During my Creative Writing MFA, my cohort would ask me to elaborate on an Arabic phrase I used. I told them they could look it up. A classmate responded, “but that takes us away from the story.” For a moment, I agreed, until I didn’t.

As a bilingual writer, one aspect I struggle with is whether or not to italicize any transliterated Arabic I bring into my stories. This issue is a hot topic discussed in the writing community and is constantly met with mixed opinions. On one end, the italics serve to let the reader know the writing is plainly in a different language. It is also the accepted format in most style guides. On the other end, italics make blatant separation between the two languages, separating the “foreign” language from the predominant English. To a writer who may carry a blended identity, the separation calls for them to separate the English and the “foreign”. It also does not allow for full immersion into the writer’s story, as the writer needs to sit down and explain herself.

Aside from the visual separation, there is question as to its need within the story at all. During my Creative Writing MFA, my cohort would ask me to elaborate on an Arabic phrase I used. I told them they could look it up. A classmate responded, “but that takes us away from the story.” For a moment, I agreed, until I didn’t. Let’s say that the issue at hand isn’t a “foreign” word. What if it’s a story about sailors on a voyage. Would you expect the writer to take a moment to explain what “starboard side” and “port side” are? What a “galley” is? If someone is unfamiliar, they will either take the meaning from context, or take a moment and look it up. So why are bilingual stories any different?

As young writers, we were constantly asked to explain ourselves. Don’t let the reader have to think too hard because then they’ll get bored. Why don’t you just write this part in English? What does the Arabic serve here? Feeling like I had to explain parts of me that just is me was alienating. I felt I could not fully place myself or my characters on the page, especially those that were in fact, only speaking Arabic. With the Arabic completely removed, the characters lost some of their flavor and came off inauthentic, especially losing exclamations and common phrases that don’t translate the same. Having the Arabic on the page adds layers that would especially be appreciated by bilingual readers. Language isn’t just meaning. It’s also sound and rhythm and patterns. We can trust the reader to figure it out.

So why can’t writing just be?
Language is our way of communicating with the world. If we do not communicate in a way that we are understood, then language loses its meaning.

Wait, Hana, you’re losing me here. So if language is our way of communicating, then why make it difficult?

Good question.

Here are some points to consider when wrestling with this question:

Who is your audience? Is the piece of writing directed to serve a silenced community? Or are you exposing your culture to those that are not a part of it? If it’s the former, then consider that italicizing or explaining too much will other the people you’re trying to serve. If it’s the latter, then consider that you may need to include some explanations that will guide your reader better.

What is your goal? If your goal is to immerse someone in a piece, allow those that share your culture to feel at home and those outside of it to step out of their comfort zones. I think of it like traveling to a new country. You, a foreigner to the culture, may not understand everything, but you’ll get to experience it and pick up a few things along the way. And if you are part of that culture, the story should feel a lot like coming home.

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