We all know how it feels to write in a language that is not your mother tongue: it's frustrating and exhausting. Now imagine you don't just have to write a simple essay to catch some credits before you finish your Erasmus, but that you try to write a novel. Let's add some rules to make it more fun: English is out of the game. And then make it even more difficult: get the critics and public to love your book, and become a renowned writer. You think that's impossible? Then you need to listen to Alexandra Salmela, Laia Fàbregas and Wladimir Kaminer's stories.
A woman approached Alexandra Salmela on a train some months ago: "It's nice that you can speak Finnish so well," the woman said with a smile. In Finland everybody knows Salmela since she won the Helsingin Sanomat literature prize last november, which rewards the best debut novel of the year in Finnish. Salmela, who is 30 years old and was born and raised in Slovakia, is the first non-native speaker to win such a distinction and that has created a big media reaction around her. "I was actually surprised that everybody was so interested," Salmela explains, "I didn't know that it would be such a big thing."
Writing a novel in Finnish was not in Salmela's future plans when she was an adolescent. She only wanted to leave Bratislava where she was studying theatre dramaturgy and drowning in its boring atmosphere. "Prague was the city," Salmela says. But she had to come up with a good excuse to leave home, her parents wouldn't let her go so easily.
By then her best friend from high school was obsessed with studying Finnish and insisted Salmela should try it too. A light switched on in Salmela's mind: "Because it was impossible to study Finnish in Bratislava, I could use this as an excuse to get away from home." Telling her parents was actually much easier than she expected: "I told my parents that Slovak and Finnish with basic English skill would make a rare language combination that would be very much valued after Slovakia finally managed to join the EU."
Writing a novel in Dutch was not in Laia Fàbrega's plans either – and now she has already published two. The Catalan writer left Barcelona in 1997 to do an Erasmus in Utrecht, where she studied fine art. When she graduated, she decided to stay a bit longer in the Netherlands: "The 2-3 years I planned became 12".
Fàbregas didn't even think about becoming a writer, like Salmela did when she was young. "I had written some stories when I was 19," the Catalan says, "I won some literary prizes at school, but that was it." She was more into sculpture and performance. "My art had always been very related to words," she explains, and so when the Gerrit Rietveld art school in Amsterdam launched the program "Art and text" in 2003, she quickly enrolled. "During the first year they made me write poems and short stories," Fàbregas recalls, "so that's how it all started, almost out of obligation."
Wladimir Kaminer didn't even speak a word of German when he set foot in the country for the first time. "It was the first of July, 1990," he remembers. "That year Germany won the soccer world cup." At school in Moscow, where he was born, they only learned some English. "The only thing I knew was that I wanted to travel," Kaminer says, but all the English-speaking countries were unreachable for a 23-year-old with a USSR passport. In East Germany, though, you didn't need any special visa, it was perfect for "lazy tourists."
Kaminer couldn't stand the strictness of Moscow anymore. "I always felt I was a prisoner of the tight state structure," Kaminer recalls, "you couldn't build anything on your own in the USSR." In Germany, those structures were loose and people had much more freedom. Kaminer moved to an area in former East Berlin, to which people from all over the world were coming, looking for an alternative lifestyle. "It was like a dream for me," the Russian recalls, "here I had so much I could reach quickly, things that I could never have reached in post-socialist Russia."
During the three years in Prague studying Finnish, Salmela met the man who was going to be her future husband – and who, surprise surprise, happened to be Finnish. After some years travelling back and forth from Finland to Prague because of Salmela's love for the Bohemian city, the couple decided to settle in Tampere, a small town about two hours north of Helsinki. Salmela was pregnant.
One day, reading the newspaper, Salmela found out about a literary competition for people whose mother tongue wasn't Finnish. "I wanted to know: Can I make it? And how? Can I write in Finnish? Can I write at all anymore?" Salmela asked herself. By then she had been studying Finnish for six years and living in finland for one and half. "It was a challenge for me".
Listen to Alexandra Salmela reading a passage of her first novel, 27 Eli kuolema tekee taiteilijan ("27 Or Death Makes an Artist") in Finnish:
What she remembers of those first lines is "rush". "I didn't have too much time for it," she says. She had to take care of her son and also worked as a translator, but her experience wasn't useful in this new task. "It just didn't make any sense to think in Slovak and then translate it," Salmela says, "I had to switch completely into the other language and think everything in Finnish."
The response of the publishing house which organised the competition was very positive and Salmela asked whether they would be interested if she wrote something longer. She didn't have any text written yet, maybe just a couple of scratch pages, and she had no idea what she would write about. Even so, the publishing company was interested. "That was a big moral support for me," Salmela says, "I probably wouldn't have tried this kind of writing without their support."
Fàbregas felt the support of her classmates and professors when they read her short stories. "In that class, doing exercises, criticising each other's stories, I overcame the fear of making mistakes in Dutch," she says. That was key for her to win confidence and approach a literary agent who was looking for new people. She showed him just the 20 pages she had written of a short story, but that was enough: "This is really good, you almost have the synopsis for a novel here. Keep writing. We'll publish it."
Now Fàbregas felt the obligation to write, there were people waiting for her to finish that novel. Although she had been in the Netherlands for seven years, mainly living and speaking with Dutch people, she still felt insecure about the language when it came to writing literature. "I knew I had stories to tell, but I didn't know how to tell them in Dutch" Fàbregas explains.
