Balkan, Creole, Other: Dislocating Contemporary Multilingualisms

In: Journal of Literary Multilingualism
Ena Selimović aclsEmerging Voices Postdoctoral Fellow, Program in American Studies and Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, US

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Reading the language memoirs of Jhumpa Lahiri and Dubravka Ugrešić, this article investigates what it means to know or not know a language, particularly when that language is marked ‘foreign.’ The texts under analysis attend to languages that often fall under the rubric of ‘other languages’ and underexamined contact zones. Approaching the sociopolitical dominance of so-called global English and the literary marketplace of world literature, this article reveals the need to elaborate the concept of multilingualism through multiscalar reading practices that show the inter-imperial history of contemporary multilingualism.


Reading the language memoirs of Jhumpa Lahiri and Dubravka Ugrešić, this article investigates what it means to know or not know a language, particularly when that language is marked ‘foreign.’ The texts under analysis attend to languages that often fall under the rubric of ‘other languages’ and underexamined contact zones. Approaching the sociopolitical dominance of so-called global English and the literary marketplace of world literature, this article reveals the need to elaborate the concept of multilingualism through multiscalar reading practices that show the inter-imperial history of contemporary multilingualism.

Not all articulation and rejection of difference is the same, as not all difference is the same. Some differences carry more cultural capital than others; some differences are less universal than others; some differences are more disempowering and hurtful than others.

shu-mei shih, 2004: 28

Let us begin with a historical moment. In 1911, a U.S. Congressional report compiled by the Immigration Commission, titled Dictionary of Races or Peoples, was published on the occasion of a shift in U.S. immigration: The new influx was comprised largely of immigrants from southeast Europe. The report attempted to fill the missing yet “important ethnical factors to be found among natives of eastern European countries resident in the United States” (U.S. Congressional Report, 1911: 1). While a new system of classification was deemed unnecessary as immigrants arrived from Poland and the Kingdom of Bohemia (what would become the Czech Republic), the report argued that the “old method of recording arrivals only by the country of their nativity was of little value in determining the ethnical status of such immigrants” as those from “Austria-Hungary, Russia, Turkey, and the Balkan States” (1911: 2). The list reflected empires and inter-imperial zones not usually under the purview of postcolonial studies, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire.1 Adopting the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s five “great races” of humankind—formulated as “Caucasian, Ethiopian, Mongolian, Malay, and American, or, as familiarly called, the white, black, yellow, brown, and red races”—the Dictionary subdivided its conception of race using linguistic formulations (1911: 3). It asserted that the classification of language—specifically, the “language spoken by him or by his ancestors in the old home”—had the “sanction of law in immigration statistics and in the censuses of foreign countries” (3). Consequently, the report contended that classifying language was the sole method by which to accurately quantify immigration figures: “The immigrant inspector or the enumerator in the field may easily ascertain the mother tongue of an individual, but he has neither the time nor the training to determine whether that individual is dolichocephalic or brachycephalic in type” (3–4).2 In this redescription of visible identity markers, language embodied more physical properties ascertainable by the so-called immigrant inspector than measurements of the skull, a task that purportedly required more training, precision, and time (see figure 1). In official use until the 1950s, the report made language the newfound overt marker of race and claimed that its classification lent convenience and efficiency to processing those deemed foreigners under the law.

This article investigates what it means to know or not know a language, particularly when that language is marked ‘foreign,’ when it carries the sanction of law. Foreign how? Foreign to whom? How does the conception of foreignness change in relation to southeast European languages in particular? In relation to migration? In dialogue with the 1911 Dictionary, the article close reads two language memoirs that engage the dictionary as a form and thus participate in delineating the boundaries of certain languages: Dubravka Ugrešić’s Američki fikcionar (American Fictionary, 1993), translated from Croatian into English by Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać; and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole (In Other Words, 2016), translated from Italian into English by Ann Goldstein.3


Linguistic classification chart presented in the 1911 U.S. Congressional report Dictionary of Races or Peoples

Citation: Journal of Literary Multilingualism 1, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/2667324x-20230106

Each memoir positions the writers within triangulated and multidirectional linguistic networks ever shifting, depending on the racial field in which the writers position themselves and in which they are positioned by others at any given time. My analysis of these texts demonstrates the equal weight carried by the speaker, the setting, the language, and the positionality of speaker, setting, and language in better understanding specific forms of multilingualism. Indeed, the work of Lahiri and Ugrešić provide two variations on southern Europe; while Lahiri weaves Bengali and English into the fabric of Italian, Ugrešić brings together bcms, Dutch, Russian, and English. Reading these two texts together—one in Italian, one in bcms, both with other lives in English translation—highlights their often-neglected geographical proximity. Through a description of the linguistic nodes these literary texts map onto a relational field, this article recovers the gains and losses in the politics of naming (and not naming) Balkan forms of multilingualism.

