Hello from the Dogpatch! We’re jumping out of our skins and very honored to present this guest post from Cecile’s Writers in The Hague—Sofia, Samir, Vanessa, and Cecile—an awesome foursome of bloggers and the editors of the upcoming Cecile’s Writers Magazine, a literary magazine for intercultural writers.
In general, the Dutch know and understand a certain level of English. And we’re all very happy to switch to English to make it easier for people who don’t understand Dutch. (Though most never consider the possibility that the other person is trying to learn the language.) Yet even though most Dutch people know English, there aren’t many who write fiction in English.
Luckily, there are a few who do. Editing their stories is an intriguing process. Ungrammatical sentences are easy to spot and to fix. However, there are plenty of sentences that aren’t wrong in the grammatical sense, but still don’t come across as natural. For example, as a teacher I often heard the phrase ‘How late is it?’ instead of ‘What time is it?’ It’s easily corrected, but whether I would change it depends on the voice throughout the story. The structure can reveal much about the origins of the author.
When I write, I try to avoid such sentences, but in the end, I’m not a native English speaker and that will remain evident in my writing. Now, is that a bad thing? It depends. Some people are put off by it. (Usually, these people tend to have heart attacks when they come across spelling mistakes in newspapers, etc.) Others don’t mind. When editing stories written by non-native English speakers, I can correct all those sentences (as far as I recognize them), but that’s not the objective at Cecile’s Writers Magazine. We like to keep the unique voice of the writers provided sentences make grammatical sense.
Recently I saw a Mexican movie called La Última y Nos Vamos (The Last One and We Leave) released in 2009, so it has taken me 4 years getting round to seeing it. Before I continue, you might want to know a bit more about me.
I’m Sofia Borgstein, an editor at Cecile’s Writers Magazine and I regularly (a little less often than I’d like to) write for our editors’ blog. I’m half Mexican and half Dutch, but I was born in Malawi, where I stayed until the age of 2, then in England until the age of 6, and in Mexico until I was 20. I’ll celebrate my 13th year in the Netherlands this October.
I speak English to my husband and to my dad, Spanish to my mom and brother, and Dutch in my daily life. I count in Spanish only until 1,000 then I count in English, but I do math equations in Spanish. I speak English with a strange combination of accents that sounds like a non-native speaker, while I speak Spanish like a Mexican and Dutch like a foreigner.
Now that you know a bit about me, I’ll continue my story. So, I was watching this Mexican movie about several young postgraduate socioeconomically upper-class Mexicans from Mexico City, who go out one evening and have a series of adventures. In the movie, the Mexicans speak the kind of slang I was accustomed to hearing and speaking. The thing is, I found myself having to pause the movie to understand what they were saying.
And I was hit with something I had never really expected: the realization that Mexico and Mexicans have started to seem foreign to me. Then I asked myself: ‘Where am I really from?’ I have struggled with this question for a long time; I’m too Dutch to be Mexican, and too Mexican to be Dutch. I still haven’t found an answer, and probably there is no answer, I’m both and none, but it makes for a great story.
While it may come across as quite sophisticated to say: “I was born in Greece and stayed there a few months before my mother returned to Nigeria, where I grew up and studied till I was 20, and then I stayed a few years in Spain before settling in the Netherlands. Oh, and by the way, my parents are form Syria although I’ve never been there.” It does create an identity complex because whenever the confounded question “Where are you from?” pops up in a conversation, I have to think to myself: the short version or the long one? Simple or philosophical? Then I realize I really don’t want to give an answer, I don’t want to go into it, and it’s tiresome. I don’t know.
Or don’t I? It took a long time to figure it out for myself but I had to, as I couldn’t write fiction anymore. Nowhere is it more daunting to be confronted by my identity than in my writing. I’m from nowhere and everywhere. I don’t believe in borders. I don’t believe in differences in humanity (only cultural, which are shaped by forces out of our control – parents – and then by schools, politics and man-made traditions e.g. religion). Sorry, but I’m my own thinking being. I’m a human and I’m from Earth and we’re all equal (well, we should be). If I have to label myself because that is the only language the listener will understand, then I say Nigeria is what I’d call ‘home’ because its where I grew up and formed my earliest memories. That’s it. Simple. And it will change, one day soon, I’ll probably just say ‘here is home’ wherever here is. I live in the here and now.
Which brings me to my dear friends at Cecile’s Writers and our shared project. Creating the magazine together and getting to know each other better has been one of the most rewarding experiences I could have hoped for. And knowing that we can create a home where similar writers can share their creative projects with us was too good to be true. And we did it.
Being born and raised outside my parents’ home country was perfectly normal for me. I went to international schools where many had the same experience. The only time I realised that there was something strange about it was when I was asked where I came from. I would answer “Holland” because that’s where my parents are from. Next question was often, “Where about in Holland?” I would shrug, “I dunno. Just Holland.” Eyebrows would rise, “So, you’re Dutch?”
Dutch. As a child I never knew what that meant. How ever young I was, I knew it was more than simply appreciating tulips and eating Gouda cheese. But as I didn’t know what it was, I sure didn’t feel Dutch. But if I wasn’t Dutch, what was I? I’d never lived in a country long enough to be part of that community.
It wasn’t until I moved to the Netherlands when I was 18 that I learned what it really meant. I soon realised that I was more Dutch than I’d imagined, or perhaps, even more than I’d wanted to be. In other words, despite all those years abroad, going to English speaking schools and all the foreign friends, my parents had managed to ingrain something Dutch in me.
I also realised that I wasn’t just Dutch. I think a large part of this has to do with language. I only learned to read and write Dutch when I was a teenager. My Dutch language skill is, after all these years in the Netherlands, still a fraction of what it is in English. And when I’m emotional I think in English. And as fiction is emotion, I write so much better in English than I ever will in Dutch.
So, I guess I’m Dutch, but my mother tongue is English. It may need a little explaining when I introduce myself, but I wouldn’t change it for the simplicity of not being intercultural.