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Maria Lauret, Wanderwords: Language Migration in American Literature. Series: New Horizons in Contemporary Writing

Theodora D. Patrona

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1The name on the front cover is very well known in Ethnic and Gender circles. Marie Lauret’s substantial publications in the fields of literature, feminism, and post-colonialism and her dynamic presence as co-founder of Atlantic Studies speak for themselves. Her new, interdisciplinary venture, a marriage between linguistics and literature, is, however, a most impressive work, original and path-breaking in its essence. Here, Lauret brilliantly examines migrant literary works for the words and phrases in other languages as “a mode of multilingual signification” (2), calling them “wanderwords.” She aims at demonstrating that the writers and their “wandering and meandering” “betoken routes more than roots” (7).

2While projecting “the aesthetic possibilities” inherent in multilingual migrant writing, Lauret wonderfully explains her scope and thinking, but also builds up on previous scholarship in her introductory chapter. Through a review of migration and language policy in the U.S. the scholar points to the fluidity of the American linguascape, noting that it has now reached its highest peak as regards its multilingualism since World War II.

3The second chapter sets the author’s solid theoretical framework with the ambitious goal to develop “a positive method of reading wanderwords in American texts in English” (33). Undoubtedly, this is Lauret’s strongest and most fascinating chapter, whereby she manages to elaborate on the often misunderstood concept of bi- or multilingualism. Delving into pertinent theories of linguistics on bilingualism and code-switching, the scholar underlines the connection between cultural tolerance, creativity and bilingualism. At the same time, she stresses the emotional load of home-language depending on what needs to be expressed. With Volosinov and Bakhtin’s argumentation carefully applied, Lauret projects the emotional and cultural charge of wanderwords and their clash with the “imperial language” (50) as well as the sense of “untranslatability” that derives from them (58). Lauret’s chapter ends with her thoughts against the translation of wanderwords. Instead, the author employs a psychoanalytic prism; she foregrounds the creative potential inherent in the contact of languages: since “wanderwords work with the alienness, the opacity of language itself as material but material pregnant with social and cultural meaning and the intentions of others” (66).

4The next chapter compares and contrasts migrant words in two well-known works, Mary Antin’s The Promised Land and Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation in order to examine linguistic change in the twentieth century and the diversity in the experience of language migration. Through careful close readings of the two autobiographical narratives, the scholar comments on Antin’s enthusiastic embrace of English as a language of creativity and peaceful coexistence of wanderwords. On the other hand, the author immerses herself in the analysis of Hoffman’s “post-lapsarian” sense of loss for the home language, experienced through translation. Contrasting the two eras, beginning and end of the twentieth century in Antin and Hoffman respectively, Lauret unveils the migration politics that “neglected the significance of language in processes of…identity formation” (87). She also successfully makes a strong case for “new readings of migrant writing in which linguistic difference finds its rightful place” (94).

5Diverse shades of Dutchness and the “splitting, mixing and sequencing” of Dutch in the works of Edward Bok, Dirk Nieland and Truus van Bruinessen are at the core of the following chapter. The scholar notes Bok’s Americanization as a “melding of national characteristics” (100), his abhorrence for modern Dutch upon visiting the home-country and the total absence of Dutch in the narrative. On the contrary, Nieland’s writing speaks to a bilingual reader with a good sense of humor. For Lauret, Nieland’s tales of Dutch immigrant life in a homogeneous religious community in Michigan and his Yankee Dutch should be seen as a “creative achievement that gives a humorous insight into an immigrant world in transition” (109). Additionally, van Bruinessen’s unknown so far journal, her memoir and letters in Dutch and Canadian English voice the difficulties of female Dutch migration in the 1950s throughout the author’s life. Comparing and contrasting the use of Dutch in these three works, Lauret makes a point as to the success of the migrant writing in relation to the anticipations and understanding of the readership.

6In yet another powerful chapter, the scholar turns from the periphery of Dutch to the omnipotence of Spanish: she comes to focus on Richard Rodriguez’s complicated relationship with his mother tongue. The scholar uncovers the layers behind Rodriguez’s appalment towards Spanish. For this reason, she resorts to mostly psychoanalytic theoretical angles. Lauret ably proves that Rodriguez’s ethnic, linguistic and sexual abjection stem from a rupture from the home-culture and language that result from class alienation and education. Her insightful readings of the Mexican-American author’s works stress the interlinking between reticence/manhood and loquaciousness/effeminacy (or the fear of it). Moreover, Lauret convincingly argues that English provides Rodriguez with the protection of “the breaking-through of the ‘world’, of mourning and loss, of unpredictable desire and mixture and confusion” (145). Spanish wanderwords unleash eroticism and chaos but are kept under control by the body of the text and canonical literary tradition. The scholar finishes this section highlighting the paradox in Rodriguez’s work: “aesthetic tension” between two worlds and languages, a discovery that leads to new, unexpected ways of understanding migrant writing.

7Hyphenated writing is followed by a study on Bharati Mukherjee’s biculturalism and multilingualism, her fusion writing. Freed from the trauma and loss of other writers, Mukherjee’s bilingualism goes hand in hand with being an Indian. Her English, following Lauret, is in many ways that of a cosmopolitan, aimed at exposing “the magic plight of the migrant or the racism and ethnocentrism of the West” (167). Mukherjee’s wanderwords for the scholar trigger interest in cultural diversity and the problematics of translation, all in a postcolonial package.

8A radically different text, Theresa Hal Kyuna Cha’s Dictée, is the theme of the seventh chapter. Lauret’s approaches this “material and visual object more than a text, more like a work of art” (182) with sensitivity and critical acumen. Lauret is quick to declare the difficulties of her venture to explore migrant writing in Dictée, where “reading is meaning-making” (184). There the trauma of homelessness is lived and repeated through the trauma of speechlessness (Korean) or the use of broken languages (Chinese, English and French). Psychoanalytically seen, the absence of Korean is a motherly absence and Cha’s work is rendered as a feminist political statement. As to her multilingualism, through Lauret’s eyes, this is what allows for a re-consideration of metaphors, breathing new life and unpacking new contents. The scholar rightly sees this intriguing text as an outstanding work of art which  challenges understanding through the unconventional telling of history.

9The last chapter ponders over bilingual English/Spanish poetry envisaging a new reading of this bilingual literature. Lauret considers the politics behind the interaction of English with other languages even in the same lexical unit. She opts for a reading that reveals diverse layers for the challenged reader, emphasizing the aesthetics as well as performance where even ‘“foreign interference’ and ‘embarrassing mistakes are significant’” (234).  

10The conclusion seen through Junot Diaz and Susana Chavez-Silverman’s works wraps up Lauret’s previous argumentation and confirms it. All in all, through a wide and wise selection of literary works the scholar brings to the fore the significance of wanderwords and heterolingual aesthetic practices, their role in the re-evaluation and re-reading of migrant oeuvres. Breathing new life into migrant literature, Lauret’s exquisite and innovative study, a magnum opus, comes to rejuvenate in its turn the entire body of ethnic literature

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Bibliographical reference

New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. 330 pp. ISBN 978-1-6289-2163-2

Electronic reference

Theodora D. Patrona, “Maria Lauret, Wanderwords: Language Migration in American Literature. Series: New Horizons in Contemporary Writing”European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2016-1, document 12, Online since 17 February 2016, connection on 26 July 2021. URL:

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Theodora D. Patrona

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