Guest Post, Sudha Balagopal: A Foreign Connection


Sudha Balagopal bio photoAs a writer straddling continents, I am fascinated by authors who inject foreign words and phrases into their English fiction.  These international words and phrases, I believe, are helpful in lending credibility to a story. They embellish the narrative, bring authenticity and help transport the reader.

Some writers explain the meanings of such words, either in-text or in a glossary.  At times, foreign expressions are used sparingly; at other times more generously. Some authors repeat phrases for consistency, or as a matter of style. No matter. When expressions from another language are used in description or in dialog, they leap out at me.

Take the case of the inimitable Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s enduring Belgian detective. When I was in high school, he taught me French expressions like mon ami and mon cher. Of course, I had no knowledge of French; still, uttering the words made me feel clever and witty.

Agatha Christie expertly used foreign expressions in creating Hercule Poirot. The detective is overlooked and dismissed because of being foreign, and she used his manner of speaking as a tool to tell us about him.

‘Mon cher, am I tonight the fortune-teller who reads the palm and tells the character?’

‘You could do it better than most,’ I rejoined.

‘It is a very pretty faith that you have in me, Hastings. It touches me. Do you not know, my friend, that each one of us is a dark mystery, a maze of conflicting passions and desires and attitudes? Mais oui, c’est vrai. One makes one’s little judgments – but nine times out of ten one is wrong.’ (Agatha Christie, Lord Edgware Dies, Hercule Poirot, Series #9)

Appropriate dialog is a powerful instrument to lend fiction the flavor of a culture or a place. Using the right words makes dialog sing. There’s no big to-do in the way E. M. Forster, in his book A Passage to India, makes use of Indian words.

The first who was in evening dress, glanced at the Indian and turned instinctively away

“Mrs Lesley, it is a tonga,” she cried.

“Ours?” enquired the second, also seeing Aziz and doing likewise.

“Take the gifts the gods provide, anyhow,” she screeched, and both jumped in. “O Tonga wallah, club, club. Why doesn’t the fool go?”

Go, I will pay you tomorrow,” said Aziz to the driver, and as they went off, he called courteously, “You are most welcome, ladies.” They did not reply being full of their own affairs. (chapter 11)

We may gather from the dialog that a tonga is a vehicle, a tonga wallah is one who drives the vehicle. A subtle power play also reveals itself here. The last name reveals that the ladies are English, and Aziz is not. All this from a short piece of dialog.

Not everyone espouses the use of words from another language when writing fiction in English.  In his article, Say ‘Non’ to Phrasebook Foreign Language in Fiction, Daniel Kalder writes,

“Either you render the language in English, or you render it in French. And if your readers are English speakers, then, I dunno, you should probably render it in English. Chucking in a few phrases of first year French adds nothing in terms of meaning and is just daft.” (, July 13, 2011)

Granted, Agatha Christie was not Belgian and E. M. Forster was not Indian. But what if the author writing in English is reflecting a part of their heritage, representing who they are as a people and as a culture?

Nayomi Munaweera’s novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is set in Sri Lanka. She uses terms contextually, a natural exclamation here, a term there, which means the reader connects with the cultural milieu even as the story advances. The two Tamil words she uses in the lines below lend authenticity and adorn the dialog.

Nishan must watch his friends being sent to squat at the back of the schoolroom, arms crossed to grasp opposite ears. As they walk home together, these boys say, “Aiyo, she has two eyes in the back of her head.” And only filial devotion keeps him from replying,” Machang, you should see her at home.” (Part One, Chapter 1)

Foreign expressions are used in descriptive text as well. Take Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who uses Igbo words in her narrative. She brings Nigeria to us, her skill making the prose come refreshingly alive.

