Many of us live scattered across languages. School in English; baby talk in a mother tongue; swearing and dirty talk in English; exclamations of pain (the sound that comes before words when a finger touches a hot pan) in whatever language we heard as young children.
When I wrote Stubborn Archivist, I was hungry for writing that showed bilingual lives – speaking, loving, hurting, bringing up children, but with your languages mixed up. Sometimes this means not separating one language from the other, but thinking with your lexicons unparsed (or as my protagonist says, with languages “bleeding like clothes in the wash”). Sometimes it means code-switching in a way that goes beyond words: different hand movements, different eye contact, different volume.
What does a bilingual book mean for its readers? Language is about access, intelligibility, power. A bilingual text can flip the exclusion that migrants experience every day. A bilingual text can hold an intimacy, a fluency, a wholeness which cannot be translated into either or any of its languages alone.
For me, writing my own meant more than including phrases in Portuguese here and there; it meant creating a novel with a Brazilian orality, a disrupted Latin American chronology and a 21st-century refusal to punctuate, but set in SW17. As a child I fantasised about being an author, but worried how I would write bilingually – there didn’t seem to me to be any books doing this. Now, an adult, I have found so many – and here are just a few that I love.
1. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
Twenty-something Zhuang arrives in London and falls in love with a (quite weird) older English guy. The English of the narration changes as Zhuang spends more time learning it. Each chapter begins with a new English word and its definition; and one chapter, titled “nonsense”, contains a whole page in Chinese characters, followed by an “editor’s translation”. This is a book about living in two languages, which is funny and heartbreaking, and never romanticises the things we can’t translate.
2. We That Are Young by Preti Taneja
Unlike A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, this big book is not explicitly built around, or drawing particular attention to its bilingualism. (Although, being a reinterpretation of King Lear, it is a grand translation project.) There are whole sentences in Hindi and no italics, no translations and no glossaries. Reading it, I felt that I had entered a literary age where that might be normal now – and I like that.
3. Hold by Michael Donkor
Hold, which tells the story of Belinda, a housegirl from Ghana who comes to live in Brixton, opens with a glossary of “Twi terms, expressions and phrases”. Some of the entries in the glossary include punctuation (arkwada bone! – naughty child!), which I rate because it’s true that how a word is said is part of what it means.
4. The Sun on My Head by Geovani Martins (translated by Julia Sanches)
I’m cheating a bit, because this book was originally all in Portuguese – and not the standard lofty “literary” language of most Brazilian books, but the Portuguese spoken by young black men living in Rio. What I like about Julia Sanches’ translation is that it recognises the untranslatability of the original text: she often holds her hands up and uses a word from the original or mixes the two, giving us phrases like “shit’s foda [fucked], effed up”.
5. If Not, Winter by Sappho (translated by Anne Carson)
This edition prints Sappho’s original poems in ancient Greek – which survive in different-sized fragments, some with words and phrases missing, other with only a word or two remaining – alongside her translations. I can’t read ancient Greek at all, but there is something ghostly and fun about having it on the page anyway.
6. Borderlands by Gloria E. Anzaldúa
This quote from Borderlands says it all: “Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.”
7. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I know, I know, we’ve all already read this book, but it’s too good not to be on here. And, interestingly, although Adichie uses Igbo in her earlier novels Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah is the first one where she does not translate. (To readers who can’t read Igbo, Adichie suggests Google). Even the title is kind of bilingualism, holding a specific meaning to Nigerian readers.
8. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
This book is very special to me. Written in vignettes and fragments, it’s a coming-of-age book about a young Chicana woman from Chicago with many untranslated, but italicised, Spanish words and phrases in the text. The ending (which I use as my epigraph) offers a take on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the protagonist finally finding “a house as quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem”.
9. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
After a career of writing books in English, Lahiri and her family moved to Italy, where she wrote this memoir in Italian as a sort of linguistic challenge to herself. The pages carry both languages: Italian, which she wrote first, and her translation into English.
10. Yo-Yo Boing! by Giannina Braschi
I knew I had to get this experimental book after seeing the Amazon reviews, which range from “THIS BOOK IS UNWORTHY OF MY TIME” to “well written giving one a comfy feel”. There are parts in Spanish, English and Spanglish. You will only be able to understand it if you read both languages fluently – and even then, perhaps not.
• Stubborn Archivist (Fleet, £14.99) by Yara Rodrigues Fowler is out now.