Of writing, procrastinating, pandemics and missing muses
I began writing on my current book, Opus XXIII, on March 2, 2020. Do the math and you realize this was just a couple of weeks before the world shut down, locked up and someone seemingly threw away the keys. Obsessed with the devleopment of this scary beast, with daily newsconferences, hourly updates on a dozen websites on infection rates, mortaliy and the number of people in ICUs, as well as trying to assist my elderly neighbors with grocery shopping, my creativity took an indefinite leave of absence. Writing became suffering, a struggle to get even a handful of sentences down on paper. For someone like me who’s always been able to write fluently, typing shorthand what my characters were whispering into my ears, this became painful. I even began to outline ideas just to have anything to write. Unheard of. The outrage within my self-esteem! As the pandemic progressed, I added very few pages to the manuscript, and weeks, even months could pass before I opened the document anew. Would I ever finish another novel? Would Matt become my final oeuvre?
Author Hans M Hirschi with the book that was the inspiration for Opus XXIII
My previous books wrote themselves
I am an avid listener of podcasts, and one of my friends, Wayne Goodman, has a weekly show, Queer Words, where he asks his guests if they are plotters or pantsers. I was invited to his show back in 2019 and my answer was given: “I’m your traditional pantser.” If there had ever been a pantser, point all fingers at me. I mention in my conversation with Wayne, who by the way is an accomplished writer in his own right often writing about faraway places, that I once experienced my main character’s death half-way through writing the novel. It was quite a shock, but alas, this is how I used to write. My subconscious would guide my fingers and type whatever the characters were telling me, and so I sat there, in front of my laptop, reading what appeared on page. Call it stream of consciousness, and it was not unlike the infamous episdoe The Muse in Deep Space 9 where the evil alien sucks the life force out of him. That was me, minus the evil alien and the nose bleeds. I could write up to 10,000 words a day, and my first two novels were both written (first rough draft I might add) in less than two weeks, each. Alas, along came opus XXIII. It’s been 598 days, and I am done-ish with my first draft. So what happened?
The pain of writing or what the experts tell you to do
Part of every writing podcast is the obligatory question of “do you have any advice?” to aspriting authors and writers. I have been asked the question, too, and I believe I have answered it, too, although less from a writing perspective but more from a “make sure you get feedback perspective”. It’s been a while. Prove me wrong. LOL However, I notice that some writers are dead set on “my way or the highway!”, an approach which invalidates any other writing process or approach that differes from their own. I’ve heard things like “make sure you write every day, even if it’s just a few sentences.” That is the most common advice out there. Picture me with big eyes and and my RBF expression along the question “why? What good does that do?” Sadly I’m never around when that statement is made, so I’ve never really been around to question it. Great if it works for you, but don’t presume that one size fits all. S’all I have to say.
Writing is often painful and slow, sometimes fast and exhilarating
I finally got out of my slump a few weeks ago, and I wrote 35,000 words in less than a week. In fact, I was so thrilled about my progress that I couldn’t wait to sit down and write. I did it while cooking, I did it in the morning before Sunday breakfast, I did it before joining my husband for some evening R&R (oh, not what you think. We’re talking Netflix here.), and I even wrote while my son was doing his homework. I couldn’t not write, if that makes sense. But until that moment came along, and my writing stars had aligned, it was painful. My characters were silent, and procrastination was the blanket to wrap myself into when inspiration failed. I often felt bad, depressed at the lack of progress, throwing myself into other projects, other things to do. Yet is it really to procrastinate if you don’t actually have anything intelligent to write? I know for sure that “writing for the sake of writing” will never be my tune, so rather than giving myself grief over the lack of inspiration, I should relax. Oddly, I have a hunch that I’ve said this before, but I guess this is a lesson that this pedagogue hasn’t fully embraced yet. Because could it be, maybe, just maybe, that I’d have gotten my mojo back faster if I hadn’t been so freaked out about the lack of progress, the lack of inspiration? Who knows. Hindsight may be a great teacher, but it sucks at the what-if-game.
Opus XXIII – What it is and other valuable inormation
So where am I with this latest novel? It’s somewhere in editing but also still in writing. I’m not entirely happy with all aspects of it, and given the difficult topic, I need to make sure I find the right balance. Opus XXIII will likely be named “Michel”, and it is all about the story of Michel, the amazing young man who tragically passes away from AIDS in November of 1986. He briefly appared as a side character in my novel The Fallen Angels of Karnataka from 2014, and he has been haunting me ever since. So, Michel finally gets to tell his story, and while it’s challenging to make sure I stick to canon, it’s also liberating to finally learn more about this character who has always held a special place in my heart, both for what he does for Haakon’s personal grown, ultimately kick-starting his traveling, but also for his spirit and character.