In what follows, I review how the discussion of multilingualism has largely neglected southeast European languages. I then analyze Lahiri’s and Ugrešić’s relationship to language, specifically through their engagement with dictionaries. The stability and partiality that each author, respectively, identifies in the dictionary as a form says much about how they and their languages are positioned in the world and in the sphere of so-called world literature. While In Other Words treats the dictionary as authoritative, American Fictionary questions its performance of objectivity and challenges the stability of American English—and by extension, American Empire—as a default reference point that always already enters unchallenged even when multiple languages are at play and the critical perspective being worked through is translation.

The texts under analysis in this article attend to languages which often fall under the rubric of ‘other languages’ and underexamined contact zones to reveal the need to elaborate the concept of multilingualism through multiscalar reading practices that show the inter-imperial history of contemporary multilingualism. Placing the work of Lahiri and Ugrešić in relation reflects how southeast European and South Asian languages, located in inter-imperial zones with their own specific histories and traveling diasporically across empires, reveal enduring linguistic hierarchies that serve as processes of racialization. Within these hierarchies, bcms and Bengali are positioned as more minor than Italian and more minor still than English. In its neglect of minoritized languages, the critical field of literary multilingualism risks perpetuating these hierarchies.

1 On Knowing ‘Other Languages’

In his 2016 essay titled “Another Way in the World,” Simon Gikandi poses a series of questions outlining newfound attempts to mainstream multilingualism in the study of literature:

What are the possibilities and limits of studying literature across languages and traditions? What does it mean for English, French, or Spanish to be creolized? What role do regional languages and their literatures play in globalization? What happens when we change the direction of comparison from north-south to north-north or south-south? How does literature work in multilingual situations? What is the future of minor literatures and less-taught languages? How does literature function in primarily oral cultures? What is the role of translation in the circulation of literary cultures in different periods and places?


The questions interrogate geopolitically inflected language hierarchies and navigate uneven patterns of flow and disruption. This unevenness highlights the relevance of creolization—both as history in the context of the Caribbean plantation economy, or a “racial and cultural mixing due to colonization, slavery, and migration” (Lionnet and Shih, 2011: 22); and as theory, signaling “a mode of transformation premised on the unequal power relations that characterize modernity/coloniality” (Parvulescu and Boatcă, 2022: 4). Globalization, creolization, translation, and comparison are revealed to be co-constitutive forces in which certain languages become standardized (relevant; domesticated), while others become marginalized (foreign). Given that the largest publishing presses are headquartered in the United States while only 3 percent of texts are translated into English—the majority from French, German, Italian, and Spanish—still more questions arise about the unevenness of market distribution.

This unevenness raises at least two points. One relates to the attention that twentieth- and twenty-first-century forms of multilingualism have garnered in the past two decades following seminal works such as Lydia H. Liu’s Translingual Practice (1995) and Steven G. Kellman’s The Translingual Imagination (2000): The work has largely concentrated on multilingualism in English, French, German, and Spanish. Despite the ever-encroaching dominance of these languages, however, multilingualism is global. In a field-defining text on multilingual German literatures, Yasemin Yildiz describes all languages as “multilingualized” (2012: 15). Kellman has argued that “linguistic purity is of course a chimera; English, Korean, and Arabic are each already mongrel, and creolization among existing languages proceeds wherever cultures touch and collide—which is to say, virtually everywhere” (2000: 15).

What is exceptional remains the endurance of the Enlightenment-era monolingual paradigm, which Yildiz correlates with the “insistence on identifying the individual with one language only—namely, the presumed mother tongue” (2012: 23). The potency of that paradigm depends on the spatial and temporal location of the languages under analysis. It is this potency that partly explains why the scholarship on east and southeast European multilingualism, despite its centuries-long history, is only now emerging. Situated in the Balkans and particularly in the historical territory of the newly nationalized Bosnia and Herzegovina, the work of Amila Buturović has shown that “Slavic variants, of which bosančica was Bosnia’s main script, coexisted with Latin, Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Ladino, and Persian” (2020). In its recent history, the so-called native language of Yugoslavs—Serbo-Croatian—has been reframed and foreignized, brokered by the American empire and made official in Dayton and Paris. The language has been dissected in the Dayton Peace Agreement according to imperial legacies that trace racio-religious traditions: Bosnian (Muslim), Croatian (Catholic), Serbian (Eastern Orthodox).4 The absence—from the ongoing critical discussion on multilingualism—of these specific forms of multilingualism only exacerbates the increasingly more racializing politics of naming ‘on the ground.’

