The Homeland of Stories: On Lingual and Cultural Identity

September 12, 2013 | 10 min read


I have a vague recollection of elocution lessons in my childhood. I remember — or think I remember — being taken out of kindergarten class or first grade to sit with a teacher who instructed me on the proper pronunciation of English words. I can still picture the oaktag-colored top of the desk and something of the light that fell across its surface. My parents have no recollection of my receiving any kind of remedial instruction. In those days, the school wouldn’t have needed to get the parents’ permission to take a child out of regular classes. And, in any case, my mother and father always insisted my accent was  perfect.

It’s true that I don’t have a Greek accent when I speak English; nor do I have an American accent when I speak Greek. But the very fact of my growing up in a Greek-speaking home, the only child of parents who had emigrated from Greece in their early 30s, calls my linguistic authenticity into question. At least it always has in my mind. I have a sense, as a bicultural and bilingual person, of never quite belonging where I am. To me, it feels as if two languages are always at the ready in my brain, jostling companionably enough, but not ensuring that the wrong one won’t step forward at any moment.

Once, in the Shannon, Ireland airport transit lounge, on the way home from the annual summer’s trip to Greece, I asked the saleswoman how much a Matchbox car cost. With the certainty of an eight year old, I assumed that the airport staff was trained to speak the language of each flight that stopped there to refuel. So I asked the price in Greek. In Irish-accented English, the saleswoman responded to me that, alas, she knew no Spanish, but she would find someone who did. Moments later, I stood mutely, listening as she explained in English to a Spanish couple that I needed help shopping. The Spaniards made no headway with me, and explained, in Spanish-accented English to the Irishwoman, that I must be too shy to answer them.

That day in Ireland, in that stew of accents and languages, I chose the wrong language. And though I got it right before my flight for Boston took off (I still have that Matchbox car), it wasn’t the last time I would make the wrong linguistic choice. Usually, this happens in English, when Greek reasserts itself to send me on a strange syntactical journey, or when idioms baffle me and lead me to inventive new diction — of cats swallowing pajamas or of hatches being buckled down. I did it memorably once in Greek, when I inadvertently swore at my grandmother during a chess game instead of venting a mild exasperation. And another time, when I stressed the wrong syllable in the word for sultan after a visit to an Ottoman museum. My great-aunt still teases me about that, and I hope this means my mistake was so rare that she felt comfortable in her gentle mockery.

I realize that the fact that I can enumerate these instances indicates some deep-seated anxiety on my part. Whenever I have to name my most embarrassing experience, I always go to that episode in the Shannon airport. This anxiety is surely my own concoction, born from experience and psychology and who knows what. Aleksandar Hemon, by contrast, feels no such anxiety about his use of any language — native or acquired. In an email to me, he once said “I own the language I write in. It is not given to me by generous native speakers. I have it and I use it as I see fit.” All the same, to cut myself some slack (I use the idiom with triumphant correctness), my anxiety does make some sense. Speech is the password, the shibboleth. It’s how we know right away whether someone is or isn’t from here. I remain more in line with the Ukrainian-American writer and editor Askold Melnyczuk, who told me once that while speaking English he feels a “pervasive anxiety that [he] will get it wrong.”

While speech that marks you as a stranger can be a curse, it can also be a blessing. Though I’m focusing here on the moments of embarrassment that reveal my outsider status, the truth is that those two languages jostling in my head have made my writing richer. When I’m writing and I’m stuck for a word in English, I think of what I want to say in Greek. Then I translate, sometimes going to my Greek dictionary and sometimes to the Greek-English dictionary that’s left over from a friend’s classes. Either way, I feel I end up linguistically where I want to be, forming a sentence through a detour away from English and back again.

There’s a building-block approach to words at work here — and I would argue that that approach is inherently Greek. Greeks handle their own language like Legos. They break it down to its constituent parts and fashion new words and phrases. They play with the language. Oftentimes, the trending jokes in Greece will be extended word games. There is a longtime favorite that involves coming up with Greek sentences that sound like other languages. If you speak Greek, try it: say “It’s shallow! Come on in!” and see if it doesn’t sound as though you’re speaking German. A more recent linguistic game involves creating fake Turkish versions of Greek words, often using Greek words whose etymology is already Turkish.

