James Cañón

I was amazed to finally find this interview!
A non-native english speaker who, as me, decided to write a novel in English because it was what felt right at the time.

Jame’s first language is Spanish and he currently lives in Spain. He claims to have literally learned English while writing his novel. Isn’t that oh so similar and inspirational? lol

There are so many things I have in common with James Cañón’s writing process and beliefs that reading his interview feels like reading a letter from my future self! Wink.

Here’s what he has to say about writing in a second language:

“Writing fiction in a second—and even third—language is a literary choice that has a long history: Joseph Conrad, Milan Kundera, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, among many others, wrote masterpieces in languages different than their own.

For me, writing my first novel in my second language was not a choice.
I conceived the idea for Tales from the Town of Widows originally in Spanish. I even wrote a few pages of it in Spanish, but it didn’t feel right. I don’t know how to explain it: I wanted to write a novel about Colombia that took place in Colombia, and yet it didn’t seem natural to write it in Spanish.

I put the idea aside, then joined the creative writing graduate program at Columbia University and began writing short stories in English—I could write English, only not idiomatically or precisely, much less beautifully. But I couldn’t delay the idea forever, and in my second year at Columbia I decided to give it another chance. I wrote a short story called “The Other Widow,” in English, because it was for school and the weekly workshops were obviously conducted in English.

The story was terrible and the grammar was wrong, and yet I felt good about it. English, I realized, offered me an unconventional perspective on the Colombian conflict. It made me more detached from patriotism and sentimentality, and therefore more unbiased to convey my own points of view in my writing.

I kept redrafting that first story until I thought it was good. Then I wrote and rewrote several more stories that eventually became chapters of the novel.

I, however, continued doing all the thinking in Spanish, translating those thoughts into English before putting them in writing. In fact, I wrote the entire novel with the help of an unabridged English-Spanish dictionary, and of a good writer friend who worked as my “unofficial” editor/proofreader.

The more I wrote and revised, the more I noticed patterns of mistakes in my English and began to avoid them. Doing this helped me reduce the accent that still appears in my writing as well as in my voice.

In the process of writing my novel, I realized that writing can only be as advanced as your reading level. And so I started reading more and more, and by doing it, I acquired an extensive vocabulary and learned many idiomatic expressions, proverbs, sayings, and the correct use of the complicated but essential English phrasal or “two-words” verbs.

Writing good fiction has a lot to do with breathing, rhythms and sounds that you can only get from knowing the language. You need to hear your own voice in this language to be able to write it with real feeling and a unique style.

English, by now, comes almost as naturally to me as my first language. But Spanish will always be my first language. I speak Spanish every day at home. I often think and dream in it, and there are things I do in it I wouldn’t do in any other language, like counting money.

I’m convinced that when people are fluent in more than one shared language they combine the strengths of both; they acquire more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening.

I love English, but I don’t want to idealize it. I want to master it, but I don’t want to lose the advantage of an outsider’s perspective.

James Cañón

I also think his website looks pretty good.
Click on his name above too see it.


12 thoughts on “James Cañón

  1. It embarrasses me when I think that I’ve lived in Germany for 23 years and would never even dream of trying to write a book in German.
    I’m constantly impressed by the the standard of English I meet every day over here and yet I can’t master the language of my host nation. Don’t get me wrong, I can speak it well enough and regularly translate song text from German to English for a couple of bands, but… I wish I was perfect, that’s all, lol.
    I don’t consider myself thick, it’s just that languages are not my thing I’m afraid.
    Thought provoking post V., nice one.

    • Funny it’s also the fact that I still don’t know where are you from or where are you living at the moment. So, you are from the UK and you currently live in Germany? Did I get it right?

      I have a friend and university colleague (from the time I attended my Design Course, in Lisbon) that is a flight attendant. She lived in the UK in 2009 and is currently living in Germany. She adapted to British English (which is not the same we hear on TV back in Portugal) and is now trying to learn German. She lives alone in a small apartment.

