The language that you are now reading is the most widely spoken in the world today. But you’re only a minority stakeholder in the global Anglosphere if English is your mother tongue. Around 400 million people are learning English in China as I write this—more than the entire population of the United States. Over 125 million Indians speak English as an additional language, a number expected to quadruple within the next decade. Hundreds of millions more are studying this language in church basements, public schools, adult education centers, and online across Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Pacific Rim, and elsewhere. Some will go on to careers in global finance, some will work at call centers—and some will become poets.
This latter vocation ought to come as no surprise. English literature has always been shaped by linguistic outsiders: Jack Kerouac, that quintessentially American voice, mostly spoke French into his teens; Joseph Conrad enlarged the British novel in his third language, after Polish and French; the most widely read book in African literature, Chinua Achebe’s English-language masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, was written by a native Igbo speaker. Literary nerds call them “exophonic” authors, and they’ve been writing the story of world literature from the learned Chinese verse of Nara-period Japan to the London-born Bengali American writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2018 Italian novel Dove mi trovo (translated into English, as if it were about a missing first-person, as “Whereabouts”).
Most of us find it hard enough to ask directions in another language; to write a poem in an adopted tongue seems almost miraculous. Yet contemporary American poetry boasts a chorus of exophonic voices, including Don Mee Choi, Ilya Kaminsky, Dunya Mikhail, and Javier Zamora, to name only a few. They hail from diverse backgrounds, but they can all claim membership in a global community of exophonic writers. Their work asks us to think deeply about language and identity, assimilation and acculturation, and the histories of collective violence, trauma, and displacement that have shaped our modern world.
Through a glass darkly, exophonic poetry might also be viewed as the renunciation of a writer’s linguistic heritage. Every poet in this issue sings their own answer to this open question. As English is increasingly entangled with issues of globalization, the erasure of cultural difference, and economic inequality around the world, exophonic poets writing in English must reckon with a language that isn’t only part of the problem; for many of these literary double agents, English is the problem. Exophonic poets project their own cultural histories into a new language, as writers always have done, and always will do. They are translators of themselves. We might even read their work as a collective experiment in self-translation.
When I first drafted an open call for submissions to this special issue of Poetry, I’d hoped to hear a new story, told by immigrants and refugee writers, about “American” literature. But literary exophony speaks many languages, across numerous countries and regions, expressive of countless lifeworlds; a Persian speaker may write in Swedish, and an American poet may contribute to the story of Japanese literature, as you’ll find in the pages that follow. So I’m grateful to the writers who have contributed essays from a variety of transnational perspectives to this issue: the Palestinian poet Ahmad Almallah writes of his work with Arab immigrants in Philadelphia for the cultural organization Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture; Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Curator of Asian Pacific American Studies at the Smithsonian, introduces us to the pop-up Center for Refugee Poetics that he founded with the diasporic Vietnamese writer Ocean Vuong; and Sasha Pimentel, a Filipina poet raised in the US and Saudi Arabia, recounts her experience teaching Latinx poets in the bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso on the US–Mexico border. These writers illuminate migratory routes of the imagination from the Arab world to Southeast Asia to the hemispheric Americas and beyond. Exophonic poets, they help us to see, are the unacknowledged legislators of world literature.
My own parents came to this country from villages in the south of India over half a century ago. I remember with middle-aged embarrassment my childhood embarrassment at their misunderstandings with various officials, salespeople, restaurant workers, and my teachers at school. Worried that it might interfere with our learning English, they studiously avoided speaking their native language, Telugu, with my sister and me as we were growing up. You might even say that our first language was English as a second language. Now when I talk to my parents, I feel at home in their manner of speech. It has a poetry of its own.
— © Poetry magazine, Editor’s Note. April 2022, by Srikhan Reddy