in the impossibility of not thinking, the impossibility of keeping silent, the impossibility of not writing. In an English-speaking country, I had to write in English to be published or heard. I took hold of the dominant language and I wrote in the dominant language. My patois, I left at home. Years later, I realised there was a step in the process which I had disregarded: the pain. No “it’s not easy to change language”. How cruel are those words for any migrant writer. Yet, I did write once: they abandoned their mother tongue. I used the word flippantly. Did I know how much the process of abandoning was painful? No. Not at all. Myself, I was experiencing discomfort, because absorbing and assimilating literary English is long, daunting, and as one becomes older, everything is more entangled, confused, thorny. Whatever one does, the schizophrenic gap between self and self doesn’t close up, creating an uncomfortable and repulsive feeling because there is an eye watching you, the foreign language’s eye. It judges. It doubts. It condemns. It chuckles. In three years, I hadn’t yet fathomed the devilish hierarchy of tongues. Namely that mine, the official one in the European courts in the 18th century, was lowered down to the rank of a dialect. Of course, I did remember Babel. Men had been scattered all over the earth for having built a tower out of sheer pride. Their unique language had broken up into one thousand pieces. All different. People no longer understood each other except by gestures, grunts, punches, clashes. Small groups spoke the vernacular of their clan within the confines of their land. It took me years to realise what a tragedy Babel had been. Perhaps the worst of all. Because I too once lived in Babel and had been driven out of it.

​I read attentively the authors who have adopted another language than theirs. We are one big family. We all make up our own legend. People like fairytales. To be honest, it's easier to have a nice legend in store and stick to it. It helps to bypass painful details during the interviews. Cioran made up his legend. Makine and Kundera as well. I never questioned their fables. All writers do. We say we love the idiom of the host country. We talk about Proust or Balzac, Shakespeare or Milton. First and foremost, we learn to amend the truth, so that we aren’t taken for an imbecile. We tell ourselves secretly that many have reached their goal. Conrad, the Pole, has mastered an extraordinary English. Kafka, the Czech, has left great works in German. Cioran, the Romanian, got to grips with a magnificent French. So why not me? Why others managed to turn the corner and not me ? We are foreigners, we are proud, we work hard, harder than anyone else. It’s always harder for foreigners. We think back with humility at this note written by Raymond Queneau when he worked at the reading committee of Gallimard. It says that Cioran has “improved his French.” Such a banal note for any French person. Such a moving note for whoever knows how much the tree hides of the forest.

​And we also have to silence the truth, because the truth is that thoughts and inspiration which come from the unconscious, the memory, the body, the guts, the childhood, the smells, the sounds, take roots in the birth language. Inspiration is breathed in, sucked in, breathed out by the mother tongue. It’s the first song we’ve heard, the one we cherish, the one whose nuances we understand, the one we recognize from afar. And we write in our mother tongue. The authors will never tell you, after all, it's their private business, it's their secret love affair but we draft first in our birth language. Because we think first in our birth language. As simple as that. What follows next is just tinkering, playing, going back and forth from one lingo to the other one, but the impetus is given by the words we’ve learned as a child. I could say, for example, that I love the style of Shakespeare, Woolf, White. It’s magnificent, it’s my model, but I would lie. If I admire literary English intellectually, if I love its flexibility, its nuanced vocabulary, its way to wrap five different ideas at once, it remains foreign to me. Because the only tongue I love madly and in which I do exist as a whole, without schizophrenia, without division, without hesitation, is my mother tongue. When I disembark at Roissy airport, emotion grips me. Raw emotion. It's not the soil of my land I’d like to kiss as the pope does when he disembarks, what I want to celebrate at Roissy airport is my language which bursts all around, a language I hardly have the opportunity to speak in Australia, the real French, the true “vernacular, maternal, territorial,” fast, funny, the new words jumping out at me, verbal tics, people and their intimate hubbub, the way they shout, children, swearing, accents, anger, insults, voices on the phone, the humor of certain expressions, verlan, the slang that I love so much, the speed, the flow, the grimaces. I remember an interview with Eugène Nicole born in Saint Pierre and Miquelon. In essence, he said “it's not the foreign country that makes the exile, it's the foreign language.” This is very true. The writers who are swinging between two idioms, the great family of those who live between two cultures, writers who are no longer of one and who will never belong completely to the other, will never tell you that the trance of their first draft, the inspired draft which comes from the heavens, from the gods, from the angels is delivered in the very words rooted in their past. But they won't tell anyone, because it's their secret. I only have to say Roissy, and I remember instantly my return, the smells, the sounds, the greasy croissant, the uncouth waiter, normal, it must be four a.m., the crowd passing by. I am overwhelmed, lost in an environment that is no longer mine, big, cold, noisy. Holding my suitcase, I stand, puzzled in the middle of the throng. I don't know where to go, to the right, to the left. Terminal D, where is it? I speak to someone in French. I am one among thousands. The person answers in French. I am no longer a foreigner. I become visible again, melted into my language and visible to my eyes. I become whole again.

Otford, 12/03/2022

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