What do you call an author who writes in a language that isn’t his, or her, mother tongue?
An immigrant with a laptop? Believe it or not, it does actually have an official name – an exophone. It is generally agreed there are two types of exophonic writers: those who acquired the second language early in life and, in most cases, are bilingual, and those who learnt it later in life and are definitely non-native speakers. Having learnt English in my teens the way most of the non-English-speaking world does, through school, movies, songs and holiday trips abroad, I proudly count myself a member of the second group.
Exophonic writers are an eccentric bunch, for it does take a peculiar mind to choose to express yourself in a language that isn’t really yours. But there are quite a few of us and, thanks to a rise in global migration, our numbers are growing. It’s not a new phenomenon: Voltaire wrote letters in English and, during his stay in England, went as far as to change his first name from Francois to Francis. Samuel Beckett chose to write in French, because English felt ‘too cluttered’ for him. Nabokov abandoned his native Russian in favour of English. Milan Kundera chose French over his native Czech. Chinua Achebe, a native speaker of Igbo, wrote primarily in English. And then, of course, there was my compatriot, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, otherwise known as Joseph Conrad. English wasn’t even his second language, it was his third. And yet he persisted in arduously crafting his novels in English, even though he compared the process to ‘throwing mud at a wall’.
And here we are today, a bunch of immigrants with laptops – Khaled Hosseini, Eugen Chirovici, Yasmina Khandra, Elif Shafak, Nadeem Aslam, Yoko Tawada, Yiyun Li, Xiaolu Guo, Aleksandar Hemon – to list just a few. We all keep throwing mud at a wall. It’s a tough job: you know mud, some of it sticks and blends in nicely like the best adobe plaster, and some of it falls off to become an inconsequential slush pile. But I’ll keep throwing it and I bloody well hope it sticks.
Aga Lesiewicz is a Polish-born British writer. She lives in London and writes in English. Her psychological thrillers, Rebound and Exposure, have been published by Pan Macmillan and are out now.