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Friday, June 11, 2010

New Yorker summer fiction issue / 2nd language authors

the new issue of the New Yorker is a Summer Fiction Issue - it features 20 authors, and has the title "Summer Fiction: 20 under 40" (the title and approach already were vividly debated elsewhere, for example here.)

today, i read the live chat transcript of the summer issue, and the introduction by the editors, which was pretty interesting and surprising, some quotes:

Q: What is it about 40 that makes a useful age cut-off?
A: It’s random to a certain degree. We could just as easily have cut things off at 38 or 42. But one thing we did notice, while reading, was that for a lot of people the thirties are when things start to click: a real voice develops that’s more mature; writers are figuring out their own identities, rather than experimenting and learning through imitation.

Q: Will The New Yorker ever have an “over 40” fiction issue?
A: We joke that next summer we’ll be doing “7 over 70.” But it’s generally true that people over 40 are well-represented in our fiction section on a weekly basis.

Q: How did you go about making a list like this? It must be very difficult to keep list to 20!
A: It WAS very difficult. At one point we had a long list of close to 40 people, any of whom would really have qualified. .. We had to restrict our list to North American writers.

and this, from the introduction, on the origin of the authors:
"The fiction being written in this country today is not necessarily fiction set in this country, or fiction by writers who were born in this country. Although all the non-native writers on our list have made a home for themselves in North America—some moved here as children, some as adults — the diversity of origins is striking: Nigeria (Adichie), Peru (Alarcón), Latvia (Bezmozgis), China (Li), Ethiopia (Mengestu), Yugoslavia (Obreht), and Russia (Shteyngart)."
(quick statistics: that is 7 from 20, more than 30%!
and while doing counts, here a gender ratio: the list has an exact 10:10 ration of female and male authors.)

and this, on the background of the authors:
"These writers also turn out to have vocations beyond the crafting of fiction. Bezmozgis has directed a feature film. Adrian is training to be a pediatric oncologist and, like Morgan, studied at Harvard Divinity School. Galchen completed medical school at Mount Sinai. Li moved to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in immunology. Meyer, before starting his novel, worked as a derivatives trader and drove an ambulance. Ferris wrote advertising copy. Scibona, at one point, worked for a bricklayer."

"How did these twenty writers end up on this list? We were able to read at least one complete book or manuscript by each writer, and at least a portion of whatever work was coming next. In some cases, we saw an explosion of talent from the first chapter or story: a freshness of perspective, observation, humor, or feeling. In others, we saw a stealthier buildup of thought and linguistic innovation. Some were brilliant at doing one thing. Others made radical shifts of focus and style from one piece to the next. What was notable in all the writing, above and beyond a mastery of language and of storytelling, was a palpable sense of ambition. These writers are not all iconoclasts; some are purposefully working within existing traditions. But they are all aiming for greatness: fighting to get our attention, and to hold it, in a culture that is flooded with words, sounds, and pictures; fighting to surprise, to entertain, to teach, and to move not only us but generations of readers to come."


2nd language authors
the editorial doesn't exactly state the age of the non-native auhors when they settled in the US, and maybe some arrived as young children, but even for those the mother language was probably not English. which made me think about the current editorial of Asian Cha: "Bathing in a Ski-Suit: Writing in a Second Language" by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming - this is about the experience of using English as a second language.

"I learnt (as opposed to 'was taught') English in my formative years and for better or worse, I now see it as my default instrument for writing. I freely play my own poetic music on it, tuning my instrument to suit different registers and ranges. Just as Asian music often focuses on tones which sound foreign to Western ears, I can use words and grammatical structures differently than a native speaker to bring foreign thoughts and sounds into the language.

My deployment of the language is more personal than ideological or political, although of course the personal is inevitably political, especially when it comes to language. (I suspect the central role of language in culture and identity explains why people question my not writing in Chinese, but do not wonder about the motivations of Asians playing Bach. Music may be important to our cultural identity, but it is surely not as crucial as language.) I cannot deny I am, neither proud nor ashamed, a by-product of colonialism and postcolonialism, and that therefore my use of English in some sense has deep political roots. .. Instead I hope to use English as a way of expressing one particular Asian identity, as a means of exploring my own personal, Chinese themes. "

In this goal, I find the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe's comment on writing in a second language very insightful and resonating. His response to the question "Can [an African writer] ever learn to use English as a native speaker?" was:

"I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry out his peculiar experience."

I think this is a perfect piece of advice for creative writers whose first language is not English but have made a choice to use the language anyway: you do not need to use English as a native speaker. You just need to use it honestly and your experience will shine through whatever medium you use. Take it from me, shedding your ski-suit is easier than you think."

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