Expats and the beauty of language

I stumbled upon some comments by the Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, an exile in Canada, about how expatriates appreciate their native language in a distinct way. Skvorecky offered this:

Henry Miller recommended that writers live abroad, because their native language suddenly becomes precious to them. They see its possibilities and beauty, which they hadn’t noticed at home, because there everyone spoke Czech. I think that is confirmed by the fact that Hemingway, who was probably the most influential stylist in American literature, wrote his early stories and novels abroad.

Miller’s theory is interesting (if not self-serving, since Miller was an expat), one which obviously resonated with Skvorecky. Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or the ear sharper? Does separation from the familiar bring it into better focus?

I’m not so sure. I look at those American writers today who clearly love the language, who play with it, and they are not expats: Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Tim O’Brien. Each offers us different American voices, rhythms, cadences, and their home-bound lyricism seems to suggest Henry Miller had it wrong.

For that matter, today there is no isolation for an American living overseas in the age of global culture. English is everywhere (admittedly in different flavors), but it’s harder to be homesick in Paris, to miss the American idiom, with Le Big Mac available at the corner MacDonalds.

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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