This foreignization of ‘other languages’ to the point of their absence from consideration brings me to the second point regarding unevenness. Until recently, scholarship has focused on levels of proficiency when attending to the work of multilingual writers, particularly those who have experienced migration. Juliette Taylor-Batty introduces her analysis of Anglophone modernist writers by acknowledging the “common assumption that writers have command and control over the language(s) they use, that they have ‘knowledge’ and ‘competence’ of words and structures, and that they displace linguistic ‘mastery’ and ‘skill’” (2019: 41). In dialogue with Emily Apter’s theory of untranslatability and Virginia Woolf’s essays on not knowing French and Greek, Taylor-Batty argues that it is the writers’ stress on not knowing that makes newness—or art—possible. It is this “not knowing” that resists models of mastery and ownership. In a recent essay titled “On Not Knowing: Lahiri, Tawada, Ishiguro,” Rebecca L. Walkowitz elaborates that not knowing “brings visibility to the history of conflict and collaboration within languages and focuses the conversation on linguistic hospitality rather than linguistic ownership” (2020: 324).

On the one hand, given the openness to different engagements made possible by the resistance to ‘proficiency,’ scholarship has the potential to reach beyond nation-bound linguistic allegiances to examine the specific local and inter-imperial histories and legacies that constitute different degrees of foreignness within and among languages, including the so-called native language. On the other hand, the emphasis on “not knowing” grants attention to the same languages that were attended to in the first place—i.e., English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. A critical analysis of ‘not knowing bcms,’ to name one example, poses a different ethical dilemma than ‘not knowing French.’ For one, Anglophone scholarship that critically engages with literature in bcms (largely in translation) rarely contends with or acknowledges the absence of specific linguistic knowledge. Nor does it incorporate new literatures being produced in the region (in part due to a limited translation market out of bcms into English, especially after the end of the ‘latest war’) or evaluate the so-called canon beyond an older generation of writers such as Danilo Kiš and Ivo Andrić. In turn, it becomes falsely acceptable to recycle the foreignizing tropes that render an entire region and its respective history unchanging and thus vulnerable to being perpetually boiled down to ‘ancient hatreds’ and ‘tribal warfare.’

2 Negotiating Foreignness

“[L]ocal” in whose terms? How is significant difference politically articulated, and challenged? Who determines where (and when) a community draws its lines, names its insiders and outsiders?

james clifford, 1997: 19

In Other Words is an Italian and English translingual memoir published in 2016 by Vintage.5 The narrative follows Lahiri’s experience of learning Italian. The Italian text appears on the verso side, English on the recto. Originally written in Italian by Lahiri, it was translated into English by Ann Goldstein, whose oeuvre includes translations of the work of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi. Despite Goldstein’s renown, however, only Lahiri’s name appears on the cover, accompanied by a photograph of the author sitting before a dictionary.6 In the English-language preface, Lahiri explains that outsourcing the translation allowed her to “protect [her] Italian” (2016: xiii); that the memoir is an “experiment” (xiii), a “choice” (xiii), and a “risk” (xiii); and that it “requires strict discipline” (xiv). Although Lahiri has since self-translated from Italian into English, she claimed that self-translating In Other Words would have disrupted the quality of rawness in her Italian: “[T]he temptation would have been to improve it, to make it stronger by means of my stronger language” (xiv). Solidifying the borders around her Italian, the text resists the imperative to write in English and conceptualizes the two languages as mutually exclusive, bordering on antagonism. To combat English’s supposedly parasitic effects on Italian, Lahiri “instinctively felt” the need for a translator (xiv). While she feels “like a guest, a traveler” when she reads in Italian, writing in Italian makes her feel “like an intruder, an imposter”: “Sembra un compito contraffatto, innaturale. Mi accorgo di aver oltrepassato un confine, di sentirmi persa, di essere in fuga. Di essere completamente straniera” (82) [“The work seems counterfeit, unnatural. I realize that I’ve crossed over a boundary, that I feel lost, in flight. I’m a complete foreigner” (83)]. “Unnatural” and “foreigner” commingle here, linking ‘natural’—or ‘native’—with a sense of belonging. In her collection of essays titled Translating Myself and Others (2022), Lahiri adds: “I write in Italian to feel free” (2022: 11). The words “intruder,” “imposter,” “unnatural,” and “foreigner” unexpectedly converge with a sense of freedom. The list suggests there is a different kind of foreignness at stake here.

Dictionaries, or forms of writing that are always already negotiating boundaries and belonging, are central to the text. Two of the chapters in the book—titled “The Dictionary” and “Reading with a Dictionary”—explicate Lahiri’s relationship with dictionaries. She describes the dictionary as a guide, as protection, as capable of explaining everything: “Diventa sia una mappa che una bussola, senza la quale so che sarei smarrita. Diventa una specie di genitore, autorevole, senza il quale non posso uscire. Lo retengo un testo sacro, pieno di segreti, di rivelazioni” (2016: 8) [“It becomes both a map and a compass, and without it I know I’d be lost. It becomes a kind of authoritative parent, without whom I can’t go out. I consider it a sacred text, full of secrets, of revelations” (9)]. As a language memoir, In Other Words serves as a personalized dictionary—or, as Lahiri and Goldstein put it, “una sorta di autobiografia linguistica, un autoritratto” (212) [“a linguistic autobiography, a self-portrait” (213)]. Reflecting Lahiri’s experience of being doubled, words are doubled on the page.

