What does it mean to be a multilingual writer?

Tonight’s reading at the CPL was really wonderful. Jaspreet Singh, who speaks almost five languages (he is learning Spanish—that’s the “almost” fifth one), hosted a group of us local writers who engage with two or more languages in our work—me (Hungarian), paulo da costa (Portuguese), Sharanpal Ruprai (Punjabi) and Trent Fox (Stoney Nakoda).

The event was an incredibly warm and welcoming one, and though I’d scripted out a talk in case I was too nervous to speak off the cuff I was, indeed, able to just speak off the cuff which I think is probably more fun for all involved.

Before the event, Jaspreet asked us each to read for four minutes, and to talk about our work and multilingual writing for four minutes. Since I didn’t end up reading it at the event, here’s what I had scripted myself:

Why do I speak Hungarian? Why am I a multilingual poet? My dad came from Hungary as a refugee, when he was 13, in 1956. He said he’d often ask Canadians where their people came from and whether or not they spoke the language of that place. The answer he said was often “No, but I wish I did.” And this, he said, was the motivation behind his insistence that we speak Hungarian. Speak Hungarian. I’d bet the phrase my dad uttered most frequently in his life had to be “beszélj magyarul!” Having had a long career as a contractor and welder my dad, it seems to me, had some hearing loss, but he always seemed to be able to hear us speaking English from clear across the house. Or perhaps when we quieted down for a while he assumed we were sneakily speaking English (which we were) and so just yelled it at semi-regular intervals to see if that worked. Who can say. 

I have no flare for Hungarian grammar which I wasn’t taught formally and which is incredibly complicated. As an inflected language one can also rearrange the words in a Hungarian sentence almost any which way and still have it be comprehensible, though I also have no talent for remembering which order a person whose primary language is Hungarian would put those words in.

My speaking Hungarian was a fatherhood-long journey for my dad. He was correcting my Hungarian even in the hospice. When I gave a speech at his funeral I mentioned this—that people would have to forgive the bad grammar as I didn’t have my life-long language coach at hand. My most frequent use of Hungarian is now when I speak to my dad at his grave. 

Magyarázni was an effort to figure out how Hungarian was my own—in what ways and to what extent. I wrote it in Montreal when I was no longer living at home here in Calgary anymore, and was no longer speaking Hungarian daily. Some children of refugees/immigrants will joke about how when your parents began scolding you in THEIR language you knew you were really in trouble. In my case it was the opposite—I knew i was really in trouble if my dad spoke English to me... MY language. Magyarázni is an adventure in coming to terms with this relationship to language, in life, in words, in speech, and in visuals—the ways in which my dad’s own folk art and (at the time I wrote the book) the opacity if written Hungarian inspired me. Hungarian is now much less opaque to me—in writing the book I corresponded with my dad and learned to read it properly. 

I could make more of an effort to speak Hungarian now. I’ve tried to prod my partner into learning it a bit, but it’s not exactly an easy task. As I contemplate having children I wonder if or how I might pass the language on to them. I am certain I do not have the stamina or insistence to transmit a language to another in the way my dad did to me. So once again I find myself considering, a year and two months after my dad left this earth, what Hungarian means to me. 

Indeed, reading Magyarázni sort of helps me—I wrote my own roadmap to considering these issues. In the absence of my dad and my cultural anchor I find myself wondering how he made me Hungarian—the very literal meaning of “Magyarázni” (the proper meaning is “to explain”). When I cook without a recipe I often make Hungarian food by accident. I still love making folk art. I still get excited when I see someone with a Hungarian name in film credits or with a Hungarian bumper sticker. When I remember my dad, I still hear him speaking Hungarian, and I’m going to Budapest for only the second time in my life in a few weeks.

As I work through the profound grief and life altering trauma of losing my dad, with whom I was so close and shared so much, I suspect I will often come back to considering his language, my language, our language. I think this will be a lifelong process for me. I am glad I wrote Magyarázni years before his final illness. I’m glad he was at the launch of the book, that he told all his friends, store cashiers, and everyone else he met about it. I’m glad he learned in an interview I did that the chest he carved in our living room was a main source of inspiration for me—I thought I’d told him but I never had. I’m glad that this document is something I shared with him, and I’m glad I’m not considering this for the first time after his death. 

Honestly, I have no idea what being a multilingual writer means to me. Or what being a multilingual person means to me. I think that question is so deep in me that it’s the same as asking “what does it mean to be me?” I think I’ll be asking these questions for the rest of my life.