So You Think Writing In Your First Language Is Hard: A Look at ESL Novelists

Homer writing a letter
Homer writing a letter

So You Think Writing In Your First Language Is Hard

If you are tired of struggling with the oddities and peculiarities of trying to make a sentence make sense, then you might want to take a look at some of these noted novelists, who had to learn English, as a second or even a third language, before they could get their story finished. And that says nothing about getting it published.

A group portrait of some of the Beat writers
A group portrait of some of the Beat writers

The Most Influential of the Beats

Of all the beat writers, which includes the likes of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, most literary critics tend to agree that Jack Kerouac had the biggest impact on the American literary scene. Lesser known is that even though Jack was born in Massachusetts, he grew up in a French-speaking household. Jack didn’t even learn English until he was six; and never completely mastered the language into he was well into his teens. Nonetheless, he went on to produce a body of work that is still widely read today.

Most recently (Feb. 2015), a Quebec publishing house by the name of Les Éditions du Boréal, has recently announced that they will publish some of Jack Kerouac’s French writing. The collection, titled La vie est d’hommage, will feature a novella and Kerouac’s first attempt for On the Road, which was penned in his native French. This publishing effort will underscore the little known fact that Kerouac continued to write in his mother tongue, even after having achieved substantial financial and critical success with On the Road and The Dharma Bums.

 

Illustration for Cheer of Home Fires, drawing by Will James
Illustration for Cheer of Home Fires, drawing by Will James

The Strange Life of Will James

And while I am on the subject of French-Canadians, here is a tale of a Quebec man, who eventually ended up as one of America’s most appreciated cowboy writers and artists.

One of the strangest literary stories of the twentieth century concerns the western Cowboy writer, Will James. Over his lifetime James wrote over twenty books detailing the ranch hand’s life that he had known in such places as Montana, Nevada and also California, where he had briefly worked as a Hollywood stunt rider. Will James was also a gifted artist, evident by the numerous drawings and paintings that were included in his literary efforts. Nobody knew of Will James’ early life until he passed away in 1942 of severe alcoholism. Then a search for next of kin produced a brother living in Canada under a different name.

Will James was born Joseph-Ernest-Nephtali Dufault on June 6, 1892, at St. Nazaire de Acton in Quebec, Canada. Then as a teenager, he left the province of Quebec for the wilds of Saskatchewan, where he learned how to be a cowhand. Eventually Joseph went south-of-the-border (possibly to escape rustling charges), changed his name and became a Montana cowboy. After years of working on various ranches, a man now called Will James began to write down his working experiences. Amazingly, he was also able to illustrate his text with captivating drawings and paintings, like the one seen above. One of his stories, Smoky the Cowhorse received a Newbery award and was also made into a movie. Even today, his books are still available and read by many.

Khaled Hosseini with the two main actors in The Kite Runner.
Khaled Hosseini with the two main actors in The Kite Runner.

Out of Afghanistan

“I write exclusively in English now. I could likely feign my way through a short story—a very short story—in Farsi. But generally, I lack a narrative voice in Farsi, and a sense of rhythm and cadence in my head, because it has been decades since I wrote fiction in Farsi. English has become very comfortable for me.” Khaled Hosseini

So begins the story of Khaled Hosseni, whose first novel The Kite Runner, recently became a bestseller and a popular Hollywood movie. He was born in Kabul in 1965, but left with his family in 1980 to escape the Russian War in Afghanistan. His family relocated to Southern California, as Khaled also graduated from high school and college in the U.S. The Kite Runner was published in 2003.

Joseph Conrad learned to speak fluently in Polish and French, before tackling English.
Joseph Conrad learned to speak fluently in Polish and French, before tackling English.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad, who is probably best known for the novel Heart of Darkness, did not learn the English language until he was in his twenties. Polish was his native tongue, but he was also completely fluent in French, before he started writing short stories in English. Although he always spoke English with a heavy accent, his prose was clear. Born in the Ukraine, Joseph went to sea as a merchant marine when he has still a teen. At age 36 Joseph retired from a seaman’s life and began writing.

Other Writers

The list of other authors, who write in English, despite the fact that it is not their native tongue include, Gary Shteyngart (Russian), Salman Rushdie (Hindu), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani), Francesca Marciano (Italian), Andrei Cordrescu (Romanian) and Yiyun Li (Mandarin Chinese). And then there is the Irishman, Samuel Beckett, who wrote in French despite the fact that his mother tongue was English.

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Working Class Writers

Though not literary writers, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were two American icons that rose from a modest background to stardom.
Though not literary writers, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were two American icons that rose from a modest background to stardom. Here they are pictured on an exterior wall in Las Vegas.

Labor Day Rant

Today is Labor Day and maybe it is a good time to celebrate those writers (and other artists), who held day jobs to support their  dreams. Actually this list is quite long, so I will concentrate mostly on those who toiled in the “School of Hard Knocks” outside the academic system. For a close look at the various and sundry jobs, writers have held in order to maintain their craft, check out this article at Huffington Post.

Now…..Don’t get me wrong……Academia has produced some amazingly talented writers. First to mind, are those wonderful British professors, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They both taught at Oxford and at the same time each in his own right produced some of the most remarkable fiction of the mid-twentieth century. In fact, the two were best of friends, who created and nourished The Inklings, an extra-curriculum literary discussion group that always met in one of Oxford’s many well-attended watering holes.

