Guest Post, Svetlana Lavochkina: The Winged Shackles

Svetlana LavochkinaImagine you are an unemployed cook from a different planet, and your job agency gives you the last chance on the Earth. You desperately want to do your best but the problem is that your alien metabolism is so different from the terrestrials that eating human food for you is like eating hot lava. So you replace taste and smell by sight and touch. You take beef, potatoes, eggs, vanilla, and treat them as if you were in a chemical laboratory and not in a kitchen. When you finish, you cannot even savor the boef stroganoff or the crème brulée you prepared. This is approximately what writing fiction in a foreign language is like.

A mother tongue is poured into babies, in the case of English, with the milk of Mother Goose. It is then honed through years of everyday washing in the language – from contrast showers of classical literature at school to TV bubble baths to puddles of teenage slang.

A normal writer using his native language casts off or alters usages deliberately to create something fresh, hitherto unread. A madman of a writer, a foreigner, is blissfully unaware of rules as such, trampling them with the innocence of an elephant in a porcelain store. It seems by pure accident that the resulting debris sometimes assumes interesting configurations.

Writing in a foreign language is scary – because, high up in the sky, there shine the suns of Conrad and Nabokov, and you feel as if below the earth’s surface, you are in the dark void. You fumble for every word, you suspect every sentence of malfunction, you make paranoia your writing method – crawling out of this darkness is a lifelong labor of Sisyphus.

The shackles of a foreign language give the writer a unique opportunity of refuge, of abandonment – soaring yonder and beyond in absolute freedom from one’s own ethos and culture, belonging nowhere, free from responsibilities, from shame and fear, obeying no laws.

My parents don’t speak English, neither do most of my friends, so I can assume a different persona while writing, as whimsical, arrogant or mischievous as I wish, something I would never dare to dream of on my native Russian territory, where every word is soaked in idiosyncrasy or taboo.

Working in English provides me both the necessary distance and intimate closeness so necessary for writing.  In a way that is as strange as some twist or turn in an alchemical formula, English is both a bridge and a home; a place to live in and journey toward.