Every writer has heard these words: “Find your voice.” What does that mean? And what does that mean particularly when you’re trying to write in a language that’s not your mother tongue? You can never really learn to speak without an accent, but can you write without an accent? And the things you want to say—what you need to rave, rant, and roar about—will they matter?
My love for the English language started when I was nine years old and began learning it at school in Mexico City. I attended the German school, so I was already quite fluent in German when I tackled English for the first time. It seemed so easy—have you ever tried verb conjugation in German? Irregular verbs in English were, forgive the cliché, a stroll in the park. As a young teenager (or rather, what nowadays is defined as a “tween”), I became addicted to Charlie Brown and the Peanuts cartoons, Garfield and, yes, the Nancy Drew series. From those early stories, I went on to discover great books: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Jules Verne and Charles Dickens. By the time I finished high-school I was already an avid reader in English, another one of Shakespeare’s adoring fans, and I knew that I wanted to study English literature at Mexico’s National University, UNAM. My love of theatre made me read many American and British plays in those days: Harold Pinter, Sam Sheppard, John Osborne, David Mamet, among others, were my favourites. As I began my undergrad studies, my love for literature written in English grew exponentially. I was given the chance to—which is a euphemism for made to—read William Faulkner, followed by the Romantics and Victorians (Wuthering Heights remains among the top in my list of favourites), all the way back to Dryden, Shakespeare—of course—and his contemporaries, and even Medieval works, such as Everyman—the great allegoric tale where the main character is summoned by Death and told that he cannot bring anyone along, except for Good Deeds, but the problem is that Good Deeds is almost dead herself, because the man neglected her so throughout his life.
As a result of all this reading in English, when I began writing in Spanish my mentors said that my syntax was off key. I needed to read more in my own language. They were right. I had neglected Spanish the way Everyman had neglected Good Deeds. But the most I managed back then was to alternate one book in Spanish, one in English—I just wasn’t emotionally ready to give up my passion for Gothic literature (Melmoth the Wanderer, Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk, and most of all, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the book I have always wished I had written).
It is therefore very understandable that my absolute literary hero is an American writer: Joyce Carol Oates. I wanted to be like her when I grew up—fully knowing how preposterous this sounds, ill equipped as I will always be to reach such greatness. I realize now that what I truly wanted—and still want—is to write engaging fiction, the kind that moves the readers and makes them feel compassion, sadness or repulsion at what is happening in the story. Repulsion is a good thing—any emotion is, for that matter. I aspire to have the readers walk out of my stories with a different mood than they started off with, to make their stomach churn, even make them want to cry a little. True, achieving this in English for a non-native speaker is hard, but in Spanish it is not easy, either.
Immigrating is, in my view, a little like learning to walk with a prosthetic leg. The ghost limb is your faraway land, ever present but unseen—felt but not to be touched. It hurts. But once you learn to run again, you are a whole new, stronger person. And that is an important lesson to learn: to know what loss tastes like, and choosing to use that feeling in order to better enjoy the taste of choice and possibility. For me, this process involved finding the way to make my blood flow (and boil) in English as naturally as it does in Spanish. I knew that if I accomplished that, I would truly belong here. And what triggered this process, and turned it from a mere concept or goal into a serious commitment and course of action, was the translation process of my first novella or novela corta, Boca de lobo (The Wolf’s Mouth). I was already working as a literary translation professor and never anticipated the process would be so hard and frustrating at times. Finding the right words to convey in English what I had written in Spanish was painful because what I really felt an urge for was to simultaneously improve on the original. This is a big no-no for literary translation, unless you are the author, of course, and even though my editor had hired a translator, I couldn’t fight the urge to meddle with my own work. After all, I was the only one who knew for certain that timbales were not to be called kettledrums in my book (what a hideous word, “kettledrums”!), but the more musical word, timpani. I was lucky to have great friends and a careful editor who oversaw my work and helped me fine-tune it. In the end, when I compare both books now, I like the English version better. This is what made me decide I want to pursue this new adventure, skip the translator and just write in English myself (which, as a professional translator myself, I know is a big contradiction that borders on betrayal). After all, they say it is always better to read a story in the language in which it was originally written (and my mother’s idea when she enrolled me in Mexico City’s German school was for me to be able to read Goethe, Schiller and my beloved Bertolt Brecht in German, a gift for which I will forever be grateful to her).
