Language Outside and In

A Reflection on Multilingualism in Poetry

by Mariya Deykute

As an expat American-Russian writer living in Kazakhstan, I’m often very much separated (in a largely privileged way) from the country around me. Language in this context, especially my own language, can have an ambivalent quality, being, like me, both inside (vnutri) and outside (vnye) at one and the same time. Perhaps for this reason, language seems to be the only thing I really know, while friends and poems stand in for the countries where I feel I belong. This might also be why I still somehow believe that only through language, through changing our attitudes to language and ourselves and the symbols that language gives us, can we change anything, and only through language can any of my homelands have a hope of dealing with their history and their present, with the gloriously simple yet perilous plus-minus thinking that has been engulfing the world yet again.

Physical displacement was always a part of my childhood in some way, but linguistic displacement, I believe, was both more difficult and more formative. My family is one of those USSR success stories. Two scientists—one a Lithuanian with a hefty dose of Karelian and Pomor Old Believer ancestry, the other a Russian-Ukrainian from Donetsk—had a child (me) in a small town not too far from Moscow. I grew up speaking neither Ukrainian nor Lithuanian, though, confusingly, I did spend summers alternating between my grandmother’s old clay house in Donetsk and my other grandmother’s fourth-floor walk-up in Raudondvaris, Kauno Regionas. I grew up speaking Russian, but even my Russian was displaced, cobbled together from the regional Russians of my parents, refashioned and reformed by my brilliant old Soviet-educated Russian literature teacher, and supplemented by the new westernized loan-word slang that was blowing up the 1990s. It was a strange cluster of identities to navigate, and so, much like my parents, I clung to the posthumous shadow of the USSR, a kind of unifying great whole that would reduce the complexity; I clung to the Bible stories my mother as a newly minted post-Soviet Sunday School teacher had us read in church; and then, when I realized that books do not simply exist but are written and can be built the same way homes are built out of the words that surround me, I found my place in language.

Countries, borders, and their importance never made very much sense to me, but language felt like a supreme union of the private and the public, of the land I was growing up in, and the nonverbal worlds that existed inside of me. The relationship with language, and the way that I used it to admire, protest, and escape continued as I grew. When my parents were fighting, I would try to learn Quenya, in order to speak a language none of them knew, nobody knew. When we immigrated and I was forced to learn English (which I thought was quite ugly, unlike my beloved French), I protested by writing all of my middle-school essays in Lithuanian. I figured if I did that the grownups would come to understand just how unfair this immigration into a new language was, just how much allegiance I owed to my old tongues, and send me back to my grandmother.

Truth be told, I don’t know if, had I stayed and continued to write in Russian, I would not have experienced the same struggles, or at least a shadow of them. My home version of Russian, a mongrel Ukrainianish Lithuanianish dialect, didn’t fare too well in school to begin with, though I achieved my marks with a kind of basic feral understanding of grammar and style, the result of which was certainly not “pure”—and purity, I was told, was what must be cherished. And so, for many years I wrote in Russian secretly, and safely, in my immigrant land of English with immigrant children whose Russian was also bent, broken, mongrelized, reshaped, and remade by our new world, our new reality. Russian was home. Russian was the language of guilt and yearning, nostalgia, and feeling, the language my mother used to berate me, but also the one she used to tell me she loved me.

English, in this sense, was a language of freedom, danger, and desire. I didn’t write poetry in English until my early twenties, because it seemed traitorous, because my English would never be pure, just like my Russian would never be pure. Writing poetry in English meant having to make a terrible, final choice: stay or go, one or the other, home or wanderlust, memory or the future, Russian or American. And I felt that if I were to write poems in English, I would betray whatever piece of myself was left behind in my little hometown, and I would be untethered for good.

But I could not write about what was happening to me, the world around me, in English. When I moved to New Mexico, to a landscape so beautiful and alien that it had no guideposts in Russian, I fell deeply and impossibly in love with the land, and so, entering an English that was blended with Spanish—arroyo, mesa, piñon—I began writing.

The mix can sometimes make me feel adrift, which could be why I’ve always felt more comfortable in formal poetry in English, and I return to form whenever I feel uncertain of where I am. It is a kind of musical echo of a familiar melody, the rhyme and rhythm that is universal, a unity that I cannot find in free-verse. So I wrote—and write—a lot of sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, ghazals, often mixing two languages, often addressing the past, as if trying to capture it, see it differently in a new language. As with this:

none of our mothers believed they were dead
they peeled things, boiled things, bled, bled, bled
they worried over the price of meat, wore red

none of us believed we were born of wounds
we have our bows, bantiki, our books
our capital letters & our dreamed battlegrounds

you see how I cannot decide what rhymes
with wound; is it something enormous and round
or the ship horn’s wailing: soon soon soon

soon as we leave our mothers in  tombs
of patterns & memories; long afternoons
of finding tongueholds in enemy tongues

long nights missing ourselves, then learning
how coming home resembles mourning.

