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University of Pittsburgh

April 2, 2015

Books, Journals & More A closer look: Carys Evans-Corrales

For Carys Evans-Corrales, professor of Spanish at Pitt-Bradford, her memoir “Talking Girl” started in a foreign language in which she almost felt more at home than English.

talking girlEvans-Corrales spent her early years in Malaysia, to which her parents moved from London just after World War II, when she was only three months old. It was the first of her father’s several academic appointments overseas.

Language turned out to be the key not only to learning about other cultures but to discovering her true community and self. In Malaysia, a Hainanese-speaking Chinese woman was her earliest caregiver, and her parents had to learn phrases in the language to try to communicate with their baby. But reflecting the fact that languages are products of their cultures, the young Evans-Corrales refused to respond to her parents’ efforts.

Later, she fell in love with the Malay language of her classmates. “I wanted to be Malaysian,” she says. She found the language decorous and “limpid,” recalling how a classmate once told her she was having a bad hair day by saying, in Malay: “It could possibly be thought that your hair would benefit from a certain amount of attention.”

When the family returned to England on vacation, “I couldn’t understand people,” she says. The people of her native land, which she knew only through the literature of earlier eras, “were more ordinary, the ones I met. So I was disappointed.”

Later, her father moved on to academic positions in Singapore and Jamaica, taking his family with him.

All the while, Evans-Corrales enthusiastically had been studying the shifting languages, dialects, accents and expressions of each new place she lived. It was only natural that she majored in linguistics when she attended the University of York. After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1973, Evans-Corrales grabbed at a chance to live and teach in Spain.

In “Talking Girl,” she labels her life “a pilgrimage in search of truth and selfhood through the sounds of words … I was searching in the language and psychology of other communities for elements that would help me find someone to be. …”

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Evans-Carys

Her memoir started as a translation exercise. She decided to write vignettes of her early life in Malaysia and get an assessment from a friend who was a native Galician Spanish speaker. Eventually, those efforts turned into a book.

Trying to find the appropriate language “and trying not to sound mawkish” were crucial tasks for memoir writing, she says. “I’m very emotional about my language and anybody’s language. I am trying to bring together my own feelings in my own voice.”

She continued to be fascinated with others’ voices, as she writes in “Talking Girl”: “I read books, pulsing to the narrator’s idiolect, straining every sense to grasp hold of something in the voice. But what exactly? I fell in love with voices — what they said, how they said it, what they might have chosen to omit — and above all, the suspension points that in my mind always trailed behind them.”

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How did the world traveler end up in Bradford? And what does she think of the local dialect?

After spending a dozen years in Spain, she found that the best place to attend graduate school for Spanish literature was — New Jersey. She got her master’s degree in 1987 and her PhD in 1993 in Spanish literature from Rutgers University, where she says the native speech was quite a shock.

She came to Bradford in 1985 after teaching at Slippery Rock. She calls the language in central and southwestern Pennsylvania “very on-the-spot language, especially in Pittsburgh” — very “functional.”

When people hear about her polyglot background, “they suspect I’m a spy hiding from the CIA of another country or else how on earth would I be in Bradford all these years?” she says. “But I didn’t have that huge ambition to move on.”

“Talking Girl” essentially stops when Evans-Corrales arrives in Bradford. Will she write about her last few decades?

“I don’t think I’m the right person to write about Pittsburgh or up here, because I’m working so hard,” she says. “Have you ever worked at a small college? There’s a lot of work to do with very few people to do it.”

—Marty Levine