      That’s what I call courage! ;)

      May I ask why you chose Germany?

  2. That was such an amazing interview! I often find that sometimes I cannot, even if my life depended on it, write a certain story in Portuguese. On the other hand, there are others that I would never try to translate to English. Is funny, isn’t it?
    Studying the brain in my Psychology class I learned that to each language a special part inside of it is assigned, and I was kind of marvelled at it. I always thought the languages’ place was just one big thing. Apparently, we are way more complex than that.
    And being that complex, I wish it was okay to write a book in two languages – can you imagine the complexity (but also the power) of a story written half in Portuguese, half in English?! Yeah, I can forsee many problems, but mostly I think it would be way more expressive! ;p
    Once again, thanks for a post that was a huge inspiration and a huge help!
    Kisses from Australia.

    P.S. Oh, have I told you I’m taking Portuguese classes as a school subject? And did I mention it is Continental Portuguese? It always reminds me of you! I love the sound of it – but it is so different from the Brazilian one I find myself struggling sometimes! Lol.

    • So many amazing things you tell me my friend!

      So that why my first drafts are always in the two languages combined! Portuguese and English) And yes, they seemed out of this Planet and crazily delicious! But even I sometimes have trouble fingering them out after some time has passed. Probably because I write them on a stream of consciousness; like I’m on drugs (lol) and seeing the scenes develop in front of my closed eyes. ;)

      I think this happens when we think and talk and write on two different languages every day, depending on who we are talking with. I know I do it and you do it too. At the same time, we are both passionate about them both, right? ;)

      Wow! You are learning Portuguese? That’s a tough one! I often think Lisbon Portuguese is one of the most difficult language on Earth. It’s very complex and very tough to voice it, isn’t it?

      It’s not hard for me, of course, I’m a native. But I truly understand the difficulty when compared with Brazilian Portuguese. Brazilian, as its people, is more of an easy-going tongue.

      But you are right, Continental Portuguese has its beauty as well :)

      E é amar-te, assim, perdidamente…
      É seres alma, e sangue, e vida em mim
      E dize-lo cantando a toda a gente!”


      I wouldn’t want to translate that! ;)

      Good luck Brenda,
      Kisses from Dublin.

  3. I used to be a soldier, many many moons ago. My time was up with the military and because I had met a nice girl from the area, (my wife) I decided to stay.
    It was a mistake, with hindsight, but we’ve made the best of it and things have worked out OK.

  4. That’s true. He’s lucky to have acquired English knowledge. There are lots of people (including me) who still dream of becoming an English writer. He somehow managed to get himself admitted into an institute where he learned English from. Over here in bangladesh, there is no, yes I mean NO good institute to learn English from.

    Not only for writing purpose, but also I have a plan to move to any English country (US, Canada or Australia) as soon as possible for my higher education and job. Let’s see if that happens. Maybe by then I’ll get a chance to develop myself as a real English writer. :(

  5. I never knew Irish people speak in English. And about the united kingdom, the job market is very, very tough. My friends living there are having hard time managing a job. I have to earn my bread as well, besides practicing English. So I put UK at the end of the list. If fail to move to other countries, Uk will be my last choice.

    I was wondering if you’d be interested in chatting with me. What messenger you use? Yahoo or gtalk?

  6. Hi Sajib,

    All my spare time is for my novel writing, reading, husband, family and close friends. I don’t believe that chatting improves our writing skills. I don’t chat, unless from time to time with my family who lives far away. As I said before, I believe reading everyday and studying the language is what makes us better. Chatting is just an excuse for the lazy ;)

    Take care.

    • Don’t know why you misunderstood me. I didn’t ask for chatting to improve writing skill or whatever like that. I wanted to chat so that we can discuss about things we like or dislike, get some tips from you, tell you what I do and what is my future plan, etc. It was all personal. I didn’t mean to chat for improving writing skills. Hope now you get me.

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