Editorial / May 2010 (Issue 11)

Bathing in a Ski-Suit: Writing in a Second Language

Background: On 30th April, 2010, I gave a speech at the official launch of VAANI, a group of Asian women writers and artists based in London. The launch was part of the 8th Annual Redbridge Book and Media Festival, and I was one of three speakers for the evening. Apart from discussing Cha and reciting my poems, I also shared my experience of writing in a second language. The editorial for this issue is based on part of that speech.

I'm originally from Hong Kong, and I grew up at the end of British colonial control in the city. I was in late secondary school when the handover occurred. English had been the city's official language, in education, in law, in governance and in commerce for more than a century. Unsurprisingly, this all started changing with the handover of Hong Kong back to China in July 1997. Although English was and still is a very visible language in the city—road signs are all bilingual, for example, not all of the citizens speak the language, or at least not comfortably and daily. Most locals speak a Chinese dialect, such as Cantonese (my first language), Mandarin, Hakka and others. My parents, for example, do not speak much English except some very simple words such as Yes, No, Good Morning, Good Night. Thank You. OK, Not OK.

As for myself, I received a largely English-language education in secondary school and eventually I went to The University of Hong Kong, where I studied English Literature and Translation. Before university, I mainly wrote, if I wrote creatively, in Chinese (it is natural that one begins with one's first language). It was only at HKU that I started to write in English. I suppose it was the intellectual environment, good professors and the daily contact with literature that got me interested in English writing in a more engaged way. The impetus of my own writing was an idle afternoon in the university library. I spent a lot of time back then studying there, and one day, out of boredom, I guess, I picked up a literary journal which was on a nearby shelf. I remember the title of that journal, Ambit, which is based in my current home of London. (Carol Ann Duffy, the British poet laureate, was one of its former editors.) To be honest, I do not remember a word of the works I read. But I do recall I read poetry, and I remember I liked it, and that I thought to myself: maybe I could write some, too. It is not as if I had never read or studied poetry before that moment—I had taken literature classes in secondary school and there was a poetry module in my wonderful first-year course "Introduction to English Studies"—but there was something about seeing poems, not in a book, not in a bound course pack, but in a slim journal, that excited me. That's how I started. I was lucky to have my first works, both poetry and a short story, published in the university's literature journal, Yuan Yang, set up by the Malaysian poet Shirley Lim. And I have not stopped writing since then.

When we talk about Asian writers writing in English, I think there are actually two very broad categories. The two that I can think of, and I am sure there are many more subtle ones, would be those who use English as a first language and those who use English as a second or even third language. The first group of writers tend to be born and bred in an English-speaking country and are thus able to use English as a first language or pseudo-first language, even though their parents may not speak it very well. The second group of writers, I would say, tend to be born and bred in a non-English speaking country and English is a language of contact but not of necessity. For them, writing in English is often a matter of choice and a sign of passion.

I know that I am over-generalising here, there are surely very talented bilingual (or multi-lingual) writers who can switch between two (or more) languages without much difficulty. But I think this is an important distinction that ought to be made and remembered, because the writing experiences between these two groups of writers can be very different. A character in the Chinese author Fan Wu's novel Beautiful as Yesterday says, "Speaking English is like taking a bath with my clothes on," a feeling that some readers who speak or write in a second language may find familiar. What Wu is describing in essence is a sense that there is a filter between what we intend to say and what we actually say. Of course, everyone speaking and writing in any language, even their first tongue, have moments where there is a gap between what they intend and what they deliver. (Surely, this is one of the greatest challenges of writing.) Indeed we all, to some extent, take baths with our clothes on. It is just that native speakers might be wearing swimsuits, whereas non-native speakers are wearing ski-suits.

Have I ever wanted to shed my ski clothes and be completely, comfortably naked so that fragrant hot water can become my glistening second skin? Have I at least wanted to have the ski-suit replaced by bikini? You bet. But this desire has subsided a great deal in recent years, especially since I have come to realise the foolishness of having an inferiority complex towards my relationship with the language. Some readers may ask: why do I use English instead of Chinese, at all? Why make things difficult, by exiling yourself in a second language? I have been asked about my language choice many times in the past, and for a long time, I felt I was never able to give a satisfactory answer. Now I wonder if it is to a certain extent a question without a satisfactory answer. In many cases, it seems to be more a question in search of a justification on the part of the author than an honest explanation. I remember in a joint-interview which took place five years ago, my friend Ellen Lai (author of the Chinese collection, Except for Spiders and Psychotic Women) commented, "They don't ask you why you're playing a Western musical instrument [...] But if you're writing in English, they'll ask you why you don't say it in Chinese." Exactly. Imagine if every Asian family had to defend their decision to enrol Wing and Yoko in violin or piano lessons!

I learnt (as opposed to 'was taught') English in my formative years and for better or worse, I now see it as my default instrument for writing. I freely play my own poetic music on it, tuning my instrument to suit different registers and ranges. Just as Asian music often focuses on tones which sound foreign to Western ears, I can use words and grammatical structures differently than a native speaker to bring foreign thoughts and sounds into the language. My deployment of the language is more personal than ideological or political, although of course the personal is inevitably political, especially when it comes to language. (I suspect the central role of language in culture and identity explains why people question my not writing in Chinese, but do not wonder about the motivations of Asians playing Bach. Music may be important to our cultural identity, but it is surely not as crucial as language.) I cannot deny I am, neither proud nor ashamed, a by-product of colonialism and postcolonialism, and that therefore my use of English in some sense has deep political roots. But I have no intention to use my acquired tongue in Caliban's fashion: "You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse." (I am no Caliban, anyway: I have a powerful first language which I treasure greatly and use regularly.) Instead I hope to use English as a way of expressing one particular Asian identity, as a means of exploring my own personal, Chinese themes.

In this goal, I find the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe's comment on writing in a second language very insightful and resonating. His response to the question "Can [an African writer] ever learn to use English as a native speaker?" was:

I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry out his peculiar experience.

I think this is a perfect piece of advice for creative writers whose first language is not English but have made a choice to use the language anyway: you do not need to use English as a native speaker. You just need to use it honestly and your experience will shine through whatever medium you use. Take it from me, shedding your ski-suit is easier than you think.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
26 May, 2010

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