Eva Hoffman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Between Memory and History: A Writer's Voice: Conversation with Eva Hoffman, author, 10/5/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Becoming a Writer

In choosing the path that you took, you clearly had two choices: one was to become a musician, and the other was to become a writer. Ultimately you chose writing over music. What do you think went into that very important decision? After all, music and writing are very similar, as you describe them.

Emigration affected me very importantly. First of all, the Vancouver to which I came did not have a very rich musical life. I did have a wonderful music teacher -- actually, two wonderful music teachers there -- but there wasn't a fertile soil for that. It seemed from our immigrant point of view that going to Juilliard might have been nearly impossible. That possibly becoming a pianist would have been very impractical. All of that had a great impact on the decision. I must say that in retrospect I don't regret the decision, although initially I did. And one of the reasons I don't regret it is because there are so many peerless, fantastic pianists in the world and the repertory has been recorded over and over so fabulously. I'm not sure I could have contributed anything really new. And I think one has a chance to bring one's own voice to [writing].

Writing for someone for whom English was a second language poses a particular set of problems. One of the beautiful insights in your book Lost in Translation is your description of coming to terms with the English language and finding a voice in that language. book cover You write in that book: "Like so many children who read a lot, I began to declare rather early that I wanted to be a writer." Then you go on to say, "I love words insofar as they correspond to the world, insofar as they give it to me in a heightened form. The more words I have, the more distinct, precise, my perceptions become. And such lucidity is a form of joy. Sometimes when I find a new expression, I roll it on the tongue, as if shaping it in my mouth gave birth to a new shape in the world. Nothing fully exists until it is articulated." So what we're hearing here as you chose writing and became a truly great writer is that same devotion to the craft that you had found in music.

The main impact of immigration for me was my sense of the enormous importance of language. I think that for a while I was, in effect, without language, because Polish lost its relevance to this new world and there were very few people with whom I could speak Polish, and I hadn't yet come into English. And I understood that to be without language is to live in a very dim world, a very dim external world and a very dim interior world. Language is not only something that we use instrumentally, but it is something that truly shapes us, and that truly shapes our perceptions of the world. I always did love language as I was growing up. I loved books. I loved language as much as music. But that sense of losing language was a very, very powerful and potent lesson in the importance of language. And so, indeed from then on, my struggle was for English to inhabit me and to acquire enough command of it so that it would articulate the world and so that it would express the world -- both exterior and interior.

Let me quote Eva Hoffman to Eva Hoffman. You're describing this condition of not having that primordial familiarity with English in the way that you did with Polish. "The signifier" -- you're talking about a new language -- "The signifier has become severed from the signified. A word like 'river' has no accumulated associations for me and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke." So here you are, a teenager, and all that involves -- the set of tasks that that involves for any young woman -- but at the same time you're trying to come to grips with all that you've lost. Now, you're given a diary. And this, in a way, is a critical early decision. What was the decision and what did you decide?

Well, I did decide to write it in English. And I decided to write it in English precisely because I knew that this was the language in which I would need to live from now on. That Polish was still the language of interiority, but that I wanted to make English the language of interiority. I was not quite 14, so I was young enough to make this transition. And it was a fairly deliberate decision to make the transition. To make English totally mine.

You say, "I will learn English through writing" as you begin using the diary, "and in turn, writing gives me a written self."

Yes, it is true. Of course, writing at some point does begin to shape you and define you and to speak back to you, so to speak. And so, in a sense, I started, yes, I started constructing myself, as we say. Shaping myself, creating myself through these exercises in writing in English.

Caught between two worlds -- the world of Poland and the new world of Canada -- this process was, as writers say, a way of finding your voice?

Yes. Early on I wouldn't have put it that way. I was just trying to find any voice at all, a voice in which I could speak. There was a literal sense of a loss of a physical voice that I had for awhile. English was still an alien form of expression. But I guess, yes, these were the earliest of attempts to be able to initially speak in English from within, and then write in English from within.

When you were still young, before you went to college, were you writing more than your diary or did that all come later?

Was I writing more than my diary?


Oh, I would occasionally write pieces of poetry and this and that. But mostly, mostly the writing came later.

Next page: Being a Displaced Person

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