Writing in English has been a liberating experience so far. If I write about a character that is very different from myself, it is easier to do it in English. Why? Because the character is not to speak as I do, or think as I do. These transitions are easier for me to make in English; I can play pretend much more at ease. There’s plenty of room for me to hide and yet still be in control. In Spanish, I’m naked—my emotion is raw. I use that same emotion when writing in English, but the sheer effort to create an atmosphere or a credible dialogue in this language makes me forget how vulnerable I feel. I find refuge in the process of concentrating on the nature and the essence of the words I’m choosing—their textures and hues, flavours and sound. For example, when writing my first short-story fully in English, without a previous Spanish version to guide me, I narrated the story of a Latin American survivor of torture who came to live in Toronto and met a survivor of torture in Iran. I would like to quote a fragment of the story here in order to illustrate how, for me, writing in English has implied rediscovering the language and its endless sinews. The main character, Marcela/María, is writing a confession and reflecting upon her new life, away from home:
“I need to go back to the letters, back to writing the list, but it’s so hard. It’s much nicer to just stand here by the window. The streets are almost empty, which is strange considering it’s Saturday, and the storm is scheduled to begin later this afternoon. I can’t help smiling when I see someone walking their dog and the dog is all dressed up. If Aunt Clara had heard about dogs wearing boots, she would have laughed until her jaws hurt. Some dogs’ boots are nicer and cozier than mine. Farah thinks it’s funny, too. She belongs to a group of survivors and refugees who get together every once in a while to comfort one another. She has asked me to come along, but I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t know if I can endure listening to their stories. And I would be so scared to find someone from my homeland, what would I say then? What excuse could I give? How could I ever look them in the eye? With Farah it’s different. We can laugh at dogs wearing matching boots and coats, and if we feel like it, we can also talk, but mostly we don’t anymore, and that’s fine. She doesn’t know my entire truth. Nobody does. The moment my words have a sound of their own and leave my body they will be impossible to take back. And I’m scared to confront them. In English there is a word or a name for almost everything. Refugee, or PTSD are some of the first I learned. When they are pronounced out loud, people seem to understand, they turn benevolent and generous. Nothing wrong with that, but what do they really understand, I wonder? Unlike me, most of them do know where their loved ones have been laid to rest. There is another convenient word to go with this, too, which I was taught upon arrival: closure. What an unbearable, cruel word. A pain so big can’t be closed down.
Many times I’ve wondered about what Aunt Clara would say if I told her that people in Toronto actually live in basements. And that, when I refused to rent one, all I had to say was, “I’m a refugee and have been diagnosed with PTSD, so I can’t live in a basement, thank you.” Very polite, very politically correct. I am a fast learner. Nobody needs to know what happened – or if anything happened at all. Aunt Clara would have understood, though. She too would have rejected the basement apartment.
I got sick at work once. There was a mouse underneath one of the desks, a little brown mouse. I screamed so loudly I scared everyone. I ran to the washroom and locked myself in; I felt like my heart was about to break free from my chest. I threw up all over my clothes, and was practically out of breath when the paramedics arrived. There’s a name for that, too: panic attack. Farah looked me in the eye, she knew there were no words to describe what had driven me to the washroom. “Whenever you’re ready,” she’d said, “I’ll be there.” Hence today’s call, the letters and the list. I will take her at her word. Our English is equally awkward, but I have learned since I arrived in Toronto that all languages become the same when spoken through sorrow.”
I have come to realize that, in the end, it is the power of shared human emotions that blurs the borders erected by language. The process, however, is not always necessarily painful. It can also be fun, because trying out words in a different language is like trying out new clothes. Some of them fit, some of them don’t, some of them feel downright ridiculous, but when I’m caught in this process I’m never afraid of experimenting and making mistakes. Why should I? I’m allowed to. It’s not my first language, after all.
Writing in English also allows me to host another dream, which is for my work to, eventually, reach a wider audience; to stop writing from the margins or being considered a “rare” author. This is also congruent with my identity as a Hispanic-Canadian (or Mexican-Canadian) writer. Like all other immigrants, I yearn to work in my field and be successful one day. Working in my field means having a writing career, and I think that will be even harder if I don’t write in English. There is translation, of course, a craft I respect, enjoy, and teach. But I’d rather translate other writers’ work into Spanish (or English), and focus my own energy in finding my own voice and giving the loudest roar in this, my second language.
Martha Batiz was born and raised in Mexico City, but has been living in Toronto since 2003. Her articles, chronicles, reviews and short stories have appeared in diverse newspapers and magazines not only in her homeland, but also in Spain, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Peru, Ireland, England, the United States and Canada. Her first book was a short-story collection called A todos los voy a matar (I’m Going To Kill Them All, Castillo Press, 2000). Her award-winning novella The Wolf’s Mouth (Exile Editions, 2009) was originally published in Spanish both in the Dominican Republic and in Mexico (Boca de lobo, in 2007 and 2008, respectively), and was launched as an ebook by INK Press in the summer of 2015. A new short-story collection titled De tránsito (In Transit) was published in 2014 in Puerto Rico by Terranova Editores, and received a special recognition in the International Latino Book Awards in San Francisco in 2015. She holds a PhD in Latin American Literature and is an ATA-certified literary translator. Besides being the founder and instructor of the Creative Writing in Spanish course currently offered by the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto, she is a part-time Professor at York University/Glendon College, where she teaches Spanish and Literary Translation. In 2014, Martha was featured in Latinos Magazine and The Globe and Mail among the Top Ten Most Successful Mexicans in Canada. In 2015, she was chosen as one of the Top Ten Most Influential Hispanic-Canadians.