How James Cañón Learned English While Writing a Novel

As I read the opening scenes of James Cañón’s Tales from the Town of Widows, I was impressed to find myself in the hands of a debut novelist who was already an accomplished stylist, and even moreso when I realized that Cañón had only become fluent enough in English to write this novel as he was writing it. I asked him to talk about that process, and I hope it inspires you to check out his book!

james-canon.jpgWriting fiction in a second—and even third—language is a literary choice that has a long history: Joseph Conrad, Milan Kundera, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, among many others, wrote masterpieces in languages different than their own.

For me, writing my first novel in my second language was not a choice. I conceived the idea for Tales from the Town of Widows originally in Spanish. I even wrote a few pages of it in Spanish, but it didn’t feel right. I don’t know how to explain it: I wanted to write a novel about Colombia that took place in Colombia, and yet it didn’t seem natural to write it in Spanish. I put the idea aside, then joined the creative writing graduate program at Columbia University and began writing short stories in English—I could write English, only not idiomatically or precisely, much less beautifully. But I couldn’t delay the idea forever, and in my second year at Columbia I decided to give it another chance. I wrote a short story called “The Other Widow,” in English, because it was for school and the weekly workshops were obviously conducted in English.

The story was terrible and the grammar was wrong, and yet I felt good about it. English, I realized, offered me an unconventional perspective on the Colombian conflict. It made me more detached from patriotism and sentimentality, and therefore more unbiased to convey my own points of view in my writing. I kept redrafting that first story until I thought it was good. Then I wrote and rewrote several more stories that eventually became chapters of the novel. I, however, continued doing all the thinking in Spanish, translating those thoughts into English before putting them in writing. In fact, I wrote the entire novel with the help of an unabridged English-Spanish dictionary, and of a good writer friend who worked as my “unofficial” editor/proofreader.

The more I wrote and revised, the more I noticed patterns of mistakes in my English and began to avoid them. Doing this helped me reduce the accent that still appears in my writing as well as in my voice. In the process of writing my novel, I realized that writing can only be as advanced as your reading level. And so I started reading more and more, and by doing it, I acquired an extensive vocabulary and learned many idiomatic expressions, proverbs, sayings, and the correct use of the complicated but essential English phrasal or “two-words” verbs.

Writing good fiction has a lot to do with breathing, rhythms and sounds that you can only get from knowing the language. You need to hear your own voice in this language to be able to write it with real feeling and a unique style. English, by now, comes almost as naturally to me as my first language. But Spanish will always be my first language. I speak Spanish every day at home. I often think and dream in it, and there are things I do in it I wouldn’t do in any other language, like counting money. I’m convinced that when people are fluent in more than one shared language they combine the strengths of both; they acquire more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening.

I love English, but I don’t want to idealize it. I want to master it, but I don’t want to lose the advantage of an outsider’s perspective.

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14 March 2007 | guest authors |