Here is the text of my 8-minute speech at the gala opening of the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival. 7 writers – Arnold Zable, Zeruya Shalev, Andrea Goldsmith, Lally Katz, Howard Goldenberg and Dara Horn; hosted by Rachel Berger. The theme – ‘It started with a Word’.
In English I can say ‘I love you’ to a man in a month or two. Not to any man, to a man I am with. The words fall out of my mouth like milk teeth. ‘I love you.’ ‘I hate you.’ ‘I am happy.’ ‘This feels like home.’ I can say whatever you want me to say. Easy. God is not listening when I speak English.
In Russian, my birth language, it would take years of not saying it – to say ‘I love you’. It would take a war we survived together. Bullets. Trenches. The last piece of bread you handed to me and I handed back to you. In Russian the word ‘love’ (lyubov) and the word ‘freedom’ (svoboda) can have a crushing weight. Just to lift them up to my mouth would take most of my strength.
We are chained to words in our birth languages.
In English I am free – it’s one of the unexpected perks of coming into a new language. In English I can swear in front of my parents, and my children, but I cannot repeat five percent of it in Russian in front of either. If I do, I blush involuntarily. I never blush in English.
It’s not English, oh no. It’s me.
A birth language is vulgar, hot, world-making, capable of slicing and splicing like a battle-ready Samurai Katana sword. When it’s beautiful – and it is frequently beautiful – it is, by itself, a reason to live. When it is degraded – and it is frequently degraded, at least where I come from – it makes the world feel precarious, on the verge of being trashed.
A second, third, language is a code. A system. You pick it like a lock. At the beginning at least, it cannot evoke or injure beyond the superficial. You speak a new language with your mouth. At least for the first five years.