In this story we learn about his coming out, still a central theme for the LGBTQI community. But the story alsolooks at the coming of age for this one individual, his exploration of his own sexuality, and touches some difficult subjects such as sexual abuse, rape, and sexual addiction. I’m sure you appreciate how challenging it is to write that, and do justice to the character’s experience without taking away from the grand scheme of things. You’ll be the judge whether or not I’ve been successful. It’s a difficult book, both to write and (will be) to read, and one where Her Majesty had to work hard to pull off her magic of a hopeful and happy ending. Given that Michel has been dead for thirty-five years, it’s nothing short of a miracle.
I hope to finish the manuscript by the end of this year, and if all goes well, the book should be out in the spring of 2022, as always from my amazing publisher Beaten Track.
The unintentional children’s book about losing your first baby teeth
Let’s begin at the top, shall we? Picture a cruise vessel (this was before the pandemic), somewhere in the Caribbean. It’s time for Sascha, our son, to go to bed. As he’s done often before, he’s asking for a bedtime story, and for once, I manage to come up with one. I’m usually not very good at this. But we had been talking about his teeth and his anxiety (small kids, small problems) that he was one of the last kids in his class to still sport all his twenty baby teeth. Sidebar: he ended up being the last one to lose one. At the time the new teeth had already sprung up behind and I pulled them both to create the necessary space. Anyhow, back to the ship and Sascha tucked into bed. Somehow, I managed to come up with this crazy story about a vampire who lost his fangs. Sascha loved it and I figured I’d better jot it down just in case he wanted to hear it again.
From Joe to Elizabeth
What a wonderful illustration. I love to work with Finn. He’s got such a talent to visualize my work.
Over the weeks after our cruise, I got to tell him the story a few times and he really loved it. But as is the case with all my children’s stories, I tend to put them aside. I know they need a lot of time and work. During the pandemic, as I was struck with a complete writer’s block (I still haven’t recovered), I began to edit the story, making sure it was the best it could be. Fast forward to late May and I had the idea to use this story to create a video with Sascha. We had done a couple of trailers together for my previous children’s books (here and here) and he’d done such an amazing job at reading the books that I figured, why not let him read an entire book? The idea had originally come from an author friend of mine, Bru Baker when I’d begun to read my own works live at the beginning of the pandemic (they, too, can be found on my YouTube channel.)
Meanwhile, in the editing process, Joe had become Elizabeth, as I figured the world had enough male heroes in books. I let Sascha name the vampire and he chose Elizabeth (he thinks it’s a great vampire name.) I reached out to Finn Swan, who’s been kind enough to illustrate my stories about princes Valerius & Evander. He agreed and created six beautiful drawings for it. He also created a GIF that I could use for the video.
The unintentional book
As Sascha’s summer break approached, I began work on the video and had the bright idea to create a PDF to add to the video description so that parents and kids could read along with Sascha’s narration. I used a native Mac tool to set up the pages, typeset the text, and create the PDF. Since I’m not an expert on typesetting, I sent it to my publisher for a once over. Here’s what she sent back:
“I’d rather not give you feedback on this. You won’t like it, but as you asked… The images are lovely – I saw them arrive in the Dropbox folder on Saturday. Finn’s brilliant. The story is awesome too, so you’re golden with the content, and the order of image followed by text works – that’s how we handled the V&E ebooks.
The formatting… oy. […]
Question: is there a reason you’re doing this yourself rather than through BTP? I’d already included it in this year’s schedule.”
She was right, of course. My response was short and sweet: “It’s all yours.” I hadn’t known that she’d put it in the BTP schedule nor that she wanted to publish this. Two days later, the book was out, and Sascha was still in school. That’s how things happen sometimes. Looking back, I’m glad that Debbie pushed for getting the book out. I think it’s a great tool for parents to talk to their kids about losing their baby teeth which can be both scary and exciting. My son was really anxious about being “left behind” in this regard and couldn’t understand that it is perfectly normal for some kids to begin losing their teeth at five, while others have to wait until they’re seven. The story provided me with an opening to talk about different being totally okay, not worse. This is a topic we’ll sadly have to revisit countless times as he grows up, in so many other areas of life. I’m sure other parents can relate to this.
