Johns Hopkins University Press

What comes after the language model of literary history? This essay considers that question by turning to works of contemporary fiction that operate at the edges of our most dominant language: English. These works use experiments with orthography, typeface, and design to dramatize the visual and aural culture of words, histories of language contact, and the apparatus of literary circulation. Words are there to be seen and heard as well as read, and what we see and hear alters how we read. Whereas multilingual works have typically added, elaborated, or combined languages, these works tend to block or restrict languages. They are therefore postlingual as well as post-anglophone. This is not a matter of narrowing and corralling what English can do. For writers in dominant languages, linguistic restriction is a necessary condition of literary cosmopolitanism.

At the turn of the last century, Linda Hutcheon sounded a call to “rethink the national model” of literary history.1 In the opening essay of a volume featuring her contribution and several responses, Hutcheon observed that “the fiction of cultural purity persists,” and she located that fiction not only in the eruptions of sectarian violence she saw in nations around the world but also in the patterns of intellectual labor that organize knowledge and institutions such as the university (3). The problem with the national model, she argued, is two-fold: its erasure of competing ethnicities within literary cultures; and the implication that cultures move forward, alone and unchanging, from one historical period to the next.

In the past two decades, the nation has ceased to operate as the only or necessary container for literary history. There are now many other political and topographic containers, as well as various language containers. Scholars who organize themselves around global languages such as English, Spanish, French, and Chinese can attest to the tensions and overlaps between nation-based and language-based classifications, whether French and francophone; Spanish and Catalan; Chinese and sinophone.2 [End Page 95] There are new competitions and new debates. We see competitions between versions of language, such as “standard” and “vernacular”; and debates about who has the right, the ability, and the obligation to use one language or another. Literary histories organized around language often share with national literary histories foundational assumptions about native belonging and isolated development.

This essay considers the future of the language model by turning to works of contemporary fiction that operate at the edges of our most dominant language: English. These works are generating new expressions of multilingualism by advancing expressions of postlingualism: language out of time, language after language, and language that is less than one. I’ve written elsewhere about contemporary writing that deploys attenuated or collective narration to impede our encounter with native voice or source languages.3 In those examples, we are presented with anglo-phone works that are also, diegetically or paratextually, Italian, Spanish, German, Japanese, or Anglo-Saxon works. Affirming a dynamic border between languages and between authors and readers, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yoko Tawada, and Kazuo Ishiguro incorporate translation, revision, and reception into production. Their works dramatize an ongoing process of collaborative making. This essay turns from multilingual narration in those texts to multilingual typography, collating a group of works that use experiments with orthography, typeface, and design to dramatize the visual and aural culture of words, histories of language contact, and the apparatus of literary circulation. Deploying the resources of the page, these works promote the experience of overlapping languages, such as words that seem to be English and Spanish at the same time, or phrases that, by virtue of spelling or font, can be anachronistic and modern, all at once.

My examples here are Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, Junot Díaz’s “The Pura Principle,” and Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. Kingsnorth’s and Smith’s books were both longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014. Díaz’s short story was first published in The New Yorker in 2010 and then later in his collection This Is How You Lose Her in 2012. Activating the relationship between language and print has been a trademark of avant-garde poetry for at least 150 years, but it is a rare gesture within narrative fiction, in good part because the visibility of print tends to derail narrative, and certainly tends to derail, as a way of detouring, the verbal properties of words. Kingsnorth’s, Díaz’s, and Smith’s works ask us to think about the appearance and sound of text: for example, the way that text can be placed on the page in the shape of a twist while also describing the experience of twisting (Figure 10); or the way that italics, designating foreign words in English-language literature, are visible on the pages of a screen or a book but inaudible when read or spoken aloud (Figure 3). [End Page 96]

Whereas multilingual works have typically added, elaborated, or combined languages, these new works tend to block or restrict languages. They reduce vocabulary, use words as images, disrupt words with images, decouple hearing and seeing, gesture to words without providing them, and provide inexact or approximate words. They are therefore postlingual. They are also post-anglophone.4 You don’t have to be an English writer to write in English. We’ve known that for some time. But you don’t even have to write in English to write in English, as writers of translated, antiquarian, and non-anglophone English are showing us. This is not a matter of narrowing and corralling what languages can do. Instead, Kingsnorth, Díaz, and Smith suggest that, for writers in dominant languages, linguistic restriction is a necessary condition of literary cosmopolitanism. Blocking the experience of English opens readers to other languages and to the presence of other languages and other versions of language within English.

