RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's get back to our series Two Languages Many Voices, about Latinos in the U.S. living biculturally and often bilingually. This morning we'll hear about writing in Spanish versus English, or writing in the combination of both languages known as Spanglish.
Gustavo Perez Firmat knows all about being creative in different tongues. He's a literature professor at Columbia University who's written poetry and academic papers, novels and memoirs.
Thank you for joining us.
PROFESSOR GUSTAVO PEREZ FIRMAT: I'm glad to be here.
MONTAGNE: You know, let's start with the fact that you were born and grew up in Cuba. Obviously then Spanish was your first language. Well, how did you learn English?
FIRMAT: Well, in Cuba, one took English classes in school. And so, I never had the typical experience that many immigrants have of walking into an American classroom and not understanding anything.
MONTAGNE: And you were how old when you first came to America?
FIRMAT: I was 11.
MONTAGNE: Well, given that you know Spanish fluently and English quite fluently...
FIRMAT: Well, I have a feeling that I don't know either one fluently.
MONTAGNE: Do you?
FIRMAT: I have a feeling that words fail me in both languages.
MONTAGNE: But how can you say that when you are a poet, a writer, a novelist, a teacher? You are...
FIRMAT: Well, but the poetry and the writing grows to a certain extent - I'd say to a large extent - from the feeling that I don't have one true language. And that is, you know, that's the subject of poems and of the memoir, and of other things that I've written.
MONTAGNE: One of your collections of poetry speaks directly to this sense of being betwixt and between. And the collection is called "Bilingual Blues" from 15 years ago. There is a poem that I'd like you to read that's called "Bilingual Blues."
(Reading) Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones. I have mixed feelings about everything. Name your tema, I'll hedge. Name your cerca, I'll straddle it like a Cubano. I have mixed feelings about everything. Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones. Vexed, hexed, complexed, hyphenated, oxygenated, illegally alienated, psycho soy, cantano voy. You say tomato, I say tu madre. You say potato, I say Pototo. Let's call the hole un hueco, the thing, a cosa, and if the cosa goes into the hueco, consider yourself en casa, consider yourself part of the family. Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones, un pure de impurezas: A little square from Rubik's Cuba que nadie nunca acoplara. Cha-cha-cha.
The thing about that poem is that it begins as the blues, but it ends as a cha-cha. And so it's both a lament and a celebration. It's, you know, bilingual both as a blessing and as a burden.
MONTAGNE: With this poem, even though one who doesn't speak Spanish might even miss a chunk of it, you'll still get a lot of it in context; you'll still hear the music of the language. And you'll still pick up some of the jokes, like you say tomato, I say tu madre. You're saying your mother...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FIRMAT: But it's more like saying your mama, because it's actually an abbreviation of a somewhat longer and more intricate curse, which is the worst possible curse one can utter in Spanish and which I can't tell you on...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FIRMAT: But it's like your mama but more intense.
MONTAGNE: Is that the kind of moment that people experience, where they know that the listener only knows English?
MONTAGNE: And so you can in a sense get away with saying something not very nice right to their face?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FIRMAT: Sure. But I hadn't read this poem in many years, actually. And rereading it now, what occurs to me is the anger behind that pun; that I think reflects the speaker's, i.e., my sort of discomfort with finding myself between languages. And I think inter-lingual puns are often pujas in Spanish, which are jabs. You know, sort of stabs of anger.
MONTAGNE: Why though the anger when one could say it might be a joy to know two languages?
FIRMAT: No because I, you know, many times I wish I didn't have the choice of languages. There is a Czech proverb that says: Learn a new language, get a new soul. I'm not sure it's a true idea to have more than one soul.
MONTAGNE: And, of course, that might be also be very particular to the fact that there's a very particular experience about living as an exile, that's a little bit different, I would think, than when the desire to leave the home country, come to America, is a positive one.
FIRMAT: Sure. Even though I came here when I was only 11 years old, and I speak Spanish as well as I do because the exiles hold onto their language as the one sort of portable piece of their homeland. Sometimes people think mother tongue, other tongue. But it's much more complicated. There are not only mother tongues. There are also father tongues, and sister tongues, and lover tongues, and brother tongues, and son tongues.
When I think of Spanish I hear my father's voice. When I think of English, what do I hear? I hear that my children's voices. I hear my wife's voice. And so, my tongue ties, my effective relations with those two languages are really quite, quite distinct.
MONTAGNE: Are there phrases, expressions, words that you can only say in English and others that really you can only say in Spanish?
FIRMAT: Well, the first thing that occurs to me is that I basically can only curse in Spanish. I had a difficult relationship with my dad and there may have been some cursing involved in both parts. And there's this kind of anger, this kind of effect. On the other hand, I have a hard time saying I love you in Spanish. When I say te quiero, ti amo, it sounds stilted. It sounds like the kind of speech you here in Mexican soap operas.
But for me, it's very natural to say I love you. My wife is American. English is a conjugal tongue. It's a filial tongue. Every time I talk to my son or my daughter, we end the discussion by saying I love you.
MONTAGNE: Does that then when you write in a combination of both languages, does that make it whole?
FIRMAT: Well, I think that's, for me, that's what Spanglish represents, this impossible dream of wholeness. And, you know, languages define your personality. And sometimes I have the sense that I'm a different person in Spanish than I am in English, that my Cuban Joe(ph) doesn't quite understand my American high. And I think that's a very common experience of bilinguals.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
FIRMAT: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: Gustavo Perez Firmat's book includes "Bilingual Blues" and his latest, "The Havana Habit." We spoke as part of our ongoing series Two Languages, Many Voices.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.