At first, the book associates foreignness with Italian, the language she learns “unnaturally,” as she says—meaning formally—in various periods of her life: as a graduate student of Renaissance studies, with a private tutor in New York, then later as she begins writing in Italian, and later still, translating in Italian. Biological metaphors for language extend to reproductive frameworks—especially to motherhood. Although her inherited language, Bengali, occasionally surfaces in the text, when it does so, it takes the position of a ‘mother tongue’ and consequently risks succumbing to marginalization.7 Lahiri’s confrontation with her limited Italian vocabulary conjures up memories of learning Bengali as a child: “Mi correggono, mi incoraggiano, mi forniscono le parole che mi mancano. Parlano con chiarezza, con pazienza. Così come i genitori con i loro bambini. Come si impara la lingua madre. Mi rendo conto di non aver imparato l’inglese in questa maniera” (24) [“They correct me, they encourage me, they provide the words I lack. They speak clearly, patiently. Just like parents with their children. The way one learns one’s native language. I realize that I didn’t learn English in this fashion” (25)]. Once Lahiri begins reading English, the latter becomes “una matrigna” (146) [“a stepmother” (147)]. This linguistic web continues to thicken. Italian appears as a lover. When translating between Italian and English, she herself assumes the role of a mother—“di due figli” (118) [“of two children” (119)]. Each metaphor renegotiates agency with regard to which language makes demands on her and which she herself chooses. Lahiri’s relationship with Bengali is largely inherited, familial; with English, pragmatic, historical, and familiar; with Italian, affective.8

An intersecting series of metaphors describes language as a place to inhabit and renders relevant the pairing of metaphorical reproduction with forms of imperial conquest, a pairing that challenges the theorized link between ‘not knowing’ and ‘unpossessing’ language. While Lahiri sees every language connected to “un territorio geografico, un Paese” (18) [“a geographical territory, a country” (19)], the book foregrounds metaphorical places that are more connected to a conception of being in limbo, of being “nowhere” in particular. She likens her experience of learning Italian to “entering an empty room” and swimming in a lake “Senza salvagente. Senza poter contare sulla terraferma” (4) [“Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground” (5)]. She invokes the metaphor of a bridge: “In mezzo a ogni ponte mi trovo sospesa, né di qua né di là. Scrivere in un’altra lingua somiglia a un percorso del genere. La mia scrittura in italiano, così come un ponte, è qualcosa di costruito, di fragile” (96) [“In the middle of every bridge I find myself suspended, neither here nor there. Writing in another language resembles a journey of this sort. My writing in Italian is, just like a bridge, something constructed, fragile” (97)]. The metaphors imply not only a rite of passage but a right to pass, reflecting the agency with which Lahiri chooses, learns, and engages with ‘foreign’ languages. The room Lahiri enters is not occupied; she swims without gear in a contained lake; the bridge, however fragile, supports her journey, and there is no guard. Near the conclusion of the memoir, Lahiri stands at a ‘crossroads,’ asking herself whether she will “Abbandonerò l’inglese definitivamente per l’italiano” (228) [“abandon English definitively for Italian” (229)].

Where does this leave Bengali?

In each metaphor there is a shared falling away of Bengali as Italian gains prominence and English holds despite all resistance. And yet this feeling of being suspended appears earlier in the text—in a rare reference to Bengali in relation to English: “Ho dovuto giostrarmi tra queste due lingue finché, a circa venticinque anni, non ho scoperto l’italiano. Non c’era alcun bisogno di imparare questa lingua. Nessuna pressione familiare, culturale, sociale. Nessuna necessità” (152) [“I had to joust between those two languages until, at around the age of twenty-five, I discovered Italian. There was no need to learn that language. No family, cultural, or social pressure. No necessity” (153)]. There is more in this ‘jousting’ metaphor related to the imperial and colonial dominance of English, especially in her parents’ India. Let us return here to her metaphor of English as “stepmother” and how this relationship to English unfolds precisely when she begins reading in English. Another ‘crossroads’ consequently comes into view in the difference between oral language, on the one hand, and written, on the other. Lahiri cannot write or read in Bengali. Although writing in Italian is for her a ‘voluntary exile,’ her migration away from Bengali cannot be framed as a choice, especially in the context of the legacies of British colonialism in India and her parents’ migration from South Asia to Britain, then to the United States (2016: 37, 227). Her exile from Bengali mirrors overarching language hierarchies that render Bengali more minor than Italian and more minor still than English.9 One also has to account for a politics of naming languages in postcolonial South Asia that overlap with the naming of bcms in southeast Europe. The politics of naming ‘Italian’ has its place in this discussion as well, one that traces eighteenth- and nineteenth-century West European raciolinguistic ideologies.