Post-anglophone fiction heralds a transition from the presentation of “accented,” “rotten,” or hybrid English within anglophone novels of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the world to the disruption of language categories and ways of expressing languages (Ahmad; Miller). We are seeing a conceptual shift from objects that fit, however heterogeneously, within a single language container to objects that span varied language and paralanguage containers. The ‘post’ in post-anglophone registers histories of language contact and amalgamation. Post-anglophone works neutralize the longstanding opposition between metropolitan literatures and world literatures by challenging the homogenization of English at any scale. They remind us of the relative fluencies that operate through the sound and sight of language. We no longer agree what the term anglophone means and what it needs to mean going forward.

The remainder of this essay unfolds in four unequal parts. First, I consider the comparative history of the anglophone as a category of reading and organizing literature in English. The middle sections consider how contemporary novelists are reflecting on the production and representation of languages, and on the prospect of valuing languages without counting them.5 I look at three aspects of postlingualism in recent fiction: postlingualism that involves embedding the orthography and vocabulary of non-anglophone English within contemporary English; postlingualism that involves altering the typographic classification of domestic and foreign words; and postlingualism that involves folding into production a work’s ongoing circulation, translation, and reception. In the new postlingual fiction, we see that the history of English alters the future of the anglophone novel: language is out of joint. We see that refusing or revising typographic norms creates new registers of foreign [End Page 97] and domestic prose: language is out of place. And we see that experiments with genre and edition introduce multiple literary histories even within what appears to be a single language: language is out of language. In conclusion, I suggest why English-language writers, instead of expanding the anglophone, have been trying to make it less than one.

How the Anglophone Became One

As a qualifier of literature, anglophone has two principal meanings. These meanings have developed diachronically, over time, but they operate more or less synchronically today. First, anglophone literature was the alternative to British and American literature in English. Everything that wasn’t British and American literature was anglophone literature, which is now often called global anglophone literature or world anglophone literature – though still meaning literature of the so-called peripheries, not the metropolitan English-language literature of London and New York. Some of this global anglophone literature has been published in London and New York, but we generally mean that its authors were born outside of Britain and the United States. The works are anglophone less because of language than because of authorship: their authors are not metropolitan or have not always been metropolitan. Conversely, British and American authors may write in English, but they are not anglophone authors.

The second meaning of anglophone refers only to the language of the original work: any English-language novel is an anglophone novel. The increasing dominance of this meaning can be observed institutionally in academic job advertisements, book reviews, and the re-organization of the Man Booker Prizes. Recent job searches at Harvard University, to take one example, have made use of the exclusive and the inclusive meanings at the same time. The English Department sought a specialist in post-1945 British literature, who is also a specialist in what the advertisement called “diasporic Anglophone literatures” (first meaning). Meanwhile, Harvard ran a second search in a field called “Anglophone modernism” (second meaning). When I first applied for jobs in 1999, there was British modernism, American modernism, and occasionally transatlantic modernism. That was the vanguard! At a campus visit for a job in British modernism, a scholar of the novel in India wryly remarked that really there were very few British modernists, when you came to think of it. I think she was pointing out that the British modernists I was talking about, Joseph Conrad and James Joyce, hadn’t started their lives in London and weren’t in any straightforward way British at all.

As a classification, anglophone modernism consigns birthplace, citizenship, and residency to the background while foregrounding medium. It opens the door to any work in English, no matter where it [End Page 98] began or who wrote it. I suspect that the new classification is not meant to evacuate place so much as to remediate the exclusive and unspoken focus on only some places. Anglophone modernism might thus encourage research that considers the literary production of colonial writers and the pathways of exchange that generated anglophone modernism in and from other languages. The turn from nation to medium implies histories of print culture, circulation, and translation. These methodologies allow us to track versions of anglophone modernism that aren’t, or aren’t immediately, anglophone. They also allow us to consider surprising vectors of cause and effect. I would include here Peter Kalliney’s account, in his excellent book Commonwealth of Letters, of how writers from the Caribbean contributed to the prestige of metropolitan literature in London; and how the institutional emergence of “global English fiction” was nurtured by the intellectual collaborations and support of postcolonial novelists. Anglophone modernism becomes an occasion to think about the interactions among regional literary cultures. No longer marking the separation of metropole and periphery, the anglophone, in this usage, helps us to see the dynamic relationship among what appear to be distinct coteries.

