Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Difficulties of Writing in a Second Language and from a Different Culture

Nkorni Tankwa was born to a working class family on July 20th 1978 in Cameroon—a small country located in the west coast of Africa and boast of a population of about 19 million people. After studying law at the University of Yaoundé (capital of Cameroon) he migrated to Montreal, Canada and enrolled in Dawson College, where he majored in Social sciences. He then moved to New Jersey in the fall of ’99 where he dabbled in retail and sales for a few years then enrolled in the Arts Institute of Miami in 2002. He currently lives in Virginia with his wife and son.

A great writer once said, “The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed.” Upon reflection, the reality of that quote struck such a profound chord with me that I use my utmost endeavors to try and attain this goal in everything I write. I don’t know how often I succeed in making my readers feel personally addressed, but I do know that to become that kind of writer will be to achieve my highest aspirations.

However, coming from my native country of Cameroon where the predominant language is French and the culture is fundamentally different than the one that exists here in the United States, I have to say accomplishing this task presents itself with certain challenges. 

It goes without saying that if the idea of expressing one’s self through writing or spoken word is to be understood, then the least the author can do is to start by addressing his audience or readers in the language they feel most comfortable. 

For an American speaker or writer addressing an American audience this is not a problem at all, in fact, they wouldn’t have it any other way. But for someone like me who grew up thinking in French, speaking in French and relating to my fellow human beings in French, trying to validate my credentials as a legitimate writer in America, much less a legitimate American writer becomes a daunting task.

If learning and speaking American English was all I needed in order to appeal to an American audience then it wouldn’t be much of an issue. One year of a good English course would have done the trick marvelously. But it just isn’t so, having a good command of the language in and of itself does not make me a good writer. It certainly does not make my readers feel they are being personally addressed. 

No, accomplishing that task would take a far deeper understanding of the American tradition and heritage. For a foreigner like me, that does not only mean setting aside my native tongue and background. It also means transcending the cultural divide. An actuality I find myself wrestling with every time I decide to pen an article or participate in a forum where I’m expected to communicate in a somewhat intelligent manner.

Recently, our public library was nice enough to invite three other authors and I to speak about our debut novels. It was an invitation I was only too happy to accept, as it opened up the possibility of familiarizing potential readers with my work. Sitting in front of a small audience, I watched my American colleagues eloquently address the group by using common American vernaculars, idioms, cultural and in certain cases even historical allusions. 

I had been scheduled to speak last, a decision I’d initially thought was a blessing in disguise. But as I watched my fellow authors, one after the other, speak to our listeners in a way they could relate, I found myself wishing I was anywhere else but there. 

The true cause of my anxiety did not necessarily lay in their manner of speaking or in the fact that they were able to connect with their audience so effortlessly . . . not at all. It laid in my insecurities of coming from another culture and finding myself in a situation where I have to discard my own traditional point of references and speak in an almost strictly American way.

 I think this is the issue I, and lots of foreign writers, battle with the most. It doesn’t matter how long we have lived in a place, our human decency dictates that our attitude, way of speaking, and in our case writing, adheres to the standards of our host Country. Even when the inhabitance of said Country are welcoming, accommodating and tolerant of your background as I’ve come to know most Americans to be.

In my case I think what complicates matters even further is the mild issue of resistance, the unwillingness to completely let go off my own cultural heritage even as I immerse myself into the American dictum, and unfortunately it seems to me that that’s what it will take.

Maybe, in order to become the writer I aspire to be, I will have to abandon my tradition and culture offered to me by my nation of birth in favor of the one being offered by my adoptive nation … I don’t know. I suppose time will tell.

(Nkorni's debut novel--a legal thriller is now available for just 99 cents on Kindle!)


Gina Holmes said...

Nkorni, great article. I hadn't really thought about this subject until I read your piece. I think it's amazing that you can not only write a novel in a second language but write well on top of it. The cultural references are a tough one. I still think that finding a way to embrace and (in the best possible way) exploiting your cultural differences is going to find you with the best success in both writing and speaking. Have you heard of toast masters? I haven't done it but it's a worldwide (I think) group that allows you to hone your speaking skills. I've heard nothing but good. Worth checking out!

Ane Mulligan said...

I applaud you in your endeavors, Nkorni. Most writers wouldn't even attempt it. And Gina's suggestion of Toast Masters is a good one.

I actually enjoy a book where American culture is viewed through another's eyes. It can be funny.

Nicole said...

I agree with both Gina and Ane, Nkorni. American readers love the cultures of other nations meshed with American culture or as observatory of American culture. We welcome your adherence to our American traditions, but I don't think anyone truly believes your native customs, etc., should be totally abandoned. So many of American readers love historical novels or the history of other countries plugged into contemporary novels. I don't think you have anything to worry about in that regard if you let your heart show through your stories and incorporate your experiences into your unique words/stories. Thank you for your willingness to love this country.

Gina Holmes said...

LOL. And Nkorni, I so did not put them up to their comments. I can't help it if I'm always right ;-)