Lahiri’s preference for writing is also not merely a trace of her being a writer. An alternative interpretation is offered in a chapter called “The Wall.” While shopping in a boutique with her family, Lahiri is approached by a saleswoman with that suggestive question: “Where are you from?” The explanation Lahiri offers—that her family moved to Rome from New York—leaves the salesperson dissatisfied, imploring: “Ma tuo marito deve essere italiano. Lui parla perfettamente, senza nessun accento” (2016: 136) [“But your husband must be Italian. He speaks perfectly, without any accent” (137)]. Her spouse, meanwhile, has barely uttered a word. The exchange devastates Lahiri, who reflects, “Ecco il confine che non riuscirò mai a varcare. Il muro che rimarrà per sempre tra me e l’italiano, per quanto bene possa impararlo. Il mio aspetto fisico” (136) [“Here is the border that I will never manage to cross. The wall that will remain forever between me and Italian, no matter how well I learn it. My physical appearance” (137)]. In Italy, she enters a different racial field. Kinships outside Italian are racially imposed on her through her appearance as a Brown woman of color. Her class empowerment conflicts here with what has been constructed in the imperial longue durée as racialized disempowerment.

Her racialized displacement from speaking Italian intensifies her alienation from Bengali as it draws her even more toward writing in Italian. Writing in Italian allows her to write outside the assumed borders of autobiographical forms. And yet the reverse takes place: Writing in Italian, a language she describes as being foreign to her, she retreats into herself, into the form of autobiography; writing in English, she ventures outside herself, creating diasporic South Asian characters assumed to be autobiographical. Even so, writing serves as an antidote, an exercise in passing, “per rompere il muro, per esprimermi in modo puro” (142) [“to break down the wall, to express myself in a pure way” (145)]. Writing restores a certain uninhibited freedom for her: “Quando scrivo non c’entra il mio aspetto, il mio nome. Vengo ascoltata senza essere vista, senza pregiudizi, senza filtro. Sono invisibile. Divento le mie parole, e le parole diventano me” (142, 144) [“When I write, my appearance, my name have nothing to do with it. I am heard without being seen, without prejudices, without a filter. I am invisible. I become my words, and the words become me” (145)]. The textual is not purified of racialized difference, however. Readers always already bring racialized expectations to their experience of a book through the author’s name, the text’s title, its marketing, and so on. These expectations are particularly relevant when an author calls a book their first and only autobiography, as Lahiri has referred to In Other Words.

As much can be said about what appears on the pages of In Other Words (English and Italian) as not (Bengali). In The Invention of Monolingualism, David Gramling discusses the process of (intentional or unintentional) censorship at play in the contemporary world literary market: “Writers of prospective world literature today are nourishing a kind of modest critical passing in global literary monolingualism—a disposition that is aware of the attenuating formal constraints on multilingual appearance in the public and symbolic order” (2016: 24). He calls these constraints “the products not of language systems as such but of the sanctioned circulation of certain kinds of translatedness at the expense of others” (24). One could ask what In Other Words would look like as a bilingual edition from Bengali into English. From Russian into English? From bcms into English? In the experience of learning languages and reflecting on the process of so-called acquisition, whose and which forms of multilingualism are attended to?

3 Denaturalizing ‘Native’ Language

If you would just learn English; no, unaccented English; no, the right variety of English. If you would just enter the country the right way; no, get in line and traverse a pathway to citizenship; no, act like a good citizen. This is a racialized social tense of the always already and never quite yet.

jonathan rosa, 2019: 15

American Fictionary is a language memoir that brings bcms, Dutch, and Russian under the purview of global English. Each essay in Ugrešić’s collection muses on a single English-language word in her “American fictionary”—including entries such as “Shrink,” “Couch Potato,” and “Harassment.”10 Originally written in Croatian, the book was published in 1993 by Konzor Press in the newly nationalized Croatia, republished a year later by the London-based press Jonathan Cape in an English translation by Celia Hawkesworth, and rereleased in 2018 in a co-translation by Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać under its current title by the U.S.-based Open Letter Books.11 This section investigates how this memoir entangles a different constellation of languages and disrupts any given language’s status as ‘native’ or ‘foreign’—as any of the biologized terms commonly used to construct language hierarchies.

After Ugrešić is forced into exile in the 1990s for publicly criticizing the Croatian government’s increasingly choking nationalism, she finds herself migrating among languages and places in multidirectional and fluctuating directions. When Yugoslavia dissolves, she flees from Zagreb to Amsterdam. A temporary teaching position at Wesleyan takes her to Middletown, Connecticut, shortly thereafter, from where she routinely visits New York. Her migration experience—by extension, her linguistic experience—resists simplification and any linear developmental arc imposed by the conventional post-war autobiography. Her sense of having become “stranac od nigde, od svugde” (1993: 73) [“a foreigner from nowhere, from everywhere” (2018: 67)] speaks to the foundational erasures of her identity following Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Contrasting the transnational coordinates comprising Lahiri’s map of diasporic experience and travel, Ugrešić’s are translocal; cities, neighborhoods, and specific communities are central to her worldview. Dalia Kandiyoti names translocality the “diaspora sense of place,” the circulation of boundary-crossing languages, identities, and collective memories “against the grain of enclosure” (2009: 5). American Fictionary thus highlights the porousness of nation-bound borders. Moreover, the absence of a stable point of origin poses a radical challenge to the autobiography form.

