You speak such good German

Alina Bronsky, Russian-born but writing in German, charts the challenges and opportunities faced by the multilingual author, and how well-meaning condescension can get in the way of literary appraisal.

Translated from the German by Tim Mohr

It’s not exactly the height of elegance to quote from your own book. But I will do it here anyway.

‘You speak such good German,’ said a boy to Sascha, the heroine of my first novel, Broken Glass Park, whom he had just met. ‘Thanks,’ she answered angrily, ‘so do you.’ She was born in Russia and lives in a Russian ghetto in a German city. The boy she’s talking to is German by birth and lives in a fancy villa; he’s actually trying to say something nice to her.

This little exchange isn’t made up. It happened to me in reality on many occasions, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Like my protagonist I moved from Russia to Germany at thirteen. Ever since I was fourteen I’ve been congratulated on my German. I can no longer remember the moment when I stopped feeling pleased by the compliments.

I belong to the subset of authors who write books in a language that is not their native tongue.  Not long ago that still made me quite exotic in Germany. Now it is hearteningly common – every year you read about gifted debut authors who were born abroad, emigrated as young children or teens, and who published in the language of their new country and are already dusting off all their literary prizes. And yet, the compliments about how well I speak German are still the first thing I hear from audiences at my readings. At 36, I’m still treated as some kind of language wunderkind.

Unfortunately I’m not one, and never have been. I’m not even particularly good at languages. It’s just that I, like hundreds of thousands of others, emigrated with my family at an age when the infamous ‘language window’ had yet to close. Which is why I sound like a native speaker – with the exception of the occasional linguistic slip-up that only very alert listeners notice, and which those people like to point out to me. The assumption that I must be exceptionally musical – as a result of how well I speak German – is also not true. And how I would love to be able to speak better English than I do, not to mention French and Italian.

I don’t want my books to be assessed like compositions in a foreign language class. It makes me feel like a dancer with a wooden leg: as if the applauding room isn’t captivated by the show of artistic prowess but rather by the supposed handicap. So I ask you, dear readers and reviewers, please judge the contents and the word choices, the plot and characters, the metaphors and punch-lines. Complain about inconsistencies and slips of the pen that escaped the eyes of the editor and proofreader. But please don’t be any more merciful in those judgments and complaints with an immigrant author than you would be with an author writing in his or her native language. You’re not really anyway, and we wouldn’t have deserved the leniency.

No reader falls in love with a book out of political correctness or as a sop to a linguistic minority. I’m happy about that. If something in one of my novels doesn’t look right to you, then you can in good conscience toss it in the corner. And if on the other hand my writing intrigues you, it has nothing to do with the fact that I learned the Cyrillic alphabet before I learned the Latin alphabet. All authors want to be valued based on their imagination, their talent, and their perseverance, not because of school vocabulary lessons from some distant past.

After more than twenty years, I can say that German has become my natural writing language. Even though I love my native language of Russian, I speak a version that’s probably already somewhat outdated and anachronistic. I’m asked time and time again whether I also write in Russian. No, I don’t, at least not beyond emails. I don’t translate my own books, either. I’d prefer to write new ones – in German.

 

 

Alina Bronsky is the author of Broken Glass ParkThe Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, which was named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and just published Just Call me Superhero.  The Daily Beast calls Bronsky ‘an exciting new voice in the literary world.’

Born in Yekaterinburg, an industrial town at the foot of the Ural Mountains in central Russia, Bronsky now lives in Berlin.