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 Blog Post, Samuel Kolawole: Where My Stories Grow From

Samuel KolawoleAn inscription written on the chassis of a crawling commuter omnibus triggered the beginning of my newly completed novel. The inscription appeared to me one hot afternoon in the midst of the rush that is often part of our lives in Nigeria. I think I must have seen the bus many times before then but that afternoon I took a few moments to ponder. It set off a notion of how I would tell a story with a bus as a point of confluence, where different lives, and hence different stories connect. What I had hadn’t been enough to crank out anything substantial. So I dropped it, and allowed the story to simply tell itself in its own time.

Traffic in Nigeria

Then it kind of bubbled to the surface again several months later while reading The Slap, a novel by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas and Column McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I became interested in how a single event can reveal so much about the way people are, how our universes often run around one another and how things change when those universes collide. I began to connect the dots. Once the bits of ideas began to crystallize, characters suggested themselves, jostling for a place. With the characters came the backdrop of the story.

I often don’t choose what I write, what I write chooses me. The writing process for me is messy, organic, filled with uncertainties. Sometimes I write non-stop for hours, other times (this happens more often), it’s like pulling out a rotten tooth. I cancel each word, trying to make sense of what’s in my head, fearing that the whole project would fail. There is the silent process of discovering a new world on paper and the harrowing self-doubt that follows after the world has been discovered. I always ask myself the question after finishing a story, “Have I been true to this story?” “Have I told the story the best way I can?” That’s the source of my doubt not lack of confidence in the story itself.

This is the truth: I feel it necessary to tell the Nigerian story. I am proud of it, maybe even obsessed by it. I am not talking about what the West tells the world, or what Nigerian intellectuals sometimes try so desperately to defend but what I see and breathe everyday walking through the busy streets, eavesdropping on conversations. The tales of a land of overwhelming contradictions, and of immense possibilities. I love the power and the beauty of writing about a world the way I see it. The liberty to reinvent and explore the things I am privy to. I love Nigeria. Nigeria is where my stories grow from.

Launch of Issue 7: Fiction

Superstition Review Issue 7 has launched and to celebrate we will be featuring blog posts about our artists and authors. Today we will be highlighting a few of the talented fiction authors who are featured in Issue 7.

Aaron Michael Morales is an Associate Professor of English & Gender Studies at Indiana State University. His first novel, Drowning Tucson (2010)—cited by Esquireas “the bleakly human debut of the new Bukowski”—was named a “Top Five Fiction Debut” by Poets & Writers. Other books include a chapbook of short fiction, titled From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert (2008), and a textbook, The American Mashup (2011). He edits fiction for Grasslands Review and reviews books for Latino Poetry Review and Multicultural Review. He is completing his second novel, Eat Your Children. Read his fiction piece “A Shoebox. A Thimble. A Onesie” featured in issue 7. Aaron Morales’s Website

Samuel Kolawole’s fiction has appeared in Black Biro, Storytime, Authorme, Storymoja, Eastown fiction, forthcoming in jungle jim and elsewhere. His story collection The book of M is due to be out soon. A recipient of the Reading Bridges fellowship, Samuel lives in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria where he has begun work on his novel Olivia of Hustle House.
Read his fiction piece “Mud, if it Were Gold” featured in issue 7.

Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. His story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking, was one of five finalists for the 2009 Starcherone Innovative Fiction Prize. In 2010 he has been a finalist in fiction at Black Warrior Review and Mississippi Review and in poetry at Cloudbank and Mississippi Review. Read his fiction piece “Who the Hell Does He Think He Is?” in issue 7.

Terese Svoboda‘s sixth novel, Bohemian Girl, will be published next fall. Her fifth, Pirate Talk or Mermalade (2010), is “a strange and nastily beautiful book,”—The Millions. Read her fiction piece “Madonna in the Terminal” in issue 7. Terese Svoboda’s Website




The full magazine with featured art and artists can be found here. Check back tomorrow to read about the interviews featured in Issue 7.