Hugo Hamilton's Language War


  • Steven G. Kellman University of Texas at San Antonio


language memoir, translingual, Irish, German, English


In his two language memoirs, The Speckled People and The Sailor in the Wardrobe, Hugo Hamilton recounts growing up in Dublin in a household in which Irish and German were the only two tongues permitted. His mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and his father was an Irish nationalist who punished his children if he caught them speaking English. Hamilton’s parents encouraged him to be different, but he recounts the difficulties of standing out in a society in which his trilingualism made him feel uncomfortably unique. Throughout his childhood, he was forced into a triangulation among Irish, German, and English. Hamilton’s father insisted that to speak English was to betray Ireland, though most of its citizens did not speak Irish. Like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Hamilton aspires to free himself of the nets of language and nationality. Ultimately, though writing in English, he aspires to a condition beyond any language, to citizenship in a global republic of art.


Author Biography

Steven G. Kellman, University of Texas at San Antonio

Kellman is professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His books include: The Restless Ilan Stavans: Outsider on the Inside (Pittsburgh); Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton); The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska); The Plague: Fiction and Resistance (Twayne); and The Self‑Begetting Novel (Columbia). He edited Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft (Nebraska); UnderWords: Perspectives on DeLillo’s Underworld (Delaware); and Torpid Smoke: Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (Rodopi). Kellman served four terms on the board of  directors of the National Book Critics Circle and received its Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.