A Summary and Critique of The Genius of Language

Wendy Lesser introduces The Genius of Language with an explanation of where the idea for such a book originated. It was the suggestion of an editor, and Lesser found it “appealing” to consider that “there is some hidden ur-language in which the writer [whose mother tongue is not English] writes” (3). In the essays that follow, the writers describe their experiences with and perspectives on learning and writing in English, their adopted language.

I find it interesting that Lesser encouraged the writers whose essays have been included in this book to write about their own experiences, honestly and without being purposefully scientific. That the writers took heed of this advice is obvious, and their openness in writing about their experiences and perspectives is both refreshing and thought-provoking. There are many questions I would like to have answered by the writers who contributed their essays (and, it sometimes seems, small parts of themselves) to The Genius of Language.

I wonder whether some of these writers, Amy Tan for example, would write about the same or even similar subjects in their professional work, had they not come to learn and use English. Further, I wonder how many of the professional writers who have contributed to this text, might not have become writers at all in their native languages. Did forced bilingualism lead some of these essayists to become writers? Is it significant that they learned English, rather than another second (or third, etc.) language? Would learning another non-native language have had the same effects on the courses of their lives? What would they probably be doing right now if they had not learned English? These are some of the questions that swim in my head as I consider these essays.

My favorite of the essays I read in The Genius of Language is “The Way Back,” by Bharati Mukherjee. Mukherjee writes with such polished style that it would be a surprise to me to learn that English was not her first language, had I not known simply by the context in which her essay appears and the story it tells. At the age of eight, when Mukherjee was “initiated into bilingualism” and learned to speak different languages in different contexts (English at school and Bangla at home), she found that her “Bangual identity was not at all threatened by [her] growing fluency in the former colonizer’s language” (20). This is interesting to me because, apart from the remarkable ability Mukherjee and most children have to use different languages depending on where and with whom they are, she seems not to have struggled with her identity as a result of learning and using English. More interesting still, from a slightly different perspective, is that Mukherjee refers not to the English by name, but rather as “the colonizer” (note the singular form).  While it may be that Mukherjee refers to the English in this way simply to clarify why it might be expected that she would have struggled with the compulsory adoption of the English language, I wonder if it is not in whole or part because she does not wish to refer to the English by name if it is not absolutely necessary. And here is another question that must remain unanswered.

As I read the essays in The Genius of Language, I kept it in my mind that when Lesser began working on this book, the most important thing to her “was to uncover the sources of writing in writers [she] admired, to burrow in behind the acquired layers and get at the inherent nature, the native quality, the ‘genius’ of the work” (4). When I first read this, in the introduction to the book, it struck me as a very ambitious goal. How, I wondered, could any editor be sure that a group of contributing writers would be able and willing to share what must be, in some cases at least, very personal, possibly painful, experiences? My doubts were solidified in the next sentence, in which Lesser writes, “What I expected and what I eventually got were not identical” (4). But later, as I read essay after personal essay, I referred back to Lesser’s stated goal several times and wondered whether she actually had achieved her original goal after all.

As I read I found that several of the essays, in particular “Yes and No,” by Amy Tan, and “Recovering the Original,” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, are written with such obvious thoughtfulness and reflection – not only on writing in English, but also about their lives – on the writers’ part that I wonder now wonder whether Lesser regrets that her original goal was not achieved. I hope that she does not; I found that the essays presented here, with their wealth of information wrapped together with reflection, are much better – more interesting, more thought-provoking – than I imagine any could have been that would have fulfilled Lesser’s goal of collecting essays about experiences with language (rather than about language as well as life).


About Christine Ghattas

Christine Ghattas (Christine Bonnie Ghattas) is a teacher and artist from the United States. View all posts by Christine Ghattas

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