However, as the last line of this poem implies, I was very much in mourning. I still believed that one had to choose, that there was no way for me to be a Russian-language writer or poet now that I had embraced the English-language tradition. At best I could be a “flavored” English-language poet, with a kind of exoticism that, as my MFA instructors said, made my poems “surreal.” In truth, all of them were the most realistic representations I could give of my experience in the English language. I expressed my mourning by sometimes writing poems that were deemed “hard to comprehend” for a non-Russian speaker—because of the inclusion of Cyrillic, because of the rhyme—but in fact, this was what I was trying to do, to be both visible and incomprehensible.

So I wrote poems like this, which is oddly appropriate for the current moment though it was written many years ago.

Be True

I want to write of nothing in English now but of whales and trees
Keep love in Russian, where the words hurt: девочка я люблю
the arch of the back of a whale is a skeleton key. Don’t intrude.
The song of a whale is telephone wires in flutes.
The touch of a whale is a god learning to see.

I want to be born in a different language, old and swimming with creel.
A soft language not spoken by you or me. There will be no word for
‘война’ and no word for ‘мир’. It will feel
in my mouth like light feels looking at trees. Пронзительно.
Ringing like frozen strings.
The whales are rising, с собой заберут они.

All of this changed when I moved to Kazakhstan, and here I want to backtrack a bit and return to the concept of outsideness, of being vnye, which leads to how I finally found a home in this word, this idea, in existing simultaneously in two words and in neither, as a kind of Schroedinger’s poet, if you will.

In Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, Alexei Yurchak writes about important Soviet artists existing vnye, falling outside of the well-oiled mechanical dragon of the Soviet state.[1] This vnye was both the revelation of art that managed to see beyond the language of terrible and ecstatic propaganda and the tyranny of the sanctified mundane; but also the danger of the tightrope walk of the artists who were vnye: vnye being a grandchild word to the ancient Hindi vanam, or “forest.” There is an easy associative link in this to the English out, as in“out-law,” “out-dated,” “out-ward,” “out-side,” “out-rageous”—in essence: “left out,” or “with-out.” As a person left out, you are without aid when the need arises. And you are often without understanding except, by luck, through the help of others who are themselves also vnye, who have looked out from their respective insideness.

It would be comforting to think that once the machine was dismantled, once the rust sank into the ground, the artists who had been vnye might have somehow been taken in somewhere. But there is really nothing comforting about history, and, as the current violent spiral of history shows us, nothing was truly dismantled: the old Soviet dragon rears its head yet again.

Even before recent events, however, the cultural landscape of the Russian language was a landscape of vnye. We often like to name our generations. If some are booming, and others lost, then the entire generation that came to linguistic consciousness in the post-Soviet 2000s, are “Generation Vnye.”Whether they remained in the countries that rapidly began their chimaeric attempts to integrate past and present, and to conceptualize some kind of future, or rode the tsunami-wave of immigration into other parts of the world, the artists of the current russophone sphere have only become more vnye while being an inextricable part of the changes around them. Poets and writers, after all, exist both vnye and vnutri—they are forever vnutrivnye: inside-out, outside-in. The writer is not a hermit or a feral child; words written are in themselves acts of connection.

Living in Kazakhstan, watching the writers here navigate the landscape of multiple languages and multiple linguistic displacements (the capital city itself has been renamed since I’ve been here) on a daily basis, allowed me to accept this idea that nothing is fixed and everything is valid, and to abandon, finally, the idea, that to be an American-Russian writer is to write primarily in English, or primarily in Russian, or, at the very least, separate these two identities and artistic processes.

And recently, I’ve been feeling most at home, language-wise, outside of my own work. Much of the writing I do now is translation. Existing outside—vnye—my own voice is liberating and freeing, as if some final frontier has fallen, and the poems and languages can move through me freely, uninhibited by borders of any kind.

This perhaps is the most telling thing about my friend, the Kazakhstani poet Anuar Duisebinov and his contemporaries—the sense that in acknowledging and even tracing their own roots back to the russophone tradition in which they work (hello, Mandelshtam!); in recognizing some of the influences that brought this tradition to Kazakhstan (hello, USSR, the wide-reaching Soviet literary press network, Russian schools, the gulag); in beginning to discuss the post-colonial, the post-Soviet, the post-post-post; in doing all this, they are establishing a strong sense of the future, of something new happening, a new aesthetic and language. In opposition to propaganda, which always calls for the world of individual humans to fit an established language, they are creating a language to fitthe world that is already here, in all its chaotic, ecstatic, and terrifying multiplicity. They are part of what Joan Retallack calls literature that “does not deny the chaos, the inarticulate, the confusing, the fragmented, the lost… but instead brings it into form” (Welcker). It’s a soaring freedom, a language of the world in perpetual translation, a coexisting language, a language that, to borrow William Beckett’s words, “does not try to say that chaos is really something else.”[2]

