Exophony: The Link Between Language And Identity

Exophonic writing offers authors the chance to cloak themselves in a different language, and thereby culture.

Exophony Jhumpa Lahiri
Exophony entails expressing oneself in a non-native tongue, making the link between literature, language and identity undeniable. Photo: Michal Balog, Unsplash.

Exophonic writing offers authors the chance to cloak themselves in a different language, and thereby culture.

Exophony is not a word that you use or even hear often, and it is practiced by only the most daring of authors. It was introduced into (very) modern vernacular in 2007 and describes the practice of writing in a language that is not one’s own. As many authors can attest, the act of putting pen to paper is challenging enough — so why endeavor upon this additional undertaking?

Not to be confused with translation, exophony entails expressing oneself in a non-native tongue. Japanese poet and author Yoko Tawada moves fluidly between her mother tongue and adopted German. She notes that, in that space between the two languages (and therefore, worlds), is where her creativity and freedom abound. This is the key difference between exophony and translation: freedom. Acclaimed translator Anita Raja emphasizes the importance of fidelity and respect when it comes to adapting a story from one language to another. She works between German and Italian, translating writers such as Christa Wolf and Ingeborg Bachmann. Both translation and exophony offer writers the opportunity to enrobe themselves in a different language; however, exophony in particular allows the author the occasion to experiment with writing, language and, ultimately, identity.

Francesca Marciano is a native Roman author and screenwriter for films spanning the genre. However, when it comes to her novels, she opts to write using her non-native English voice. The author herself is widely travelled and lived in the US for many years before her return to Rome. She first endeavored to write in English with her Rules of the Wild about expatriates living in Kenya. The novel demanded itself be written in the tongue the characters would speak, thus was Marciano’s foray into exophonic ventures.

She notes that nowadays “it’s almost as if [she] has two brains that are running parallel to one another,” providing a sense of freedom to her writing. The Other Language, Marciano’s 2014 collection of short stories, explores exactly that — the transformation that comes with trying on different cultures. Be it through clothing, former lovers or even an attempt at a new language, the protagonists throughout the book share the common thread of metamorphosis in the name of escapism and discovery. The piece is clearly a reflection of Marciano’s own personal and professional journey with the English language.

In a completely opposite scenario, American author Jhumpa Lahiri takes a linguistic pilgrimage in her non-native Italian with In Altre Parole (In Other Words). Lahiri, of Bengali descent, is known for her portrayal of the complicated relationship between language, cultural heritage and self identity. Her books, such as, The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth poignantly express the desire to shed one’s culture in order to fully step into another. Lahiri continues to explore this theme in the intimate Parole. Her love of Italy and the Italian language stems from a postcollegiate trip to Florence. She is enraptured by the language and even moves her family to Rome to obtain full immersion.

Her autobiographical piece traces her journey as she devotedly and lovingly, albeit uncomfortably at times, navigates the waters of expressing herself in a foreign language. She notes that her motive behind this mission “is that [she] is seeking the freedom to write in [her] own way, to write whatever [she] wants, in whichever language.” Identity is also an intensely important and personal theme throughout the book. As a first-generation American, Lahiri grew up speaking both English and Bengali; however, she notes that these languages were “imposed,” thus in choosing Italian, she creates an entirely independent world for herself.

The bond between language and identity is clearly inextricable. Exophonic writing offers authors the chance to cloak themselves in a different language, and thereby culture. They are freed from the confines of their mother tongue, and an Ovidian-style metamorphosis offers the chance for renewal and newfound vulnerability. Though difficult, this style of literature encourages introspective reflection — for both the reader and the writer.

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