Dr Anna-Louise Milne decided to take the plunge and set aside her native English tongue in order to write her recent book in French, a language she learnt as a teenager and adult. In this post she discusses the reasons for this choice and how it relates to the concept of ‘migrant writing’, which is at the heart of the research currently being carried out at the University of London Institute in Paris.
After more years of life outside the British Isles than in them, and having recently lost my right to vote as a British citizen, should I consider myself an expatriate or a migrant? The privileges of a valid British passport and a long-term employment contract with an institution of higher learning based in the United Kingdom make of me an ‘expat’, but the notion of ‘migrancy’ speaks more vibrantly to the condition and questions that were the springboard for the decision to write my latest book in an adopted language, the language I use in my everyday interactions with people in the city where I have built my life, Paris.
There’s a fine tradition of ‘expat’ writing in English from and about Paris, and Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, translated as Paris est une fête, surprised many recently with its revival in the #JesuisParis outpourings after the 2015 terrorist attacks. There is also a strong appropriative tendency in French literature and culture, a legacy from the era when the country defined itself as bastion and expression of the universal, capable as such of absorbing any cultural particulars within the folds of its ample Republican robes.
Bookended by these two modes of cultural dominance, my range of linguistic choices for anything more than rudimentary conversation sits on a small top shelf of internationally dominant languages, leaning out over the gulf that separates the types of dissemination and support they both enjoy from those reserved to the vast majority of languages in the world. Any attempt to understand my writing situation as that of a migrant, cannot lose sight of the buoyancy of the well-oiled publishing market that Paris offers.
Yet, at the University of London Institute in Paris, we have chosen to establish our collective research endeavours under the auspices of the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression in order to plot the continuities that run between the experiences of people now routinely referred to as ‘migrants’ and those of displaced people whose economic, psychological and political resources are more robust. The condition of the migrant is to have no assigned place. The possibility of return to a prior place is not completely foreclosed as it might be for the exile, nor is it imagined as inevitable, as was always the case for the Gästarbeiter. And in the meantime – in the time of migrancy – all place is provisional, potentially under threat, open to re-negotiation.
Being a migrant calls for a particular sort of improvisation or ‘im-provision’, that is, for the sorts of actions and reactions you develop when there is no ready provision, when it falls to you to make do. Language is at the heart of this process, and anyone who has lived for a while outside their native tongue knows the special performative edge that even the most daily tasks can take on when they happen in another language, even one used regularly. Migrants build a home in language, with an always residual sense that they might have to up stakes and start all over again.
In my own ‘migrant’ expression I have found the labour of literary French to be an extension of the places where I was fortunate enough to hang out with a gradually growing sense of confidence, that is, in books. The act of writing came as an extension of the act of reading, which had in the meantime become the act of copying and layering, as one does when creating an envelope in which to keep a few things. I kept a pretty random collection, some of it marked by a strong drive towards a seamless syntactic fit, and other more ragged or unlikely bits. At some point this collection stretched into places and relations that enabled me to write a series of narrative experiments that told a sort of history of Paris through the Second World War and beyond, a history written from various precarious positions on the edge of the city through the prism of a small street that had fallen into such neglect and disrepair that it was almost bulldozed off the map. These became the ‘novel without fiction’ entitled 75.
Throughout this process we were developing our translation laboratories with people also living in and around the same small street, ‘migrants’ for the most part, some very recently arrived, some the children of parents more or less established in France. We started with a range of texts; we translated them into a medley of posters, cut-and-paste books, films, photo montages and other experimentations.
As the refugee or ‘migrant’ crisis grew in proportions, we watched the new walls go up, both those of longer-term investment in areas of the city long left to rot by the local authorities and the more provisional gates and fences aimed at keeping the newly created spaces of public culture free of camps and make-shift shelters. The street that offered me an unexpected way into Paris belongs to a neighbourhood now often referred to as Little Calais, washed by the same waves of people, police and tear gas as the Channel port. And as the effort to barricade grew in intensity, so the possibilities of resilience and innovation in language came to seem more significant. More vital. Words and forms taken and transformed to find ways of being together.
Dr Anna-Louise Milne is director of graduate study and research at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP). She convenes ULIP’s one-year MA in Paris Studies programme, which uniquely takes a hands-on approach to explore the many facets of the city. Her research interests extend from cultural translation to urban sociology. She edited the Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris (2013). 75 is published by Gallimard in the Collection Blanche.