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Heteroglossia as creative interference in hyphenated writing

As will be demonstrated, Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, as perceived by a growing number of scholars at the present time, will turn out to be particularly valuable in the discussion of heterolingual texts (subjected to the irruption of another language(s) within the principal discursive one) and the challenges posed by their translation, since dealing with linguistic variation and its social and cultural meanings in literary texts is its main objective.

According to Bakhtin, heteroglossia is, as previously argued, closely connected with “the problem of internal differentiation, the stratification characteristic of any natural language” (Dialogic Imagination 67) into multiple varieties, regionally and socio-ideologically instilled. With the purpose of rendering the style and destinies of the modern novel understandable, Bakhtin evinces how, in its stylistic structure, it reflects the struggle between two opposing tendencies in the languages of European peoples: one, centralising and unifying, the other decentralising and stratifying. Thus “the novel senses itself on the border between the completed, dominant literary languages and the extraliterary languages that know heteroglossia” (ibid.). Those extraliterary languages then become the stage for language modification, often triggered by multilingual tensions. Therefore, while literary discourse is generally identified with the standard language in those communities that have developed a linguistic norm, it is also known “to exploit other, non-standard linguistic varieties, which often intertwine the unmarked or expected language of a literary system” (Barros 223). This notion of an existing dialogic relation between literary language and the day-to-day social and ideological struggle and its effects on heteroglossia is fundamental to understanding that “all these processes of shift and renewal of the national language that are reflected by the novel” far from bearing “an abstract linguistic character in the novel [...] are inseparable [...] from processes of evolution and of the renewal of society and the folk” (Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination 68). This being the case, apart from refuting linguistic homogeneity within the community, the notion of heteroglossia also denies the possibility of the existence of a uniform linguistic behaviour at an individual level, “implying that the speech of any person is filled by many different voices or linguistically constructed personae” (Barros 223).

As shown earlier in this paper, recent scholarship has increasingly addressed the coexistence of different national languages as a result of centripetal and centrifugal forces at work within a given social community. As such, the control of mainstream ideology favoured by the centripetal unifying tendency is challenged by a centrifugal force that leads to the fragmentation of the uniting force. This becomes particularly visible when code-switching, code-mixing or other polylingual forms of rhetorical manoeuvre take place in any type of communication (speech, writing and so forth). The question now is whether Bakhtinian heteroglossia applies to linguistic scenarios such as these. Opinions have been manifested for both monolingual and polylingual societies. For example, Rainier Grutman finds it difficult to know what Bakhtin really meant when referring to heteroglossia. According to him (“Mono” 212), the meaning conveyed by the term coined by the Russian philosopher “can more readily be subsumed under the heading of ‘internal variation’ (regional, social, etc.) than under that of ‘external variation’ (bi or multilingualism)”. Bo Li, on the other hand, argues that a wide literary review undertaken on the subject allows one to conclude that recent scholarship has “expanded the Bakhtinian concept of heteroglossia to cover various modes of juxtaposition of linguistic varieties” (180) such as dialects, idiolects, diglossia, bilingualism or multilingualism, code-mixing, code-switching, pidgin languages, creoles, etc. It is my understanding that even if different social voices, like the ones under Bakhtin’s scrutiny, need not correspond to different languages and most often do not, the prominence of foreign languages in particular texts (defined as heterolingualism by Grutman) also involves a “dialogical interaction of socially differentiated speech styles within a given language” (Grutman, “Refraction” 19), reflecting both group belonging and tensions between dominating and dominated groups in society that have a direct impact on social interaction itself and on the groups’ habitus(es) (language behaviour included). Because, as Myriam Suchet beautifully puts it: “what is at stake in literary heterolingualism is a discursive negotiation with alterity. It is the result of a process of differentiation through which both the self and its other come into being” (155). Going straight to the point, Bo Li claims that if it is true that Bakhtin pointed out the absorption of social stratification of language into the novel by making references to authors such as Fielding, Smollet and Dickens, whose works are indeed delivered in the form of one natural language, it is no less true that he did not ignore works representative of code-switching and code-mixing like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, thus making it possible to clarify why it is plausible to use heteroglossia as a means to comprehend the role played by heterolingualism in diaspora writing, hyphenated literature, post-colonial writing, bilingual or multilingual writing, writing in the globalised world today, etc.

Based upon the theoretical arguments stated above I consider defensible the understanding of literary heteroglossia, no matter what stylistic device is used to inscribe it in a text, as a creative interference through which hyphenated writers (in which group we can include Portuguese-American authors) manage to express the ambivalence they experience about their identity.

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