But I wasn’t prepared for what the loss of my native language would mean for me.
“What do you do?” new acquaintances asked.
“I’m a writer.”
“Ah, a writer. How interesting. Can we read you?”
“Well, no, you see, I write in Dutch.”
I found myself staring at my novels stacked in the redwood bookcase I shipped across the ocean. A museum of my past. I was the total of all those words. But who was I now if my words did not exist here? It seemed that I’d left my real self in a small country far away.
I wasn’t totally without my bearings: I’d studied English since elementary school. Yet in conversations now, I often elicited a certain polite-puzzled look.
I knew that look. I once had an aunt with a tendency to say something other than what she meant. Seeing my expression, she’d ask, “I used the wrong word, didn’t I?”
I’d nod. “You asked if I gave water to the fish.”
“Well, you must agree, they have a lot of water already,” she would laugh, making a joke out of what I later learned was called aphasia.
Now, at times when I spoke, I felt as if I’d had a stroke. I did everything I could to avoid Dunglish, the unintentional but often funny mistakes Dutch speakers make in English. I had to stop myself from saying nonsensical things such as “let’s fall with the door into the house,” which is what we say in Dutch when we mean “skip the nonessentials.”
Trying to write in English was even worse. It required more than knowing the correct words to name things, the right prepositions, the difference between “come” and “get.” Writing is about sending a message, with all the nuance I intend. I wondered about tone and voice, the landscape upon which readers and I need to find common ground. I struggled to express myself in a way that would establish a shared intimacy with my readers. I felt vulnerable and worried about being misunderstood.
I wrestled with a story about an old man in Amsterdam who invited me into his home after I found his keys. I tried a literal translation of a line I would write in Dutch: “ ‘You are sweet,’ he says, in an attempt to seduce me.” Everything was wrong about that English version. “Sweet” was not what he meant. I then tried “adorable,” but that didn’t capture his words, either. And “seduce” was too strong — it was different from what I experienced, a dark and subtle effort to draw me into his world. Eventually I decided on a metaphor for the ambiguous emotions his invitation inspired in me: the flickering blue light on the canal at dusk. But that, too, was difficult. The Dutch have several words to describe their long light at the end of the day; Americans use only two: “dusk” or “twilight.”