“Nope,” I said plainly.
I knew he wasn’t looking for a missed port of entry/exit stamp. There were none. He’d checked them all. My file on his computer had already told him that and more. Neither did he doubt my answer. Nor was he pulling my leg or else he wouldn’t be smiling so amicably at me. He was saying something else –
“Well,” he said handing me back my papers. “You don’t have an accent.”
I’d heard that before. And I do not agree.
I think I still carry a strong, pseudo-British slant in my words. That’s how we speak English in Pakistan. I agree a decade of living in the US must’ve ruined that but I’m convinced the damage isn't much. Another thing I’m certain of now is that carrying an accent is just a teensy, virtually insignificant part of being bilingual. Believe me there are worse things in store for writers.
For instance, which language to think in before beginning to write…?
My grade 8 Language teacher told me if you want to be fluent in a particular language, you should learn to think in that language first.
Now, if you’re not multilingual you may not grab this concept. But here’s the thing – we always tend to think in our native tongue or in a language pushed at us as our first language. If your native tongue is English, you most probably think in it and write in it, hence, you do not go through the struggle of switching from one culture to another.
Yes, culture. A language is just that in words.
That is exactly why we invented Akina for our Aoife & Demon Series because we decided to give our parallel universe, the Realm, a different culture – a culture different from the one Aoife grew up in. There were plenty times when I found myself thinking in Akina, commenting on my co-writer’s Facebook posts in Akina while she replied in the same way. We’d rush to private messages, secretly asking each other what the phrase one of us had just popped out meant. It was new and exciting and fun. It meant our Realm and its culture were real. Akina was real.
After putting out the first book in our series, I needed a break from Demon. I needed a distraction; a new manuscript. So, I took refuge in Zaed. Sophia slipped into place in Aoife’s stead. Realm was replaced by Pakistan and Akina with Urdu. And my problems magnified with that change since now nothing except the characters and their story was fictional.
Urdu was real and I knew it. I knew the culture it encompassed. I knew the nuances, the tones, the flavors, the meanings; and I knew that translating all that into my writing medium of English was excruciating.
If I thought in English, I’d lose the essence of the culture woven with Urdu. My characters wouldn’t act like characters in Pakistan should. Instead, they would be very – English. Their slang would change, their demeanor would become western, they would feel uncomfortable in a monsoon rain. And it would become difficult for me to make them pray to Allah. Jesus felt more appropriate.
If I thought in Urdu, then Zaed – my American male lead – would go stand in a corner and glare at me for estranging him. He doesn't know the country, he doesn’t understand the language. He is most likely to have never seen a real dhol or a dhoti.
I’m not the first writer to ever attempt writing about a culture in a language that is foreign to that culture. Tehmina Durrani, Khushwant Singh, Arundhati Roy, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Amy Tan – to name a few – have done it splendidly before.
But I haven’t. And I’m not very sure if I should.
One thing that always unnerves me about writings in English on India or Pakistan is that it is always too pensive. I suppose since the subject matter of those books is usually pensive, the serious way with which they’re written, the heavy language and diction add to their essence rather than take away.
But that just adds to my problem.
My problem is I don’t write in serious shades. English suits my various moods of writing. It is just the appropriate amount of heavy and light. Urdu on the other hand is too emotional for me to handle most of the time. And that is not specific to Pakistan. That is the way of the East.
I’d almost given up hope of ever trying to cover the Orient in a western tongue on my own terms. Then, I read Amy Tan. She was fluid. She was coherent. She was funny. And she was so descriptively Chinese in English. I never felt burdened by her culture. I understood her culture.
I’m not Amy Tan, though I hope to be. At the moment, I see myself as this one indie writer I recently read and couldn’t get past the sample chapters. She bravely weaved her Hispanic culture in her writing. Actually, it was just the language; not the culture so much. And it made me feel – to quote my co-writer here – as if the book was in full-time staccato mode.
It was perhaps good for word for word vocabulary but not for reading, let alone understanding, the script.
I hope Zaed is better than that. And if it means it may take me years to switch thinking caps between Pakistan and USA, between Urdu and English just so I can get the correct flavor of both these worlds, I’ll give it that much time.
Meanwhile, I’ll savor gems like these and be inspired.