The goats wandered a lot around the yard, they wandered in, too, while we cousins bathed, scrubbing with ogbo that my grandmother made from sun-dried coconut husks, scooping water from a meal bucket. We bathed near the vegetable garden, in the space enclosed with zinc left over from the last house refurbishing. Mama Nnukwu would shoo the goats away from the vines of ugu and beans that crept up those zinc walls, clucking, clapping her hands. (Recaptured Spirits, Notre Dame Review, Number 18, 2004)

The reader doesn’t need to know exactly what ogbo is, or ugu. We comprehend the scene. The author has sprinkled in just Igbo two words into the paragraph to make it shine.

Junot Diaz takes it a step forward, knitting dialog and text and sprinkling his Spanish into it. He mixes the ingredients as if tossing a salad,  the sweet and the sour, the crunchy and tangy, the veggies and the berries. His scenes come alive, because of the use of his Spanish terms. The reader is instantly drawn into the vividness of his narrative.

You had to be careful with her because she had a habit of sitting down without even checking if there was anything remotely chairlike underneath her, and twice already she’d missed the couch and busted her ass—the last time hollering Dios mío, qué me has hecho?—and I had to drag myself out of the basement to help her to her feet. These viejas were my mother’s only friends—even our relatives had gotten scarce after year two—and when they were over was the only time Mami seemed somewhat like her old self. Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes. Wouldn’t serve them coffee until she was sure each tácita contained the exact same amount. And when one of the Four was fooling herself she let her know it with a simple extended Bueeeeennnnoooo. ( The Pura Principle, New Yorker,  Mar 22, 2010)

Foreign expressions are connectors. But more than that, they enrich us. Through them, the English language elevates itself, becoming a vehicle to understand other people and cultures—helping us accept differences and celebrate similarities. To authors who incorporate them I say, may you continue to do so.

Guest Post, Elizabyth Hiscox: Expressing the Abstract in Three Easy Steps, or Destination: Poetry

Destination and destiny: same root, same idea. You have got an idea of where you’ll be, and so does the universe. If this pitch doesn’t sit quite right or has overtones of religiosity, then a disclaimer that for the purposes of this post and this prompt I access the concepts in the mostly-secular, but highly spiritual concept of E.M. Forster’s “only connect” variety.

Several destinations may inhabit any travel itinerary, and they may all have a shared destiny: the poem. A bit of structure, a road map to poetry if-you-will, can be a good way to get to both. One can become easily distracted in this world. By purple, for example. Using an easy-as-1-2-3 approach to composition can keep a writer from losing all the minutiae of the moment. It can be a comfort to have a prompt in mind when falling into experiences or off of commuter trains in strange places.

One of the best recommendations I received while trying to write during travel was at the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was overwhelmed and finding it hard to wrench away from the pure experience of the place to a page. A fellow poet reminded me that we are never the first in our struggles with the art. She suggested that since haiku has been the catch-all of moment-oriented travelers for generations it might help me synthesize a portion of what the Hermitage and the Neva and the Cyrillic alphabet and the dazzling All of It had sent reeling. Haiku has helped generations in other languages, granted, but is no less available to us in the syllabic lost-in-translation-but-still-useful English-speaking world. 5.7.5. Yes? 1-2-3.

Thus, I give you a three-part travel prompt in honor of the three approachable lines of the haiku. It is not haiku. That works too. Write haiku. Do.

This is something different and is not, of course, the essence of haiku. The haiku has many constraints (season, unexpected revelation, quantity as well as quality of syllables) that this prompt completely ignores. Also, I use “approachable” advisedly: a prompt is meant to start the process, not guarantee an end product. So, this approach is only one strange articulation of a three-part way into a poem that I have used in the past to “get there” (poem) while being gone.

The set-up: Go somewhere. A well-placed park bench can work as well as another continent.

The scribble:

  1. The basics of the information/experience. What is the heart of the destination.
  2. Anything that is auxiliary, but floats to the surface. Can be in terms of image, sound, tone, concept, or just more information from the moment. What is crafty (as in craft).
  3. A connection with the anything that you knew before for which these two points ring a bell.

Destination: The poem or series of poems written from this vantage point. Like most good trips, once you get to your destination you can see roads to other places.


An example follows from which to discern, distill, and/or depart.


