By Prasiddha Gustanto

Former journalist of The Jakarta Post, English editor at ALVEO

People have written in languages that are not their mother tongue for thousands of years. Yet, it wasn’t until the past few decades that the world of academia came up with a term to describe this phenomenon. That term is “exophony.” 

Coined by scholars Susan Arndt, Dirk Naguschewski and Robert Stockhammer in 2007, the term, as its Greek roots suggest, is a combination of “exo” and “phonic”, with “exo” meaning “from outside” and “phonic” relating to speech sounds or voice”. It’s an appropriate term to describe the age-old practice of writing in a second or foreign language.

The first thing that generally comes to mind for most people when they hear the term “exophonic” writing and learn of its scholarly definition is to immediately think about the art and practice of written translations. This is understandable since it’s common for translators around the world and throughout history to translate texts from one language (usually their mother tongue) to another (usually a second language they learn later in life).

However, scholars of exophonic writing aren’t generally referring to translators when they talk about exophonic writing. Rather, they’re typically concerned with creative writing. 

And in this regard, exophonic writing is understood as creative writing in a language that isn’t the creative writer’s mother tongue, has a surprising history of accomplished individuals, at least within the realm of the English language. In fact, many of their works are ranked among the most respected of works in English literature. 

Did you know, for example, that Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac and Joseph Conrad are all exophonic writers? 

Judging by their works–with classic titles like Nabokov’s Lolita, Kerouac’s On The Road and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness–you would be excused for thinking that they are all native speakers. After all, it’s easy to think that only people who were born with English as their first language could come up with works of English language literature so great and influential. 

And yet, none of these great authors had English as their first language. Nabokov’s mother tongue was Russian, while Kerouac’s was French. For Conrad, English was his third language, after his native Polish and his secondary French.

Other renowned creative writers in the world of English literature who also happened to be exophonic writers include Kahlil Gibran, who didn’t learn English until he was 12, as well as Enlightenment-era philosopher Voltaire, who wrote letters in English.

Obviously, though, exophonic writing isn’t just limited to non-native English speakers writing in English. Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde are also exophonic writers. Though both have English as their native tongues, both authors have also written in French. 

Motivations for exophonic creative writing vary greatly among exophonic writers. 

Beckett, for instance, said that he felt most comfortable writing in that language. Chinese-born PEN/Hemingway Award-winning writer Yiyun Li has similarly said that she felt most comfortable writing in English, as it helps her erase her unhappy past.

Meanwhile, American author Jhumpa Lahiri, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000, fell in love with Italian after college during a visit to Florence, as she said the language offered her a chance to reconstruct and express herself the way she wanted to.

Then there was Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who had more activist reasons for exophonic writing. He wanted to write in English instead of his native Igbo as a means to reach and educate a broader audience, particularly readers of previously colonial nations.

In recent decades, thanks to our increasingly interconnected melting pot of a world, there have arguably been more exophonic writers than there have ever been in any other era in history. 

“Immigration literature is the literature of the future,” according to Italian editor Silvia De Marchi, as quoted by cApStAn.be, a linguistic quality control organization’s website. “It is the literature of those who are moving, who aren’t limited by their own country.”

Exophony is gradually becoming a serious subject of academic study. In fact, the University of Warwick’s Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies has its own course on “Exophony or Writing Beyond the Mother Tongue”.

It’s easy to understand why this is so. As great exophonic writers throughout history have demonstrated their outstanding skills. All in all, exophony has a unique way of enriching language and bringing fresh perspectives to the languages being adopted.

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