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Immigrant writers

March 15, 2011

Some immigrant novelists neglect their mother tongue to write in the language of their adopted home. Forming distinctive styles, they have won over locals and even given rise to new literary techniques.

A drawing of a person behind a stack of books in cloudy landscape
Immigration literature is the literature of the future, says one Italian editorImage: Fotolia/olly

In the pursuit of popularity, writers work diligently to create their own, unique writing style. It seems some immigrant writers have successfully managed this - simply by abandoning their mother tongue.

"French novelist Proust said that a novelist that wants to have a defined style should write in a foreign language," said Algerian-Italian writer Tahar Lamri. "That's because a foreign language forces the author to hunt for the proper imagery because they don't have an extensive vocabulary at their disposition."

The trend in Italy started in 1990, when a Senegalese immigrant and an Italian journalist penned a book together. Now, Italian publisher Campagnia della Lettere has devoted an entire department to the genre.

Often unfamiliar with generic phrases of their new language, foreigners can offer new perspectives to cliché-weary audiences. Working outside of their homeland also means that writers stay out of their literary comfort zones.

Milan Kundera
Czech-born Milan Kundera moved to France and wrote in both languagesImage: dpa

"It's the literature of those who are moving, who aren't limited by their own country," said editor Silvia De Marchi. "Some of the world's greatest literature - that of Milan Kundera, Paul Celen - was written in a language that wasn't the author's mother tongue."

Lamri added that foreigners sometimes have a greater sense of freedom when it comes to inventing expressions, without feeling obliged to stick to linguistic protocols.

"The words might not sound right in the ears of Italians. But, why not do it? What would be new without these expressions?" he said.

The Italian story

Italy is home many successful second-language writers, including native Algerian Lamri, who moved across the Tyrrhenian Sea in 1987 in pursuit of love. The romance subsided, but another love affair blossomed.

"There were other lovers yet among them probably the greatest was for the Italian language," he said.

For other authors, writing in a foreign language provided confidence they lacked in their homeland.

"I didn't dare write fiction - there were the ghosts of the great Brazilian authors like Jorge Amado weighing down on me," said 32-year-old Claudileia Lemes Dias. "I thought that I'd never reach their level."

Lemes Dias studied Italian and law in her native Brazil. She eventually moved to Rome, but ran into financial difficulties. With a son to feed, she entered an Italian writing contest that offered a 1,000-euro prize - and won. She'd never written fiction before, not even in Portuguese.

Lemes Dias is now one of Campagnia della Lettere's most successful writers. Her works fuse earthly, Latin American themes and Italian settings.

Respect for the language

Writing in a foreign language is not only progressive, it is also a matter of respect, Lemes Dias explained.

A drawing of a stick figure, his brain clearly visible, holding a stack of books
It might stretch your brain to read a book by a non-native authorImage: Fotolia/NLshop

"It's really a way to connect with the reader," she said. "For example, if someone from the UK or America comes to Italy and writes in English about Italy's problems, the Italians view him with suspicion."

Italy became a unified country 150 years ago and Tahar Lamri believes a unified prose was also adopted around that time. He said Italian-born authors often lack their own innovation, and use famous writers' works, like Dante and Petrarch, as manuals.

"I described a café as 'surly.' The editor called me and said, 'No, you don't say such a thing in Italian.' I said, 'I'm sorry but it has to remain as it is,'" he recalled.

Although immigrant books are not guaranteed to top the best-seller list, they are drawing fervent fans and the attention of not just publishers but also filmmakers. Last year, an Algerian novel was transformed into a widely released film - in Italian.

Such interest proves there is no indication that the industry is slowing down.

"Immigration literature is the literature of the future," said editor Silvia De Marchi.

Author: Nancy Greenleese / hw

Editor: Kate Bowen