Greek makes you aware of its grammatical construction, even as your sentence is under way. This comes in part from the fact that Greek is both conjugated and declined — like Latin and German, to name just two languages — and in part from the fact that the syntax of the language involves, I think, a sort of Brechtian unveiling of its grammatical machinery. There are certain prepositions with which you cannot end a sentence in Greek.

So when you speak or write in Greek, you are very much aware that you are Making Language, in a way that I don’t quite think you are in English. English is the language of craft, of work. Our plentiful Anglo-Saxon derivations give us a vocabulary that can be easily snatched up and dropped into a sentence. And so often, our English words come to us already reduced to their essential form; instead of Legos, they’re more like those smooth wood blocks that would have been scattered through my kindergarten classroom and that are now returning to the curricula of stylish preschools everywhere. You can assemble with them, but you can’t connect them.

Many would argue that English is every bit as plastic as Greek, and that formations like crantastic or frappucino are evidence of the Lego-like possibilities of English words (or of the ingenuity of advertisers). Or that there’s nothing stopping us from attaching old suffixes — like monger — to new words. If there is a fishmonger, why not a shoemonger, or a breadmonger, or a wifimonger? But while such wordplay tends to be the province of a literate and literary demographic in America, in Greece, it is part of the mainstream. I don’t say this to establish that Greek is better than English. The languages are simply different. And I know that when I write, I reap the benefits (or try to) of both the handiness of Anglo-Saxon and the machinery of Greek. Writing affords me the time to make the best of the sometimes fractious linguistic politics in my brain.

I do wonder, though, about that early memory of the oaktag-colored desk and the repetition of certain sounds until I got them right. I wonder if the way I speak now came about because of some teacher’s diligent work to purify (and I use that fraught word deliberately) the sound of my voice. It’s a strange thought, to consider yourself in some fundamental way the product of correction. Then again, is this different from the buck-toothed or pigeon-toed or lazy-eyed child who undergoes a physical correction? I would argue that it is. Because the crooked teeth stay corrected (the drift of all teeth notwithstanding), and the old smile simply becomes the new smile. An accent, on the other hand, isn’t ever completely gone. It reasserts itself from time to time in a stray sound or an errant word or a wandering syntax. You are always aware of that correcting force still at work, its residual energy still applying itself to the bits that need to be made right.

It occurs to me that my English style is in fact a corrected style. I might form my sentences as if I were using Legos, as if I were fishing through a toy bin for the best piece to use. But the language I end up with is not by and large playful. I’m not a writer of experimental fiction. I try to play with form and structure, but I come back to the standard narrative arc. Rather than playful — in the way that Hemon’s work is playful — I tend to write a kind of English that is, if anything, fairly normative. This is because, unlike Hemon who feels that “No writer is a foreigner in literature. All storytelling comes from the homeland of stories,” I write with the zeal of the converted, the zeal of the immigrant trying to pass. This is why a mistake in the airport or in casual speech feels so costly to me, even now.

In my experience of English, the anxiety of getting it wrong and the correcting force push against each other constantly, the errant linguistic behavior always curtailed in some way, marshaled. I admire Hemon’s ability to create an innovative and challenging fusion of his languages, his cultures, his selves in his work. He manages to occupy two spaces at the same time (at least), writing neither Bosnian books nor American books, but books that are both and neither — at once and in alteration. Looking at my own work as objectively as I can, I see that I handle one culture at a time. To question and investigate the issue of bilingualism and bicultural identity, I place a character in the position of choosing between seeming binaries. I explore the problem of holding two ways of being simultaneously from the point of view of a character who prefers to choose just one. That she fails to do so, and that she does by novel’s end discover a way to embrace both ways of being doesn’t alter the fact that the narrative itself works to keep those two ways of being apart.

When I am looking at a map of Greece, or reading an article in English about the Greek economic crisis, or cooking a Greek dish, I will, without thinking, mutter (as one does in those idle moments) in Greek. I don’t do this consciously. A switch seems to flip. All it takes for that switch to toggle over from one language, system of gestures, intonation, body language, personality even, to the other is the sight or thought of something Greek. Every time this happens, I’m surprised anew. And it keeps happening, the Greekness coming at the slightest prompt. It’s as if the force of correction doesn’t have time to notice and the foreign behavior slips through.