Yet sometimes it can seem like a quick step from the transnational anglophone to the global anglophone, in which struggles over center and periphery, national and colonial, are replaced by an undifferentiated, world-sized English. I’ve found it helpful to consider this dynamic historically and comparatively, by looking to Sinophone and Francophone Studies, whose scholars have been thinking for some time about how to keep language expansion from becoming a new kind of language nationalism. While scholars of literature in English have been enlarging the anglophone, scholars of literature in French have expressed concerns about recent proposals for an inclusive approach. In 2007, a group of writers published a manifesto in the newspaper Le Monde, in which they called for dissolving the category of francophone literature and adopting instead the category of “World Literature in French” (Barbery et al.). Rejecting a long academic tradition of distinguishing between French writing by citizens of France and (secondary, derogated) francophone writing by everyone else, the manifesto insists on a single category that would recognize and celebrate the diversity of literary production in French, tout court. Critics of the manifesto have argued that “abandoning” the francophone category risks “the loss of hard-won ground” (Célestin, et. al.). Some have seen the expansion of “French writing” as the renewal of French nationalism for a globalist age. Charles Forsdick has objected to the embrace of monolingualism as a strategy of cosmopolitanism. He argues, “to uncouple literature from the unit of the nation is to stop short; a postcolonial critique of ‘littérature-monde’ potentially suggests further [End Page 99] uncoupling, of literature from its association with the unit of a single language” (15). For Forsdick, the problem is not, or not only, that migrant writers don’t have equal access to French writing and are thus excluded from political and cultural forms of citizenship. The problem is that political and cultural forms of citizenship depend too much on the affirmation of French. And here Forsdick is echoed by translation theorists and activists in languages well beyond French, such as the scholar and translator Jennifer Scappettone, who has insisted that, “at this historical moment… challenging the very understanding of national languages” is crucial for the fight against “xenophobia and racism” (Almeida and Scappettone).

The sinophone offers an intriguing comparison. Like the first anglo-phone model, it designates writing produced outside the metropolitan center, in this case sinitic writing by authors who are not located within China. Unlike that anglophone model, it also includes sinitic writing by authors located within China if that writing is multilingual or varies from standard Chinese. Only Chinese writing produced by authors within China is excluded. According to Shu-Mei Shih, who coined the term, sinophone literature is distinguished principally by its inclusion of multiple idiolects and several languages. The category holds together an enormous range of sounds and orthographies, whereas Chinese has designated a nationalist paradigm requiring homogeneous usage and consistency over time. As Shih points out, Chinese should be a nationality such that Chinese languages would be any language used in China. Instead, there is only one tongue valorized as Chinese, which crowds out rival languages and versions of language.

Studies of literature in English can benefit from what Sinophone Studies knows about the decoupling of language and territory and from what Francophone Studies knows about the nationalist implications of globalist paradigms. Extending English to the rest of the world, for example, can be a way of insisting on English at home. In our institutions as well as our scholarship, we need to find ways to work collaboratively so that our literary histories are less constrained by the currency of isolated languages. In an article published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, Charles Burdett argues that “specialists working in discrete fields associated with nation states” need to shift their expertise so that they are studying the interactions among cultures. Director of the Institute of Modern Language Research at the University of London, a professor of Italian literature, and a leading member of the Transnationalizing Modern Languages project, Burdett argues that knowing and engaging with multiple languages must be the starting point for reshaping the humanities and social science disciplines. The aim of his project is not to overcome national languages and their impetus to language acquisition. Far from it. [End Page 100] Instead, he wants to place multilingualism and the history of languages at the center of the so-called global university.

Thinking about literature in English from these perspectives, we might ask ourselves somewhat more forcefully about the comparative origins of anglophone writing, about its circulation today into and out of many other languages, and about its uses in the historical production of political and social collectives. Aamir Mufti has argued that the idea of languages as coherent, distinct wholes is an inheritance of colonialism.6 If we wish to move beyond that inheritance, we will have to learn to count English differently. How do we do that?

From Anglophone to Anglo-Saxon

In the contemporary novel, we can see visual information modifying verbal information, introducing readers to versions of multilingualism and postlingualism that reduce or disperse what seems to be a single language. Multilingualism generally refers to the relationship of one language to other languages, whereas postlingualism refers to the use of words in ways that fall outside of verbal expression. In each case, we have to think comparatively, as we consider how many languages are on the page, and whether there are languages on the page at all. But we also have to think historically, as we look back at the development of languages in print and before print. Thinking historically, we have to count differently. How are the meanings of words changed by their appearance in various fonts, shapes, and spellings? When are we reading, and when are we seeing?7 Calculating languages, can we even count to one?

Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake was longlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize, but it is probably the least well known of the works I discuss here (Figure 1). Written in a kind of modernized Anglo-Saxon, or Anglo-Saxonized English, The Wake tells the story of the Norman Conquest from the perspective of the conquered. In order to remind us that we are reading from an unassimilated point of view – that is, from the point of view of an Anglo-Saxon who has refused to incorporate French – Kingsnorth has restricted himself, wherever possible, to the words, sounds, punctuation, and orthography of pre-conquest England.

