Words Without Borders speaks with Moroccan-Catalan writer Najat El Hachmi about language, identity, and the possibilities and limits of translation.
Writer Najat El Hachmi (left) and her novel La filla estrangera (right)
Najat El Hachmi was born in Morocco in 1979 and moved with her family to Catalonia at age eight. She has a degree in Arab Studies from the University of Barcelona, and has published one nonfiction book—Jo també sóc catalane (I am also Catalan)—and three novels, L’últim patriarca (The Last Patriarch), which won the 2008 Ramon Llull prize; La caçadora de cossos (The Body Hunter); and La filla estrangera (The Foreign Daughter), which won the 2015 Ciutat de Barcelona Prize for the best work of Catalan fiction.
The Foreign Daughter focuses on the relationship between a Moroccan-born mother and daughter living in Barcelona, and explores the richness and complexities of growing up in two very different cultures simultaneously. The novel incorporates oral tradition (in particular, Najat’s native Amazigh language) and European literary tradition.
Words Without Borders (WWB): In The Foreign Daughter, language and culture are bound to the characters’ identities—physical, intellectual, and spiritual. The “repeating gestures” of the mother’s abulations are “something innate, that belonged to her, that were embedded in her character,” the daughter can’t imagine describing making bread in a language other than her native Moroccan language, and her relationship to that language shifts according to her spiritual beliefs: “the richness of my language suddenly diminished the moment I stopped believing in God.”
Do you think that we are different people in different languages? Do you feel you are a different writer in different languages? Are there ways in which your own Moroccan identity has shaped and/or informed your Catalan identity?
Najat El Hachmi (NEH): I don’t think we are different people when using different languages, but there seems to be some kind of adjustment for each one of them. Have you ever noticed how a person’s voice timbre changes slightly depending on which language he or she is speaking? I think this is exactly what happens when we wear a different language—we make some adjustments, but in essence we are still the same person.
The protagonist in The Foreign Daughter considers all of these issues. She pays attention to them because her linguistic situation requires it. Many of her concerns don’t come from the fact that she lives with two different languages but that each of them has a very different role in her life. Amazigh language in migration remains a family language, but the family, which was originally extensive, has now been drastically reduced, thus there are fewer people who share it. I tried to capture that sense of the loss of the native language, and also the protagonist’s knowledge that she, as a daughter, will not be like her mother, mainly because the circumstances in which she now lives have little to do with her lived experience during early childhood. Personally, I find it very hard to dissociate languages from the world they represent. It is the job of the speakers to adapt their language to new realities, but this is a process that is usually done collectively, so it’s much more complicated to do it individually. And in the case of the protagonist, she has an alternative language, the language she uses to think and write, which becomes a refuge precisely because it is the code that allows her access to books.
I do not think I am different as a writer in other languages, although I do feel I have difficulties when I write using languages other than Catalan. I feel more awkward, as though I have fewer tools available. Writing in a language is, after all, using a muscle that you have been training for a long time, and to write using another language means you have to train a different muscle, to start the learning process again, even if what you want to say is the same. We shouldn't forget that languages have a very important emotional involvement—our relationship with language is never neutral.
I do not know how much of Morocco is present in the way I write. What I do have in mind is the way women in my family told stories, especially my mother, who is a great storyteller. I am sure that the importance that the women in my family gave to sitting down and telling a story while the rest were listening is what made me become a writer. In The Last Patriarch, for example, I did not use Amazigh language in a very explicit way, but I kept it in mind and kept present the formulas that women used when they told stories. I believe that my experience as a child has not only not disappeared but has been transformed into something else through my writing, something present even though it's not obvious. A few years ago, in a presentation of that novel in Casablanca, someone translated the first page into Amazigh language and it sounded exactly as if my mother was saying it.
WWB: The daughter longs for a future in which her past will not define her. At the same time, she fears that, as someone “scrambling between two languages,” she will not be able to share her true self because she could only be understood by “a person like me, who’d had a mother like mine and learned this language which is foreign to us and internalized it as I have.” Do you identify with the daughter’s relationship to language? Have you always written in Catalan, and has your relationship to the Catalan language changed over the years?
NEH: This passage you mention wants to capture this feeling the protagonist has—a feeling many children of immigrants have experienced—of being a strange product of the encounter between different things. The conflict here is not so much one’s awareness of being made up of different pieces but in the fact that nobody can understand all the pieces that make one up—to be “yourself” with some people means leaving some of those pieces shelved, even hidden, while with others, the very pieces that you hid are the only ones you share. What does the hosting society really know about the Rif families who live next door? Almost nothing, so it is impossible to imagine that they can have any interest in learning a language that is only spoken in these neighboring houses.
I share this point with the protagonist—the strangeness caused by the fact that one day you discover that your inner language is no longer the one used at home while, at the same time, you desire that the speakers of your new language can understand your hidden tongue.
I've always written in Catalan. It was the first language I learned to read, so that's important (as is the fact that it was a real and present language in everyday life in our town, Vic). It was through the Catalan language that I found novels and stories that spoke of things that touched me closely—works with female protagonists, who were in many cases similar to the women I had grown up with. These works were written in Catalan. Rodoreda’s Aloma, which is about the proposal of a marriage of convenience with a close family member for economic reasons and the disappointment caused by the initiation into adulthood. Or Solitude by Victor Català, whose protagonist is a woman who changes residence in order to get married, and describes the hardships of life in the mountains, a hardness similar to the countryside where I myself lived.
