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What are exophonic authors? An interview with Ada Gadomski

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

Today’s blog post is an interview with an exophonic author, Ada Gadomski. In case you don’t know, exophonic authors are authors who write in a language that is not their first language.

It’s a really exciting position to explore, as it often involves writing across cultures.

Ada and her friend Filipa Carvalho da Silva have self-published a book named Rainbow Walkers.

What languages do you speak and write in?

I speak Serbian and English at home. I write in English.

When did you first write in English? How does it feel different, if at all, to writing in the language you learned first as a child?

I started writing in English during my theatre design studies at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design. At that time, I formed a little theatre company with friends and began writing experimental theatre plays.

In my childhood I spoke Serbo-Croatian, and my father sometimes spoke Polish to us. At the age of nine we moved to Italy. I became bilingual, and later trilingual when I moved to the UK. Now I live in Spain so that is my fourth language. I don’t count Polish and French as I am not fully proficient in them.

Serbo-Croatian feels like a remote language connected to my core memories. Yet I sometimes prefer speaking in English, and I definitely find it hard to write in Serbian. The last time I attempted it was for an article in an architecture magazine while I lived in Japan. I ended up writing in English and having it translated. But when I write my novels there are parts, sometimes personal moments or descriptive passages, that come to me in Serbo-Croatian. It feels like they are surfacing from somewhere deep within me and from the very centre, as if out of a fountain. (I have an image of those Italian fountains in the middle of old stone squares. The ones with wide circular basins and the water bubbling up out of the centre.)

Art by Filipa Carvalho da Silva

The issue of language has to do with sound, with rhythm, or vibration, so actually with emotion, or energy. There’s an essay by Ursula Le Guin, “The question I get asked about most often.” And a concept in the title of her collection of essays The Wave in the Mind. Here, she discusses where ideas come from, and talks about rhythm in writing. She quotes Virginia Wolf:

Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it: But no doubt I shall think differently next year. From a letter to Wolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West.

And then Le Guin adds:

Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention – beneath words, as she says – there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words. A “wave in the mind,” she calls it. She says that a sight or an emotion may create it, like a stone dropped into still water. The circles go out from the center in silence, in perfect rhythm, and the mind follows those circles outward and outward till they turn to words. So the writer’s job is to recognize the wave, the silent swell way out at sea, way out in the ocean of the mind, and follow it to shore, where it can turn or be turned into words, unload its story, throw out its imagery, pour out its secrets. And ebb back into the ocean of story. Ursula Le Guin

I think this is just a beautiful image. Of the wave in the mind, of it travelling in ever wider circles and reaching a shore and finding its embodiment in words. When we recognise the wave and turn it into words, we uncover the language best suited to that particular wave. Using several languages is handy that way, giving access to a wider array of tools or rhythms. And as an exophonic writer I see a difference in these waves, where they come from, and how they take on substance and sound within me. I am always very conscious of the sound and words I use to express that underlying emotion or idea.

Now for your graphic novel. What’s it about? What inspired you to write it? Who did you collaborate with? Is there any message you wanted to get across to readers?

I’m never sure whether to call it a graphic novel, but it certainly comes close, being so visual.

Art by Filipa Carvalho da Silva

It’s about a girl who journeys to a magical land to escape her stifling repetitive life of rules and responsibilities. It’s as much a voyage through her emotional landscape as it is through the physical land. Or perhaps the environment mirrors her desires. It enables a transformation and gradual resolution of her inner conflicts, and those of her companions. She makes friends along the way and ends up travelling beyond Earth through a portal. This portal can only be accessed with true friends, via selflessness and self-knowledge. These are the things that ultimately let us realise our full potential and bring inner peace and harmonious relationships. A tribe, self-knowledge, and selflessness (empathy).

The book is a collaboration with my friend Filipa da Silva. We started it during the pandemic when we both lost our jobs. It took us two years to complete it (by which time we were both working again). Filipa illustrated the story; I developed and wrote it based on a drawing she sent me that had many of the characters on it. I looked at it and knew what the stories would be. The story came to me all at once, and one frantic day I jotted it all down and colour-coded it. That was when I wrote the plot for every chapter except the very last. I knew I would need to uncover just like the reader, by going through all the other ones first.

During writing, I ran the text by Filipa and she would read, give feedback, and begin drawing. Two characters are her creations – they have consistently featured in her work for many years. I wrote them from the character dossiers she created to make sure I was true to her ideas. The book was developed together with the visuals. The text and images go together, and I couldn’t imagine publishing a version that was text only. It could easily be an animated movie, and many readers have told us so. I sometimes think of the wonderful” Irish Song of the Sea,” which has some magical and semi-abstract bits. There are also some old Russian animated fairy tales with a magical abstract quality achieved through a union of image, sound, and story.

