the fact of experiencing something or being affected by it because of being in a particular situation or place

Livia Franchini is stuck between two countries and languages, ‘back and forth between two distinct, self-sufficient identities of home’.

 

I have a problem with control and after many years of more or less quietly coping with it, I have recently sought therapy to improve my condition. In the first session, wanting to amuse my new therapist, somewhat needing her to be ‘on my side’, rather than on the other side of the couch, I suppose (though this is cognitive-behavioural therapy, these are blue NHS plastic chairs), I joke: ‘I have a problem with needing things to be perfect. The catch is I work as a writer, and I write in a language that I can’t fully master.’ I reveal that English isn’t the language I spoke for the first twenty years of my life; like most, her reaction is one of incredulity. I blend in, having almost fully lost my Italian accent.

‘Well, you’re not alone,’ she tells me. ‘What else?’

I tell her that my need for control is usually triggered by interactions with others.

How did my irrational need for watertight control of any given situation become bound to a desire to query the world in a language that isn’t my own? I still don’t have an answer to the riddle, despite having been stuck as a pendulum between Italy and the United Kingdom for the last eleven years: back and forth between two distinct, self-sufficient identities of home.

I travel to Spain to teach a class of Spanish children about writing and translation. When I offer students the option between my first and my second language, they request I speak in Italian. They ask me to talk about my novel, of which they have read an extract. The original manuscript is in English, but I have translated a section of it into Italian myself, which was then translated into Spanish. The final product of this three-fold process is what the students have read. It makes my head spin to think about it. My Italian to Spanish translator has come along to the event and agrees to act as an interpreter, though I sense she is unsettled at the prospect of having to translate orally, imprecisely.

I begin in Italian, taking care to speak slowly to facilitate translation. But I stumble, slow down, interrupt myself when I realise that I lack the appropriate specialist vocabulary to describe the novel I, myself, have written. It’s a book in English, I only ever think about it in English. A girl raises her hand and asks, in Spanish: ‘What’s your book even about? I don’t get it.’ I answer, professionally: ‘You don’t have to get it, or even like it. That’s allowed.’ I smile. A boy speaks next, to me, directly, in good English, ‘How could you move to England at nineteen without considering the consequences?’ Suddenly, I am made visible. I have no answer to give him.

‘The thing is, she didn’t think about them,’ my Spanish translator laughs, jumping in to rescue me.

One important consequence of conceiving the private self as an idiom is that it can no more be equated with an interior than an external self. Your idiom is somehow both openly visible and strangely imperceptible. Walking, smiling, speaking, writing, joking, drawing, eating, weeping, listening – in all these modes of being and doing, you’re revealed as at once the most self-evident fact and the most impenetrable secret. Your private self is diffused in all the ways you express yourself, and so it isn’t reducible to any of them. It’s concealed, you could say, less behind than in the face you show the world. You are a secret that hides in plain sight. [1]

 

I tire myself out, I say to my therapist, because I cannot avoid engaging with any one line of questioning that is presented to me. It’s like playing Devil’s advocate, but there’s no fun in it. It can get really bad, and when it is bad I have the impression that six or so fleshy tendrils are stemming out of my brain, extending in different directions. When it is really bad it feels like six very developed private conversations are happening at the same time in different quarters of my brain. It has become second nature for me to operate in this way.

My therapist asks me to make annotations on a paper diagram, a working model known as the ‘hot cross bun’. I fill in each section and stare down at my own words, taking in the familiar vertigo of cognitive dissonance. Written down in English, my fears feel more manageable; at the same time, I’m not sure what I’m reading is about me at all, though I recognize the familiar handwriting. Did I really write this? How is this supposed to make me feel better?

The private self speaks its own tragic idiom: a language of one, with no referent. If the true self makes itself visible through the weave of experience, existing across two languages means that the tapestry is woven with thread of two different colours. You develop the habit of sticking two fingers into the fissures in the texture and wiggling them. Sometimes this habit leads to analytical overgrooming. Six separate arguments shooting off into six different directions: your sense of self is tethered to each equally and the strain to retain control over it all makes you feel like you might be about to explode.

