A Beast Called “Translingual Writer.”
By Yana Barbelo
It sounds fancy, trans-ling-ual, but in reality, it’s simple. You are born into one language. You die in another, and somewhere in-between, you get possessed by a desire to tell a story, not in your mother’s tongue. I’m one of those. I wrote my debut novel Umbra in my 40’s, and I spoke not a word of English until well into my 20’s. Chances are, the last words I’ll speak and hear will be English as well. So, it is simple. But not easy.
Like most immigrants, I came to the New World with not a penny to my name. For years I had to work long days and numbing jobs for miserly pay. I had no time or money to sit in class and “study English.” But I longed for it! Oh, how much I longed to roll your words off my tongue as if they were my own, to understand you, your laughing, your crying, and what did you write in zillion papers I had to sign. But most of all, I longed to hear your stories. The books you’ve written, the tales you’ve told.
At a time, I lived in an antiquated Brooklyn apartment building with a communal laundromat in a basement. As it was a custom of the tenants to dump old stuff in the basement, I sometimes entertained myself by going through the piles of broken toys and kitchenware while waiting for my laundry. But one lucky day, there was a book. One discarded, worn out book, wavy pages, and no cover. This book was in bed with me that very night.
For the first 100 pages or so, my “reading” consisted of recognizing familiar words here and there. I have no idea how, but I figured the story was set in the olden days. An unhappy young woman was going from one depressing place to another. That was about it. My head was throbbing as I stared at words, trying to divine their meaning. I did not use any translator. I believed that if I tried hard enough, my brain would somehow grasp the language in its entirety. Besides, I felt very proud of myself. I was reading a real English book, never mind the elusive plot.
After many hours of this self-imposed torture (masochistic, in one friend’s opinion), I reached the end of the book. An unhappy young woman, having gone through many trials and tribulations, finally reunited with her beloved. She was now happy, even though her beloved was blind and crippled. He survived one terrible fire, and they would live happily ever after. I understood! The book didn’t have a cover or a title page, but I was pretty sure I just finished Jane Eyre. (I read it in Russian translation many years before).
During this torturous experiment, my brain must have built a stellar “highway system” that enabled me to further learn English with incredible speed and efficiency, without tutors or translators. I learned the language not by translations but by associations, anew, as children do. In a certain sense, English is not my second language, but my “second first language.” Still, I am a translingual writer.
Every language paints a picture of a world that is different, unique. Being fluent in two languages is to know two worlds. But you cannot live in two worlds simultaneously. Like Nabokov and Brodsky, and many others, I exist between the worlds. I’m acutely nostalgic for elegant, expressive English when I speak Russian. I’m missing complex, nuanced Russian when I speak English. I always miss one or the other. By becoming translingual, I submitted to the life of perpetual longing for the unattainable.
But I want to believe there is a gift in this suffering. When I was writing Umbra, I found myself in constant search of expressions that would effectively merge my Russian roots with my English crown. Thus, Umbra is a linguistic hybrid. All translingual novels are, even if a writer is entirely unaware of it. It’s unavoidable, nor it should be. I think there is a lot to be gained from reading such hybrids. They are like spells, working their magic below our conscious awareness.
Contrary to popular belief, the language’s primary function is not to express ourselves but to make an internal representation of the outer world, to make meaning. Translingual novels, being linguistic hybrids, work on the psyche’s archaic levels, enhancing our ability to perceive complexity and make sense of it. They may be one of the much-needed remedies against the pernicious malaise of our time, the poverty of meaning.
In the beginning was the Darkness: formless, empty, and alone. And its name was Umbra.
And Umbra the Darkness said, “Let there be a seed.” And there was a seed. And Umbra saw that the seed was good, and she let it grow.
The seed grew and became a body, and Umbra saw that the body was beautiful, and she called it Woman.
Then Umbra the Darkness said, “Here is Woman. She is my daughter. Let the air become her breath. Let the water become her blood. Let the stones become her bones. Let the fire become her life.” And it came to be so. And Umbra saw that it was good.
Then she blessed the Woman and said, “Go to every corner of the earth, sail every sea, cross every forest. Hunt with wolves, fly with birds, dance with all my demons. When you find the Sons of Stars, lie with them, and make them many.” And the Woman did so, and it was good.
Then Umbra the Darkness said, “Let there be a great light inside the Woman to shine upon the world, its every sea, and every forest, and every Son of every Star.” And it came to be so. The Woman’s light grew. Bigger and bigger it grew, and it became vast. And the Darkness shrank. Smaller and smaller it shrank, and it became tiny. And there came morning, the First Dawn.