Jack Kerouac and the Beats

Jack Kerouac and company are notorious for allegedly spurning a whole cultural revolution that spurned higher education and encouraged various non-conformist activities, such as socializing at coffee houses (and bars), digging jazz music and writing offbeat and dissident poetry. Except for Kerouac and Neal Cassady, this group racked up quite a slew of impressive academic credentials. Though Alan Ginsburg dropped out of Columbia to write poetry, he did return and complete his degree program. Furthermore, William Burroughs was a Harvard graduate., while Gegory Corso attended the elite university as a a non-matriculating student— a poet in residence. Rounding out the group are Gary Snyder, who attended UCal Berkeley and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who received an advanced degree from the Sorbonne in Paris, France. All in all, that’s a pretty impressive collection of degrees and academic experiences.

The British Class System

Just by the sheer number of writers and poets that have come from the British Empire, this commonwealth of nations has to be one of the most literary places on the planet. Some of the Empire’s finest writers, actually grew up in the British hinterlands and so they never had to opportunity to attend an institute of higher learning. At the top of this list would be  Doris Lessing, a Rhodesian writer, who recently received a Nobel Prize in Literature, and the ever-popular George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair. Eric grew up in remote India and so he was never able to obtain a proper education. Still, this did not prevent the writer from producing several 20th century classics.

Back in old Londontown, fans of the mystery and crime genres will be interested in the life and times of Agatha Christie, who spent her childhood years in both London and Devonshire. Despite being home-schooled, Agatha Christie’s books have sold more copies for all authors except Shakespeare and the Bible.

My Labor Day Reading List

Following are some classic titles by a few brave writers, who went out and did things for themselves…..and then wrote about it. In reality, there are many books in this field. These few titles are just a my personal favorites and perhaps a jumping off point for your own reading adventures……for there are many more great titles out there.

1. You Can’t Win by Jack Black    This autobiographical tale from a turn-of-the-century hobo-cat burglar was William Burroughs favorite read. Need I say more.

2. The Drifting Cowboy by Will James    Though born in Quebec, Will James (an alias used to cover his cattle rustling past) escaped to the U.S. and worked many western ranches as a 20th century cowhand and roper. He also worked as a Hollywood stunt man during the early years.

3. Down and Out In Paris and London by George Orwell    Orwell’s firsthand account of washing dishes in 30s Paris and marching from one shelter to the next in England will leave you spellbound.

4. Roughing It by Mark Twain  Before Twain made it big with Tom Sawyer, the man did many things including tramping across the West during the Civil War.

5. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry    Here the author of the Little Prince recounts his flying days and a crash in the Sahara that may have lead to the petite prince story.

6. Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour  Louis L’Amour was more than just a western writer. He was also a professional boxer and merchant marine who traveled the Seven Seas. This book takes you through his world traveling and roundabout ways of his younger days.

In Conclusion

Perhaps the biggest working class heroes of all…….the Liverpool Lads

“They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be”

John Lennon from Working Class Hero

Probably no other group of artists better represents  the working class than the British fab four, John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Probably no other group of artists better represents the working class than the British fab four, John, Paul, George and Ringo.

A Cowboy Author from the Old West

book cover on Will James
cover featuring a Will James painting from a book about the cowboy artist

Twentieth Century Cowboys

Contrary to popular belief, the “Old West” did not die with the beginning of the 20th century. If you ever saw the opening scene from the movie, “Seabiscuit”, there is a wonderful part, where a mounted rider chases down a wild horse. The brief spurt of action is set against a stunning backdrop of mountains. After reading Will James intriguing memoir, “The Drifting Cowboy”, I now know that there is more truth to this picture than I first realized.

6am339 by Will James
painting entitled 6 a.m. by Will James

Who was Will James Anyway?

Will James is the alias of Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, who was born in 1892 in Saint-Nazaire-d’Acton, Quebec, Canada. As a young man Joseph traveled west to Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned to be a cowboy, but Joseph had to leave Canada and change his name ( to Will James) because he was wanted for cattle rustling. In the U.S. Will James traveled round the west working as a cowhand at various places, especially Montana. He even drifted south and worked in Hollywood as a stunt reader. This fascinating experience is well detailed in The Drifting Cowboy.

Learning to Draw

Will James learned to draw and paint at the early age of four when he was still known as Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault. Joseph grew up in a French speaking household, where such activities were encouraged at a very young age. Today, James artwork is scattered across the West with a large proportion held by the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, MT. This high plains Montana enclave is where Will James retired to after he finished his cowboy years. Part of his drawing and painting collection is on permanent display at the Montana museum.

portrait of will-james_117143925_std

Perhaps His Most Challenging Accomplishment

Not only was Will James an accomplished artist, but he could tell a good story as well. This is quite an accomplishment, for someone who learned English as a second language. In fact, Will James writing success brings to mind another famous Francophone, who also excelled when writing in English. That person is none other than Jack Kerouac, who was raised in a French-speaking household in Lowell, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Will James shared some of Kerouac’s  undesirable traits such as alcoholism, a transient lifestyle and death at an early age. Even though Will James published a score of books, had one successful Hollywood movie (Smoky the Cowhorse) and sold many drawings and paintings, he stilled died at age 50 from alcohol abuse. Today, his books are still available through the Tumbleweed Series put out by the Mountain Press Publishing Co. of Billings, MT. Check one out; you will enjoy the read.

Maynard Dixon painting
Navajo Land by Maynard Dixon

Artists of the Old West

Around 1920, James studied art at the California School of Art and Design. It is here that he met another painter, Maynard Dixon, who would go on to achieve much success with his painting. Despite Dixon’s dramatic artistic style, his personal experience with the “Cowboy Life” cannot match that of Will James. All in all, Will James was a very talented interpreter, who revealed many wonderful things about the life of the American cowboy in the not-so “Old West”.