What motivated you to write the novel in English?

The words I hear in my head are in English. Occasionally I get words in other languages I speak. Sometimes, words perfect for what I want to say exist in one language, but I can’t find the equivalent in English. Then I make do, or in my other writing I sometimes include those words in the text. I haven’t published anything like that yet; I wonder how it would work.

Art by Filipa Carvalho da Silva

Do you know many other exophonic authors? What challenges, if any, do you think exophonic authors face?

I don’t actually know that many exophonic authors. The people I do know mostly write academic and research papers. But I think that’s different because it’s work-related. For me writing is not work, it’s a need and a means of expression. I have a few colleagues from my theatre days who write or adapt scripts in English that come from other languages. I met a very interesting and successful exophonic author this summer at a writer’s festival – Aliette de Bodard. This was very gratifying because there aren’t that many exophonic writers, at least around me. It was good to see that it can work so well.

I don’t know if she would describe herself as exophonic, but she has won the Nebula award several times and is highly respected in the fantasy and SF community. I find her an interesting case because she was born in the US, is of French and Vietnamese descent, and grew up in Paris and then London.

So it’s great for me to see this dynamism, because I am also of mixed heritage and have moved about a lot and been a semi-visitor in several cultures over the decades. I found it often challenging to come to terms with the experience. She writes speculative fiction with this underlying theme of otherness, cultural differences and misunderstandings, and identity and relationships within families and groups. It’s all obviously indirect and set in a speculative SF environment. But there is a strong belief system underpinning her worlds. It’s based on love, duty, family, and belonging, which I think is very important. This is something I often find lacking and a missed opportunity – even in major works like the Game of Thrones universe. This world is so popular, but it paints a fractured and ruined society without actually offering readers an anchor point.

Perhaps the writer doesn’t want to, or hasn’t got one, or doesn’t believe in doing that. I know George R. R. Martin is a conscientious objector, and his stories often show the futility of war while simultaneously dealing with heroism and chivalry. But I believe it is very important to offer a point of redemption based on compassion, humanity, togetherness, empathy, etc. Especially when reaching millions of readers, because whether we want it to or not, our work does influence people.

Perhaps my experience of having a footing in several cultures, while being challenging for me, gives me a clearer perspective. This can be used positively to contribute to building inclusivity and humanity within societies. It is definitely something that I would like to see. And it would make all the trouble of going through the novel writing and publishing process worthwhile. If it offered something of value and an example of positive change for others.

Art by Filipa Carvalho da Silva

How did you find the whole indie self-publishing experience as a first-time author? What have been the most challenging aspects?

I found the experience overwhelming, especially as I didn’t have a network around me. I am working on fixing that now. However, I do think some of the traditional aspects of publishing exist for good reason. It takes very many people contributing their skills and knowledge to bring a single book to market.

It reminds me of the film industry in which I have worked. Here, we see a movie and think of the actors and the directors primarily, perhaps the writers, but there is a vast crew behind the project working tirelessly and giving their all to bring forward that one story. They usually stay behind the scenes. So, in self-publishing we often talk about “putting on several hats.” That is now the case with artists and creators and most freelancers who run small businesses as well. We need to wear several hats to run a successful business, and some are better at this than others.

It helps to develop an entrepreneurial mindset early on, ideally in one’s youth or during training or studies. But things are moving so fast now that we must continually learn new skills. We need to keep informed and updated about what’s out there. I struggle with this because of my nature: I am primarily an empath, a thinker, a creator, and a contemplator of life. Sometimes the “changing hats” thing feels like an imposition and a sort of schizoid experience. A bit like pretending to be different people simultaneously.

I do like working in teams though, and leading and taking care of small teams. For me collaboration and building a network are the ideal solutions for that. I think most of us are not solitary by nature. There are certainly degrees from person to person but we are ultimately social creatures and so having a support network – albeit a remote one – is the basic working solution. It’s what seems to carry most people forward at the end of the day.

In short, the solitary and isolated nature of writing combined with the multitasking required in self-publishing, and the multitude of different skills required are all quite challenging. The marketing is a whole other mountain I haven’t properly begun to scale yet. That’s why I have not talked about it here.

You recently attended the Stockholm Writers Festival. What was it like? Would you recommend it? Is it a good fit for exophonic authors?

It was my first writers’ festival so my experience is quite subjective as I have nothing to compare it to, but it was valuable to me on many levels.

I learned a lot about the basic business of writing and publishing, and I met many people from many countries and walks of life, with such different stories and ideas and yet all were there because they like writing and want to publish and to have people read their work. So, immediately on a most obvious level we all have one big thing in common, no matter how different we all are: we are there by choice to concentrate on that one thing we have in common, and that is a good basis to build any experience on.