Then the Woman rose and saw all that the Darkness had made, and She saw that it was very good!
And the Woman said, “Let the Darkness return to rest behind my eyes, to be my shadow, to lead me, and to follow.” And so it came to be. The Darkness returned, and the evening came, the First Night
Book of Ohno
To be read by the light of a candle, in the heart of winter, when nights are the longest, and shadows are the darkest.
She was chained to it for life. They had exchanged no vows—no words were necessary. Nothing in this world or the next could tear them apart as long as the Earth revolved and the sun shone. Because of their intertwined connection, and perhaps out of loneliness, Ohno thought of giving it a name. A name wouldn’t change a thing, of course—that much Ohno knew. It would continue to torment her, day after day, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. Still, mountains, stars, and dogs had names—why not her shadow?
“Get out of there,” Ohno grumbled, poking a fishing pole at the throbbing ball of blackness coiled under the seat in her cockpit. It fought back, lashing out at the tip of the stick, but Ohno was merciless, and soon the blackness shrank, stretched, and slithered out onto the deck.
“Don’t you ever come in here!” Ohno yelled at its serpentine tail as she collapsed onto the seat, exhausted. She’d been chasing it from stern to bow all day. By the grace of God, the sea was calm, or she would have tumbled overboard trying to catch it.
She suspected the nameless monstrosity had an eye for her cargo: six bags, tightly wrapped in waterproof cloth, anchored to the wall in the belly of the ship. This cargo could not be lost, could not be harmed, not by the sea, nor by man, beast, nor the shadow. Especially her shadow. If she had to die protecting the bags, she would.
Bobbing along, her vessel was the only thing visible on the endless blue expanse of water and sky. She was alone here, tossed by an unknown sea, sailing toward an unknown destination she might never reach. When she’d first found herself on this pitch-black yawl on the open sea, she had thought of giving the sea a name but was afraid she’d get it wrong. The wrong name was like a disease that killed you slowly. It could make you disappear. Ohno wasn’t willing to take that risk. She decided to call it Sea and promptly fell head over heels in love with it.
Sea was beautiful, boundless, and dangerous, like a dream lover with a lethal touch. On days like this, when it was calm, Ohno liked to lounge on the deck and allow herself to be enchanted by the blue magic surrounding her. She let the salty breeze caress her face and soothe her quivering nerves as she listened to the flapping sails, contemplated the horizon, and imagined herself a queen in exile, journeying to some exotic land to reunite with her royal beloved. Sometimes she went as far as conjuring up her beloved’s bearded face, his lips kissing hers, a smile in his sea-blue eyes. But the image made her heart race and her cheeks flush until she lay helpless, bathed in tears.
The truth was she had no beloved, royal or otherwise, and in all likelihood, she was not a queen, or even a noblewoman. Aside from her name—Ohno Hoia—she knew nothing of her own identity or where she’d come from. Like the fish beneath her keel, she had no memories, only hunches and dreams.
With the shadow driven out of the cockpit, Ohno retreated to her stateroom. It was dim and damp, and that was just the way she liked it. Her quarters had everything she needed—except a mirror. Whoever had built this vessel hadn’t considered it a necessity, and so the shape and color of her own face remained a tantalizing mystery. The glimpses she’d caught in the cockpit’s instrumentation were gauzy, distorted. Her hair was long and messy (she didn’t need a mirror to figure that out), and from the strands she found on her pillow from time to time, she knew it was turning gray.
She sat at the small desk and gulped from a half-empty bottle of Dictador rum, a bittersweet concoction that burned her throat but lifted her spirits. She needed that today. Waiting for the liquid flames to reach their destination, Ohno opened her captain’s log and wrote in fiery red ink: The sea has calmed. Sailing east … She hesitated and added a fat, curvy question mark, and then another.
The logbook was full of question marks, writhing all over the pages like little snakes. Who am I? What year is it? Am I dead? Am I mad? Thirty-six entries, no dates, written in her own unsteady hand. Entry number one was a scribble she couldn’t even read, followed by a long line of bleeding question marks. That was the day she’d found herself on the boat, the day she had begun, as a concept and not just a thing. Before that there had been nothing but darkness, and as hard as she tried, Ohno could not place herself in the world she must have inhabited before her life as a captain … if she could even call herself that. She had a body. She had a name. She must have existed for quite some time before waking up on this boat and scrawling the first entry. But who or what she was—or any detail about her past—remained a lost memory. And her imagination was not much of a help lately. As the days slipped by in dreary monotony, the distinction between the two—what she knew and what she imagined—was rapidly blurring.
