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Of Two Minds

The Genius of Language, edited by Wendy Lesser

When I first saw The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues, edited by Berkeley author and Threepenny Review founder Wendy Lesser, I assumed it focused on the impact the writers' first languages had on their work in English.

It turned out to be much more. Just as an idiom translated from one language to another can't recapture its original richness, the title of Lesser's book doesn't really express what the writers end up sharing -- namely, how being raised to speak a language other than the one you now use can create two personas within one mind. The writers in question are accomplished in English as a second language, but the affecting, intimate stories they tell in this series of short memoirs go beyond linguistic differences or comparisons into the formation of their language-shaped personality.

In "Split Self," Nicholas Papandreou's family moves back from the United States to Greece in the early sixties so that, as he writes, "my father could enter politics." (A charming bit of understatement there: his father Andreas became prime minister, as Andreas's father George was before him.) Nicholas clings to the English he has learned in his early years in Berkeley and mines British books and comics for slang to expand his stagnant English, which "automatically became my refuge, a way to prevent the complete loss of my embryonic identity."

His experience gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "mother tongue," since his bias for English aligns him not with his powerful father but with his Chicago-born mother. After Andreas Papandreou is imprisoned and then amnestied, he takes the family to Sweden and finally rural Canada, where he is given asylum. "I think all members of my family are wounded by language in one way or another," Nicholas concludes, chronicling the countries and languages his siblings were forced to adopt after a childhood sacrificed to international politics.

A book about first languages naturally produces such coming-of-age stories. Ha-Yun Jung speaks of Korean, her first language, as having no true first-person singular. She discovers the "I" when she learns English in school as the daughter of a diplomat. As with Papandreou, Jung's English is the only constant as she moves from Korea to Thailand and back again, watching her father lose his health and her mother lose her sanity as the family suffers economic and political reversals.

Jung begins to keep a diary in English as an outlet for her first-person declarations. The day she discovers her mother unconscious from a suicide attempt, she writes: "I don't know where to begin; I can't believe it," sentences Jung says she could not write in Korean. Toward the end of the essay Jung writes, "I consider myself supremely lucky to be an American novelist," leaving the impression that she and English are in permanent and happy partnership, but in the biographical notes at the back of the book it says that "after living in the Unites States for seven years, she recently returned to Korea, where she is at work on a novel." It seems neither language has yet won a decisive victory in the battle for supremacy within Jung.

Not all the authors' memories of their dual language acquisitions in childhood are quite so painful. Czech Josef Škvorecký learns English during World War II to write a love letter to Judy Garland after seeing her film Thoroughbreds Don't Cry. (She never answers.)

Amy Tan rails at the often-repeated concept that the lack of yes and no in Chinese dooms its speakers to a life of bobble-headed compromise. "I have only to look at the number of Chinese engineering students skewing minority ratios at Berkeley, MIT, and Yale. Certainly they were not raised by passive mothers and fathers who said, 'It's up to you, my daughter. Writer, welfare recipient, masseuse, or molecular engineer-you decide.' And my American mind says, See, those engineering students weren't able to say no to their parents' demands. But then my Chinese mind remembers: Ah, but those parents all wanted their sons and daughters to be pre-med."

The most remarkable essay of the collection combines memoir with the linguistic analysis that I first expected from the book. In "Footnotes to a Double Life," the award-winning Chilean expatriate Ariel Dorfman dissects line by line several pages from his English-language memoir Heading South, Looking North: a Bilingual Journey.

He uses page-long footnotes to explain every conflicting thought as he first decided whether and why the book should be written in English or Spanish, and how his decision to write in English changed the telling itself. Perhaps writing in English allowed Dorfman to "treat myself as a fictional object," he says at one point. At another: "As I compose this [in English], my Spanish is whispering instructions, suggestions, blowing rhythms my way, shaping the rival's choices."

To be admitted into the very brain not just of a bilingual person but a bilingual writer, was as satisfying an experience as I have ever had as a reader.

In her introduction to the anthology, Lesser addresses the differing interpretations her writers had of their assignment: "What mattered most to me, at the beginning, was to uncover the sources of writing in writers I admired, to burrow in behind the acquired layers and get at the inherent nature, the native quality, the 'genius' of the work. Of course, what I expected and what I eventually got were not identical. Writers are like cats: you can't herd them."

If Lesser has failed to uncover the "genius" of language but instead has unlocked something else, it is no wonder. Why wouldn't the authors interpret the assignment differently? There is enough room for (mis)interpretation when there's only one language involved in any given communication. What each of these writers understood their assignment to be could only defy expectations, as did the essays Lesser's authors submitted. As did the book, once I got past the title.

The Genius of Language
edited by Wendy Lesser
Pantheon; ISBN 0375422382
Hardcover: 256 pages (July 2004)