For a writer whose country of birth and language have been variously erased or reframed due to violence, dictionaries—those foundational texts defining the borders of a language—become unstable. The smallest details don high stakes. Ugrešić stops at the entry for the word “bagel”: Webster offers the description of “doughnut-shaped,” implying, Ugrešić notes, “da je doughnut stariji od bagela, a to je, pak, prokleta laž!” (1993: 175) [“the doughnut is older than the bagel, and that is a damned lie!” (2018: 166)]. In the source text, there is a direct engagement with the multiple languages, which appear in italics: “Bagel ima ne samo svoju dugu (židovsku) tradiciju nego i svoje stilske podvarijante u mnogim zemljama svijeta, napose slavenskim. To kozmopolitsko tijesto poznato je kao bublica u Dalmaciji, kao bublik u Rusiji, kao devrek u Makedoniji i Bugarskoj” (1993: 175) [“Not only do bagels have their own long (Jewish) tradition, but they have stylistic subvariants in many countries, especially Slavic.

This cosmopolitan form of baked good is known as the bublica in Dalmatia, the bublik in Russia, the devrek in Macedonia and Bulgaria” (2018: 166)]. The correction dramatizes how a text formally categorized as a reference source participates in its own forms of invention. This intervention calls forth what Massimiliano Spotti and Jan Blommaert identify as the imperative shift from a stable idea of “-lingualisms” to that of “languaging”—a “set of empirically observable practices in which ‘languages,’ ‘codes,’ ‘-lects,’ and so forth, emerge as ideological upshot of communicative development” (2016: 167). Like the theoretically productive instability reflected in the word “languaging,” which acknowledges how “the ‘language’ we produce is always a work in progress,” Ugrešić’s reading of the dictionary uncovers the sticky process of its coming into being (Spotti, 2016: 171). She emphasizes the proximity of diction to fiction—a slip of the finger on the keyboard that can only occur within English, showing that the essay collection is inconceivable without her awareness of the entanglements of language.

The word “dictionary” is prominent among what she calls her “izbjegličkoj prtljazi” (1993: 13) [“refugee luggage” (2018: 9)] a recurring metaphor in the collection. For Lahiri, the dictionary alleviates the uncertainty embedded in migration; it serves as an objective source she uses to ground her diasporic experience and linguistic knowledge. For Ugrešić, in contrast, the dictionary contributes to that very uncertainty. Given that the dictionary acts as a basis for the entire collection, she cannot remove herself from the parasitic effects of English. The minoritization of bcms compounded by war requires knowledge of or translation into English. In other words, her experience requires specific paperwork—a formal visa. She has to prove herself even in her “homeland” where she is a ‘native’:

I shudder at the thought of my old homeland where I’ve become a stranger, which no longer even exists, I shudder at the thought of its ghost, I shudder at the thought of the new country where I’ll be a stranger, whose citizenship I have yet to apply for, I’ll have to prove I was born there, though I was, that I speak its language, though it is my mother tongue, I shudder at the thought of this old-new homeland for which I’ll have to fight in order to live there—as a permanent émigré.

2018: 18012

The bcms word for “stranger” can also be translated as “foreigner”—an important distinction given that “foreigner,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes to denote someone who speaks a foreign language.13 Ugrešić must show proof even as she proclaims her own nativeness, and becoming is politically and violently imposed on her as a precondition for belonging. English is not necessarily a chosen language but one that imposes itself on her.

It is in this way that Ugrešić formulates a ‘writing from nowhere’ with rampant borders. In a concluding scene, she finds herself suspended in an airport, rife with surveilled checkpoints and borders.14 She describes her transformation: “Ja sam ljudska larva. Savit ću ovdje, na ničijem prostoru, svoje prirodno gnijezdo” (1993: 190) [“I am a human larva. Here, in this no-man’s-land, I’ll weave my natural nest” (2018: 181)]. Even in this manifestly unnatural environment, the comparison invokes biological terms, summoning metaphors that overlap with those of In Other Words. When a Croatian flight attendant takes her order, Ugrešić blushes upon realizing she responded in English (182). The utterance “Orange juice, thank you” effectuates a sense of shame: of speaking in English in order to perform foreignness, of attempting to resist an assumption, of answering in a language that commits a sort of violence to the space between the two speakers. It appears in English in the bcms, manifesting a form of foreignness in its resistance to translation. Ugrešić performs language as a way to pass as foreign, aware of the fluctuating and relational politics of language. She has the privilege of being able to pass as a White woman in the United States, but on the backdrop of her forced exile, encompassing as it does several places and languages, she cannot pass linguistically. Her attempt to ‘correct’ herself leads her to utter a question in bcms that she did not want to ask: “Where’s the life vest?” (182). The question has no place in the exchange. Forms of foreignness reveal themselves differently in bcms and English.