I do not know if my relationship with the language has changed. I feel that the more I recognize the importance of that other language, the more comfortable I feel with Catalan.
WWB: The Foreign Daughter raises questions about the limits of translation to connect what may sometimes be an unbridgeable expanse. Unable to find a suitable Amazigh language descriptor for an Italian coffeepot, the daughter says, “this banal, insignificant lexical slippage reminds me how distant I am from . . . [my mother’s] world and from her way of seeing and understanding things. However hard I translate, however I try to pour the words of one language into another, I will never succeed, there will always be differences.”
For writers, one of the greatest challenges can be to express the indescribable. This is perhaps even more acute when a writer’s material involves other cultures and contexts. Do you find that there are ideas and content that are untranslatable in a particular language (or simply untranslatable in the written word itself)? What do you do when faced with the untranslatable?
NEH: I think writing needs to bring a certain uneasiness, a certain feeling of not being in the right place. This lack of comfort forces you to make an effort that I think you need in order to write. One of my challenges as a writer is building characters who use a language other than the one I use for writing. It is difficult and at times it can be exhausting, but it is also one of the things I enjoy most when I write. I remember having tried to use other languages in my writing from an early age and it was a fun exercise: you have the feeling of creating something new. There is this unusual connection that transforms what you are working on into something different.
This does not mean there are no difficulties. There may be words that cannot be translated faithfully, but I don't feel obliged to make an exact transfer from one language to another. That's what I should do if I was a translator, but I am a writer and I find interesting things in the spaces that exist between the words of a language and their translations into another language. The protagonist expresses it like this: she is troubled because, in fact, the language symbolizes the disagreement with her mother—the difficulty of translating does not speak only of the language but also of her relationship with her mother.
WWB: The library is the daughter’s haven, and she uses literature as a lens to make sense of her own life. She references writers ranging from Nietzsche to Joyce to classic Catalan authors Miquel Llort and Montserrat Roig. Are there writers or books—Catalan, Moroccan, or otherwise—that have deeply influenced you and your work?
NEH: In the novel I mention many authors, some more significant than others. Rodoreda has always been a very important reference to me, but in this book the poet Maria Mercè Marçal is much more present. Actually, the book’s title is a reference to one of her poems, The Sister, the Foreigner, that addresses directly the issue of motherhood—the sudden strangeness of a newborn daughter, despite the fact that she had been part of one's own body. Marçal spoke a lot about the body and sexuality, which are very present in The Foreign Daughter. Lately I'm reading a lot of Victor Català (Caterina Albert), who also discusses these issues. Among Moroccan authors, Chukri Mohamed made a strong impact on me back in the day, but the author I feel closer to is Driss Chraibi. I find he creates something very different. He describes a reality that takes place in Arabic Morocco but he is writing in French. What is interesting to me is that this fact is noticeable in the way his texts develop; it is embedded in the narrative itself.
WWB: The daughter experiences the world sensually. She feels things intensely, and describes these feelings as “communing with the world, an inner, private ecstasy.” As a writer, how do you commune with the world? Where do you find the moments that inspire your work?
NEH: The truth is that I don't have a particular way of finding inspiration. Everything I live influences what I do. The way I create is to always carry with me what I am writing about—it's part of me and it keeps brewing throughout the day. Sometimes in order to describe a particular moment or to rescue the memory of something forgotten, I will try to describe it using different senses, which makes me feel that I have an overall perception of the moment. This also works when I am trying to create a certain atmosphere that has never existed: I try to describe it through sight, smell, taste, etc.
WWB: The Foreign Daughter opens with the epigraph, “I will no longer answer to you. From now on I will only answer to myself. To myself or whoever, but never again to those of you who only accept me if I am meek and submissive.” Finding and claiming her voice is at the heart of the daughter’s journey. Do you feel that a voice of rebellion and a conscious claiming of agency is a necessary part of a writer’s identity? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers on finding one’s authentic writing voice?
NEH: I think it is important to find that voice, listen to it, and train it so that it becomes an adult voice. Becoming a writer must be precisely this: trying many times until one day that voice is the mirror of what you have in your mind, or most resembles it. In my case, I do it instinctively, so it is difficult to give advice on how to do it. Maybe the trick is to not underestimate what is different about what you write, what you think may not fit into your idea of what literature should be—maybe that difference is your strong point, the thing that makes your writing special. It is also important to have good readers.
WWB: Many of your works explore familial relationships. While in both The Last Patriarch and The Foreign Daughter the complexities of these relationships are intensified by tensions between language and culture, the books also speak to universal aspects of familial bonds: the power of those bonds and the ways in which we both cling to and flee from them. Do you plan to continue to explore familial relationships in your fiction? And if so, how? What about that subject matter appeals to you as a writer?
NEH: Family remains a good place to discuss many issues, especially because I write about a family that is in the process of transformation—a family that represents the origin, the shelter, the sense of belonging, but also the confinement and the limitation of individual freedom. I will continue talking about this in at least one more novel. The one I am writing now focuses on the character of the mother in The Foreign Daughter, using her point of view. I find it helpful to address these issues as a writer. It’s my own way of rethinking the family and the complexity of family relationships.
Najat's responses translated from the Catalan by Txell Torrent at MB Literary Agency.