I’ve lived on three continents, in countries with 14 national languages collectively, of which I was fluent in 2 and passable in one. An adventure, people call it.
For me, amid the culture shock, those times it felt impossible to adapt, and those wondrous instances of ‘I’m really here, this is really happening to me’, it’s been one hell of a ride. And obviously this sort of thing has a lasting impact. Not only on how I write, but how I live my life.
I grew up kind of sheltered. Yes, South Africa is a country of diversity. With 11 official languages, various religions and cultures, and the most interesting mix of people, it’s a mosaic of otherness that fits together to form a beautiful picture. And yes, it has its issues, but where doesn’t have issues these days?
Still, diverse and vibrant as South Africa is, I spent the majority of my life in and around Johannesburg, and vacationed occasionally in Durban, where my dad’s family live. I visited the Cape provinces for the first time when I was deep in my twenties—once—and have never seen most of the touristy places.
I don’t know my own country. My little world was Johannesburg, with its colour and sound, its vibe, the crime, the street vendors and car guards, the wide open spaces and compact inner city (with a thousand and one one-way streets and too little parking).
Our reason for immigration was simple. Job security. So, when a company in Germany reached out to my husband offering just that, we grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Had we ever been to Germany? Nope, but immigration took time, right?
Well, no. Nobody could have known my husband would be on a plane just six weeks later, without enough German in his vocabulary to string together a sentence. My then 20 month old daughter and I followed two weeks after that.
The Rest of the World
In South Africa, people are open. You can strike up the most interesting conversation with the grocery packer, and complain about service with the person behind you in the queue in the bank. You know all the employees at your local Checkers, and share a laugh with the person stuck in the car next to yours in traffic.
Germany is not like that. People don’t randomly chat. Please and thank you can be pretty rare, and nobody makes eye contact. We landed amid a refugee crisis. The optimist in me wants to believe that worsened the circumstances under which we tried to build a life there, and that it wasn’t simply because we were different.
For the first month, we couldn’t find a place to live because people literally would not rent out their apartments to non-Germans. We struggled to find anyone willing to teach us the ropes, or sometimes even help in small ways, like giving directions. We couldn’t put my kid in kindergarten. Later, we learned we’d been labeled as economic refugees, despite our shiny work visas, and our refugee status made us pariahs.
If we hadn’t found the old Dutch lady and her German husband who’d later become our stand-in parents, I don’t know how we’d have survived. Aunt Henny taught me how to speak German, taught us how the recycling worked, and where to buy the best clothes. As an immigrant herself, she understood how intimidating everything could be.
I’ve tried to explain to people how our time in Germany impacted us, but I think the best way to do that is by referencing my German mother. A few weeks after meeting her, Aunt Henny told me I’d never pass as German because I smiled too much. Just before we left, she told me to find my smile again.
Canada happened unexpectedly, but we figured it would be easier to adapt in a place that was culturally closer to South Africa. And where we were fluent in at least one of the official languages.
The overall experience has been much different. As we’d hoped, Canadians are similar to South Africans. We’re all constantly sorry, for one thing. The hey we used to say in Jozi translates so well to the Canadian eh. People are chattier here. In other aspects, we’re completely different, but this still feels like a better fit in terms of forever.
If you’d like to read more about my immigration journey, I’ve written about it over on my blog. Have a look.
How My Writing has Changed
For one, I have a greater appreciation for language than ever. I don’t mean in terms of flowery prose or poetic writing with deeper meanings than at word level. I’ve never been a poet, and I struggle on a daily basis to construct sentences as they’re supposed to be constructed.
No, I mean in the way languages form and evolve. Did you know that almost every German province speaks its own dialect, some of them so different that people from the provinces don’t always understand each other?
In Toronto, there’s a kind of slang used by the locals that consists of words from all over the world. It’s one of the most culturally diverse places I’ve ever lived, and I come from South Africa. But walking down a street in Toronto, you’re likely to cross paths with people from India, Korea, the Philippines, Europe, Africa, or China (and more).
For this reason, the accent in Toronto is much different than the accent in Calgary. Toronto’s English is evolving into something new, whereas the way people speak in Calgary is as old as the mountains under whose shadow they live.
I’ve learned that people who live in proximity develop the same speech patterns, especially when it comes to swearing and insults. This is why dialects exist. We don’t need to make ourselves understood to people we don’t accept, and in a place like Germany, this is where history is key to understanding why they don’t mind the others not understanding them.
I’ve also learned that language is much more fluid than I could have ever dreamed. It’s a living thing, flavoured by its users.
When you live in a place where your family has never been, and experience things they’ve never experienced, you have to learn to describe it in a way they’ll enjoy. I find that my descriptive writing is richer because of this.
If this is a muscle that must be exercised, mine gets on the treadmill every day.
Additionally, the scenery included in my books often comes from real-life experiences. There’s this Natalistide market in A Study of Ash & Smoke, where Nathan is eating a packet of caramelised almonds, and this was basically every Weihnachtsmarkt we ever visited in Germany. The smells, the feeling of being shoved in every direction, the lights and standing tables among the food stalls only exist in that book because I lived in Germany.
Much of the architecture in Roicester was also inspired by real places we visited in Germany and the rest of Europe. At its heart, Aelland will always be my homage to London, but it’s been flavoured by Germany.
I’ve always been the sensitive type. I’m one of those tissue-hauling humans, because I might burst into tears at your successes or heartbreaks, whether I know you or not. But living in a place where I felt so isolated and unseen made me realise just how desperately people truly need kindness.
I try to see the motivation behind everything a person does IRL, which means what motivates my characters is more important than ever. I also try to feel what they feel. So, of course, nobody cries as hard as I do when something happens to them.
I also think a lot of my personal loneliness appears in how many of my characters are isolated. Cara grew up in total isolation, Sera’s out for everyone to see, but so alone, Varda has literally been stuck on a ship for a long time, and Lance is voiceless. Also, I wrote a lot of my own anxiety into Cara. The panic attacks and stress cleaning come from my time in that small apartment in Germany.
In essence, immigration has changed me. Each time I change, the way I write will also change. And I’m good with that.
Thanks for reading.