In the poem Counterpoint, an homage to the scholar Edward Said, Mahmoud Darwish recalled a conversation that took place between them as they discussed the intersection of language, writing and expression. "He says … I have two names that come together but pull apart," Darwish wrote, "… and I have two languages but have long forgotten which one I dream in." Said's articulation of living, breathing and navigating multiple languages reflects a reality shared by many writers and intellectuals around the world, in both historic and contemporary settings. The term exophony, derived from the ancient Greek words "ek", meaning out of, and "phon-eh", meaning sound or voice, refers to those who write in a language that is not their mother tongue. But why is there a long tradition of writers who found their voices in languages that are not their own?
Even though Lebanese author and poet Kahlil Gibran wrote his early literary work in Arabic, he published most of his books in English. His most acclaimed work, The Prophet, was written in English and has sold more than nine million copies in the US alone since it was first published, making him the third most-read poet of all time after Shakespeare and the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Even when writing in Arabic, Gibran rebelled against what he referred to as the age-old rigidity of the language. In a letter to his editor Mary Haskell, Gibran explained that within the Arabic language, he created "a new language inside an older one", the latter of which he believed had "already reached the peak of its own perfection". Gibran not only manoeuvred between two languages but in Arabic, he questioned and rewrote the fundamental components and usage of the language itself. To Gibran, the way he worked with, and reacted to, the structures of language was as important as what he said through the lexicon he chose.
Amin Malouf, whose literary work has been shaped by experiences of war and migration, published all his novels in French, despite being an Arabic native speaker. In an attempt to explain his relationship to three different languages, Malouf once said that he spoke in Arabic, wrote in French and read in English. In his younger years, he held the conviction that if he was to become a writer, he would need to write primarily in Arabic. He went on to explain that his position changed when he left Lebanon, a point that marked his departure from Arabic and the beginning of his writing in French. Malouf said writers had to express themselves in a language "that is understood by those around [them]", otherwise the act itself could become a burdensome experience. To the writer, the need to feel understood in the environment he was living in underpinned his choice of language.
Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007, wrote his first novel Things Fall Apart in 1958 in English. At the time, Achebe explained that he thought the English language was able to carry the "weight of his African experience", but he added it had to be a new, more African version of English, "still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suits its new African surroundings". Like Gibran, Achebe moulded the language he used to best fit his ideas, as opposed to the other way around, and like Malouf, he wrote to reach an audience that was best able to understand him in return.
Then there is British-born novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, the daughter of Bengali Indian migrants, who grew up in the US speaking both Bengali and English. She discovered her love for the Italian language during a trip to Florence but after failed attempts to learn it for 20 years, she decided the only way to do so was to take the plunge and fully immerse herself by moving to Rome with her family, where she refused to read or write in any other language for more than two years. When she wrote In Other Words in Italian in 2015, it was perhaps, she said, "because I'm a writer who doesn't belong completely in one language". "To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore," she wrote, refusing even to translate her own book into English in case she was tempted "to make it stronger by means of my stronger language". She describes her relationship with Bengali, Italian and English as a triangle, where "one point leads inevitably to another", and while she wonders whether each side is equal, she argues that it forms a "kind of frame" through which she can see herself anew.
To Lahiri, embarking on a linguistic journey allowed her the freedom to reinvent and rediscover herself as a writer. Italian author Antonio Tabucchi, on the other hand, felt the creative need to write in Portuguese. Tabucchi, explaining his decision, said that he needed a different language that could offer him "a place of reflection". To the author, a second language provided a space for him to disappear into, one that he could not find in the language with which he was most familiar.
Through their multilingual navigations, exophonic writers, whether they are conscious of it or not, exhibit the power behind the written word's ability to connect and act as a bridge between people of different cultures, backgrounds and beliefs. From Gibran to Lahiri, the experiences of exophonic writers also bring to the surface questions on both the motivations behind, and ripple effects of, manoeuvring between more than one language. Are different languages a means of expressing oneself as a writer, as opposed to a means to an end? Can different languages bring out undiscovered elements of a writer's personality? Does an increased comprehension of a second language affect a writer's fluency in another? What does it ultimately mean to have the ability and choice of expressing oneself in more than one language?
It is through these writers' dilemmas that readers can better understand the multifaceted nature of their literary work. And perhaps, through this manifestation of a tangled, intricate web of words and layered meaning, readers can better understand themselves.
Dubai Abulhoul is an Emirati author and Rhodes Scholar