The commodification of language gives form to an omnipresent and alienating self-consciousness and accounts for a crucial difference between In Other Words and American Fictionary. Ugrešić contends, “Na granici ću one preostale promijeniti, kao novac, u neke druge riječi. Ili u neku drugu šutnju” (1993: 191) [“I’ll change what words I have left at the border, like money, into other words. Or another kind of silence” (2018: 182)]. Not in other words, but into other words. The multilingualism described in American Fictionary eclipses forms of nation-bound linguistic desire and agency. It becomes clear how analyzing a text’s multilingualism without describing the specific relations between languages in the context of their usage overlooks gradations of privilege, of foreignness, that remap languages onto an ever-changing inter-imperial relational network.

4 Multilingualism with Race: Or, Notes on Balkanization

Much ink has been spilled about Babel—so much so that I venture to say only the term “balkanization” comes close, if not for the risk of verging on hyperbole. Nevertheless, in the effort to theorize multilingualism with race, this section attends to the uses of “balkanization.”

Eloquent, for example, has been an essay written by one of the most visible practitioners of comparative literature, Emily Apter. In a chapter titled “Balkan Babel: Translation Zones, Military Zones,” included in The Translation Zone (2011), Apter begins by noting Maria Todorova’s well-known resistance to “regional stereotyping that equates ‘Balkan’ with ethnic cleansing; bloodletting; a perpetual underground; mongrel regionalism; ‘semi-developed, semi-colonial’ Europe; ‘an incomplete self of the West’” (Apter, 2011: 130). Apter’s essay proceeds to challenge Todorova’s warning:

There is nonetheless, in representative literary works from southeastern Europe, a pronounced thematic focus on border wars and fractious linguistic copopulation. It is from these works that I take my cue in treating “Balkan” as a synonym for what occurs semiotically and socially when dialect or marginal world languages are in a war of maneuver unmediated by a major language of position.

2011: 130

Apter’s essay presents as representative two novels: Ismail Kadare’s The Three Arched Bridge (1978), translated into English by John Hodgson in 1997, and Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina (1945), translated into English by Lovett F. Edwards in 1959.15 Reading these two novels leads Apter to conceptualize “Balkan babble” as a “condition of failed semantic transmission,” and “Balkan Babel” as “a tower of Babel turned on its side to form a hapless bridge intended to ford the unbridgeable gulf between Europe and the so-called East” (2011: 130). For Apter, “language wars” cement “balkanization” as a synonym for what Todorova identifies as “regional stereotyping”: “In the Balkans, the vindication of a language, or even a word, may be a lethal affair, and many writers have fastened on this problematic as key to understanding not only regional factionalism, but also the broadly applicable symptomology carried by the term Balkanization” (Apter, 2011: 133).

Let us briefly return to the 1911 Dictionary, which summarizes its findings on the Balkans in this way: “The savage manners of the last century are still met with amongst some Serbo-Croatians of to-day. Armed conflicts are not uncommon. Political feuds are especially bitter. Murders resulting from private vendettas occur frequently in some localities. Illiteracy is prevalent and civilization at a low stage in retired districts” (U.S. Congressional Report, 1911: 47). Balkanization is not merely a faulty metaphor; the deployment of the term forecloses much-needed relational readings. In the introduction to the coedited volume Balkan as Metaphor, Dušan I. Bjelić argues that “Balkan identity has been a potent channeling tool in the cultural exorcism of civilized Europe” (2002: 10). Indeed, the tool remains potent beyond the variegated boundaries of Europe. This process of cultural exorcism implicitly summons what Shumei Shih formulates as “culturalism,” wherein “what is national in the Third World is turned into ethnic culture during immigration, and, similarly, even those who are outside Western metropoles are metaphorically and oftentimes practically minoritized” (2004: 23).

As a comparatist working through relationality, one might also note Édouard Glissant’s use of the term “balkanization.” In “Creolization and the Americas,” a lecture he delivered at the university of the West Indies, Mona, in 1992, Glissant referenced balkanization as a metaphor for the effects of occidental colonization of the West Indies and the Caribbean.16 Contending with the idea that the Caribbean is the “Mediterranean of the Americas,” Glissant argued that the Mediterranean Sea “concentrate[es]” while the Caribbean Sea “diffracts,” an “archipelago-like reality which does not imply the intense entrenchment of a self-sufficient thinking of identity” (2011: 12). In an essay that draws on Glissant’s lecture, Guido Snel offers the term “levantinization” in reference to the Balkans, where the “semantic field opened up by ‘Levant’ implies a European gaze looking from a perceived and unfixed center toward a semi-colonial subaltern, who at the same time cannot be set aside as non-European” (2020: 73). Snel distinguishes levantinization from creolization by engaging with a deep historicization of local geographies.