Although Kaminer couldn't yet speak perfect German, he soon became a popular figure in the Berlin underground scene. "There wasn't any bar here in East Berlin which wouldn't have at the same time a debate club or a podium discussion. Culture was everywhere," he recalls. People began inviting Kaminer to share his stories and give talks in those bars. He would talk about anything, from Soviet astronauts to Russian literature, and people seemed to like it. "I noticed that they were having fun, that they laughed and reacted to my stories in a vivid way," Kaminer explains, "that's how I started to write stories." After five years going from bar to bar, those funny scripts would pile up together and become his first book, Russendisko (Russian Disco).
Making up words, blending worlds
Using Finnish as her only tool to develop a story, Salmela felt like a kid who still had to learn it all. "I don't have any respect for the language, nobody ever taught me 'you cannot use this expression, you have to use another one'," she explains, but that actually became an advantage for her: "Then you can just try anything, which in a way is like playing." Salmela believes that the Finnish language is very free, very open, and that it's constantly developing. What Salmela misses from Slovak is that she can write very precisely in that language, and that she has a wider range of vocabulary. "But Slovak is lacking the freedom and a kind of ruthlessness," she says.
Some people in Finland consider that Salmela is modernising the language. "That might be true, I don't know," she says. "The language itself has the potential of being changed. But people don't do it, they don't start using the language differently... Well, it sounds weird maybe... Maybe that's the thing, that they don't have the guts to do it, because in a certain way I'm just improvising, even in the situations where I can't find any other words".
Finns have been very nice and grateful to Salmela. They liked the fact that she studied Finnish. "They were so concerned about Finnish being the most difficult language in the world", Salmela explains, "but it's not true. I just broke the myth, in a way."
Listen to Laia Fàbregas reading a passage of her first novel, Het meisje met de negen vingers (The girl with nine fingers), in Dutch:
Fàbregas' classmates enjoyed how she played with Dutch too. "Of course I was making spelling and grammar mistakes", she says, "but I realised that I was coming up with expressions that I thought were right and they weren't, but they sounded beautiful, as if I were making up new metaphors". "Oh, I really like this sentence", a classmate would say pointing at a line that Fàbregas wasn't especially proud of. When she was writing it, she thought that's how you would describe it in Dutch. "But then the one I liked and thought was beautiful, they said that one was wrong and incomprehensible," she explains.
So she developed her personal style. "Dutch is a very difficult language, it doesn't allow a lot of dependent clauses, like Spanish or Catalan, in which we can write very long sentences." What she misses from her native tongue is how flexible the word order is in a sentence. "And also being able to write without looking up words in the dictionary," she adds.
When he began to write in German – and still now – Kaminer needed "great concentration and attentiveness". "When you're writing in a foreign language you have to check everything, every sentence, every word, three times." Kaminer thinks that might have made him a better writer than if he had written in Russian. "If I had written in my mother tongue, I wouldn't have been so exact, so clear, so tight."
What he likes about German is that it has an "elastic" quality: "It allows you to venture in every direction." You can always make up words simply writing them together, give it a new meaning, but the best part is that everybody will immediately understand it, he says.
Yet swearing will never be the same in German. "You can curse wonderfully in Russian," Kaminer says. "In Russia almost every expression is a sign of resistance, also the language, that's why one can swear so well."
A foreign language gives you a "cunning freshness," Kaminer says. "You are born with your mother tongue, you hear it from day one, it becomes part of your self and it's impossible to separate it from you, you are that language, whereas with a foreing language it is always something foreign, and that brings you more creativity."
Language as a mirror
Can you be completely yourself when you're not writing in your mother tongue? "That never crossed my mind," Salmela answers honestly, "I don't actually know myself, I think there's a lot of selves, but it might be a little bit different depending on the language I use".
Listen to Wladimir Kaminer reading one of the short stories included in the book Es gab keinen Sex im Sozialismus ("There was no Sex during Socialism") in German:
Fàbregas answers with conviction that she is completely herself when she writes in Dutch. "I've lived there for 12 years and I'd say I became an adult there. There's a lot of things in me that belong more to the Netherlands than to Catalonia. I feel that language is close enough to me to think that I'm being myself. Maybe even the Spanish language is farther from me than Dutch, like English. I don't think in Spanish or English, but I do think in Catalan or Dutch".
It might be a question of years, because Kaminer also believes he is completely being himself when using German. "I'm 43 years old, I've been in Germany for 20 years and in Russia for 23, so that's almost parity."
The future is in other words
It's funny how none of the three writers see themselves writing a novel in their mother tongue in the near future. "I don't say no, but for me it's extremely important where I live, I have to have a living contact with the language, which lives and develops every day," Salmela says, "I don't think I'm in touch with the modern Slovak, with the slang and so on." She has some ideas for a new novel in Finnish, but what worries her most is whether people will soon forget about her, whether she will just be a "one book wonder." "There's going to be someone else, a new person who could be a little different. There's always new winners and it's hard to remember the old ones."
"My publishing house in Barcelona often asks me whether I will write a novel in Catalan in the future," Fàbregas says, but right now she's busy working on a play for a Dutch theatre company and she has already signed a contract for a third novel with her publishing house in the Netherlands. "We'll see," is all she ventures to predict.
"I don't know why everybody asks me that funny question!" Kaminer says, slightly irritated. He gets especially angry when somebody asks him why he doesn't translate his own books into Russian: "As if I had nothing better to do than writing the same book again in a different language." Kaminer believes that "in-between worlds" makes him a European writer: "It's like the USSR. It comes over and over again in my books, it is also part of the European history. It also relates to the question of the resistance – I read a lot of Russian authors, probably more than Germans, but what I write has nothing to do with contemporary Russia".