Excerpted from The Sound of Language by Amulya Malladi. Copyright © 2007 by Amulya Malladi. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation With Amulya Malladi
I moved to Denmark from the United States in 2002 and was immediately struck by how refugees and immigrants in general are treated in this country. We moved to Denmark in large part because my husband is Danish and we wanted our boys to get a dose of Europe. Since I had already been an immigrant in the United States, I didn’t think Denmark would be much different; needless to say, I was wrong. The Sound of Language almost didn’t get written. I had this idea about writing a story about the friendship between an Afghan refugee and an old Danish beekeeper–but I didn’t know where to start. One Christmas, while I was doing the dishes with Dorthe Vejsnæs (my husband’s aunt), I told her my idea about this story. She suggested I speak with her husband, Flemming, a beekeeping expert. Flemming was kind enough to help me with my story by telling me stories about beekeepers and beekeeping. We recently spoke about the origins of the novel.
Flemming Vejsnæs: Why did you choose the title The Sound of Language?
Amulya Malladi: Well, when I first came to Denmark, Danish sounded like the buzzing of bees. I never ever thought I’d learn the language. And that’s when I first started to think about the sound each language has and when I thought about an Afghan refugee in Denmark, I was sure she’d also think about the buzzing of bees when she heard Danish. The title of the book was pretty obvious; I always thought of this story as The Sound of Language.
FV: You wrote this story during a very turbulent period. 9/11 certainly changed the world, but the small kingdom of Denmark came into focus because of the Mohammed cartoons that a Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten, published in September 2005. Did this unpleasant situation influence your book?
AM: I can’t say it did. The controversy went into full swing in January 2006 with people burning down Danish (and sometimes even Swedish) embassies in Middle Eastern countries. The base of the book was already in place and the timeline wouldn’t allow me to mention these incidents in the book. But it would have been interesting to see how Layla, Raihana, and Kabir reacted to the Mohammed cartoons. Would they have been offended? Or would they have been like many other moderate Muslims in Denmark who thought that Jyllands Posten’s bad taste didn’t mean that there should be death threats against Danes and Denmark.
FV: You came from an enormous country–the United States–to a small country, Denmark. Now you have been here for almost five years. What is your opinion about Denmark?
AM: That is a loaded question coming from a Dane and I really want to be able to say that Denmark is wonderful–but that wouldn’t be the truth. To be honest, I miss the United States very, very much. I miss the friendly people, I miss the wide-open spaces, I miss the online shopping, the excellent customer service, Barnes & Noble with Starbucks, Denny’s for breakfast. . . .What’s interesting is that I rarely meet immigrants who say they love living in Denmark. It’s a difficult country to immigrate to and I can only imagine how hard it is for people who don’t have my advantages–who are not educated and don’t have the familial support system I do.The hardest part about living in Denmark is that as an immigrant you are expected to leave where you come from behind, completely, and become Danish. But there are good things about Denmark too. My husband and I love the Danish kindergarten and day-care system. First, it’s top-notch child care; second, it’s subsidized, so you can actually afford it. The companies in Denmark don’t expect you to work insane hours, and coming from Silicon Valley, that was a surprise. Companies constantly talk about reducing work pressure, and don’t expect employees to work long hours or on weekends–they want you to go home and be with your family. AND–and this is a big and–we get thirty vacation days a year. The first year we had this luxury, my husband and I couldn’t quite figure out what to do. We’d never taken three weeks vacation in a row and we had to actually work at finding out what kind of vacation we liked to go on.
FV: In the book you describe the horrors Raihana goes through before coming to Denmark and I believe that her story is true. Are the stories you tell about refugees in these books real?
AM: The stories are not real in their entirety. I did speak to refugees and I also read a lot of refugee reports online. So I mixed and matched, I think, to come up with Raihana, Layla, and Kabir’s stories.
FV: Layla, Kabir’s wife, says, “We are here, Raihana, and we live here. If you keep one foot in Afghanistan, you will be neither here nor there.” She is right, but it seems like a very difficult situation. Do you think a lot of refugees feel this way?
AM: The refugees I spoke with all said that they wanted to go home. One man said to me, “You always want to go home. That’s how it is. I’m sure you want to go home too.” I realized then that I was different because I left my country by choice and I could always go back, so I didn’t have this burning desire to go back. I wondered if it would be different if I’d had to run for my life away from my country. I think it would be.
FV: One of the main themes in your book is language barriers. Confusion and misunderstandings are the results. Why is language so important?