In each metaphor—balkanization, creolization, levantinization—multilingualism is center stage. I understand the myriad appearances of the term “balkanization” as invitations for relational comparison that performs a much-needed reckoning with processes of racialization, which I have named ‘forms of foreignness.’ To do otherwise in the absence of a deep awareness of the languages in the work under analysis is to entertain the risk of perpetuating racialization. Moreover, in the case of this article, to treat the work of Lahiri and Ugrešić separately (whereby Croatian would be read within a southeast European sphere and Bengali within a South Asian one) would be to miss an opportunity for alternative solidarities. An important intervention is to bracket the discourse on nativeness and the biological term “mother tongue” as both succumb to marginalization. There are always already multiple displacements and hospitalities within any given linguistic relationship. A myriad of linguistic complexities and histories are ironed out when we name languages and literatures or, worse, exclude them altogether. Working with the historical premise of a relational network that accounts for an expanded spatial and temporal scale becomes conducive to reimagining the established nation-bound formulation of literatures and languages. Attending to southeast European forms of multilingualism further expands our view of a multilingualism otherwise, to echo Manuela Boatcă’s (2020) formulation of “Europe otherwise.” Diasporic multilingual literatures and their scholarly analysis can serve as antidotes—to use Lahiri’s and Ugrešić’s understanding of writing as antidote—to constructed hierarchies and imposed forms of foreignness.

The shared privileges afforded to the exemplary work of Lahiri and Ugrešić end with time (given that they are contemporaries) and space (given that the nation-states they purportedly ‘represent’ in their work are divided merely by the narrow Adriatic Sea). The identities into which they were born, the racial and gender categories that are imposed on them, the conditions under which they have migrated (forced) or traveled (chosen), the languages they have learned (or not) and how and why, the languages they work in, the ways that work appears in translation, the markets they circulate in—each of these factors, which can collectively be called forms of foreignness, significantly contributes to the vastly different positionality they assume as writers in the world and as writers of ‘world literature.’ Their categorization often relocates these stakes using nationalized and unevenly racialized demarcations. In place of racialization alone, which too broadly applied risks decentering anti-Black racism, I have offered ‘foreignness’ as a theoretically productive correlative. Writers and texts make claims on language, and languages make claims on writers and texts: These constitute drastically different processes that cannot be elided under analysis. The inequity apparent in how certain languages are framed, approached, and analyzed, or neglected altogether, risks perpetuating the logic of the 1911 Dictionary.


I would like to thank Till Dembeck, Long Le-Khac, Kathryn Lofton, Erin McGlothlin, Anca Parvulescu, Juliette Taylor-Batty, and the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on this article.



In outlining her “inter-imperial method,” Doyle elaborates that the “inter of inter-imperiality refers to multiple vectored relations among empires and among those who endure and maneuver among empires” (2020: 4).


The report cites Müller’s Lectures on the Science of Language (1864) as foundational to its conception of race.


I refer to the language of Dubravka Ugrešić’s memoir as Croatian—as it appears in its marketing—with the understanding that Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian (bcms), previously ‘Serbo-Croatian,’ are the same language with regional varieties. For an analysis of linguistic references in the former Yugoslavia, see Pupovac (2012).


On the term “racio-religious,” see Sharma (2016).


For the historical development of the genre of translingual memoir and a comprehensive bibliography of primary source examples, see Besemeres (2022: 3–5).


In Lahiri’s recent collection of essays titled Translating Myself and Others (2022), Goldstein remains unnamed in Lahiri’s reflections on In Other Words even as she clarifies that, unlike a large part of the present collection, the memoir was not self-translated: “I recounted this experience [of writing directly in Italian] in In altre parole, my first book in Italian, later translated into English as In Other Words” (Lahiri 2022: 3).


On the biologization of the term “mother tongue” situated in the historical longue durée, see Wiggin (2018).


For a relational reading of bilingualism and affect, see Pavlenko (2006).


The 1947 Partition of British India resulted in differentiating West Bengal from East Bengal through racio-religious demarcations—one minoritizing Muslims, the other minoritizing non-Muslims, respectively.


To clarify, the entries appear in English in both the bcms original and in the English translation.


The 1994 translation appeared under the title Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream.


This essay only appears in the Open Letter Books edition and thus only in English.


The OED entry motivated me to explore further. The word for “foreigner” in bcms— “stranac”—led me to the dictionary of turcisms in Serbo-Croatian, where the word appears as “jabanac”—from the Ottoman Turkish “yabanci.” In Japanese, 野蛮人 (yabanjin) means “barbarian” or “savage”—which presents a fascinating inter-imperial linguistic history welcoming further research.


See Apter’s “Checkpoints and Sovereign Borders,” in Against World Literature (2013).


Andrić is misspelled as “Andríc” throughout the essay. One should also note the age of both texts.


The publication of the transcribed lecture does not specify the transcriber’s identity and whether translation was involved, as one can presume from previous work that the lecture was delivered in French.


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