But Kingsnorth goes further than this, for what we encounter on the page of the printed book is not simply “a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of the old language,” as the author puts it, but the visual display of that language in some approximate mimesis of its historical emergence as literature (353). The novel presents us with Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and also the lower-case letters and minimal punctuation that were used in Medieval manuscripts, 400 years before the appearance of print. In a “note on language” placed at the end of the book, Kingsnorth [End Page 101] explains that he has sought to produce a “shadow tongue,” in which Anglo-Saxon could be apprehended beneath or within the experience of modern English. The verbal experience is something between a new combined language – like Nadsat in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange – and an English in the process of becoming, or trying not to become, modern. The typefaces, explained in yet another note, offer the most striking visual representation of the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Anglophone.

For the titling, the novel uses Gothic Blackletter font, modeled on the style of fifteenth-century handwriting (Figure 2). But most of the text appears in a version of Jenson, a Roman letter typeface invented for the printed book by Gutenberg disciple Nicholas Jenson. Incorporating Medieval and modern, Kingsnorth suggests that the normative technologies of the novel – the standardization of typeface and format, orthography and font – are complicit in the invisibility of English. We have forgotten the history of English. We have forgotten that English has a history. The Wake hopes to awaken our memory.

Figure 1. Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake, page 9
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Figure 1.

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake, page 9

Figure 2. Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake, title page
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Figure 2.

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake, title page

In Kingsnorth’s novel, the flourishing of the English language, represented by the triumph of contemporary anglophone fiction, is rooted in the physical brutality of the Conquest. The novel presents that history, at the level of text and paratext, while also seeking to inaugurate an alternative, localist future. It associates that future [End Page 102] with the return to small-scale book production and the turn away from global financing. The Wake is thus not only post-anglophone; it is also “post-press,” a term coined by Nick Levey to describe contemporary literature that is “created outside of the established circles of book production.” The novel was first manufactured by the crowd-sourced publisher Unbound, and U.K. editions list early supporters in the back pages of the printed book. Versa Press, an independent printer based in East Peoria, Illinois, manufactured the U.S. edition. The publisher of the U.S. edition is Greywolf Press, based in Minneapolis, which began as an independent conduit of letterpress and hand-sewn chapbooks and is now well known for multi-genre, experimental format books by luminaries such as Claudia Rankine and Percival Everett.

Eschewing the globalization of book making and book marketing, Kingsnorth’s novel reminds us that the history and politics of language are embedded in the history and politics of print. For one thing, corporate publishers are unlikely to support the typographic and orthographic experimentalism of an unproven novelist. But Kingsnorth is also keen to suggest that the function of literary works depends in part on the collectives that make, underwrite, and read them. By generating new collectives, he hopes to re-localize anglophone fiction. The relationship between the history of language and the history of print thus operates beyond the page. And it also operates on the page by combining pre-modern orthography and modern typeface. Because the novel impedes the expressive dimension of language, every fluent reader of English is a foreign reader of this text.

The Wake uses the pre-anglophone to animate the post-anglophone, making the coherence and achievement of anglophone fiction a topic as well as a feature of the contemporary novel. It is a topic because the plot attributes the language of contemporary Britain to a violent amalgam of tongues. And it is a feature because the novel places foreign versions of English within the idiom of anglophone prose. English appears multilingual, postlingual, and intralingual. Multilingual because there is a language inside a language. Postlingual, even for readers of English, because the range of words is purposefully restricted, and because some words seem to express sound and shape rather than meaning. And it is intralingual because we are presented with layers of diction, typography, formatting, concept, and genre sourced from different languages and different uses of language. It is important to notice that the book points in one way towards purity (a pre-francophone version of anglophone writing) and in another towards impurity (the multilingual typography of contemporary publishing): there is no single historical period or place, when you consider the visual as well as the verbal elements. In addition [End Page 103] to pre-modern and early modern, one of the historical periods is now: we have to use the glossary, we have to view the lineation, and we have to read aloud if we hope to make sense of the archaic spelling.

Kingsnorth disrupts the system of differentiated languages by asking us to see and to hear – as well as to read – the history of anglophone literature. Arranging the verbal – showing that the verbal is always arranged – The Wake reminds us that English is an aggregation of languages and language uses. Indeed, the title font used to signal pre-Conquest manuscript production, Gothic Blackletter, was born abroad. It is an artifact of European writing that was used throughout Northern Europe during the Middle Ages. The Wake is post-anglophone, then, because it declines to operate within a consistent temporality of diction, orthography, and font. But it also declines a consistent territoriality: the work’s visual heteroglossia contradicts its verbal claims for an unmixed, pre-Conquest idiom. Post-anglophone, the novel is nevertheless postglobal. All of those lowercase letters and premodern spellings make it difficult to read and difficult to translate. We are in the presence of the saturation rather than the abstraction of languages.