We got to the video, at last
Summer came, summer almost ended, before we got around to actually sit down and record the video. Sascha was stellar (yeah, totally biased) and after a day of editing and Sascha choosing a musical score, we published the video on my YouTube channel. And ever since then, Sascha’s been asking me almost daily about likes. His generation is totally in sync with that sort of thing. So help him feel great about himself, watch the video and press the “thumbs up”, and feel free to like and share it on Facebook or other social media.
As always, the book is available as a paperback and ebook from Beaten Track and is sold worldwide from Amazon and many other retailers, online but also from local bookstores (ask for it.) If you’d like to give it away as a gift to someone and wish it to be signed by me and/or Sascha, you can buy it directly from me.
The pandemic and the state of the world killed my muse
You probably saw my post last week about the art project that I’ve been a part of. It’s been a welcome escape from my regular writing. But even though the post is long and includes several poems, I haven’t “really” written anything substantial in the past three months. Most of the poetry included in last week’s post was written prior to the pandemic. I just can’t seem to be writing fiction anymore. The state of the world, and how quickly it is descending into chaos is deeply disturbing for a soul like mine, and the pain metaphysically alters my ability to concentrate and write.
The hunt for good news
March 17, 2020, the date none of us will ever forget. The day things went sour here in Sweden and elsewhere. The exact day may have varied. It was sooner in Spain and Italy, later in other geographies. Two-and-a-half months later, we’re still in the middle of this pandemic and I find myself staring at the statistics from the Johns Hopkins University ten times a day (at least), looking for hope, looking for the graphs to turn downward, the number of cases to drop, etc. Alas, so far, no such luck. As a European with tentacles all over the world, I follow not only the European numbers, but the American ones as well, and the signs are deeply disturbing. I won’t get into a numbers game or even try to understand how the numbers relate and compare (or not), as even my own country’s numbers can’t be taken at face value. Changes in testing, ramping up testing, changes in who’s tested, and so on and so forth obviously impact the graphs which still look worrying from the outside (if you don’t know how to interpret them.) Good news is scarce these days, but it’s out there, at least with regards to the disease, in Europe.
Turn off the news…
I also spend some time on Facebook, staying in touch with friends and family around the world, and my stream includes a lot of “other”, political memes, articles, and whatnot. That’s usually more disturbing than anything else. I read a lot of newspapers, too, from local news from Sweden to Süddeutsche Zeitung, FAZ, the Guardian, the Independent, CNN, The Washington Post, etc. I like to be informed, I need to stay abreast of what’s going on. Recently, good news has been scarce, or they drown in the pile of manure that is headlining. The first commercial rocket to bring people to ISS, an amazing feat, yet who cares? Instead, it’s hashtags like #ICantBreathe or #BlackLivesMatter which take up all the oxygen in the room, not to mention the evil that currently resides in the White House in Washington, and his utter lack of empathy for those less fortunate.
I wish I could turn off the news, ignore it, but I can’t. I need to know, I need to somehow feel, believe that the good of humankind will prevail over the evil. Right now, the optimist within me is desperate, losing hope. The signs are bad. Facing climate change, facing the biggest global unemployment since the 1930s crash, all of this coupled with an unprecedented divide between the haves and the have nots is not leaving me much to be optimistic about.
Even in a relatively healthy society like Sweden’s, the signs are troubling: our elder care and our healthcare system is anemic, having been deprived of much-needed resources for decades. Doctors don’t have time to visit patients, we send people home too fast, too soon, and what was once a retirement home is now a hospice where people go to die. Is this what we envisioned when the law was changed in 1992? Hardly. But that’s the reality. We pay our nurses so miserably they flee in droves to work in Norway instead. The same with doctors who pull insane shifts in ICUs to cope with things.
My mind keeps reeling: what will the future hold?
So I don’t write. I worry. I think. I try to come up with ideas of how we can overcome the situation. What can we do to fix climate change, fund our healthcare, get people back to work and create a society where everybody feels needed and is valued, regardless of how they look, appear, or whom they love? Is this really too much to ask for? I worry, and while I worry, I can’t write. Who knows when I’ll be able to listen to my voices again, to hear them speak to me, loud enough for me to hear them. Two things need to happen: either my voices start to speak up, speak louder, or the noise around me needs to quiet down. Right now, neither seems likely.
