Tuesday, September 14, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: non-native English speaker, an American author

I made a good effort to read Ilona Andrews' "Magic Bites", but this kind of urban fantasy is not to my taste. Yet I was intrigued by her as a non-native English speaker who is also a published author in English. I'm trying to follow the same path, and there aren't many role models in it. Ilona Andrews (for the sake of accuracy I'll add that this name is actually a pseudonym for a writing team consisting of her and her husband, who is a native English speaker) was only the second such person I met. The first was Sara Hoyt, who I met at the World Fantasy Convention in 2007. I blogged about it here.

Her biographical details resonated with me because of certain parallels. Like me, she grew up in the socialist block and immigrated the US as an adult. She came to US on a scholarship to a private school (it wasn't clear to me whether that was college or high school); I came here to go to graduate school. She said she knew very little English at first. I found that a bit strange, because any foreigner who comes to US for schooling is required to pass TOEFL, Test of English as a Second Language, to be admitted. The first time she used an English word was in the airport when she arrived to the US. A guy was blocking the walkway with his luggage. She waited for him to move, but he didn't. So she said "excuse me", and he moved. That was a defining moment in her life -- she used a word in a foreign language, and someone understood and responded. She felt like she was accepted into this other society.

(I guess it's remarkable that it happened so soon for her. Many immigrants take much longer to get to this point. But this incident has no more than symbolic value, and for some people, symbolic value is enough.)

Anne Sowards, Ilona and Gordon Andrews

Anne Sowards, Ilona and Gordon Andrews at Ilona Andrews interview at ArmadilloCon 2010.

When she first went to a bookstore in the US, she was stunned at the colorful book covers. In the USSR there was not only no western science fiction books sold (because they didn't pass censorship), but whatever books were sold, had dark, gloomy covers.

Oh, and in her high school days, she was required to do agricultural manual work. I had to do that myself back in the day. In the countries of the socialist block, all high school and college students had to spend 1-2 months of summer doing agricultural labor, such as harvesting the crops or weeding the fields. The only way to get out of it was to get a doctor to certify that a medical condition made you unsuitable for such labor. We were paid very little for it. 2 months of work in the late 80s was barely enough to buy me a few cups of coffee (since coffee prices went up astronomically). It's strange that decades later in the US I ran into someone who went through the same experience!

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

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