Saturday, 14 January 2012

“Do you feel Swedish?”

Some time ago, I listened to an interview on Swedish radio, where the guest was a best-selling novelist. The novelist was Swedish, officially, by which I mean that he had one of those hyphenated nationalities whose left-most half sticks to you no matter how long and how well you have been naturalised into the right-most half. That’s what happens when you choose to label people by means of locations, and then decide that locations identify people.

The Swedish-Swedish interviewer steered the conversation along the well-trodden tracks of chats with writers, asking things like when his literary epiphany had manifested itself, and whether/when/how he had been able to turn book-writing into a livelihood. There followed a sample of equally standard questions which are asked of multilingual writers in countries where the standard persuasion is that everyone within their borders is standardly monolingual, mono-ethnic and monocultural: why had the immigrant emigrated, how had he managed to gain such command of Swedish, so late in life and in such a way that he wrote highly-regarded literature in the language, all of this duly interspersed with the usual awed noises about multilingual proficiency. And then, the million-dollar question: Känner du dig svensk? (‘Do you feel Swedish?’).

I don’t know whether the interviewer had any more questions in stock, but this one ended up being the interview’s last question because the novelist didn’t answer it. This is one of those information questions disguised as yes-or-no questions, like “Could you tell me the time, please?” or “Haven’t we met before?”, whose modus operandi you can read about in Chapter 10 of The Language of Language. The short of it is that a simple yes-or-no answer is no answer, although a definite yes-or-no turned out to be what the interviewer demanded. The novelist started by talking a little about Swedish traditions that he had learnt to cherish, and about Other traditions that he no longer cherished, and expanded a little on how and why, to no avail: Ja, men känner du dig svensk? (‘Yes, but do you feel Swedish?’). So he talked some more, about differences and similarities between Otherness and Swedishness, that likewise were neither yesses nor noes, until time was up.

The impression that lingered on at the end of the interview was that the novelist had refused to answer an important question, one which was so important that the interviewer had in turn refused to let go of it. I wondered. What does it mean to “feel” a nationality, and a single yes-or-no nationality at that? Like if you’re a twin, and someone who isn’t asks you what it feels like to be one: what do you say? I wondered what the interviewer would have answered, if the novelist had countered with something like “Do you?” There seem to be “proper” answers to questions like these, which have less to do with what people actually feel than with what people are expected to feel. Which doesn’t mean that the questions make sense. I’ve also lived in Sweden (on and off, admittedly), I’ve also written in Swedish (though not books, let alone novels), I’ve also adopted and shed a few Swedish and Other traditions, and I can’t answer the question either. Perhaps I am not entitled to be asked this question anyway, because I am not “Swedish”. But do I feel “Portuguese”, which I am? Hmm....

Like many of us, the interviewer appeared stumped by two things. First, the evidence of a competent user of a language which is not “his” – with literary elegance to boot. That’s what happens when you choose to assign ownership to languages, and then decide that ownership doesn’t transfer. Second, the assumption that a Swede, even (or perhaps especially) an Other-Swede, should be able (or willing) to answer questions about things “Swedish”. That’s what happens when you haven’t had a chance to read my previous post.

What happens in real life, then, where people own different languages for the same reasons that they own different clothes, relate to what these languages represent in different ways that make different everyday sense to them, and feel at home, also in different ways, in all of them? The next couple of posts deal with these matters.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Multiculturalism, and other big words. Saturday 21st January 2012.

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