Figure 3. Junot Díaz, “The Pura Principle” in This Is How You Lose Her, page 103
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Figure 3.

Junot Díaz, “The Pura Principle” in This Is How You Lose Her, page 103

What Is the Anglophone?

Like Kingsnorth, Junot Díaz is interested in the overlapping history of books and languages. He knows that books are not simply containers for languages. They also establish the location of languages. They do this, for example, by reproducing the national lexicon while marking out and distinguishing, through italics, words that are foreign or outside that lexicon. In English, literary fiction since the nineteenth century has used italics to affirm the borders between local and global diction. Díaz invokes this convention – and breaks it – in his 2012 collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her. Within the work, some Spanish words appear in italics, while others appear – just like the English words, or as English words – in Roman font (Figure 3). We wouldn’t normally place [End Page 104] Díaz’s writing next to Kingsnorth’s. The idiom is Dominican-American rather than Anglo-Saxon-English, and it is much less dramatically avant-garde in its blurring of genre and in its resistance to immediate legibility. Yet Díaz has been manipulating paratext for some time, and in The Is How You Lose Her he is activating a postlingual idiom through the manipulation of typography, presenting words intralingually (within English/Spanish) and interlingually (both English and Spanish) at the same time.8

Díaz’s anglophone stories introduce a standard idiolect and a demotic, but both involve Spanish. Standard English is not even on the table. He asks us to consider what the languages of U.S. fiction have been, and what they might be going forward. Instead of identifying one dominant and one minor or secondary language, Díaz makes languages uncountable. The narrator of “The Pura Principle” is from the Dominican Republic but lives in the United States. He distinguishes between his Dominican idiom, which he and his friends speak, and what he calls “Dominican Dominican,” which is spoken by more recent arrivals (100). These gradations of foreignness are reflected in the typography we see on the page. Some Spanish is foreign (italicized), and some is domestic (Roman). There is no heritage language, a stable version of Spanish or Dominican that exists in the past, and there is no idealized version of English that the characters aspire to speak. Instead, words operate as Spanish and English simultaneously.

Languages are not only a medium in this work. They are a theme. The title’s mash-up of Latinate Anglophone erudition (principle) and slangy Hispanophone obscenity (pura / puta, meaning whore) illustrates the problem of counting and bordering that appears throughout the story. When the story travels into other languages, translators have to figure out how to register the formal and visual dimensions of this theme: the way words appear on the page, the selective use of italics, the layering of visual and verbal accent, the way that some Spanish words function locally while others do not, the historical and political resonance of encountering U.S. fiction in at least two local languages – of insisting that there are two or more – rather than only one. It’s not hard to see how Díaz’s writing might be post-anglophone. He suggests that English is made up of languages beyond English and that what registers as English has been shaped in part by the historical phenomenon of the book.

Because his stories withhold italics, they break with the norms of anglophone publishing. But it turns out that it is not simply a matter of ignoring those norms or rejecting them outright. Far from eradicating the typographic distinction between local and foreign words, Díaz has made this distinction function regionally. Moreover, typographic foreignness has helped to generate the work in the first place. In his brain, he explains [End Page 105]

Figure 4. Junot Díaz, “How to Date a Brown Girl,” The New Yorker (December 12, 1995)
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Figure 4.

Junot Díaz, “How to Date a Brown Girl,” The New Yorker (December 12, 1995)

Figure 5. Close-up, “How to Date a Brown Girl”
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Figure 5.

Close-up, “How to Date a Brown Girl”

Figure 6. Junot Díaz, “Nilda,” The New Yorker (October 4, 1999)
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Figure 6.

Junot Díaz, “Nilda,” The New Yorker (October 4, 1999)

Figure 7. Close-ups, “Nilda”
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Figure 7.

Close-ups, “Nilda”

[End Page 106]

Figure 8. Janet Hansen, “This Is a Translation,” The New York Times (June
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Figure 8.

Janet Hansen, “This Is a Translation,” The New York Times (June

Figure 9. Scott Starett and Maria Arenas, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez campaign poster, 2018
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Figure 9.

Scott Starett and Maria Arenas, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez campaign poster, 2018

in an interview, “English and Spanish are in italics” (Díaz and Knight). We can trace this strategy of language bordering to 1999, when Díaz convinced The New Yorker to stop imposing italics on the Spanish words that appear domestically in his fiction. We can see the use of italics for Spanish words in the 1995 story “How to Date a Brown Girl” (Figures 4 and 5: the relevant words are “tía” and “malcriado”) whereas we can see the absence of italics (Figures 6 and 7: the relevant words are “cuero” and “vieja”) in the 1999 story, “Nilda.”