In addition to surprise, though, I feel a bit apologetic. It seems a little suspect to me that I would slip into Greek so readily. I am wary of my behavior as I am wary of people who adopt an English accent after mere months of living in the UK. There is an inauthenticity in such actions, and I wonder who is being fooled: the listeners or the speakers themselves. So, too, do I wonder about my own authenticity when I have my Pavlovian Greek moments. Never sure of my authenticity as a speaker of American English, there are moments when, except for the fact that they usually occur when I’m alone, one might say my Greekness is being put on as some kind of show. (I just did it again: taking a break to read an article about the Greek Civil War, I reacted to a disputed fact by wagging my head in precisely the way one does in Greece.)

Perhaps it’s better to say that moments like these reveal the wall between my linguistic identities to be threateningly porous. Growing up, we knew some people who said words like fourkouti as a Greek form of fur coat or carro for car when gouna and aftokinito were the proper Greek terms. I viewed this practice with the scorn of my adolescent self who considered it vital to be at all times culturally correct. But with a deeper fear, too, that if I were to adopt these locutions myself, they would mark me as not belonging.

I think of this as a philosophical question: can an identity that expresses itself in two separate ways — through two languages and in two cultures — be said to be authentic? If your identity flickers between Greek and American, what exactly is your identity, and how do you designate it? Is it hyphenated, to indicate balance and parity? Or is it combined in some other way, represented by some other form of punctuation, like a slash? Perhaps it’s a kind of quantum-level notion of identity in which the self flickers among multiple positions in a way that doesn’t matter until and if one looks closely enough. And even then, that flickering only matters as it affects the unique characteristics of that self.

The notion of linguistic purity is a charged one these days. When the French ban the use of certain English terms, we view it as a risible overreaction to globalism. When our own politicians advocate an English-only America, we consider them motivated by fear and insecurity. Thankfully, it is no longer important, in most places, to pass for American — no longer necessary to conceal an accent or a different cultural background. So why do I care?

I care because I grew up wanting to pass not just as American, but as the only daughter of two happy parents in a happy marriage. I wanted to convince myself and the world that an unhappy home was as foreign to me as another country. Correction was vital — as a force to wield on wayward parents and as a force to wield on the moveable pieces of the facade we were creating. When I write in my fiction about the challenges of assimilation and the difficulty of forming a bicultural identity, I am at heart writing about deception. The deception of others, but self-deception too. I return to this theme again and again in my work, creating characters who wrestle with the lies they tell themselves and the lies they tell the world.

The effort to assimilate creates a kind of lie — a small one for some, a larger one for others. For me, it produced a sustaining lie that enabled me to live in a world of binary distinctions. Inside my family, and the world outside. The turbulent reality and the calm false front. The Greek self and the American self. To blur one of these distinctions would have threatened all of them, and too much was at stake for me to see that project through.

What I have learned, as a person and as a writer, is not to blur the distinctions but to sharpen them while acknowledging the multiple identities they define. What do we do as writers but explore a multitude of selves in order to create fiction we hope will speak a truth? In finding our voices, we gather our own vocabularies, our own styles, and the only measure of our authenticity is whether the story we have put on paper has the power to move others.

I go back to Hemon’s concept of the homeland of stories in which everyone is a citizen, and I see that I was missing the point all along. If all languages are spoken in the homeland of stories, then even my own normative style is welcome. This is no Shannon airport where you can choose your language wrong. You don’t need a visa or a passport to enter. Or, actually, it is the Shannon airport. It’s where you can understand some of what some of the people are saying, and you can speak to some of the people, and, best of all, you can find the right words to get what you want and to say who you are.

's debut novel The Clover House was published by Ballantine Books in 2013 and was a Boston Globe bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her work has appeared in publications including Narrative Magazine, Salamander, the New England Review, The Millions, The New York Times online, and the Huffington Post, and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. She is the founding editor of The Drum, an online literary magazine publishing short fiction and essays exclusively in audio form.

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