I must also mention that the Stockholm Writers Festival grew out of a local writers’ group, so there is an underlying act of altruism and inclusion and a desire to share. This is ultimately what any writer –or creator– wants. No matter what some might say, that we create primarily for ourselves, because we enjoy it and need it and we want to see it or read it or hear it etc., at the end there is usually the act of sharing the work with others, and a desire for the work to be accepted, liked, valued etc. That element of community is what brings about writers’ groups and festivals and any other events. And in Stockholm it was good: we were encouraged to talk to and take care of one another and build connections based on friendship, which I appreciate.

About the exophonic authors element – I mentioned the festival grew out of a local writers’ group, and they are English speakers/writers, but I am not sure they are necessarily exophonic authors, as I believe most of them write in their native tongue. Most of the attendees were from English-speaking countries like the US, the UK, Australia and South Africa. But I did meet several writers from France, Austria and Poland who write in the English language. Not enough to make me feel I don’t stick out – but I usually feel that way anyway. The other thing that made me feel I stick out is that as far as I could tell I was the only one, or perhaps one of very few, with a visual background. I like to combine my writing with images and often illustrate stories myself. I was told that was rare.

But the experience was good and I would like to repeat it, if I can afford it. There were deals being done there too, so for some writers, I had a feeling that it may have been more lucrative too, mostly for the younger ones. I attended an agent pitching session, the first one I ever did, and it didn’t go badly. An agent told me to send them my completed manuscript, and I got a lot of practical feedback on what publishers and agents are looking for.

Art by Filipa Carvalho da Silva

Have you got any new book projects on the horizon?

I have several because ideas bombard me all the time and I like to work on several projects simultaneously. Perhaps this is because of the way I write, which is probably that I am not skilled enough yet, so I do need to let stories sit on the back burner for a while and simmer while I think about them and then go back and look at them with fresh eyes after a while.

I am working on a side story in the same universe as Rainbow Walkers. Perhaps I could tell the story of each character separately, like an origin story maybe, but not all would be worth telling. There are two I could make work as illustrated novellas, and I am working on one now. I am also continuing with the three other novels I’ve been writing on and off for several years now, and the fourth one is now on that back burner waiting, because that fourth one is a bit larger and requires more worldbuilding and planning and research, and I don’t feel ready for it yet.

How can book editors and the publishing industry support exophonic authors?

It’s a question of expectation.

What do we as a global society of English speakers – as this is the language I write in – what do we expect and wish the English language to be and sound like? Because there is an idea in terms of publishing of what English is, and then there is the language we use all over the world in so many different cultures with so many different tongues, all because the English were such successful seafarers and colonisers. More successful than the Spanish, Portuguese and the Dutch, who are amazing in their own right.

So English is now the number one international language. I often imagine how I would write that story: a small island country with a wilful queen who funded naval development and encouraged New World exploration but also plundering. And the Church did too. So people from that small island nation colonised many continents with their language and customs, and all those countries now speak English, and the greatest one in terms of global influence calls their language American, and America is the largest book market in the world, followed by China. America is also the biggest cultural influencer in terms of content that has been sent out since the advent of television and movies since the Second World War, and so the English language and the Anglo-Saxon influence is a big factor all over the world.

But every next generation adds a touch and mixes things up. Culture changes and language changes, and stories evolve as human societies evolve. And I think it is interesting to hear all those stories and the languages people speak across the globe. There is no pure language but instead there are living, ever-changing methods of communication. I believe publishing could reflect that better.

As an exophonic author, I want to insert words and references from the other languages I speak, because when multilingual or polyglot people speak we often reach into a different box to pull out a word here or a sentence there, or we simply do it automatically because that’s how our brain works. And I would want to do that because it reflects our world. I want to challenge the notion of what is acceptable language and spelling and content for a published English-language book, because the world around us keeps moving ahead.

You can compare it with the BBC News English language that hardly anyone speaks in real life. I remember when I first moved to London, I met several people from other continents who were surprised that the people around them didn’t speak the way they heard newscasters speak on English radio and TV programmes broadcast back home. So, while I understand why style guides and rule exist and what purpose they serve, I am interested in integrating my own experience, and that of many millions of people, of what it is to be multicultural and to speak a multiculturally enriched English language. And I do believe it is an enriching effect.

My two self-published books to date and the magazine articles I have written over the years do not reflect that at all. So far, I have stuck to the prescribed rules. But I hope I will be able to do things differently in the future.

Buy the Rainbow Walkers book here


Andrew Hodges, PhD is a copyeditor and developmental editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. His expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.

He is an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.

You can contact him here, or feel free to leave a comment below!

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