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The Genius of Language


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Table of Contents

Introduction Wendy Lesser

The Way Back Bharati Mukherjee

Yes and No Amy Tan

Trouble with Language Josef Skvorecky

Circus Biped Bert Keizer

French Without Tears Luc Sante

Prelude Thomas Laqueur

Recovering the Original Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Split Self Nicholas Papandreou

Limpid, Blue, Poppy M. J. Fitzgerald

Personal and Singular Ha-yun Jung

On Being an Orphaned Writer Louis Begley

The Mother Tongue Between Two Slices of Rye Gary Shteyngart

Boswell and Mrs. Miller James Campbell

Footnotes to a Double Life Ariel Dorfman

My Yiddish Leonard Michaels

About the Contributors

About the Author

Wendy Lesser is the founding editor of The Threepenny Review and the author of four previous books. Her reviews and essays appear in major newspapers and magazines across the country. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation, and in 1997 she received the Morton Dauwen Zaub Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and son.


Writers from Bharati Mukherjee to Josef Akvoreck" to Amy Tan have a lot to say about language. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

The 15 writers gathered in this often delightful collection consider the impact their bilingualism has had on the development of their craft: they would all agree with Luc Sante, who writes of his inexorable "internal foreignness." All the writers argue that, in some sense, it was precisely that feeling of displacement, of not quite fitting into the surrounding environment, that made them writers at all. For Sante, as for others, foreignness is both a curse and a blessing, and French-his mother tongue-becomes both the barrier to his perfect assimilation into his new American surroundings and a treasured secret, a sanctuary of words. The experience of exile from linguistic security simultaneously allowed the contributors the freedom of unencumbered expression. In a book that asks its contributors-among them Amy Tan, Josef Skvoreck" and Ariel Dorfman-to look back at their formative years, it becomes almost inevitable that the essays will indulge in more than a little nostalgia, even when the youth depicted would not seem to provide fodder for fond remembrance. The essays often follow a narrative long familiar to Americans: from the linguistic and cultural security of the family to the attempt at assimilation into the (mostly) American environment through the rejection of the older tongue, to a belated appreciation for the traditions and expressions of old. Despite the somewhat predictable plot line, these writers, gathered by the founding editor of Threepenny Review, vividly recount the process that anyone who loves words goes through: the process of falling under the spell of language's seemingly infinite potential. (July 27) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Adult/High School-Luc Sante arrived from Belgium in the U.S. as a small boy, learned English, but kept his childhood French because of, among other things, his continuing access to comic books. M. J. Fitzgerald was born to American parents living abroad; the children in the family learned to understand their parents' spoken English but their own lives, and childhood literacy, happened in Italian. Ariel Dorfman's life, from infancy, has wavered back and forth from Spanish to English to Spanish to English again. These and the dozen other writers (Amy Tan, Bharati Mukherjee, Thomas Lacquer) who contributed to this collection share a past in a language other than English as the underpinning to an adult career as an English-language author. Arranged in the alphabetical order of their first languages, this anthology includes 20th-century writers from every continent except Australia. Scenes of childhood and adolescence are heavily and engagingly featured, as are cultural confusions and immigrant-family tensions. Each piece is strong and polished, making the whole a glowing collection. Teens who read, travel, or share aspects of these writers' experiences with learning English will enjoy this book with no pushing; teachers will find it excellent curriculum support material for world literature and expository writing classes.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

"Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful. . . . It is impossible to do do justice to all of the outstanding essays in this volume." --San Francisco Chronicle"Charming, moving and funny reflections on childhood, family, nationality, and ethnicity as well as language. . . . Genuinely transporting" --The New York Sun "Eloquently explores the links between childhood and language." -Chicago Tribune"Provides readers not just with a peak inside the heads of these dazzling writers, but a trip to each of their homelands, from Russia to Italy to Chile." --Conde Nast Traveler"This delightful collection E vividly recounts the process that anyone who loves words goes through: the process of falling under the spell of language's seemingly infinite potential." --Publishers Weekly "Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful E this volume provides fascinating insight into the way that grappling with language is a way people also grapple with life." --San Francisco Chronicle"This is a collection that should heighten anyone's awareness of the potential and the limitation of the English language." --San Jose Mercury News"Ms. Lesser's contemporary Conrads - writers who write in English though it's not their first language - have delivered charming, moving and funny reflections on childhood, family, nationality, and ethnicity as well as language." --New York Sun"I laughed and cried over this collection of stories embracing the English language. {One of the 25 best books of 2004}." --Seattle Times and Post- Intelligencer "A rich and surprising book brimming with love of culture and respect of language." --Tucson Citizen"Powerful for their brevity E the richness and the range of the collection make this a valuable anthology." --Kliatt (Massachusetts) "This collection of essays is fascinating." - Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times

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