Expert Exophonists: 5 Multilingual Authors and Their Craft

Multilingual authors are pioneers in fabricating unique sentence structures and finding creative word choices. Let’s take a look at five successful exophonists!

Author's Corner Book Culture Diverse Voices On Writing

Writing, in itself, is a struggle. With words and sentences. With a blank page and a blinking cursor. But above all, writing is a struggle with one’s concept of vulnerability and sense of self. Therefore, most writers will tell you that it’s a demanding enough feat to create a literary masterpiece in their own native language, let alone write it in another. However, throughout history, there have been several noteworthy authors who have done just that. These multilingual authors have mastered the ability to speak and communicate in more than one language. They’ve also learned to compose beautiful, brilliant, and long-lasting stories that have touched the hearts and changed the minds of their many diverse readers.

What is Exophony?

In modern times, the practice of writing in a language that is not one’s mother tongue has given rise to a new term: exophony. The word exophony comes from the Greek roots “exo,” which means “out of,” and “phone,” which means “sound, voice, or language.”

any word, and I'll show you how the root of that word is Greek.

However, exophonic writing is far from a new phenomenon. In fact, throughout history, this form of writing was not even a personal choice. In the Western world, European scholars were encouraged to utilize exophony after the fall of the Roman Empire. For a century after Rome’s collapse, Latin was known as the primary language for scholarship. Therefore, although Europeans used French, German, and English in their daily conversations, scientists, religious leaders, treaty writers, and other academics wrote in Latin in order for their work to be taken seriously.

Today, the practice of exophony is used most by scholars interested in linguistics, or the study of language, as well as immigrants whose mother tongue differs from the broader language of the new territory they reside in. But the benefits of writing in multiple languages extend far beyond just gaining a better understanding of language. Recent research shows that multilingual writing actually boosts creativity, improves problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills, and enhances memory.

Who knows? Maybe your favorite author writes in multiple languages, too! Famous exophonic authors include Jack Kerouac, Vladimir Nabokov, and Joseph Conrad. Keep reading to take a deeper dive into the lives of five modern authors who wrote successful novels in a language other than their own!

1. André Aciman

André Aciman, an American writer and educator, was born on January 2, 1951, in Alexandria, Egypt. As the son of Sephardic Jews of Turkish and Italian descent, Aciman grew up in a French-speaking household. However, his extended family members also spoke Italian, Greek, Ladino, and Arabic. When Aciman turned five years old, the Egyptian government seized control of the Suez Canal from the British and French companies that owned it. Without the Suez Canal, ships were forced to travel all the way around Africa to bring oil, natural gas, and other goods to Europe or Asia. War quickly broke out between Egypt, Britain, France, and Israel. Anti-Semitism began to rise.

multilingual authors, exophonists, diverse voices, multiculturalism- andre-aciman

As a result, Aciman and his family purchased Italian citizenship and fled Egypt. As a refugee, Aciman settled in Rome and began attending an English language school. In 1968, the family moved to New York City. From a young age, Aciman loved linguistics and fell in love with the vast educational opportunities in the United States. Aciman earned his bachelor’s degree in English and Comparative Literature at Lehman College. Later, he achieved his master’s and doctorate in Comparative Literature at Harvard University.

Throughout his career, Aciman worked as an associate professor of French at Bard College. He also taught Creative Writing at New York University and French Literature at Princeton University. However, Aciman never stopped finding time to write. He’s penned several novels, including Call Me By Your Name (2007) and Find Me (2019), as well as a memoir, Out of Egypt (1994). In most of his works, he lets his linguistic talents shine through by including excerpts of Italian, Latin, and French and their translations. In 2017, Call Me By Your Name was adapted to the screen and features stars such as Timothée Chalamet.


Hear from the Author:

For me to write, I need to work my way back out of one home, consider another, and find the no-man’s-land in between. I need to go to one André, unwrite that André, choose the other André across the way, only then to go looking for the middle André, whose voice will most likely approximate the voice of an André able to camouflage all telltale signs that English is not his mother tongue, but that neither is French, nor Italian, nor Arabic.

André Aciman, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere

2. Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe was born on November 16, 1930, in the Igbo town of Ogidi, Nigeria. During his childhood, Nigeria was a British colony where many white Christian missionaries exercised their faiths. After his father earned a job as a religion teacher, Achebe began attending the same school where his father taught: the Christian Missionary Society. However, even then, the teachers primarily taught in the Igbo language. As a result, Achebe didn’t learn English until he was eight.

multilingual authors, exophony, diverse voices, multiculturalism-andre-igbo

At the age of 14, Achebe was selected to attend the Government College in Umuahia, the best preparatory school in West Africa. After graduating at the age of 18, Achebe planned to study medicine at the University College in Ibadan. However, as he began working toward his degree, the political situation in Nigeria became dire. Although Nigeria successfully gained independence from Britain, its self-rule triggered civil wars while different villages fought for governmental power. Fueled by a strong sense of national pride and remembering the traditional Igbo stories his mother once told him, Achebe switched his studies to liberal arts.

Here, Achebe found a love for writing. His knowledge of English and Igbo allowed him to explore the conflicts that arise when Western societies attempt to blend with African culture. Believing that his literary works must deal primarily with society’s issues, he wrote and published his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958. Global fame came almost instantly. With his publications of No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964), Achebe completed the work he would later name The African Trilogy. Throughout his career, Achebe won the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature and 20 honorary degrees. He died on March 21, 2013, in Massachusetts, where he taught intermittently for over 20 years. He was 82.


Hear from the Author:

I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.

