Maastricht University: Can you write in a language that’s not your mother tongue?

The following article published in The Observant on February, 20 deals with this fundamental question. Ana Menéndez offers some perspectives as one of the founders of the minor in Creative Writing at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

A mother tongue too sweet for a dark story was the title The Observant referred to remark the anecdote of a Latvian student of the minor in Creative Writing at Maastricht University.  He belongs to a 20 students class altogether with eight different native languages but only one common tongue of trade: English.

To the question if whether literary writing could be developed in a foreign language or not, Ana Menéndez explains:  “It’s almost a moral question. In the class I focus less on language than normally (…). My primary concern was the story, to make them able to write.”

Writing and reading. Reading as a stretching discipline for writing. Indeed, the minor has been focused on actually learning how to read in order to create meanings. “I first wanted to teach them how to read”, Menéndez comments. “I told them: in literature class you read to learn about meaning, here you read to learn about creating meaning”.

She finally emphasizes: “Our goal is not to turn everybody into a writer. First of all we want to turn them into readers, and give them the opportunity to write: learn to read in a deep way and write with joy”.

All of a sudden the question has turned out to be slightly different: How could one’s mother tongue resent a learning process based on reading and writing in a foreign language?

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A mother tongue too sweet for a dark story

Gepubliceerd: 20-feb-2013 16:14
A mother tongue too sweet for a dark storyFotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
First academic creative writing class in the Netherlands

 

MAASTRICHT. The life of Ana Menendez is all about writing: she was a journalist for twenty years, has now published two novels, two short story collections and numerous essays and – last but not least – is the founder (“It wasn’t me alone; I did it with many colleagues, like Lies Wesseling, Rein de Wilde, Jan de Roder and Wiel Kusters”) of the minor in Creative Writing at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

It’s the first academic creative writing class in the Netherlands. Just before Carnival, the first 21 students presented the fruits of their efforts during a special evening at the Turnzaal. Between them, Menendez’s students had eight different native languages and about twenty languages altogether. “The language diversity was incredible; you never see this. That’s irreplaceable. I grew up in a bilingual household – Spanish and English; my parents are from Cuba, I was born and raised in the United States – so I know all the challenges of a split personality”, she laughs. The minor is in English. Can you write in a language that’s not your mother tongue? “It’s almost a moral question. In the class I focus less on language than normally. The grammar and spelling have to be good, but there was less focus on playfulness in English. Will I choose a Latin or an Anglo Saxon word? That’s another level. My primary concern was the story, to make them able to write.”

The creative writing minor at UM differs from those in the United States, where almost every university offers one. “In the US ten people sit around a table, bring in their work and talk about it. In Maastricht I got the opportunity to rethink creative writing. I first wanted to teach them how to read. Reading is the best way to teach writers what they want to write. What do you like, why do you like it, how can you learn from it for your own work? I told them: in literature class you read to learn about meaning, here you read to learn about creating meaning.” The short stories of Andrej Tsjechov became the main course for the students. “Tsjechov has everything you should know about writing. He shows you the rules and then breaks them in beautiful ways. In most courses the teacher says: do this, do that. Our philosophy is that almost anything goes, as long as it works. This approach leaves room for self-discovery.”

Having analysed Tsjechov, the students had to write a short story in the style of the great Russian writer. In the third and last period of the minor, poems and translation were the main focus. Why translation? “Our class is in English but I wanted to honour our native tongues”, says Menendez. “I wanted to bring them back to their mother tongues by translating poems and stories. One student from Latvia said: my dark story doesn’t work in Latvian. His mother tongue was too sweet, he thought. You only experience this by doing it. To translate poems you have to really understand language. The subconsciousness of it, how it feels. You have to be aware that language is living; that it can mean a lot of different things.”

The minor is not only for students dreaming of a writing career, Menendez emphasises. “Our goal is not to turn everybody into a writer. First of all we want to turn them into readers, and give them the opportunity to write: learn to read in a deep way and write with joy. Everybody, from every faculty can benefit from it. If you want to be an accountant but at the same time want to learn how to write, be our guest.”

The first fruits of the writing class are promising, Menendez says. “They’ve written 44,000 words each. I was delighted by my students and very impressed with the level of work. Every single student improved, some dramatically. A couple of them really stood out.”

Riki Janssen.

To read the article directly on The Observant visit: http://www.observantonline.nl/English/Home/Articles/tabid/128/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/991/A-mother-tongue-too-sweet-for-a-dark-story.aspx