The private self, stretched thin in such a way, on some days seems barely sufficient to cover up the worst of two cultures – two countries, bubbling under the upper level of your consciousness. How is it possible to keep a hold over it? On some days, the lid just comes loose.

For instance, there is your momentary annoyance when the Spanish children asked you to speak in Italian, because it would’ve been easier to speak of your work in English; the momentary assumption that everybody will understand you, wherever you travel. Did you really pick up on one of the worst traits of the British? How did you lose a grip on your own, Italian thought process? Your private self is other: you don’t have the intellectual capacity to keep track of it all. Some days you give away more about yourself than you had intended to: you’re untidy, indecently exposed. Sometimes others seem to know more about you than you do.

There is an Italian acquaintance who introduces himself afresh in Italian, after first introducing himself in English: ‘Sorry, I had to. You’re a completely different person when you speak in each of your languages.’ A university professor, to whom you confess you are struggling with research, tells you you’re no longer entitled ‘playing the language card.’ But this isn’t a game: your mother understands your English the worst out of all of your English-speaking friends. Your two selves, the Italian and the English, are equally, privately familiar to you, but never publicly so to anyone you to talk to.

Others can only engage with one self or the other at one time, but they see that half of you with more clarity than you do yourself, pick up on all the details. By which I mean, as I write this, I have no full control over what you learn about me by reading it, and that terrifies me.

I recently learned from a friend that there is a Spanish word for feeling shame and embarrassment on behalf of someone else; the closest equivalent I can think of in English is ‘cringe’, but this is a poor translation, conveying nothing of shame’s ability to flood the thresholds of selves. In poetry, the confessional is served up with this feeling so often that they might be considered composite, two parts of the same whole. [2]

Back in Spain, I’m about to give a reading at a place called Vergüenza Ajena, and despite the ominous moniker, something good happens to me there. The place is a small, welcoming bar – warm (it is winter). I am sleep-deprived, highly-strung, quite unhinged. Reading as a foreigner in a combination of English and Italian, in front of an audience whose language I don’t speak, I am unshackled from the expectation of being understood. I read confidently, very well. It is an intimate performance. Afterwards, a Venezuelan woman comes over to hug me. ‘I didn’t know what you were saying, but it made sense to me,’ she says, in Spanish, or this is what I understand, and it is enough for a private understanding between us, a small triumph of poetry weaving together the strands of languages and selves.

… writing might be defined as the use to which we put our homesickness. [3]

 

‘This is the working model we’ll be using. We’ll call it a “hot-cross bun”, because, well, it looks like one, doesn’t it? In this section, write about a situation that made you feel bad. Try to remember all of the details.’

There is no Easter equivalent of a hot-cross bun in Italy. We do, however, have Easter eggs.

 

[1] Josh Cohen, The Private Life (London: Granta, 2013)

[2] Daisy LaFarge, ‘Wildly Unmothered’

[3] Joyce Carol Oates, quoted in Eva Hoffman, ‘The Uses of the Past’, in Writing Worlds 1, The Norwich Exchanges, ed. Vesna Goldsworthy.


Livia Franchini is a writer and translator from Tuscany, Italy. Selected publications include The Quietus, 3:AM, The White Review, LESTE, Hotel, PEN Transmissions and the anthologies On Bodies (3 of Cups) and Wretched Strangers (Boiler House Press). She has translated Natalia Ginzburg, James Tiptree Jr. and Michael Donaghy among many others. Livia is one of the inaugural writers-in-residence of the Connecting Emerging Literary Artist project, funded by the European Union, which will see her work translated into 6 languages. She has performed from her work internationally, most notably at Faber Social, Standon Calling, Lowlands and Hay Festival. Livia is currently at work on her first novel, as part of a funded PhD in experimental women’s writing at Goldsmiths.

Photo credit: Robin Silas Christian