How Author Helen DeWitt Uses Language to Address the Problems In Her Life

Helen DeWitt
Helen DeWitt. Photo by Zora Sicher/New York Magazine

In New York magazine, Christian Lorentzen has an interview with Helen DeWitt, author of The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods. Owing to a combination of misfortunes, misunderstandings and publishing-related snags, the critically acclaimed novelist has been perennially broke. But, despite a history of brushes with suicide, she has a secret weapon against letting life’s problems get her down:

There is something else that has all along kept DeWitt going in the face of academic disappointments, publishing fiascoes, and overextended credit cards. DeWitt knows, in descending order of proficiency, Latin, ancient Greek, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Japanese. Throughout her adult life she has taken refuge in these languages, and they were central to The Last Samurai. “The self is a set of linguistic patterns,” she said. “Reading and speaking in another language is like stepping into an alternate history of yourself where all the bad connotations are gone.”

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