Over the years since I came to England in 1993 as a political refugee from Iran, I’ve been to many fiction or creative writing classes and seminars, where I was the only person who did not have English as their first language.
The teachers and the other students always welcomed me and I usually found the classes very helpful. It took me a while, but I began to wonder why no other non-native English language speakers came to these classes.
We all know London is full of non-native English speakers and among them there are many writers. Some exiled writers are members of organisations such as Exiled Writers Ink, who run readings specifically for refugees or immigrants, but the majority of exiled writers are working in isolation within their own communities; and no matter how long they have lived here, most writers from immigrant and refugee communities continue to write in their native tongues.
This last puzzles me, as while it is obviously easier to write in the mother tongue, and of course each language has its own idiom and beauty, English is the world’s international language and writing in English offers any writer a far larger potential readership.
It is true books can be translated into English but in practice only three percent of all the books published in English are translations from other languages. Writing in our mother tongues means we talk to ourselves, not the world, and I will argue that this creates a cultural apartheid, which suits the ‘cultural colonisers’.
I write because I want to speak to the world, and that surely is the reason all writers write and I wondered why other non-native English speakers were denying themselves access to the wider world. And then I questioned myself, were they in fact denying themselves deliberately or were there other factors that I had not recognised (and had somehow not experienced) which inhibit immigrant and refugee writers from trying to write in the lingua franca.
I began to look at the factors that maintain what I have called cultural apartheid. First (and this is controversial), our host country has no integration policy. The first move to integrate ‘others’ into British society would be to give newcomers access to free or very inexpensive English classes. Up until the early 1980s, this had been state policy, but slowly, both local councils and government moved from a policy of providing English classes to providing translators and interpreters. This has disempowered immigrant and refugee communities, as without real knowledge of the host language we not only have difficulty talking to our hosts, but we have difficulty communicating with different immigrant and refugee groups who speak in different languages. This policy of providing interpreters and translators rather than English classes disempowers, ghettoizes us and keeps us as the permanent ‘other’.
Perhaps we stay in our ghettoes because we feel threatened and beleaguered and feel safer among ‘ourselves’.
The Daily Mail, 17 November 2015, published racist cartoons, showing us as dangerous rats swarming into western countries, when we should be facing a closed door. Perhaps subliminally we can only write in our own ‘ratty’ languages, for our fellow ‘rats’?
And that means, while we are vilified, we are also silenced. Our stories and insights into the human condition are shared only with each other. The host ‘natives’ continue to get their information about us from the mainstream media which is not interested in our struggles any more than it is interested in western complicity in the tragedy which has overtaken so many of our countries. Now in the current crisis the media attacks the easy target of ‘people traffickers’, but not the western politics which has created this huge movement of people.
And where are the Tolstoys who will write of today’s War and Peace? Still writing in their own mother tongue, which the world will not hear?
Perhaps he or she died on their journey of escaping and never reached the ultimate exile to tell the story. And what about those who are able to bring the shell of their bodies to the shore of exile? There are so many ‘foreigners’ in every country, but they don’t have a say. There are so many writers among them; yet they are not accepted in the host country as equal to a native writer. It seems the word ‘exiled’ means ‘condemned’.
The struggles to have a voice force writers to escape execution and imprisonment and they end up in exile. In exile they can shout as much as they like, but no one hears them, because we are sectioned and we cannot reach people. Writers in exile, it seems, experience a censorship that is of a much more subtle order than that of their native countries.
So, while the immigrants’ writers are held between the pain and safety of exile, they are also watched with suspicion. As if their writing in English might contradict the sameness of the white space. Or they might write about here and now, and that is not considered a subject for them to write about. So, despite the fact that it is usually the white bullet that we escape from, no matter if it is aimed at our heart by our government or by a white man through war, here it is not the white bullet that keeps us silent, but white racism through marginalization and dehumanization by mainstream media. It is in this order that we the exiled writers do not have a voice but in a different way from the way in which we had no voice where we were born.
Lack of integration policy and racism prevent immigrants and refugee writers from expressing themselves in English. However, it is not enough that here we can speak against our governments without facing persecution. We need to force our way into the society and try to have a voice in the world by writing in English about the injustice in every country. Only in writing in the world’s international language can we reach the world and tell it what we fought for and why we must die in exile. And this might help the future generation to have a better life, by turning our individual struggle into one great movement for justice in the world.