A decade later, this kind of typographic postlingualism has filtered into daily journalism. In 2018, The New York Times featured an image representing English-to-English translation in a book review on contemporary theories of translation (Figure 8) (Moser). Like Díaz’s story, Janet Hansen’s illustration proposes that fonts modify the meaning of words, such that a single phrase, by virtue of appearing in multiple fonts, appears in multiple languages or versions of language. Hansen illustrates intralingual translation: English changes because its medium changes. The irony, of course, is that the repeated phrase, “this is a translation,” demonstrates what it describes. It also instantiates, as the essayist Kate Briggs suggests. If she calls her book a translation, she suggests, “something would happen – some adjustment to your reading manner would be very likely to occur – if you were to hear me all of a sudden insisting that it is” (48). In the illustration, we are seeing as well as learning about translation.

Also in 2018: typographic postingualism was a crucial element in the advertisements produced for what was arguably the most innovative campaign poster of the U.S. Congressional elections: the poster designed by Scott Starett and Maria Arenas for Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s (successful) election in a district serving the multilingual boroughs of Queens and the Bronx, in New York City (Figure 9). The poster uses punctuation to make the candidate’s name function bilingually: in Spanish, because there are [End Page 107] upside-down exclamation points; and in English, because the exclamation points highlight only the first part of Ocasio-Cortez’s surname, rather than both parts, as Spanish would. In truth, the surname is legible in Spanish and English, but it is in the strictest sense neither Spanish nor English, making the poster postlingual as well as bilingual: extra-expressive and also resistant to expressivity, at least in verbal terms. In fact, as the designers observe, the moniker appears to be spoken rather than written, or written as if spoken: “Ocasio” is captured in a cartoon bubble that evokes the medium of text messaging, what someone is saying as well as what someone is writing (Arenas, et al.). At the same time, we can recognize the iconography of early-twentieth century populism. Ocasio-Cortez, the poster suggests visually, is a candidate suited to a dynamic, heterogeneous collective: she is contemporary but also rooted in the radical solidarities of the past. Bilingual in format as well as in language, the voice of the campaign is always less than uno.

How the Anglophone Becomes Both

Ali Smith’s How to Be Both emphasizes not only the history of writing but also, like our other examples, the typographic appearance of writing. The novel is postlingual because language appears out of place as well as out of time: English and Italian, early modern and contemporary, synoptic and prophetic, visual and verbal. The characters make free use of smartphones and iPads and other digital technologies, but the work relies on the codex and on the reader’s visual experience of letters and shapes on the page (Figure 10). The narrative signals this theme when it tells us that one of the main characters, George, re-watches the same iPad video over and over again. She does this, she says, because she wants to witness the “happening,” by which she means the experience of circulation rather than the diegetic acts (224).9

Figure 10. Ali Smith, How to Be Both (New York: Pantheon, 2014), p. 161
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Figure 10.

Ali Smith, How to Be Both (New York: Pantheon, 2014), p. 161

We, too, are asked to witness the happening: the way the book presents itself to us, the way its words and ideas physically and figuratively twist into other words, and our experience as readers and handlers. The [End Page 108] narrators also relate their own experiences of reading, handling, researching, and watching. How to Be Both folds circulation into production most explicitly by drawing our attention to the book’s two parts. One part is focused on a fifteenth-century Italian painter known as Francescho, and the other is focused on a twenty-first-century teenager known as George. Both parts are titled “one” on the pages that precede each section (Figure 11).

Instead of enumerating, first part and second part, the section titles seem instead to function as echoes or halves. The book’s parts consist of stories that are one but not the only one. They are one but made up of other, no longer visible ones. Each part is less uniform, less distinct, and less original than the designation “one” usually implies. This play on the distinctiveness and chronology of parts is important to our understanding about the distinctness and chronology of the novel’s characters. In some ways, the novel tells a story about a person in the far past and a story about a person now. But it also turns out that each story is both ghostly and prescient in its own way, with traces of the other story appearing before and also after the story we are reading. How to Be Both offers a variety of motifs for this kind of ghosting, which is both foreshadowing and back-shadowing, intimation of what is to come and of what has already been.

Figure 11. Ali Smith, How to Be Both (New York: Pantheon, 2014), pp. 1 and 187
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Figure 11.