The Dictador was working its potent magic.
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, the ship bell rang from foredeck.
Ohno dropped the pen and sat up straight, her eyes wide. The pleasant, Dictador-induced oblivion evaporated, and her senses snapped back into focus. Ding, ding, ding, ding. Her shadow was up to some malicious mischief again. Will it ever end? Ohno thought wearily, as she grabbed her stick and stepped out of her stateroom.
It took immeasurable self-control not to launch at the foul foe and try to strangle it with her bare hands, but the last time she’d tried that, the shadow’s unbearable cold had burned her skin and penetrated her flesh to the bone. It was as solid as a block of black ice, only icier. And somehow hollow. Her shadow was not of this world, and she could not touch it.
She waited a few feet away, watching it thrash the bell rope. Malice oozed out of it like pus—every kind of wickedness, and worse. Give it a name? What was she thinking? That thing didn’t deserve a name. And how could she keep beating up an entity with a name?
“I’m calling you It,” she muttered, hitting It as hard as she could.
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. The bell tolled furiously as Ohno battered her shadow. Her hands had gone numb, but she didn’t stop until It let go of the rope and leaped overboard, spreading its harpy wings.
After the thousand little tasks a solo sailor must attend to, Ohno returned to her cabin. She would have preferred to spend the afternoon in the pleasant company of Dictador, but the earlier ordeal would not let her soul rest. Fear spread inside her like mold. What if I never find land? Dying of thirst and starvation, with nobody but It by her side, seemed like the loneliest way to go. Another question arose, unanswerable like most of her questions: What happens to my shadow when I die? There must be a place where all shadows go.
There is. It’s called hell, the tiny voice inside her whispered. Ohno nodded in agreement. In a way, she envied It. It didn’t have a name, but It seemed to know what It was and why It was there. The shadow was free—of form, of thought, and even of time, the cruelest of prisons. Even without a mirror, Ohno knew she wasn’t immune to the ravages of time. She had a body, and it was getting old. She knew it deep inside her aching bones. Hers was not a young body. But what kind of body was it? Was she even a human? And what does it even mean—being human?
For the hundredth time, she examined her large, stiff hands. There was something wrong with them. She couldn’t explain how she knew it, but the faint disgust at the sight of her hands told her that it indeed was so. And then it hit her—the number! Twelve! She had twelve fingers; it was two too many for a body like hers. She turned her palms up and down, wiggled her fingers, and smiled happily. Yes, her body must be human. Abnormal, but human nonetheless. And again, she could not explain how she knew it, only that she did.
Then it occurred to her that she knew many things she had no memory of, and the source of this knowledge was more obscure than the mysteries lurking at the bottom of the ocean. How was that possible? She knew of seas, and lakes, and rivers; and birds, and cows, and dogs; and, yes, of shadows. She knew things in an innate way that only a human would. She knew of them without ever having seen them, or so it seemed.
Ding … Ding … From the foredeck again. A gentle, musical sound. Not the obnoxious one her shadow had made earlier today. Ohno frowned and made her way back to the foredeck, stepping cautiously and clutching her stick. Just in case.
The sun was hovering over the western horizon, bidding the day a luminous farewell. The sea turned into liquid gold, and the brass ship bell became a shining star with an amber halo. And there, on top of the bell, in the middle of the halo, was perched a creature of a most unusual kind. Its small, oval, wonderfully curved body was of the whitest white. On a smooth, supple neck sat a black head with two eyes the color of the sun. The creature held its gaze for what seemed like an eternity, cooed softly, and took off with one powerful flap of its wings.
A bird, the voice within whispered.
“A bird …” Ohno repeated, following the trajectory of the creature’s flight, higher and higher, until it became a distant dot on the flaming horizon.
Ding … Ding … The bell rang, swinging slightly from the release of the bird’s talons.
