On writing while foreign

Often, when asked what I do for a living, I say I am a writer as well as a translator. It is not a word that I would use in my native language: the Italian ‘scrittore’ is far too grandiose. It implies that you have published at least one book, probably more, whereas the English word ‘writer’ covers a larger semantic field, encompassing people who write habitually for a public in various media domains, such as this journal. In turn, when I answer that question in Italian, I am more likely to call myself a ‘giornalista’ – a word that overlays poorly on the English ‘journalist’, since, due to a series of cross-borrowings and mistranslations, a journalist is not someone who writes for a journal.

Let us stipulate, then, that what I mean by ‘writer’ is someone who writes habitually and professionally (that is, in exchange for money) for a public of some kind. As a writer thus defined, I am a typical product of my generation: someone who came to it because of the myriad opportunities to write in public that the internet helped create (blogging and the like), at exactly the same time the global media industry was being fractured and reconfigured, making it far more difficult for writers and journalists to make a stable living. With an irony that is typical of our age, we suddenly found it easier to gain access to a prestigious industry just as it started crumbling.

It is not uncommon for writers of my generation to get published internationally. This might once have been another marker of prestige and success, whereas now it is simply an everyday reality for those who seek to write professionally; as opportunities close to home diminish, and the very meaning of the expression ‘close to home’ is eroded by the extraordinary ubiquity of the internet, we cast our nets wider. It has become easier, too, to write about international topics – that is, to research in real time things that are happening elsewhere and to survey and respond to the global commentary on any number of issues.

These are the conditions that enabled me to start writing in the first place, and they can be exhilarating, just as it can be profoundly liberating for readers to be able to access perspectives from outside the confines of one’s national media. Politically, too, it is easy to make the case that a greater ability to write in, and read from, distant places and struggles is of vital importance, even if it is mediated by the same labour market that lowers pay rates for writers and makes their employment status ever more precarious.

All of these factors exist in contradiction with one another, and anyone who lays claim to the appellation ‘writer’ is the product of these contradictions, as well as of concurring forms of displacement. Take me, for instance. I am Italian, I live in New Zealand, and I publish mostly outside of New Zealand. I also write in a language that isn’t mine. All of these nested ‘foreign’ states are now relatively commonplace, as a review of the biographical notes of Overland contributors will attest.

Writing while foreign is a peculiar experience. Because writing is always a form of enquiry, it can lead to an increased preoccupation with the meaning(s) of place and placelessness: we write in order to make sense of where we are, as opposed to merely who we are, a fact that is juxtaposed with the growing interest in post-colonial and Indigenous writing.

Writing is always also an attempt to shape one’s social environment: we write to change the places we now live and work, using skills and tools acquired elsewhere, in an earlier life.

Writing while foreign is as much an act of knowledge production as it is an act of translation – not just linguistic, but also cultural and political. And just like the semantic field of words such as ‘writer’ or ‘journalist’ can vary between languages, so too can these acts of translation reframe well-worn arguments in slightly different terms, casting them under new shadows and lights.

Like migration itself, writing while foreign can also be a difficult and alienating experience. It can make us long for the comfort of shared, familiar upbringings, and of things that can be left unsaid; or make us nostalgic for old forms of comradeship and kinship as we go searching for new ones. Yet it also brings the knowledge that the ground is constantly shifting under all of us, even if we stand perfectly still. More often still, it reminds us that the effortless travel of our writings across the global marketplace of late capitalism is the grotesque mirror image of the hardening of the boundaries between nations and people.

The world throws us together, in spite of increasingly restrictive and violent policies. I wish I knew how to express this thought better, in your language or mine. That the daily reality for millions of people is one of forced and traumatic displacement, of crashing against walls and fences, or silently drowning in seas and oceans. This is the political challenge of our time: to embrace the foreigner not as a narrator of experience, but as a whole human being with whom to share our piece of this all-too-small world.


Image: State police / Lina Skoldmar




Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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