Ali Smith, How to Be Both (New York: Pantheon, 2014), pp. 1 and 187

Themes and forms of ghostliness prepare us to notice ghostliness at the level of language. We can observe all of the names that are intimated but never cited or revealed in the text. Those include the name of the painter-narrator, born a girl, who chooses the name Francescho so that she, now he, can have a career as an artist. Francescho chooses a boy’s name that reminds him of his mother’s “French-sounding name,” but [End Page 109] the originals (his name and hers) remain unspoken. Relating a plan for a painting, the painter-narrator relates the plan of the narrative: to “tell a story, but tell it more than one / way at once, and tell another underneath it / up-rising through the skin of it” (51). These words are placed on the page with visual breaks, enjambments, so that we experience “more than one” meaning in the word “one” (Figure 12). We also experience more than one genre. Are we reading poetry, or prose? The unmentioned names of the story point to differences of gender and language, as do many other references to unrepresented words that the narrator doesn’t know and doesn’t repeat; or represented words that are, he explains, not the right word. Those not-right words include an extended passage in English based on a passage that has been rendered from Italian by Google Translate (322). We see only the Google Translate version; the original Italian and the corrected English are never given (Figure 13).

Figure 12. Ali Smith, How to Be Both (New York: Pantheon, 2014), p. 51
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Figure 12.

Ali Smith, How to Be Both (New York: Pantheon, 2014), p. 51

Figure 13. Ali Smith, How to Be Both (New York: Pantheon, 2014), p. 322
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Figure 13.

Ali Smith, How to Be Both (New York: Pantheon, 2014), p. 322

Contemporary slang is dropped into the fifteenth-century narrative, while in the contemporary narrative, George, also born a girl, corrects her mother’s grammar and declares her preference for scholarly terms such as “impervious” and “alacrity” (249). The narrative we are reading is made up of words that have been chosen for and often placed on the page. And though both sections arrive in the present tense, as if happening as we hold the book, we have the keen sense that they may have been written – hailed into existence – by the characters themselves. At the end of the George section, she seems to be “waiting” both for other characters to act and [End Page 110] for the narrative to continue (368). This is one of the novel’s many images of twisting, which include the opening paragraph of the Franchesco section (Figure 10), in which the story and its container explicitly overlap.

There is the cross-cutting of narrative and book. And there is also – famously – more than one book, even in English and even in what appears to be one edition. Across the U.S. and U.K. imprints, Smith’s novel has been released in two different versions: some copies begin with George’s section, and some with Francescho’s (Figure 14). From the get-go, book and narrtive are always “both” – two books, two narratives, book and narrative intertwined – rather than only one. The book’s contribution to the novel’s both-ness is emphasized in various ways. We see twists on the page, two-dimensional drawings of eyes and a camera, unjustified lines, and unusual capitalization and orthography. These gestures contribute to postlingual expression by reducing verbal expressivity: they detour our experience of narrative into an experience of visual images and the history of visual images, including the visual image of text. They also ask us to reflect on postlingual expression, insofar as they present language, through images of palimpsest and the double helix, as an infinite process of becoming.

Figure 14. Ali Smith, How to Be Both, Pantheon edition, p. 3 and Anchor edition, p. 161
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Figure 14.

Ali Smith, How to Be Both, Pantheon edition, p. 3 and Anchor edition, p. 161

The book makes us into collaborators: activators as well as receivers of language. We are told at one point, in a comment attributed to the Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti, that “beauty in its most completeness is never found in a single body but is something shared instead between more than one body” (90). This comment is presented as a truth about [End Page 111] the power of representation to give substance and quality to its object. But it is also a truth about audiences, whose reception of the work is part of its ongoing production. We have to manipulate the book and possibly purchase more than one book, in order to read the whole novel; but of course this process makes it impossible to conceive of only one novel, or of a novel that can be read only one time. How to Be Both imagines literary history as a twisting together of many versions of the work and many histories of language rather than a single, monolingual progression. It uses the visual and aural representation of words, how they look as well as how they sound, to reject both the fervent monolingualism of the historical novel and the normative interlingualism of the translated book. Oriented towards the past as well as the future, Smith’s anglophone writing is divided and doubled by its relationship with several languages, formats, and media.

Anglophone Fiction Now

By emphasizing literature’s ghostliness – its traces of prior agents, prior editions, and prior languages – Smith places her work in the world. And in this sense, we can see how Díaz’s, Kingsnorth’s, and Smith’s writing fits with Fredric Jameson’s claim that “the thematics of transmission and technology” are crucial to the political dimensions of contemporary fiction (312). Jameson distinguishes a new focus on “the materiality of communication systems” from the “complacent writing about writing” that he associates with the postmodern novel (310). He is thinking affirmatively of works such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which the drama of circulating books serves as an implicit rebuttal to the frictionless logic of globalization. In the works I’ve been discussing, the visual representation of writing technologies, both pre- and post-print, yokes the frictionless logic of globalization to the frictionless logic of monolingualism.

