© Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Art Resource, NY.
© Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Art Resource, NY.

When I was four, my parents acquired a black Royal typewriter with round shiny metal keys edged in chrome. The clicking keys, the flashing fingers, and in those days, the smacking sound of key against paper commanded all my attention. Words created with such potent sound and swift motion, I surmised, must have compelling power. Power for what, I could not yet know.

My parents did not type much, but they spoke exuberantly. German, Slovak, French, and most especially their native Hungarian, along with their more recently acquired and surprisingly adroit English, rolled off their tongues with equal ease. My own words, however, were limited to English, the only language by which they communicated with me. Although I could neither speak nor understand it, Hungarian filled my ears day in and day out, whenever they conversed with each other. Hungarian was the sound of home to me, but not a home I could speak in. To this day it is simultaneously familiar as a mother tongue and altogether foreign.

The challenge of daily, hourly, being exposed to two languages with access only to one and no way of translating between them produced an interesting tension in me, and perhaps for this reason, long before I could read, I was mad to write. Since I could not yet form letters, much less spell words, this was frustrating. Still, I was determined to fashion my one language into as many forms as possible.

Consequently, the gleaming new typewriter pulled me like a magnet. But I was not allowed near it until one winter holiday when I was confined to my room to recover from a fever. How was I to amuse myself? My parents’ solicitous attitude made me bold. “I want the typewriter,” I said.

It was brought in and placed on the desk by my father. My mother pulled out some paper from an old notebook. I left my bed and sat on the chair in my pajamas, with the old-style radiator sending out healing heat under the desk. I began to type. Short words, long words, mere strings of letters really, and thumbing the space bar with assurance whenever the spirit moved me, blissfully free of the need (since so familiar) to constrain myself to the vocabularies of any known tongue.

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