2011 saw one bright star on the writing horizon. Against all expectations, I was one of the prize-winners in the Literary Correspondence competition organised by the local media library. And no, against all expectations is not supposed to indicate some kind of false modesty. I really was surprised. You see, I live in France, so the competition was in French, not English. True, it was only third prize but I was over the moon. Until…
She was so slight and fragile. When she spoke, you could barely hear what she said. Fortunately, someone dug up a microphone from somewhere, for although only a dozen or so of us had braved the icy wind and snow, listening to her tenuous tones ranked alongside the toughest of the labours of Hercules. How, I began to think, could such a delicate, fleeting presence produce such powerful writing? The question was soon forgotten as every ear in the room honed in on her every word. She held us in thrall for almost two hours.
She? Mercedes Deambrosis, prize-winning French writer, author of several novels, novellas and short-story collections. Wait a minute, did I say French? The name certainly doesn’t sound very French? I couldn’t resist asking the question even though I did suspect I was about to shoot myself in the leg.
“No, I’m not French. My parents were from Spain but I was born and brought up in Portugal.”
“But surely,” I blundered on, “you must have learnt French from an early age?”
“No. I was fourteen when I first came to France and I didn’t understand a word of French.”
I gaped and at last managed to muster up enough sense not to ask any more questions. But the implications were clear. Here was someone who’d been speaking French some 5-10 years less than me, and who was writing far better prose than I could put muster, even in my mother tongue. The conclusion was inevitable. It just wasn’t worth the time and effort to put together texts in French any more. No way would I ever be able to work myself upwards to anything even closely resembling this standard.
Since taking this decision I have gone back on it slightly. I continue to visit the writing group in the local cultural centre and they obviously write in French. I wouldn’t want to miss the affectionate and encouraging atmosphere of the group. But I no longer write stories for competitions or articles for publications in French.
So my question is which of you readers actually write in a language other than English? Is it your mother tongue? If so, how hard do you find trying to express yourself in English? If not, how hard do you find it expressing yourself in another language?