This year will see a different Earth, regardless of how we feel about that
This is the third month of the Covid-19 pandemic here in Sweden, and while we have reached the plateau and our state. epidemiologist informs us that our R-number is below 1 right now (meaning that each sick person infects, on average, less than one person) we see no end in sight. Our rules of social distancing, no-travel, work from home, etc. are still in place and today, I feel a great deal of sorrow. Not only is it the fact that there seems to be no end in sight (experts speaking that this could be going on well into 2022 depending on when a vaccine becomes widely available) but the psychological effects of the pandemic are palpable, everywhere.
Isolated for weeks with no end in sight
While we’ve been lucky here to have avoided the most severe “lock-downs”, the rules here in Sweden are less draconic, but still: our airport had one flight per day for 7 weeks, we’ve worked from home for almost two months, theaters, playhouses, the opera, and all concert halls have been closed for as long. We had to cancel attendance at birthday parties and some planned dinner parties with friends have never made it out of the planning stage. And while our government is proud to claim that the avoidance of a total lockdown enables us to sustain our restrictions for a much longer time, I’m not sure I even want to contemplate another two years of this. I can’t even see summer coming without a trip to see my dad.
I’m not alone. I think loads of people feel the same, and while 99.99% of us follow the rules, some “idiots” have taken to the streets to complain loudly, armed to the teeth, which says a lot about their true intentions. But even regular people around the world probably wish we’d wake from this nightmare, that we’d be able to attend concerts again, go to the movies or drink a beer in a bar. Alas, that day eludes us.
The victims are found everywhere, from mass graves to the gig economy
Now, I mustn’t complain. There are people who’ve lost their jobs, their livelihoods, their homes. I have friends, family in much worse situations. I watch on in horror as mass graves are dug around the world to dispose of bodies nobody’s claiming. Not just in the slums of the poorest cities in the world, but in the west as well, e.g. New York’s Hart Island. For weeks, my most visited website ahs been the Corona page of John’s Hopkins University and every weekday at two pm I’ve been tuning into the press conference of our authorities to get the latest “scoops” in the fight against covid-19. I haven’t written a word of fiction in over two months. My mind just isn’t in it. I do grocery shopping for the elderly on the island which is super rewarding. Yet, looking back, my own life hasn’t really changed that much. Yes, I’ve lost a major consulting gig with great potential because of the pandemic, I probably sell fewer books because of covid. But my husband still works, our son is still going to school, and I’m used to working from home, have done it for a decade. My life is not much different than it was compared to last spring. What’s changed is the perception of it.
For the hundreds of thousands who’ve perished, and their loved ones, reality HAS changed, and this new reality is grim. For those hanging on to live in ventilators around the world, fighting for every breath, this new reality is about life and death. For people struggling to put food on plates, the new normal is anything but normal. For companies trying to stay afloat without their customers, covid-19 is a game-changer. This pandemic is altering our societies, our economies, and our way of life forever. And I doubt it will ever go back to the way it was before, and that makes me sad.
Is there a silver lining?
We don’t know what the future will look like. Will the clear water in the canals of Venice and the dolphins stay? Probably not. Will the people of Delhi be able to enjoy blue skies even after the pandemic? Not likely. There are reports of wildlife reclaiming their habitats as humanity (temporarily) retreats. Sadly, chances are the backlash will be swift. Although, there is hope. There is hope that the people of Venice will get used to seeing dolphins and will want them to stay and enact measure to protect them and the clear waters. There is a sliver of hope that the people of Delhi will cherish seeing the blue skies above them and will enact legislation to protect the environment. There is hope. For Mother Earth, our environment. There is hope that fewer planes in the air will help the climate, that politicians will make sure that the post-covid society will be more gentle to our planet.
Once upon a time, going places. Taken 30,000+ ft in the air.
In psychology, grief theory suggests a number of steps to go through: rejection, anger, depression, bargaining & acceptance. It would seem that I’m in the “depression” stage, right now. Eventually, you might see me talk about how “amazing” things were in the past (not sure though), but there will be a time when we come to accept what has been will never be what is, and I presume that is good. The world has always been changing and throughout history, events like pandemics have always altered societies, sometimes for good, sometimes not so much. But change is inevitable. It is up to us to make the best of the situation. I for one hope that we see a gentler, more caring society emerge, a society where we invest more in healthcare and the common services we all share and cherish in this difficult time (schools, elder care, libraries, etc.)