Chinua Achebe, “English and the African Writer”, Transition

3. Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez was born on March 17, 1950, in New York City. As the daughter of political exiles from the Dominican Republic, Alvarez and her family returned to their home country when she was only a few months old. There, her father joined an underground group that opposed the country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. However, in 1960, when her father fell under suspicion of attempting to overthrow Trujillo’s violent, corrupt rule, Alvarez’s family quickly returned to the United States. Four months after their return to the US, the Mirabal sisters, known as the founders of the underground, were brutally murdered by the Dominican Republic’s government.

multilingual authors, exophony, diverse voices, multiculturalism julia alvarez

Alvarez was only 10 years old when her family returned to the United States. Feeling homesick and alienated, she struggled to learn English and adjust to her life as an immigrant. But when she felt she had no way to express the culture, language, and country she was uprooted from, she turned to writing. Her passion for writing helped her succeed in obtaining her bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in 1971 and a master’s degree in creative writing from Syracuse University in 1975. Since then, Alvarez has taught at various schools, including the University of Vermont and the University of Illinois. In 1988, she became a professor of English at Middlebury College. She’s been its writer-in-residence since 1998.

As an author, Alvarez has written numerous novels about her bicultural identity. Her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), is widely based on her own life. Alvarez’s second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), is a fictional account of the revolutionary Mirabal sisters. Today, speaking to Alvarez’s linguistic and storytelling skills, many of her works have been published in both English and Spanish.


Hear from the Author:

At last, I have found a comunidad in the word that I had never found in a neighborhood in this country. By writing powerfully about our Latino culture, we are forging a tradition and creating a literature that will widen and enrich the existing canon. So much depends upon our feeling that we have a right and responsibility to do this.

Julia Alvarez, “On Finding a Latino Voice”, interview with The Washington Post

4. Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 6, 1942. Shortly after Dorfman was born, his father, a professor of economics, moved his family to the United States for a period of ten years. During the Red Scare or the persecution of left-winged individuals in the U.S. for fear of communism and socialism, Dorfman and his family moved to Chile. After spending the majority of his childhood and adolescence on Chilean land, Dorfman decided to attend the University of Chile. However, he still felt drawn to the United States, and he attended graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley from 1968 to 1969.

multilingual authors, exophony, diverse voices, multiculturalism, ariel dorfman

When Dorfman returned to Chile in 1970, he served as the cultural advisor to President Salvador Allende. However, three years later, President Allende was assassinated and overthrown by army chief and dictator Augusto Pinochet and his military coup. As a well-known and very vocal supporter of the former president, Dorfman was forced into exile, living in several places across the globe, including Paris, Amsterdam, and Washington D.C. During Dorfman’s exile, he began to write novels, plays, essays, and academic articles about human rights, displacement, and the importance of art in understanding the world.

Dorfman’s work is considered by many readers as a part of the Latin American literary canon. He is most well-known for his play Death and the Maiden (1990), which discusses Chile’s painful transition between forms of government. In 1991, Death and the Maiden won England’s Olivier Award for Best Play and, later, it went on to be produced on Broadway and made into a feature film. Dorfman’s work, originally written in English and Spanish, has been published in over 50 languages. Today, Dorfman works at Duke University, where he is currently the Walter Hines Page Research Professor of Literature.


Hear from the Author:

You want to free the world, free humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that language is where the other, parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.

Ariel Dorfman, “The World that Harold Pinter Unlocked”, interview with The Washington Post

5. Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo was born on November 20, 1973, in Zhejiang, China. When Guo was a newborn, her financially unstable parents gave her to a peasant couple who lived in the mountains. At the age of two, she returned to live with her illiterate grandparents, who raised her in a small fishing village. Finally, five years later, Guo reunited with her parents in the city of Wenling, where they lived in a Communist-era compound. During all of these trials, Guo turned to art as an outlet. By studying traditional Chinese ink paintings, Guo taught herself how to write.

multilingual authors, exophony, diverse voices, multiculturalism xiaolu guo

In 1993, Guo left her province to study at the Beijing Film Academy. Later on, she studied at the National Film and Television School in the United Kingdom. In 2002, Guo left behind her tumultuous childhood and moved to London permanently. There, she published her first book, Village of Stone (2004), an autobiographical novel originally published in Chinese. However, in order to expand her audience, Guo published the rest of her novels in her second language: English. Three years later, Guo published A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers (2004), which reflected her own linguistic shift. Written in broken English, Guo’s second novel tells the story of a woman who goes to school in London to learn English.

In addition to her success as an author, Guo has also made a name for herself as a filmmaker and director. Her feature film She, a Chinese, premiered at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival and won the highest prize, the Golden Leopard. Throughout her career, Guo has taught creative writing and filmmaking at King’s College, the University of Westminster, Zurich University, and Harvard University. Today, she currently works as the writer-in-residence of the East Asian Department at Columbia University.


Hear from the Author:

It’s not a choice. Either I write or I don’t, especially when I’m in a foreign culture. I’ve lived in London for years, and I must continue my writing and filmmaking. The most important thing for an artist or an author is to continue her work. Languages and settings are the tools but not the first thing.

Xiaolu Guo, “Why We Pretend That Everyone Is Exceedingly Free Even When They Aren’t To Appropriate Status?”, Guernica Mag

We hope you enjoyed learning about these five multilingual authors! By taking a closer look at their work, it becomes clear that exophonic writing and multicultural voices help to add new perspectives and creativity to our literary canon.

Interested in adding even more diverse voices to your bookshelf? Click here for multicultural book recommendations from the Bookstr staff!