What you're reading tells where you're from


It was a news item that naturally filled me with admiration: one of the world’s busiest and most overworked men, US president Barack Obama, was taking a week-long vacation on the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. But his rest would be that of an active and intelligent man: it included 2,000 pages of reading.
Obama was bringing along five books: three novels (by George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Kent Haruf), a study on renewable energy by Thomas Friedman, and a biography by David McCullough of his distant ancestor John Adams.

The authors on Obama’s list — from a police world chronicler to a polemical essayist- shared a common feature that a few days later would raise a troubling issue: they are all American, and as is usually the case, they all write in English, the dominant language of expression in their multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country.

Writing in English

What might have sharpened the significance of this common thread in Obama’s reading was a fact that I came across few days later: a certain US university was offering a four-month residence to Latin American authors who were living in their country of origin but fulfiled one inexcusable criterion: they would have to write in English. Note: the requirement was not the ability to write in English but rather that they wrote (meaning, had written) their works in English.

The first thing I did after registering these two news items was to make a list of the last books I had read: ‘2666’, the monumental novel of Chilean Roberto Bolano (the English translation of which recently won a number of American literary prizes); and, in translation, ‘Travels with Herodotus’, a sort of memoir by the master of 20th century journalism, the Pole Ryszard Kapuscinski, the novelised memoirs of Amos Oz, ‘A Man of Obscurity’ by novelist Paul Auster (the original was in English of course). And I am now making my way through Vasily Grossman’s 1,100-page ‘Life and Fate’, which won the author both ostracism from the Soviet Union and universal literary immortality. In short, my list of writers included a Chilean-Mexican, a Pole, a Jew writing in Hebrew, an American, and a Russian Jew.

Taking into account his origin, it is not so strange that Obama would be reading only authors from his own linguistic and cultural milieu. Analysts of the publishing industry have pointed out that of the fiction read in the Anglo-Saxon world, a mere 2-3 per cent is in translation. In other words, of 100 works published in the English-speaking world, only two or three are translations from Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, or other languages of the countries that comprise ‘the rest of the world’. Obama’s reading material clearly reflects the dominant tendency of his culture, which is given to satisfying its literary appetites with products from its own orchard, so to speak, with little attempt to try the varieties grown by its neighbours, which exist, write, and of course speak in other languages.

Expressive capacity

In this context the conditions of the university residence grow more problematic. How many Hispanic-American, French, or German authors write in English? And how many important authors from a wide range of cultural and linguistic origins adopted English as their medium of expression? Joseph Conrad, a Pole, and Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian, are exceptions that prove the rule, as might be Jorge Semprun, a man of two cultures who writes in Spanish and French, or Junot Diaz, a Dominican living in New York since childhood who writes in English. But the norm in all literatures is monolingualism because a writer is the expression of a culture and culture is a language — except for specific cases of bilingualism in certain parts of the world — that expresses a vision of the world and life, a sensibility, and an expressive capacity that one begins to acquire with the first words one learns.

We inhabitants of ‘the rest of the world’ (the Soviet empire and German fascism each had its own ‘rest of the world’) have the privilege of enjoying a more global and unprejudiced approach to cultural consumption. The literary references for my generation included many American and English writers as well as Hispanics and French, and the result of this is a cosmopolitanism and a vision of life in which there is no ‘rest of the world’ imposed by nationalists, fundamentalists, and other exclusionists who exploit any difference or division to ignore those who are not like them.

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