In one of his early poems, Duisenbinov coined the term tilечь (til’ech’), which I’ll render here as tili-talk, a combination of Kazakh til and Russian речь, both of which mean “speech.”[3] In the poem he writes about a boy who is bullied because, having been raised by a Kazakh grandmother, he code-switches, mixing Russian and Kazakh. His speech is not “pure,” it is a mongrel, pidgin speech (Melnikov, 84). And yet Duisenbinov suggests in this poem that this combination of Kazakh and Russian is precisely where salvation lies for true Kazakhstani self-expression. This is where the identity of generations that grew up speaking both languages can be fully expressed, where the enforced purity of language is detrimental, false, and misses out on the opportunities offered by tilечь.

And perhaps the rest of the “increasingly unstable” world has never been more open to this connection, because we are all finding ourselves vnye in the contemporary world, screaming and clawing its way towards disaster, or epiphany, or singularity.[4] The recent catastrophic decision to attack Ukraine by the Russian government and create a terrible, monstrous “renaissance” of the Russian world—but really build walls, fix identities, and cage the temporal flow in a desperate reach for an Aristotelian binary of plus and minus, zero and one—is, I have to believe, doomed. The truth is despite the fear or hysteria, multiplicity is here, and we are all vnye and vnutri; vnutri—in; out—vnye; izvne—from inside to outside. Outsiders. The Russian language is fast becoming an outsider, and as a writer writing in Russian and determined to continue to write in Russian (along with English and sometimes, yes, together), I have come to believe that only by embracing this multiplicity can our linguistic future—and perhaps our cultural future—be saved.

I believe only by abandoning the mythopoetic construct of imperial belonging, of simplified narrative arcs and simplified identities; only by becoming comfortable with the multiplicity and difference and otherness inherent among all of us, can Russian culture survive. And perhaps the hope for its future, just like some of its most interesting literature, will come from abroad, from places where Russian—instead of gatekeeping and maintaining its own intellectual and historical superiority in poetry—merges, becomes integrated, learns, and shifts in response to other cultures, other identities, other languages.

This sort of potential change in Russian has a clear connection to our work and our writing in the context of the complexities of U.S. national narratives. This kind of linguistic multiplicity is where the future lies for true understanding and acceptance of our own true history and history as U.S. American authors. My experience of the U.S. literary imagination is that it remains, sadly, monolingual and reluctant to embrace the mongrel or the multiplicitous in language, reluctant to embrace the many freedoms and challenges inherent in being vnye. There are myriad multilingual contexts in the U.S., of course, but they are still marginalized, or ignored—reservations, borderlands, immigrant communities, and more. I think the future of understanding among these lies in embracing our own unique tili-talks, and using this to shape a language that offers a home to marvelous mongrel writers.

As a self-defined mongrel writer myself, I have made peace with my eternal need to be vnye. I write in Russian and English of my own making, often multilingually, and the ability to do so is perhaps the best way I know to navigate projection and displacement.

I close with this fragment from Anuar Duisenbinov’s “Tilech,” which I’ve done my best to translate from the original Russian and Kazakh.


truth be told I don’t know anything about how children acquire language

I only hear how tili-talk in accordance with its strange sound

Slaps honks snorts from everywhere around me

But maybe it’s just October and the damn mucus in my lungs

Maybe it is all just the conjectures of a bystander

empty of any basis or proof

But maybe just maybe in tili-talk

that’s wrapped in the layered shell of two languages many cultures

there lies the pearl of a kind of real future tolerance

that’s more than just a political slogan

maybe tili-talk is meant to become a catalyst of the real

mutually profitable interactions of cultures and world views

that will be able to attract the deepest human resources

of a country suffering from a postcolonial complex

for constructing a society free

first of all from mental junk

contemporary to the rest of the world or even ahead of it

but forget it

This is just a coughing fit of my maximalism

with a known degree of exaltation.

May we be exalted in our multiple languages, and through them find peace.


[1] Yurchak, Alexei. Everything Was Forever, until It Was No More: the Last Soviet Generation. Princeton University Press, 2006.

[2] Welcker, Ellen. “Only Poems Can Translate Poems: On The Impossibility and Necessity of Translation.” Quarterly Conversation, vol. 3, no. 53, 2008.

[3] Melnikov, Dmitriy. “Toward Russophone Super-Literature: Making Temporalities, Subjectivities and Spaces in Post-Soviet Kazakhstani Writing.” Nazarbayev University, Nazarbayev University, 2017.

[4] Bassnett, Susan. “The Figure of the Translator.” Journal of World Literature, vol. 1, no. 3, 2016, pp. 299–315.

Mariya (Masha) Deykute is a Russian-American poet, editor, and translator. She is a graduate of the UMass: Boston MFA program and currently teaches rhetoric and creative writing in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan. She is the co-founder and editor of the trilingual journal Angime.