The set-up: Denver, Colorado. “Women of Abstract Expressionism” exhibit at the Denver Art Museum

The scribble:

  1. Heart of information/experience: Quote from Lee Krasner next to one of her stunning paintings on the exhibit wall: “I’m always going to be Mrs. Jackson Pollock—that’s a matter of fact—[but] I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.”
  2. Auxiliary: Krasner went through a period where she was working in a studio denied daylight and suffering from severe insomnia. She chose to abandon chromatics and thus some of Krasner’s most famous pieces are simply umber and white paint. // In order to take a picture of Krasner’s work, I had to enter my passcode to get away from my phone’s lock screen. My phone’s lock screen is of a Jackson Pollock painting. I took that picture on the same phone at the MOCA in Los Angeles this past spring. I do not know what my lock screen was before it was Pollock.
  3. What Beast Must I AdoreConnective tissue: The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil were just beginning at the same time I found myself at this exhibition. They are just ending as this post finds its way into the world, so there will be a new set of issues for commentators and those who comment on the commentators. At this moment, however—when I was standing in front of a Krasner painting titled “What Beast Must I Adore?” (from a Rimbaud poem)—backlash against newscasters’ handling of the gender politics connected to reportage of women athletes was what was getting headlines. The Chicago Tribune had just reported the accomplishment of Corey Cogdell-Unrein (trap shooting) with the tag “Wife of Bears’ Lineman Wins a Bronze Medal Today in Rio Olympics.” They didn’t bother with her name. Elsewhere, NBC’s Dan Hicks expounded for quite a while after a world-record swim by Katinka Hosszu on her husband who, apparently, was “responsible” for the feat.

Destination: In 2016, The Guardian has an opinion piece called “How to Talk About Female Olympians Without Being a Regressive Creep—A Handy Guide.” Lee Krasner’s monochromatic masterpiece, “What Beast…” is from 1961. All the color drained from the dreams Lee Krasner could have had in those years is in brightly colored interlocking rings that serve to delight, but still deny female accomplishment at the cutting edge. One can discern chaotic unconnected rings in the painting if one is inclined. All the color drains.

So, there is the ringing bell. One connection. One coherence of thought that might make its way into the poem or poems that arise from this day. But, more direction of synapses than would have been available otherwise. 1 then 2 then 3. After all, Joan Mitchell’s paintings were in the next gallery and her purple, well, it can distract…

And, then you may be noticing all the other poems lurking. Where’s the epigraph from Rimbaud? What about the culpability of the speaker/author with the iPhone set to husband-of-Krasner? What about all the implicit possibilities in the jargon of trap shooting?

And, you are right to wonder. Usually my three-step plan (heart/craft/connection) actually has sub points that I flesh out for a while on the return home.

And, you may be writing a different poem with any material on offer. I hope you are. Because Krasner said later of the infamous title that she realized as she finished the painting that “[t]he beast [was] peering at me.” As creators, the next stare-down is always within. As we move through the world our travels are often routes to our own terrain. 3-2-1.

Guest Post, Robert Detman: From Journal into Blog: Seven Years of Writing about Writing

JournalTo admit to keeping a journal might smack of a twee sensibility, but I’ve kept one for years, and find them rather to be a necessity. These journals have long given way from their original, possibly naval gazing intent, which was to chronicle the days, and have become more useful for literary digressions, and a regular and deliberate writing about writing.

After the intense work of my MFA in 2006, I was writing a lot about process in my journal. While pursuing my degree I was writing in multiple directions creatively, and these experiments led to inquiries and writings on craft. Perhaps because in its normal guise this writing is known as criticism, it has a negative connotation for creative writers. But writing about writing seems to jiggle synapses, opening up my creativity. The beauty of writing about process is that the writing itself is often the process.

A journal, it seems, is the perfect vehicle for exploring topics in a blog. Thus, I naturally turned to writing a blog.