I will travel again…
I miss traveling, weirdly enough because I’m not supposed to, not because we had to cancel any trips. But I know that I will travel again. The wandering gene within me has not been switched off. And whenever, and however, restrictions are loosened, I know I will be going to the airport and board a plane to elsewhere, to meet new people, experience new things. Until then, I have Instagram and my friends around the world. As any seasoned traveler will tell you, anticipation is one of the greatest perks of travel. My next trip, to the undiscovered country, has me in anticipatory stitches right now.
Eleven months ago, today, I embarked on an incredible journey…
Just around the corner from here, shortly after I took this picture, Matt appeared to me for the first time. Taken March 28, 2019. Photo: private
Two months from now, the book will see the light of day. It’s funny to go back and look at the date a file was created. Thursday, March 28, 2019, at 15:46. I remember it well because the circumstances of Matt’s appearance in my life were unusual. He suddenly popped up as I was out and about walking across the island, as I did every Thursday back then. I vividly remember the spot, an area carved out by ice age glaciers just before you climb up a small hill, trees all around the path. After returning home from that walk, I began writing. A lot has happened since then, one of which is that I’ve barely blogged in recent months. My apologies. I’ve recently taken up a small consulting gig for an IT firm in town and I’m working more than 50% there, which takes two valuable days out of my schedule for writing. On the other hand, my bank account is looking more pleased than in a long time.
Matt: from hereon in
I finished the manuscript in January and have since been working on covers. it depicts a lighthouse in the fog, but unlike the white light of a regular lighthouse, the one on Matt’s cover is green, which is eventually how Matt will learn to communicate. With a green light, not a lighthouse. 😉 The next step on getting the book out include, of course, typesetting, editing, and proofing, but also the recording of the audio version. I can’t wait to hear the magic Vance will bring to this story.
To write about someone who’s “unlike” the author is always tricky. Last summer, I attended an LGBT event in the US where someone from the disability community quite vocally accused me of not knowing wtf I was doing because the back matter of my novel Spanish Bay used the word “wheelchair-bound” instead of “user” as the current nomenclature recommends. It was a harrowing experience because said person had neither read the book nor considered that the US isn’t the only place where people speak and use English. Don’t get me wrong. My publisher and I immediately updated the cover to reflect the updated language and I am well aware that language is a living matter that changes and evolves. And I am happy to learn about such changes. It wasn’t the message per se that shocked me, more how it was presented with the explicit accusation of not caring, of attention-seeking, of appropriation.
At the time I had already begun work on Matt, and I was deep in research about his capacity, physically, mentally and emotionally. Matt suffers from cerebral palsy and while I have close friends who live with this affliction, none of them are as impaired by it as Matt. My research had to go deeper and so I reached out to people in the field who work with people like Matt. While they may not have the same diagnosis, the effects of how their body responds are similar: lack of movement, lack of the ability to communicate freely. All the while writing and changing, with the fear of getting it wrong in the back of my mind.
We live in a day and age where minorities have more voice than ever before, which is a great thing. And unfortunately, some people tend to take (still) advantage of others, for personal gain, for political reasons or as the pun of a joke. When you write about a character for the sake of checking a box, I can understand that people might react. I sometimes feel the same when I watch movies or a TV show that highlights LGBTQ characters. Are they in there to tick off that box or do the creators genuinely wish to reflect the fact that we are everywhere in society? Not always easy to answer.
My characters pop up, out of the blue, but they obviously don’t do so without some sort of context. I have a very good friend to whom I speak almost daily, and as she is differently-abled herself, the topic of disabled characters in books comes up every now and then. I should probably write “the lack thereof”, as there are few books who showcase differently-abled characters in the main role. I was very proud of having written Spanish Bay, with the main character a wheelchair user (see, I learn), and I stand by my book, the story, and the cover. I guess Matt is born of the many conversations with Tracy, my upbringing around people with mental impairments (my mother’s best friend’s daughter, probably fifteen years my senior, was severely impaired, but that didn’t hinder us kids from playing together just fine.) As a father, I think it’s important to teach my son that the value of a living being is constant regardless of their physical appearance or mental capacity, whether we are talking about animals or human beings. At the core, I believe that this is what humanity is all about.
