Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Speak Up!

I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, of a German mother and Saudi-Arabian father.

During the first seven years of my life, my parents moved from Germany to Saudi Arabia and then Brazil, and returned to Germany to settle there permanently.

Since my father did not speak German and my mother did not speak Arabic, their common language was English. It was not perfect English, but good enough to raise me in both languages. (please don’t ask why my father did not speak Arabic with me; I never found out.)

My real obsession with English began when I was about fourteen and found out there was Canada. At that time, there was a TV running on German TV, “Adventures In Rainbow Country”, and my best friend and I were totally besotted with the teenage hero, a blond boy. His mother owned a lakeside hotel on Lake Huron, and he had all kinds of adventures with his Cree friend.

I wanted to live in Canada, and very badly. I wanted a lakeside hotel and a blond, Canadian husband, and I knew I would have to be very fluent in English for that.

The language became my obsession, the gate to the life I wanted.

So from only speaking English with my parents I started reading English books, listened to AFN (the US Forces radio station) and corresponding with a lady in Toronto.

She was the sister of one of my teachers, and he gave me her address.

After finishing high school, she invited me over for a visit with her family.

For six months, I was immersed in Canadian culture and the language I had come to love.

When I got back home, my course was set: I was going to study English, be a journalist, live in Toronto, and be happy.

I did study English, and American Literature, but I never got to move to Toronto because before that I met my husband, fell in love, got married and consequently was stuck in Germany.

My husband, after he finished university, took up a job with a computer company based in Minneapolis, so we got to travel to the US, and the language stayed alive for me.

I started on my novel only three years ago, out of sheer boredom while supervising the detention room at the school where I was also teaching the Theater course, and it was not even a decision I had to make: it had to be done in English.

I’ve always seen myself as writing in English.

I knew my settings would not be in Germany, never.

Germany is a small country, and I wanted space in my book.

You might say the settings are the reason why I chose English over German. I wanted my characters to be international, world-wise people, not restricted to one place, and definitely not Germany.

My story plays in many places: Geneva, a small fishing village on the Norwegian coast, London, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. I’ve taken care to pick locations I have actually visited, with the exception of L.A., but I have many friends there and had them check my details, and I will soon be going there to verify what I’ve described myself.

Choosing English over German is a gut decision.

It is, for me, the more poetic language. It flows differently, the music in it speaks to me.

More than anything else, the rhythm and tune make me want to hum along.

My characters speak to me in English. There’s not a German word lost among them, even though my female protagonist at one point reveals that she is indeed quite fluent in German. But she is special, and very well educated. And Canadian.

I find declarations of love in German embarrassing and cumbersome. In English, they are a song.

And, from a purely commercial point of view, the chances of my book being picked up for a Hollywood movie are far better if it is written in English from the start, because it will be published in the US and not in obscure Germany.

I know this sounds preposterous, but who knows. After all, I found a publisher in the US. I’ve made it this far, why not go further.

But wherever I go from here, it will be in English.


  1. Ah, for some reason I thought you were an American living in Germany!

    Is your husband German?

    While I was growing up, I always wished I knew other languages. Despite the fact that my father spoke Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian (!), he only spoke to me in English. Odd, no?

  2. My husband is German, indeed.
    And ha, no, I'm not American. :)

  3. I think having English as a second language is very difficult. And I find your English to be perfect, so well done! English has so many variations on meanings of ONE thing and so many metaphors that won't translate, it has to be maddening to someone learning it not right immediately from birth. I was born and raised in the US, but also speak Spanish and French (the Romance languages that stick close to the English rules of speaking and spelling - i.e. Latin based, so I could probably never do German). You're a smart lady! :-)

  4. Dear Mariam,

    This was very interesting for me to read, because I had been wondering about it. I always thought your English was very good for a person who lives in Germany. For me, as you know, I learned English as a second language, even though my mother is English.

    And I completely agree with you about the sound of English. Recently I learned how to write poetry in iambic pentameter. In English of course. I then attempted to achieve the same effect in German poetry, but it somehow did not work. I read some classic German poetry by Goethe and the like to try and see how it was done. Having the verb at the end messes a lot up in poetry. Also the ge-bla-bla tends to accumulate stressed syllables, so it is in my novice opinion difficult to achieve the melody of iambic prose in German.

    And you are absolutely right that your chance of commercial success is much greater in English. This is why I am a translator. I am for example translating a book now for the US market, and I have a feeling that the English version will sell more copies than the German version did.

    And I agree with the other people's comments. You are a smart lady. Intelligent, warm and fun! I can't wait to read your book and wish you every bit of success with it. And when it is turned into a film, I hope it becomes a blockbuster and I can say that I am friends with that famous and fabulous lady Mariam Kobras.

    Lots of hugs,


  5. Dear Mariam,

    I take my hat off to you for your determination, and dedication to English .

    I agree with the comments from Evil Twin’s Wife on the English language, and that you have done so well to master it in a country where it is not the common tongue.

    My wife is Chinese and I have found her language interesting, but have maybe left it a bit late to learn…perhaps one day. Unfortunately, she did not converse with our daughters in her dialect, so they have been brought up only with English. I was taught some French in school, and love that language. It came in handy on trips to New Caledonia and France. I have enjoyed conversing with a twitter friend in Paris, who is learning English. But I must say that the Google translator has come in handy, as my French is a bit rusty now.

    Congratulations on your novel, and I hope that when you launch it in Australia you will come to Perth to sign my copy. To be your friend is indeed an honour.

    Thank you.

  6. You are all so very kind. And Lee, the honor is completely mine. All of you on twitter, you brighten my life. :)