AM: When I was young I read a Reader’s Digest story about a couple living on a boat. They spoke different languages and had been together for nearly fifteen years. They had showed up in front of a judge, asking for a divorce. I don’t remember the rest of the story, but the idea of people being unable to communicate and still having a relationship really stuck to me. I still think it’s interesting that people get together even though they can’t communicate very well. When my husband and I first started dating, we’d end up getting into fights because I thought he was rude. Danes are in general a little sarcastic and straightforward, which translates into English as being rude. We had to learn to talk to each other without hurting my finer feelings–we’ve been together now for nearly twelve years, so I guess we figured the language part out. For Gunnar and Raihana, the communication gap is more
FV: I am a beekeeper, so a novel about beekeeping makes me very happy. I read Anna’s diary with pleasure. The book actually offers lessons on beekeeping. But why beekeeping?
AM: Since the language sounded to me like the buzzing of bees, I had decided that Gunnar would be a beekeeper. It was a great help that you are a beekeeping expert; otherwise, getting information would have been very difficult.
FV: When you first told me about this idea I told you about a couple similar to Anna and Gunnar. But that woman is fortunately alive. You describe them perfectly. The man you based Gunnar on is also a skilled carpenter and the couple is passionate about beekeeping. Just like in the book, the husband loves his wife, who’s smarter than he is, which also annoys him. For me these characters are very real; and their story is beautiful.
AM: Thanks, Flemming. I was quite enchanted by this couple that loved beekeeping–and it fit perfectly with who I wanted my characters to be. I already knew who Gunnar was, but your story about this beekeeping couple helped me flesh out Anna’s character.
FV: Does Raihana save Gunnar from becoming an alcoholic or does Gunnar save Raihana from being caught up in her past?
AM: I think they both help each other. Raihana gives Gunnar a purpose to live because she needs him. Gunnar gives Raihana a future by teaching her a skill that could help her financially in the future. They also became friends–which is precious to both of them.
FV: Is the relationship between Gunnar and Raihana realistic or do you use it to provoke the reader?
AM: I think it is realistic. Someone like my father-in-law, Ejgil, would happily become friends with an Afghan woman without thinking anything of it. Do you think this is a provocative book? How do you feel about how immigrants are treated in Denmark?
FV: I think this is a provocative book and it brings to light an important point, as Christina, the Danish teacher, says, that the homogenous Danish society needs different skills, cultures, and perspective to grow. I think someone like Christina, who is committed to her job, will bring change and that people like Maria will realize that immigrants are just like regular Danes in what they want out of life. But I do have a problem with one thing in the book. People like Anders and his friends are a minority; why did you feel they needed to be in your story?
AM: I meet many young people who say things like, “I’m afraid of colored men.” Racism is rampant among Danish youth and I’m not sure that boys like Anders and his friends are going to remain a minority in the not-so-distant future. I think we need to be careful about what we say to our children and how we speak with them. The other day I was in my son’s kindergarten and this little girl came and asked me, “Where do you come from?” I said that I came from home and asked her where she came from. She said she comes from “Danish land” and that I did not. It freaked me out. She was all of five. I thought, where is she picking this stuff up and what’s she going to be like when she grows up? Just a couple of years ago, seven neo-Nazi teenagers attacked a Somali family in the town of Langeskove on the island of Fyn. The family was in the house when the young men started to break the windows with bats. The family had to run with their children to a neighbor’s house to avoid getting beaten up. This attack caused quite an outrage in Langeskove. I modified this incident and used it in the book.
FV: Amulya, I think this is a very good and timely book. It’s interesting for me as a Dane to read about an immigrant’s point of view of what’s happening in Denmark.
AM: Thanks, Flemming, for all your help and support; and of course, the honey.
1. What is the significance of the title The Sound of Language? How does it relate to bees?
2. Is the racism in the novel worse than the racism you see or hear about elsewhere?
3. Do you know any refugees? How are refugees treated in your country? Did the novel affect your sense of the refugee experience?
4. Gunnar is a retired widower who is set in his ways, yet he makes room for Raihana in his life. How does Raihana fit into Gunnar’s life?
5. How would you characterize the reactions of Gunnar’s friends and family toward Raihana and the reaction of the Afghan community toward Raihana’s unusual praktik?
6. Anna’s beekeeping diary opens each chapter. How do these entries enhance the story? What struck you most about the beekeeping practices she outlines?
7. The story takes place in a small town in Denmark. Did the setting remind you of anywhere in America?
8. Why do you think Raihana holds on to the hope that her husband is alive? What allows her to let this go? Do you think she makes the right choice?
9. The incident of the firebomb is based on a real attack against an immigrant family in Denmark. Can you understand the motives of the boys who firebomb Layla and Kabir’s house? How would your community react to racial violence such as this?
10. Since 9/11, discrimination against Muslims has been increasing. In Europe, several countries are even considering banning the scarf and the burkha. What do you think about this development?
11. Honey plays an important part in the book and is almost a character by itself. Did the book inspire you to try different types of honey? Discuss various ways that you have eaten honey and the recipes you use it in.
12. What do you think of the way Denmark is depicted in the novel? Is this how you perceived Denmark to be? Did anything surprise you?
13. Did you think Gunnar and Raihana would become romantically involved? Would that have been a good or a bad thing?