This is the latest entry on my blog, Memory and Mirrors, that can be found at
This post was stimulated by another, on Maria Clara Paulino's blog which is full of wonderful reflections on estrangement and being "in-between" two languages, two places, two cultures. She is Portuguese and I am Italian, but I can relate to her musings in a familiar way. In the post, she writes on the use and abuse of the word "love" across cultures—how in her native Portuguese language it is taken very seriously and it means a very specific kind of affection (as it does in my native Italian); while in America, it is often just thrown there at the end of a letter just to mean a slightly more intimate form of salutation.
I have often wondered how it felt for Joseph Conrad (with whom I curiously share a last name, though mine was acquired through marriage) to write in a language other than his native Polish. According to the Wikipedia entry for him, Conrad "brought a distinctly non-English tragic sensibility into English literature." I think there is something to be said for being a bilingual, bicultural writer; it certainly gives us a different perspective on the language we write in, and also on ourselves. When I was living in Canada, the linguistic slippage between the English and French that were the official languages, and the Italian in the back of my mind, often created some interesting occurrences. Below are some musings written during one of those occurrences, one day that I was listening to the French CBC radio channel:
Which language is this now? What am I speaking now? Which language am I supposed to use now? Even today, after 24 years of having made English my daily language, 24 years of no longer speaking my mother tongue from rising to bedtime, I can become caught in that gap. Sometimes, a little shortcircuit in the brain, some crossing of wires, and an Italian word or even a whole, brief sentence may slip into my English conversation, and suddenly the gap opens up into a deep and almost threatening abyss, the abyss of my mother's madness I have tried to keep at bay all my life. Her madness had nothing to do with language, her madness had all to do with language. In different cultural contexts, my mother's frequent ranting and raving, apparently without any sense or order, some of her speech patterns, could have been those of glossolalia, the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues" praised and encouraged within some Christian practices. And, in yet other cultural or historical places, her delusions could have been seen, praised or feared but never ridiculed, as manifestations of the power of witchcraft or shamanism... I come from a culture that still believes in the power of the evil eye, and the evil eye is not really much to do with a gaze but rather with an incantation that needs to be verbalized, requires an utterance to come alive, to become effective, powerful and dangerous. But I have come to see that there is another form of the evil eye: it is that question I have learned to recognize as not necessarily innocent, not always just the sign of a curiosity about others: "Where are you from?" Language as the marker of identity and otherness, and once you open your mouth, even if your facial traits, your body language, your clothing style, had not already given you away as a foreign, anOther, your accent does. Where are you from? From another language, one far, far away, eons removed from this one."
Causes Amalia Pistilli Conrad Supports
Write Around Portland; Basic Rights; Slow Food