Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
Livia Franchini is a writer and translator from Tuscany, and one of the inaugural writers-in-residence of the Connecting Emerging Literary Artists (CELA) project, funded by the EU, under which her work will be translated into six languages.
Though we have both lived in London for more than 10 years and have gravitated to the same social circles because of our shared interest in contemporary literature, I first became aware of her work after she commented on an essay I had written about my experience of using English as a second language.
She could relate, as she put it in a tweet, to the feeling of loss I was describing for a native eloquence that could be only partially recaptured in a second tongue. Like me, she felt as if a portion of her personality could not be fully communicated.
Her first novel, Shelf Life, which she wrote as part of her PhD in women’s experimental writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, is due to be published in August. It is experimental in form and was written directly in her second language, English.
“I’m Italian,” she tells me over coffee, “not an Italian writer.” She says it would be a challenge for her to go back to writing in her first language, something she has not attempted since her teenage years.
I am interested in what seems to be a contradiction here: that you can feel the loss of eloquence in a second tongue yet still prefer it to your native language as a professional writer. In my experience, writing in a second language can be both intimidating and creatively liberating; the very challenge of it can be a catalyst for inventiveness.
In spoken English, my limits in the language initially meant I listened a lot and that everything I said ended up being reflective and analytical. I carry a bit of that analytical frame of mind into my writing in English.
Franchini has worked as a co-ordinator for the Goldsmiths Prize, which celebrates experimental fiction in English, since it launched in 2013. I ask if English gives her more freedom to experiment with the novel format as a creative writer.
“I’m very glad to be a second-language writer,” she says. “Italian as a language can be very baroque; it supports a lot of subordinate clauses and tends to poetic metaphor.”
English hardly tolerates such a complicated syntax and while Italian writers may be tempted to experiment with imagery-heavy, overwritten prose, Franchini has become more of a sentence minimalist in English, a change she attributes in part to her discovery of the American short-story writer Raymond Carver when she first moved to England.
“It seemed almost impossible to me that a story could progress by such short, blunt sentences,” she says. “For a number of years I think I ‘tested’ the English language, trying to write in as pared-back, elliptical a style as I could.” By doing so she eventually developed the style in which she writes in English today, far from the academic flourishes favoured by her university professors.
Still, writing — or, for that matter, reading — can take twice as long in a foreign language, and for this reason it is easier to doubt yourself. “Sometimes I’m so anxious that I doubt the entire meaning of a sentence I [have written] and have to google it,” says Franchini, who has translated works by the likes of science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr and poet Michael Donaghy, both American.
I can imagine the historical imperialism of the English language would contribute to that general feeling for many people who, like Franchini and me, did not learn it from birth.
Once this linguistic insecurity is overcome, some non-native writers might prefer writing in English for professional and creative purposes because they can be more dispassionate than they would be in their own tongue.
Franchini says when she was invited by CELA to read a selection of her English-language poems in Madrid last year, she was unsettled when she realised how vividly physical and intimate one of the poems sounded in the Spanish translation that was being projected on a screen during the event.
Translation into a language more closely related to her mother tongue had revealed this dimension of the poem’s imagery, and she wonders whether she would have written it so freely had she been aware of that dimension from the start.
Franchini takes her coffee black — to me, perhaps the only thing that betrays her as Italian, because she sounds uncannily British. She takes this as a compliment but also knows the middle-class inflections of her British accent echo her initial desire to assimilate.
Today, describing her experience of having lived “stuck as a pendulum” between two countries and two languages for the best part of her adult life, she reflects in an essay for PEN, the international association of writers, that writing might best be defined as “the use to which we put our homesickness”.
You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here.
Illustration: Tom Peake; Photographs: Robin Silas Christian