A fictional character, but
I have read many posts, comments, and reviews of books where people comment that the character “isn’t like me” and therefore cannot be realistic. Well, here’s my take on this: it doesn’t matter if a character isn’t like you, isn’t a mirror image of what you are like. That is true for many reasons. I don’t disavow Romeo and Juliet because they’re not like me (gay.) I don’t toss Harry Potter aside because he’s got dark hair where mine’s dark blonde. The problem is labeling books as being of a certain “kind”: this is a gay book (which kind of turns away straight readers) or this is a “disability book” as if it’s only meant to be read by people with disabilities. We have a tendency to box ourselves in so much that we expect to read fictional stories about ourselves rather than trusting various authors’ capacity to create stories that speak to the human condition.
I’m always saddened when people say “I can’t read your books, I’m not gay.” Well, my books are hopefully good enough to appeal to every kind of person interested in a certain topic, and hopefully, I’m a good enough author to bring people of different backgrounds closer to whomever, regardless. Empathy. That’s what this is all about. On the flip-side, labeling helps authors and publishers to market books. If you want to read about a gay character, you will find my books that way, even though the story may be about Alzheimer’s, or being of old age or, as in Matt’s case, being unable to communicate with your surroundings. But most importantly, if there is any message that spans across all my books, it’s that we are all human beings, regardless of who we are and the things we go through. You could say that I write about the human condition but from the point of view of a very specific subset of people.
Coming April 30, 2020
Matt-More Than Words is coming April 30 from my publisher, Beaten Track. And as with each and every one of my novels, I’m really looking forward to this one. It is an important story for a great many reasons, and I hope it will find a home in many readers’ hearts. Matt will also find another way to express himself. I am part of a write dance project and in May we’ll go on tour with our work. I am working on a poem about Matt, and together with an amazing dancer, we’ll perform a piece. I was intrigued by the challenge to put in words (poetry) Matt’s predicament of being unable to communicate, and almost more so about dancing the inability to move voluntarily. Izabell, an insanely talented dancer has taken early drafts of my poem and sent me a recording of an improv dance she’d created. Based on her dance, I went back and re-wrote the poem. We bounce off of each other to create a piece that hopefully will hold up and can be displayed to an audience here in West Sweden and Oslo, as we go on tour in May. Stay tuned, either here or on my Facebook page, for updates.
Is knowing a lot of languages always a good thing?
I’m multilingual, polyglot if you will. I speak more than one language. Doomed to it, as it were. In Switzerland, where I was born and raised, we have four official languages, and I just happened to go to school in that one corner of the country where they speak the country’s smallest language, Rhaeto-Romance, an odd mix between Celtic and Latin.
But, my mother tongue or my first language is Alemannic, which is the language spoken in e.g. Alsace, parts of southernmost Germany, Switzerland, Vorarlberg in Austria and Liechtenstein. It’s a Germanic language but lacks a formal written language. People often call it “Swiss German”, but that’s not linguistically entirely accurate, and it’s very complicated when you blend it Luther, German politics and history. Safe to say that Swiss German is what I’d consider most Swiss speak when they speak High German, language #3 in my life, first taught in fifth grade with a book I remember fondly “Deutsch für Ausländer” where we practiced for hours how to pronounce numbers and colors.
Trilingual by the age of ten, Hexa-lingual by age fourteen, Dodeca-lingual after uni
Let’s fast-forward a few years, to junior high-school, where Latin, French and Italian were added to the languages I had regular weekly lessons in. In ninth grade, English was added, and when I began to study at university, my choice subject added five more languages: Old Norse, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic.
Sometimes when you hear people who are multilingual being mentioned in the media you get the impression they all speak a multitude of languages fluently. I don’t, and I never even tried to pretend I do. I was fluent in French at the age of sixteen. Today I still speak it, but I often stumble and have to think about the words I want to use. It serves me for my trips to France, or so I hope, as we visit Paris next week. I was never fluent in Italian, but I get by. When it comes to the “dead” languages of Latin and Old Norse, there aren’t any people to talk to, as the Pope won’t accept my calls and the Vikings are long gone. Also, my studies, especially of Old Norse were not very in-depth. The same is true of Danish, Norwegian and particularly Icelandic. While I can read and understand texts, especially in the former two, thanks to the kindred spirits of all germanic languages, any native speaker will immediately call out my Swedish accent when I try to speak. Up here, we call that “Scandinavian”, this weird blend of our own language with that of our neighbors to make ourselves more easily understood. Often enough, Scandinavians resort to English instead.
