The recent award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Kazuo Ishiguro, one of my favourite authors, set me thinking about the number of first-rank authors who write in a language that is not their first. The list is long. Here is an annotated short list about writers in English. (The links below are to Wikipedia articles.)
Achebe‘s first language was Ibo but he learnt English as a child. He became Africa’s first widely read modern novelist. His most famous work is the spell-binding novel about the effects of colonialism “Things Fall Apart”.
Asimov‘s first language was Yiddish but he learnt English as a child. Asimov excelled as a popular science and science fiction writer. Who can forget the extraordinary Foundation trilogy?
Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski‘s first language was Polish. He went on to become a consummate stylist in English, writing classics such as “Heart of Darkness”.
Dinesen, Isak (Karen Blixen)
Blixen‘s first language was Danish. Her memoir “Out of Africa” is a vivid account of late colonialism in Africa. She wrote it in English and then rewrote it in Danish.
Ishiguro‘s first language is Japanese but he learnt English as a child. “The Remains of the Day” is a sublime novella, subsequently made into an extraordinary film.
Jean-Louis Kérouac‘s first language was French. Who could imagine that the arch-beatnik, who wrote “On the Road”, the definitive novel of his generation, was writing in a second language?
Artúr Kösztler has gone rather out of fashion in recent years but in the last century he was a key influence for many. He rose to fame in the 1930s with books such as “Spanish Testament”, a Civil War memoir, and “Darkness at Noon”, a denunciation of Stalinism. Koestler’s first language was Hungarian.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov‘s first language was Russian but he learnt English as a child. Nabokov famously published nine novels in Russian, then emigrated, and published a similar number in English. He was truly a language virtuoso.
Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell was the daughter of Cuban parents living in France. Her first language was French but she lived most of her life in the USA. Her collections of erotica “Delta of Venus” and “Little Birds” were published posthumously.
Seth wrote one of the most beautiful epic novels of recent years, “A Suitable Boy”. His first language is Hindi.
Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka‘s first language is Yoruba. This major playwright and poet won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
Tomáš Straussler‘s first language was Czech, though he learnt English as a child. Stoppard is a wizard of verbal repartee. Among his many successes, he helped turn the unmanageable film script of “Shakespeare in Love” into a dazzling tour de force.
The notion of becoming an accomplished writer in a second language is rather intriguing. Samuel Beckett published widely in his first language, English, but he crafted most of his work after 1947 in French, and only later translated it into English. This was true of his most famous work “Waiting for Godot”, which appeared in English some two years after publication in French. He claimed that this technique allowed him to write “without style”. In effect, he seemed to be claiming that writing in French made him more alert and careful.
So we should take courage, all of us, who write often in a second language. Despite its difficulty, it is possible. It is possible to do it well; indeed, to do it exceptionally well.