Still under the spell of the vision, Ohno stared at the bell—for the hundredth time. “Umbra, 1999” was etched on its surface in bold, black letters. Her brain itched; some memory was digging its way out into the open like a worm. Umbra, short for umbrella? No, that was nonsense. Nobody would name their ship after something so ordinary as an umbrella. Then it hit her—the number! The year the ship had launched was 1999! Judging from the vessel’s considerable wear and tear, the current year wasn’t the year 1999. Perhaps 2020, give or take. Ohno’s heart skipped a beat, and then, as if someone pushed a lever inside her, all the tension of the day dropped away like an iron suit of armor. Suddenly she became aware of a cool evening breeze caressing her thighs, her breasts, her half-naked shoulders. Every cell of her body was singing in childlike delight, and her lavish torso shook as she laughed.
Time! She had found time. She had found her century: the twenty-first! It was like finding a long-lost treasure, like rediscovering a limb you thought was gone. Why would she ever think that time was a prisoner? Time was a treasure, a liberator, the best friend a lone traveler could have.
“The twenty-first century.” Ohno whispered the delicious words under the darkening sky. The moon had risen now. Silver-capped waves broke gently over the yawl’s bow.
There hadn’t been a better day in Ohno’s life; of that, she was almost entirely sure. She was of the twenty-first century. Ancient civilizations with their human sacrifices and slavery were in the past, a long gone past. So were the Middle Ages; thank God for that. She wouldn’t get burnt at the stake, or die in misery coughing up her own plague-infested lungs. She wasn’t in some bleak, post-apocalyptic time, and there was no toxic fire sweeping the earth. All of those horrors were in the past, or in the far distant future. Now was the twenty-first century, the age of reason, of justice, of liberty, and may be even love. Humankind must have achieved the impossible by now, and is standing on three unfailing pillars: freedom, truth, and beauty. This was the world she could not wait to inhabit, to embrace, and upon which to unload her precious cargo.
She would find the land, the land of the beautiful and of the free. She would do what she must, and then … Who knows? She smiled dreamily to the moon. Perhaps the sweet strawberry lips of her beloved would kiss her, and there would be love, and even something she would be able to call home.
She didn’t make it to the sea—not as a live body nor as a corpse. Somewhere along the journey (not the last journey, as she at first believed), the coffin came to a sudden halt. Her nearly departed consciousness registered the sound of a crash, then a series of heavy blows upon the lid, as if stomped upon by an angry giant.
She was confused, in pain, and therefore alive. This realization evoked no feeling in her other than mild amusement.
Something sharp broke through the lid, and fresh, cool air rushed in with a formidable force, into her nose, mouth, throat, lungs. The air had no pity. The air hurt. Life hurt. Badly.
All at once she found herself on a pile of wooden debris that once made up the walls of her prison, now turned into a nondescript pile of rubbish. How did it happen?
Her limbs were intact. Her head hurt but wasn’t cracked. The shroud she was buried in was sloughing off like dead skin. The air was all around now, damp and purple and full of sounds—croaking of the frogs, lapping of the waves, rustling of the reeds, and then … breathing. Not hers, something else’s. It was one big, stinky, savage breath. It didn’t belong to a kind, sweet being. No, this breath belonged to a creature you don’t want to meet alone at night. Slowly, cautiously, Umbritta closed her eyes and prepared to play dead.
“Get up!” the thing’s voice shouted right over her. She took a quick glance through half-closed eyes. A figure in a vast black cloak loomed over her, its face invisible within the hood’s shadow.
“Get up, I said!” the voice repeated, more ferociously. Something sharp poked her in the ribs. She didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. But the cloaked figure wasn’t easily fooled, to Umbritta’s great disappointment. The sharp stick kept poking her side as if she were a slab of meat hanging in a butcher shop. Finally, she groaned and rolled over.
“Alive, eh? Ha, I knew it! Did you think your playing ’possum would fool me?” Then the thing laughed with morbid satisfaction.
Umbritta was stone silent, thinking how was it possible that her own mother hadn’t seen she was alive, but this thing did. Screwing up her courage, she took a closer look at the cloaked figure.
It was tall, with no substance under the cloak that Umbritta could discern. It spoke, so it must have a mouth, and therefore a face, but it was all hidden within the shadowy hood. A bony hand was clutching a crooked staff with which it must have poked her. Perhaps it was a hallucination, a product of her oxygen-deprived brain. Except that the creature stunk, badly. No hallucination or ghost or apparition could ever manage to produce an odor so foul. This thing, whatever it was, was real.
“Get out of that pile of rubbish!” the thing ordered in an imperious tone of voice that would never take “no” for an answer. Umbritta crawled out of the rubble, collected the debris, and pushed it back into the river. Then she stood still, looking at the fragments of her coffin getting picked by the current and drifting further and further away. She shuddered. Sealed up in a coffin and cast adrift! I’ll never let that happen to me again. Never! That’s for sure!
