It is said that people have made the transition from the mother tongue to a foreign language when they curse in the latter. If this is the case, I am still anchored in Spanish. I will never say “ouch” if I fall down and hurt myself. More likely I will scream “ay,” followed by a carajo.
However, half of my life, or perhaps more than half, happens in English. It is in English that I communicate with my husband, write for Taos News and have completed two novels and a collection of short stories. That feels good. “Two tongues are better than one” says the lyrics of “Bilingual Girl,” by Latin funk band Yerba Buena.
And yet... A few days ago I was asked in an interview if I felt less Cuban for writing in English, considering that my first language is Spanish. Didn’t I fear I was losing my Cubanness for that reason?
Huh? I came up with a musical metaphor in order to answer. Let’s say you learn to play the piano, compose songs on piano and feel really comfortable with the instrument. But one day you decide to learn to play violin. Is it reasonable to say that you should not compose a piece on violin because that would betray…your pianoness? Please. Por favor.
The choice of language in writing is also determined by the subject matter. For example, my short story “Goodbye, Santero,” part of the collection The Astral Plane, takes place in Taos, with Taoseño characters and settings. It was easier to write it in the language spoken by the characters in order to preserve their distinctive linguistic flavor and their local sayings, which sometimes didn’t even have a proper translation. Of course it contains a few Spanglish phrases (Chin-my-fucking-gao!). Unavoidable, que no? On the other hand, my novel Muerte de un murciano en La Habana has Spanish and Cuban protagonists and takes place in Cuba, so it was more “natural” to write it in Spanish.
I don’t think that there are fixed rules, but it’s not fair to talk about linguistic or national betrayal, as if languages carried on a war in the wet battleground of one’s tongue.
It is common to find Latino authors living in the U.S. who write as easily in English as in Spanish. Many came here young and their mother tongue has been preserved in the brain or the heart, or that invisible spot from which literature flows. But they also feel comfortable in English, the language in which they received most of their education and now use daily in their workplaces. The Latinidad infusion in the United States becomes obvious in this linguistic blend.
However, there aren’t many bilingual publishers ―and they are sorely needed. As a bilingual writer, I ought to wear two literary “personas,” as if I didn’t have enough childhood traumas without creating multiple personalities for myself. I have two literary agents (one in New York and one in Barcelona), I work with publishers that do not necessarily communicate with each other, and when I have two books published almost at the same time, I feel I should split myself in half in order to promote them both of them fairly. Because books are my children of letters, and, as an author, I love them all.
It would be simpler, and would save time and effort, if a writer could be published simultaneously in both languages with a single press. And there is a press with such characteristics that isn’t too far from you, reader ... or writer. No matter if we say “ouch” or “ay,” we just long to be heard loud and clear, even if we have to scream in two languages.
Yerba Buena was right. Two tongues are better than one.
email Teresa Dovalpage at firstname.lastname@example.org