Jun 5, 2014 4
Asta recently picked up Heart of Darkness, which got me thinking about the impressive few who have achieved literary success writing in english despite it not being their native tongue, which I find extraordinary to think about. [Of course people have done the same in other languages, such as the irishman Samuel Beckett writing Waiting for Godot in french, but I am not particularly qualified to talk about that.] Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire in a second language? wow) are the two that I always think of in this context.
So I decided to trawl the web and see who else I could come up with. At one end of the range are those whose first language isn’t english but who moved to anglophone countries by the age of 4 or 5 and thus speak it as a native: e.g. Kazuo Ishiguro from japan or Tom Stoppard (whose word-play is amazing) from czechoslovakia, both of whom moved to england very young. The next level would be having a different primary language but being surrounded by english from school-age onward: this includes Jack Kerouac (I had no idea he was french-canadian) and Chinua Achebe from nigeria, whose family language was igbo but whose parents knew english and who went to an english-language school himself.
And finally there are those such as Conrad and Nabokov who didn’t start learning english until college-age or later. I found a few other well-known writers in this remarkable category, but not many: Joseph Brodsky, Ha Jin, and Arthur Koestler (who was hungarian and whose most famous book Darkness at Noon was written in german, which he learned early, but who also wrote in english as a third language). Surprisingly my albeit brief google search didn’t turn up Ayn Rand, who wasn’t a very good writer but who certainly achieved remarkable literary success.
Equally surprisingly it didn’t turn up someone who was in fact a good writer: Kahlil Gibran. Gibran grew up in what is now lebanon, speaking arabic, before moving to the US at age 12 and starting to learn english. He returned to lebanon from age 15 to 19 before finally settling back in the US and writing in both arabic and english. His best-known work, The Prophet, was written in english.