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My Say - Zoe Jenny


My Say gives writers a chance to air their views about writing and the writer's life.

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Cutting the cord

Zoe Jenny by Zoe Jenny

Being born in Basel, a Swiss town on the border between France and Germany, my mother tongue is a dialect few people understand. Although the dialect is derived from the south of Germany (Allemanic) even Germans have a hard time understanding it. It is a language with its own grammar but it is hardly ever written – in the part of Switzerland where I grew up, the spoken word and the written text are quite different.

But what really concerned me was the fact that I was defined through a language that had no real relevance in the world of literature. If I wanted to make it as a writer I had no other chance but to break free of the corset of my mother tongue. I soon started to reject it, as a snake does its old skin.

When I moved to Berlin in my mid twenties I was eager to speak German without an accent, and whenever I came back to Switzerland for visits I would sometimes deliberately speak in ‘high’ German in order to set myself apart - as if I was deep down somehow embarrassed by the dialect. I had finally emancipated myself from it. But I still didn’t feel I was completely ‘at home’.

Though I wrote four books in German and managed to make a living from my writing, something was missing. There was a sense of rift, a certain distance, and I always felt there was a restriction to what I can express with German words.

German is without doubt the ideal language for analytical thinking, a great language for philosophy and there are a number of writers I feel privileged to be able to read in their own tongues: Friedrich Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann and Ingeborg Bachmann to name just a few. It was Ingeborg Bachmann who once said ‘the limit of my language is the limit of my world’. What greater adventure for a writer than to conquer that limit!

When I moved to London six years ago, discovering the English language was a revelation and for the first time I felt I had arrived, I was ‘at home’. I learned as much as I could by reading and listening to other people. It certainly helped too that I married an Englishman. When I first tried to write prose in English it was a huge struggle. The fact that everyone told me that it was an impossible task only added to my frustration – but it also made me more determined.

It is hard to describe the exhilaration I felt when I finally realised that my knowledge of the language might be good enough to write a novel. It took me many years but if I had ten piano keys before to play with, now I suddenly had the whole range. It is a huge liberation that I can now play freely without limits and restrictions. I feel there are stories that can only be told properly in the English language. It never once crossed my mind to write my last novel‚The Sky is Changing, in any language other than English. It is set in London and the people I am writing about live here.

Over the last ten years I managed to establish myself as a writer in the German speaking world, but now that I am writing in English I have to start all over again, earning my credentials in a new market. I am essentially back to square one. But maybe that is the most exciting place to be.

The Sky is Changing will be released by Legend Press in May. Zoe Jenny’s debut novel The Pollen Room was translated by Michael Hoffmann and published by Bloomsbury in 1998.

Legend Press

WritersServices' Editorial Services, including Manuscript Polishing, which helps bring the work of non-native English writers up to scratch. and our new Translation Editing service, whch polishes translations.

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