Rhaeto-Romance, however, is almost gone. Having been bullied throughout my entire childhood and adolescence, the language became a scapegoat for my emotions and I refused to speak it to anyone or to read any books in the language. Today, I can barely understand people speaking it and even reading is tough. I regret my feelings, but it is what it is. The locals didn’t make it any easier by conjuring up a stupid writing language that was supposed to unite the five idioms but did more harm in the process. It came right at the end of my education and strengthened my resolve to not engage.
I still speak four languages without hinder…
So, what’s left? Alemannic (Saint-Gallese dialect to be exact), German, English, and Swedish. Languages 1, 3, 7 and 9. It makes no sense, right? After that, I’d say French (5) and Italian (6) would follow, then Norwegian (11) and Danish (10.) But still, I’m glad to have those four to speak. And write, right? Wrong.
Just a sample of what my native tongue looks like in writing, laced with some words spelled in German, probably for lack of knowing ‘how’ to…
First of all, #1 has no formal codified writing, and you should see text messages we send to each other. Everybody just writes anyway they like, in their own dialect, which varies from town to town. Trust me, even reading it is sometimes challenging. German is another thing entirely, as the stupid ministers of culture changed the way the language is written actively as I was in college and basically screwed it all up. I mean I can still write letters and emails, but I could never write professionally. I’d be ashamed to screw things up because, quite frankly, I have no clue what’s what these days. And I say this remembering that as a Swiss, “our” German is vastly different from that in Germany or Austria, and just to repeat, the Swiss written German, which we call “Hochdeutsch” is nothing, but absolutely nothing like Alemannic.
Which leaves Swedish and English. And I’ve always felt more comfortable writing my prose in English. There are also more English readers than Swedish ones, by a factor of a hundred or so, which made the decision easier.
…but hardly perfectly…
BUT, and I think monolingual people find the concept hard to grasp, I don’t speak any language perfectly. Not that anyone really does, but my point is this: you know the name of a flower in one language, but not in any other. When I returned from my stay in the US in 1987, I had learned a lot of specific terms around funerals, as I’d had to attend a couple, but I didn’t know those terms in Alemannic, my first language. Or any other language for that matter. And that is the case for every situational vocabulary. I’ve learned a lot of terms in English working for “corporate America”, words I have no idea what they’re called in Switzerland or Germany. Some I know in Swedish, etc.
It never ends. Right now, with a son in school, I learn a lot of terms related to school in English, as he’s visiting an English one, but I often struggle with the Swedish equivalents, not to mention the Alemannic or German ones. The list goes on and on.
The more languages you speak, the less you actually know, or so it feels
Sometimes I feel like I have NO language that is truly mine. I’ve not lived in Switzerland for twenty-seven years, so my Alemannic, though spoken regularly, is probably anything but current. My English is a mixture of the Sassenach learned in school, the American learned in High School in the US, and the international variations which are spoken all around me: Indian English, Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English, Singapore English, Canadian English, and various other non-native flavors. Do I always know the difference between elevator and lift, truck and lorry, etc.? I wish… I’ve already mentioned my troubles with German, where I’ve never lived, a country where people speak very differently in Bavaria, Hamburg, Berlin or Dresden. I tend to pick up nuances and yeah, my Swiss accent will always give me away, no matter how hard I try to speak Standard German (which no human really speaks in their everyday life) rather than Swiss German, Pferd instead of Ross, etc. And my vocabulary is somewhat limited, especially with regards to “working” situations. To illustrate my frustration, allow me to use an example: a couple of weeks ago, my son asked me about barnacles and how they were attached to whales. I was at a loss, as I’d never even heard the word, not consciously anyway. I had to google. Look it up. And yeah, I did know what it is, in Swedish. But yeah, not in English. The facial expression on my son’s face, that he (English is his first language) knew a word I didn’t, was priceless. It won’t be the last time I get to experience that as he goes through his education learning more and more English, while I go on being lost in translation.
This is a weird situation to be in, especially for someone who uses “language” as his primary source of income. Not a good feeling. And I wonder how monolinguists feel in that situation? Do they simply learn the word? Do they forget again? It’s taken me weeks to remember this new word in English. And I typically, when I learn a new word, need to remember it in more than one language. But more than that, the feeling of inadequacy is that which lingers the longest. To be polyglot, multilingual also means the loss of a native language, a mother-tongue if you will. That is probably that which affects me the most, as we so often associate language with culture, leading me to questions like “who am I?” or “what am I?” I doubt I’ll ever have definitive answers to those burning questions.