Writer, language and nationality

The language in which a writer expresses himself is a link. Not his nationality. Franz Kafka, for example, wrote in German and is a Czech novelist of German expression.

In Eastern Europe, many writers adopted foreign languages to express themselves. Hungarians, Poles, Bulgarians and even Romanians have done considerable work in German without anyone having the slightest doubt as to their nationality. Despite their literary language they are still Bulgarians or Poles. Elias Canetti, for example, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1981), is another of the numerous examples of Kafka’s type; but also the Pole Joseph Conrad, who wrote in English and produced an extraordinary novelistic work in a language that was not his own. German, English and French all had a wider readership than their respective mother tongues.

As far as bilingual authors are concerned, it is different. They adopt a language, but the mother tongue maintains the link with the nationality of origin. The Irishman Samuel Beckett (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1969), for example, wrote in both French and English and is Irish.

There is confusion between nationality and language; there are African countries that use French as a vehicular language; likewise writers from the French-speaking, English-speaking Caribbean or Dominican immigrants in the United States, for example, who express themselves in English, which is not their language. Their literary expression does not make them English or American. In Belgium, Switzerland and many African countries with more than one official language, language does not pose a problem with the abstract feeling of nationhood.

In the Dominican Republic, we wonder if Dominican writers of English expression can be considered Dominican or American. The case of Junot Diaz and Julia Alvarez, to cite the best known, is not as simple as it seems.

Both lost the language of their parents and express themselves in English, but both Diaz and Alvarez draw their fiction from the culture of their ancestors and country of origin: the Dominican Republic.

In Drown, Díaz recounts the lives of teenage immigrants in New York based on memories of their parents’ distant homeland. In Cuando las muchachas García perdieron su acento, En el tiempo de las mariposas, Yo and other novels by Julia Alvarez, the memory of the organizer of the text is Dominican.

The problem is not so simple, as I said before. In this case we enter the realm of an abstraction: the feeling of belonging, of nationality. Julia Alvarez has said on several occasions that she is an American of Dominican origin. She defines herself as an American writer. She has her right, but she is a Dominican writer of the diaspora. And she knows it.

Her work is Dominican, even if her characters are seen through the prism of her adopted culture. I remember that her novel En nombre de Salomé, about the last years of the life of the famous poet Salomé Ureña de Henríquez, when translated into Spanish, her verses were also translated from the way the author of the novel had translated them into English, which completely distorted Salomé’s poetry by returning it to its original language. Evidently this is not Julia Alvarez’s responsibility but that of the translator who did not consider it appropriate to look for the originals, assuming that this was not the important part of the novel’s story. Nor did the author seem to care about the Hispanic reader’s opinion of Salome’s poetry. As a novelist she had every right.

Laureate Junot Diaz has a different attitude about being Dominican. It doesn’t seem to bother him if he is an American writer and defines himself as from the Dominican diaspora in the United States. I remember him saying, regarding some geographical inaccuracies in his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Pulitzer Prize for novel, 2008), that fiction allowed him to do so and he is right.

Junot Díaz, in spite of his repeated irreverence regarding the Dominican Republic; in spite of his criticism of certain Dominican sectors regarding Haitian immigration in his country of origin, has never said that he considers himself an American writer. His own work, which seems to be supported by a solid literary theory and culture, would prevent him from considering himself a North American writer and, without expressly stating it, he is proud of his origins.

For artists and athletes, language does not identify them. The link is nationality. I remember that when Oscar de la Renta took over the direction of the Maison Balmain (Paris), a French journalist asked him how he felt as an American in Paris and the famous designer replied: “From passport and address, I’m Dominican!

In sports, everything related to nationality is very sensitive. I am still impressed by the words of former New York Yankees pitcher Dillin Betances when he responded to a sports commentator who did not understand how it was possible that, if he was born in New York, he was on the roster of the Dominican baseball team in the 2013 World Cup: “Because Dominicans are born where they want!

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