Once in a while a bilingual writer comes along who puts us all to shame. Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett and Joseph Conrad come to mind. They managed to write forcefully in their second language. Following in their footsteps is the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hermon, the child of a Ukrainian father and a Bosnian-Serbian mother. When war erupted in his homeland in 1992 shortly after he came to the US, he found himself stranded here. This 44 year old journalist from Sarajewo, did not speak English. Three years later he published his first story and his first book (The Question of Bruno) in 2000 in English. He wrote for the New Yorker, The Paris Review, published three more books and won the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant.”
Aleksandar Hermon gave himself five years to learn English, five years to write and publish his first story in English. He worked as a sandwich assembly-line worker, a bike messenger, as a bookstore clerk and as a door to door magazine subscriptions salesman. “He also read voraciously in English, storing words he didn’t know on note cards, and within three years had achieved his goal.” (Larry Rother: Twice-Told Tales, The New York Times, 5.15.09)
I cleaned the apartments of elderly Jewish ladies, sold nuts from a push cart, worked in the theater, as a Go-Go dancer and a school counselor. I too recorded the words that I didn’t understand, couldn’t remember or pronounce, into a notebook—schedule, issue, vicarious— but it took me more than 20 years to publish my first story in English. I did not become a voracious reader of English books like Aleksandar Hermon. Reading with a dictionary in hand was too much work and no pleasure at all. There was peace in my homeland; the wall had come down, and Germany won the Soccer World Cup. I was not in despair—a good writing motivator according to Hermon.
“I was cut off from my previous life, in despair … I had this horrible, pressing need to write because things were happening. I needed to do it the same way I needed to eat, but I just had no language to write in. I couldn’t do it, and so I thought I should enable myself to do it.” (ibid.)
I lacked the confidence to write in English. The belief that, aside from Beckett and Nabokov, no one could write in a second language, held me back. Then I discovered a new generation of writers: Turkish, Russian and Japanese writers who wrote in German, Dominican and Haitian writers who wrote in English. Some playfully integrated their first and second languages. Their example gave me the courage to try the same. Like Hermon and many other bilingual writers I found a new, welcoming home in the English language. Aleksandar Hermon recently discussed writing in a second language with Junot Díaz and had this to say (my translation):
“Everyone can declare the English language his home and no one can be banned from it…..Everyone can bring his experiences with a foreign language into American English without having to fear being expelled from it.” (Thomas David: Amerika auf dem Weg zur postnationalen Literatur?, Neue Züricher Zeitung, June 8, 2009.)
I am grateful to Aleksandar Hermon for being such a shining example and inspiration for bilingual writers everywhere.