Some years ago, I began hearing voices, my own to be precise. It started with a scream. No, I’m not delusional. This is how it happened. Having had a drop to drink and carelessly cracking the middle finger of my right hand in the joint of a futon frame, and finding it difficult to clutch the pen as usual, I decided to conscript my left hand into literary servitude, at least until the cast came off. Altogether lacking the adult discipline of my right, my lazy left languished in a kind of eternal Kindergarten. To break it in, so to speak, I let it wander willy-nilly, inking up my notebook. The result was a series of cartoons that called for captions, and the captions naturally came from the same “left-handed” zone of consciousness, which in my case means they were in German.

Let me explain. The New York-born son of Viennese-Jewish émigrés, a Yankee Yecke schooled in the tongue of Shakespeare and Twain, I was never weaned of Nursery German, my true mother tongue. And though my Deutsch remained dormant, a parrot-like chatter, and I became quite proficient at English, able to sling an Anglo-Saxon sentence like a lasso and harness its slippery syntax, I have always felt like a fraud, a ventriloquist, or rather a ventriloquist’s dummy, channeling someone else’s voice.

The dilemma is not unique to me. Every child of immigrants lives the same split-personality in his or her own way, always feeling like a spy, whether at home or among strangers, a double-agent selling secrets to the other side.

And then one day, the cartoon I was drawing disintegrated and the caption sprouted into a tale that began with the sentence:

“Das Leben dreht sich wie eine Schlange durch Hochhauswald und Zementwiese.” (Life twists like a snake through a skyscraper forest and over the cement lawn….)

Where did it come from? I can’t say for sure. More than likely it emerged stillborn from the psychic stew of childhood: part Struw welpeter, part Max und Moritz, part Brothers Grimm, the sing song gruel with which my mother inveigled me to open my mouth—Machet auf das Tor!—peppered with the Viennese wit of my father, who affectionately referred to his stomach as his Backhändlfriedhof (fried chicken cemetery), where he lay to rest the remains of many a Jersey pullet.

Embarrassed, as if caught with my pants down, I promptly forgot about such foolish German flights of fancy. It was months later, while rummaging through my notebook, that I found and decided to adapt a few into English to include in my first work of fiction, A Modern Way to Die. The book, coincidentally, was selected by a German editor with an English name—Thomas Thornton—who had heard me give public readings. It was published by the German-owned press he ran, Fromm Publishing International, in New York. The same dark wit that left most American editors cold made Thomas crack up laughing.

The book appeared and I returned to writing in English and never gave it another thought. That would have been the end of the story, had not another German friend, Frederick Lubich, contacted me out of the blue two decades later to see if I had anything to submit to TRANS-LIT2, a German language literary review edited by the émigré poet and scholar Irmgard Hunt and published in Colorado.

I had come to view my German scribbles as a photographer’s negatives or a sculptor’s slip mold, disposable once used. But Fre de rick said to send them on, and not only did they make it into print, they actually won a literary prize.

I have since been somewhat more assiduously mining the German ore in me and refining the result, twining the German and English strands in a series of “Zweizüngige Erzählungen / Two-Tongued Tales.” For a middle-aged writer to have reached the beginner’s stage in another language is a bit like having dug down to the bottom of the playground sandbox in New York and come out, gasping for air, in Berlin.