“Never be sure,” a voice barked from behind her.
Startled, she blurted out: “Are you reading my mind?”
The creature was at the top of the bank already, looking down at her, leaning on the stick. “I am your mind, stupid.”
Emboldened by the increased distance between them, Umbritta yelled back: “I don’t see how it can be so. Unlike my mind, you stink!”
“Are you sure, bonehead?”
“Yes, I am damn sure! You are not my mind. My mind is beautiful! And you are ugly!” Her voice was coming out with a clarity and depth it hadn’t had before. Because of all that pitiless air she’d inhaled, she reckoned. It had a restorative, invigorating power, after all. She liked it, and she yelled some more.
“I am very sure! I am sure that I am who I am! I am very, very sure I will never let anyone imprison me and cast me adrift again! Not even you! Try and I’ll stick you in an oven!” She listened to the words flying over the river; she could almost see them—bold, shiny, smooth, like swans.
“Is that all you got?” the creature said, pulling back its hood. There it was: a face like a continent—moles upon moles upon moles, nipple-sized and hairy, like a hirsute mountain range; eyes like erupting volcanoes; a cobweb of white, limp hair. The creature was vaguely a female. And she was burning with fury.
“Never be sure!” she roared, hitting the ground with her staff. The mist from her mouth reached all the way down to the river and covered Umbritta in a thin, slimy veil.
“Never be sure!” she yelled louder. An image of a fence with skulls on pikes came to Umbritta’s mind. How many people had this creature eaten, how many bones had she crunched?
“Listen here, fool! Be sure is the name of that coffin drifting down the river! Be sure is to be trapped! Be sure is to be dead! Never be sure again, stupid!”
As if in a trance, Umbritta nodded, wiping the witch’s saliva off her face. By now it was clear: she had met a Forest Witch.
“Now, let’s cut this nonsense,” the witch said, her tone suddenly calm, almost playful. “Get up here and let’s go.” Then she spit between her teeth like some delinquent youth. Watching the elongated glob of mucus flying over the reeds, Umbritta wondered if dying in the river was a preferable fate after all. She glanced furtively all around her. No, there was no escape. The river was wide, and the Forest rose like the walls of a fortress, sealing her in.
She began to climb. It was much harder than she had anticipated. The riverbank was slick and steep; she kept sliding down, puffing and muttering curses under her breath. The witch was watching her with narrowed eyes, oozing contempt and arrogance.
“Hurry up, you!” she yelled after a while. “I can’t squander the whole night on your dawdling!”
“I’m trying!” Umbritta yelled, hating herself for appearing so helpless. “Care to give me a hand?”
“A hand?” the witch snickered. “You mean like those many fine, white hands that subdued you?”
Umbritta grunted. The witch went on. “What happened to your hands? You don’t know you have your own? Of course you don’t. That’s how ignorant and stupid you are. You have two hands, fool. Use them.”
The witch kept mocking her, but when Umbritta finally made it to higher ground, she didn’t have any strength or desire to fight her. Covered in dirt, twigs, and snails, she looked like an ogre and smelled like a refuse ditch.
“O Lordy,” the witch muttered. “I’ve never seen anything filthier than you. And the stench! Pee-yew! Stay back, you.” Then she turned towards the Forest, shoved two fingers in her mouth, and whistled so loudly that the tips of the pine trees shook. That very instant dozens and dozens of cats charged towards them. Big, muscular cats, not at all like the village cats Ohno used to play with. These were wild beasts with torn ears, broken tails, and fierce eyes. In a few seconds, Umbritta and the witch were surrounded by this herd of growling felines, their backs arching, erect tails trembling, their eyes fixed on the witch’s face.
Peering into the dark woods ahead, the witch said over her shoulder, dropping every word like a pebble in a pond: “This Forest is where I live. It is full of things you don’t want to see. These things, once seen, cannot be unseen. Ever. They have killed many, and they may kill you. You can go back to the river now, and drift away after your ruined casket. Or you can follow me. But be aware, I cannot promise but one thing: I will take you where you need to be.”
“And this would be … where?”
The witch turned towards her; her moles moved, and a grin twisted her face, revealing one yellow fang.
A lonely soul tormented by her hideous, malignant shadow. What world did she come from? What century? She can’t remember. A stranger to herself, a God’s mistake. – Umbra by Yana Barbelo
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