I am tempted to describe today’s experiments in typography, format, and edition as examples of what we might call concrete fiction, after the tradition of concrete poetry. That would allow us to compare this moment in literary production to an earlier moment, in which, as Johanna Drucker has argued, writers and artists sought to return “the written language to the specific place, instance, and conditions of production” (46). Concrete poetry managed to be global without being frictionless, since it often involved looking without reading, blocking as well as altering expressivity (Figure 15). Literature in a time of media expansion and renewed nativism focuses, once again, on the happening of language: the ontology of the work, the materiality of words, and the multi-disciplinary, multi-format production of text. Concrete poetry was produced collaboratively and individually by artists all over the world; it is famous for its “confused [End Page 112] geography,” beginning in Latin America, Germany, Switzerland, and Japan, to name a few locations (Williams vi). But its geographic confusion involved reception as well as production. As the concrete poet and anthologist Emmett Williams writes, the genre “often asked to be completed or activated by the reader” (vi). Like concrete fiction, concrete poetry reminds us that the literary work is an ongoing process, not a completed object; it is less than one.

Figure 15. Emmett Williams, “Like Attracts Like,” 1958
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Figure 15.

Emmett Williams, “Like Attracts Like,” 1958

English-language writers, whose works circulate into new languages faster than ever before, are using the multitemporality of the book to register the limits of English as a category of knowledge and the limits of language as a medium of writing. The idea of language is changing. Post-anglophone fiction asks us to consider the misfit between contemporary literature and the philological categories that have organized our research. Disabling philological categories, we will have to organize research differently. The framework of literatures in languages was a first step, since it allowed us to emphasize kinds of books rather than kinds of writers. But it can’t be the only step, since we need to ask how participation in literary cultures involves less as well as more than a single tongue. Thinking about how literary histories converge and diverge, we will need to integrate histories of media, translation practice, and reception. We’ll need to think about the size and quantity of the literary object. And about how it belongs, and where.

Literary history can’t be all in one language. We’ve heard that by now. But language can’t be all in one language either. The monolingual unit has constrained our approach to literary histories of the past. We have the opportunity to consider what literary histories should look like in the future. We can begin by changing how we count, distinguish, value, and teach languages. The recent movement in Writing Studies and Sociolinguistics from teaching “English as a Foreign Language” to teaching “English as a Second Language” and now to teaching “English as an Additional Language” signals one key effort to recognize the simultaneity and relativity of language knowledges and the presence of intralingualism within national cultures.10 The change in monikers reminds us that [End Page 113] we are all English language learners. But it also reminds us that being an English language learner isn’t enough even for fluency in English. The future of any truly capacious, multilateral literary history will require engaging robustly and generously with the history of language contact, the history of media, the changing shape of languages across and within our comunidad.

Rebecca L. Walkowitz
Rutgers University
Rebecca L. Walkowitz

Rebecca L. Walkowitz is Dean of Humanities in the School of Arts and Sciences, Distinguished Professor of English, and Affiliate Faculty in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University. She is the author of Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (Columbia, 2015) and Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism beyond the Nation (Columbia, 2006), and editor of eight books, including, with Eric Hayot, A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism (Columbia, 2016).


1. See Linda Hutcheon, “Rethinking the National Model.” I am grateful to the many readers and audiences that have read, watched, and heard this essay on many occasions. Special thanks to my colleagues at SubStance, my very generous collaborator yasser elhariry, and my Rutgers colleague Nicole Houser for crucial suggestions in the final stages.

2. I use lower-case punctuation to refer to the non-national, heterogeneous versions of language and orthography grouped within the categories of anglophone, francophone, sinophone literatures, etc.

4. These works are “post-monolingual” in the sense described by Yasemin Yildiz in Beyond the Mother Tongue. See also yasser elhariry on “postfrancophone” in Pacifist Invasions.

5. For the problem of counting languages, see Naoki Sakai, “How Do We Count a Language?”

6. See also Sakai.

7. For a robust account of why this question matters, see Johanna Drucker, The Invisible Word.

8. Think here of the footnotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

9. All citations in the text refer to the Pantheon edition.

10. My thanks to Nicole Houser and EAL colleagues at Rutgers for explaining why, as a matter of instructional effectiveness as well as social justice, we should move from the pedagogical frameworks of ESL and EFL to the framework of English as an Additional Language. See Horner, et al., “Language Difference in Writing”; Silva and Wang, eds., Contemporary Foundations for Teaching English as an Additional Language; “CCCC Statement on Second Language Writing and Multilingual Writers”; and RELI, “Creating an Inclusive Classroom Community for Multilingual Learners.“

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