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For A Bilingual Writer, 'No One True Language'

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Gustavo Perez Firmat is a Cuban-American who writes novels, memoirs, poetry, and academic works in both Spanish and English. "But I have the feeling that I'm not fluent in either one," he says. "Words fail me in both languages."

Perez Firmat, who is also a professor at Columbia University, says that being bilingual can be both a blessing and a burden.

"I don't have one true language," Perez Firmat tells Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne.

That sentiment is the main idea behind his 1995 book of poems, Bilingual Blues. The title poem uses words from both languages to play off one another, in a series of interlingual puns:

Bilingual Blues

Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones.
I have mixed feelings about everything.
Name your tema, I'll hedge;
name your cerca, I'll straddle it
like a cubano.

I have mixed feelings about everything.
Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones.
Vexed, hexed, complexed,
hyphenated, oxygenated, illegally alienated,
psycho soy, cantando voy:
You say tomato,
I say tu madre;
You say potato,
I say Pototo.
Let's call the hole
un hueco, the thing
a cosa, and if the cosa goes into the hueco,
consider yourself en casa,
consider yourself part of the family.

Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones,
un puré de impurezas:
a little square from Rubik's Cuba
que nadie nunca acoplará.

The wordplay is clever and lively — but Perez Firmat says that behind them, there is frustration and longing.

"It's both a lament, and a celebration," he says.

In everyday life, trying to communicate in two languages can bring awkward situations, Perez Firmat says. And the speaking habits that result can be very revealing.

"I can only curse in Spanish," he says. "I had a difficult relationship with my dad, and there may have been some cursing involved, on both parts."

"On the other hand, I have a hard time saying 'I love you' in Spanish," he says. "When I say te quiero, te amo -- it sounds stilted, sounds like the kind of speech you hear in Mexican soap operas."

"But for me it's very natural to say, 'I love you,'" in English, Perez Firmat says. "My wife is American; English is a conjugal tongue, it's a filial tongue. Every time I talk to my son or my daughter, we end the discussion by saying, 'I love you.'"

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