I’ve now written my blog for the last seven years–eleven years, if you count the one that preceded it but which I quit a few years in to go to grad school–and I’ve kept journals for much longer than that. In that time, I’ve written over 100 blog posts, most having to do with some aspect of writing and craft. Much like the critical work of my MFA, writing my blog has kept me within arm’s reach of that academic world–or at least, feeling as if I am still in the conversation.

During the AWP Conference in Minneapolis this year, Charles Baxter led a panel, “The Art of the Art of Writing,” for a discussion based on his Graywolf Press series, and it was the first seminar where I found myself writing down much of what was said. As Baxter said, “Criticism is/can be, an art.” To further make this type of writing palatable, Stacey D’Erasmo, one of the panelists, offered, “Criticism is thought, not judgment.” I was also pleasantly surprised to see this wasn’t a jam packed seminar–it was late afternoon when blood sugar levels drop–which gave me solace in that it’s one area where I don’t have to feel competitive. Writing fiction, sometimes, can feel like a competition; whereas writing criticism can be an opportunity to slow down, and to ruminate.

Maintaining a blog about writing is a great habit for writing fiction no less, and I can’t complain about writer’s block; I simply have to find the time to put in some writing, and invariably the ideas begin to flow. I actually don’t believe in writer’s block; Flaubert’s marinating is the occasion for me to write something different.

It may at first seem an odd preoccupation for a self described fiction writer to always return to writing about writing. But as I also review books, which is another form of writing about writing, the end result is a deeper appreciation and understanding–and excitement about–the process of writing. Blog writing occupies the logical part of my brain, leaving the dreamy and surreal side to flourish for my fiction.

Aware of the social network savvy-ness of blog culture, I have infrequently written a blog post hoping to garner hits. I long ago gave up trying to second guess that algorithm and instead have focused on pieces that have interested me, mainly. It’s a surprise usually to see which posts get the most hits. I would be curious to discover the site linked to my piece about short story openings–my single most read post.

I also, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, blog at a snail’s pace. I’ve never seen my blog merely as a place to post bite-sized morsels every week, though expediency has led me to these occasionally. If anything, the blog has become a practice for writing longer pieces. I’ve written a few posts that cracked 2000 words, but for the most part I’ve managed to keep them within 1000 words. I’m sure every writer has their sweet spot in a blog post, and I find 1000 words to be the perfect capsule for many of the topics I’ve written on–it almost subconsciously works out this way. Of course, these topics can be explored in longer essays, but the blog has an immediacy that lends itself to trying a subject out. I’m especially fond of E. M. Forster’s statement, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

There’s no shortage of topics to consider, either, with the irreversible and remarkable changes in publishing over the past decade, or wide-ranging discussions of industry trends, or reviewing un-put-downable fiction. There are a number of think piece type blogs which have been resources for me, and have been models for posts I might write. The more involved with literary matters the better. (The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tim Parks’s blog at the New York Review of Books, The Smart Set, and Arts and Letters Daily are several I check regularly.) In fact, when I first began my blog, I was always surprised–and pleased–to find blogs with a similar sensibility. I couldn’t imagine this bounty if the internet didn’t exist.

In reading other writer’s blogs, I have discovered a diasporic community. So I have reached out–and been reached out to–by a number of interesting bloggers, who are all fascinating to me in their unique approaches to the medium (So many have come and gone over the years, I resist naming any here). This has led to requests for guest blog postings, and one for a serial interview when I published my novel last autumn. Though I may never meet these fellow bloggers in person, it’s been great to know we are connected in a kindred medium and subject.

Finally, one of the great rewards of this practice is that it has given me a log of my thinking over the years, a timeline in a body of work that parallels my creative output, since I’ve also been publishing fiction and reviews regularly when I can. It’s surprising to look back over the years and re-read a piece I wrote about daily writing habits, or a deconstruction on David Shields’s death warrant for the novel, or an essay attempting to describe Gary Lutz’s sentences. Having become something more than the sum of its parts, I often think that my blog is a book. One day it may very well become that.

Robert Detman’s website and blog