Literary Hub

How I Learned to Claim Space as a Multilingual Author

One of the very first questions I wrestled with as a writer was this: Why write in English, the colonizer’s language, when I have others at my disposal? I grew up acquainted with three languages; my grandparents immigrated from southern China to Malaya, which was a British imperial territory. So if I didn’t write in Malay, didn’t that make me unpatriotic? And if I didn’t write in Chinese, didn’t that make me a “race traitor?” Why English?

English is intricately woven into my family history. When my grandparents first came to occupied Malaya, they worked for the British. For some time they lived apart, my grandfather cooking meals for colonial officers while my grandmother worked as a nanny for British children in a different part of the country. I never heard either of them speak English, but in my imagination, the few English phrases they did know formed the language of intimate care: Please enjoy the food. Are you warm enough? Have another helping. Did you sleep well? Don’t cry. I’m here.

I suppose they learned as much English as allowed them to forge new lives. It was both a choice and not, just as it was and was not for me as I haltingly attempted to piece together a self through literature. I did not see myself in my Malay textbooks about boys who formed interracial friendships. Neither could I find myself in the Tang poems my parents encouraged me to memorize, which featured ancient men in long-sleeved robes drinking alcohol and being sorrowful (only later in life would I come to relate to that). It was in English books that I saw a sense of adventure and escape that I identified with, as embodied by British children daringly solving mysteries or circumventing adult cruelty.

I acquired English differently from the other languages I used in daily life with my parents. I became proficient solely through reading, without a corresponding speaking component. So at first English seemed to be an abstract, fantastical thing with no real-world application, and this lent itself to boundless dreaming much more than the other languages did. I gravitated toward the stories in my English books because I thought the lives depicted within were so far removed from mine; they gave me the space to imagine new ways of living.

It wasn’t until I encountered the poetry of Shirley Geok-lin Lim that I saw how naïve this view was. I was introduced to her work in the last place I’d thought to look: school. It was a place I associated with casual disdain for the arts in favor of science and mathematics—literature wasn’t introduced as an official component of English language studies for secondary school students until the 21st century. I was among the first waves of students who got to read fiction and poetry for school; prior to that, literature was considered fluff, extra, a hobby. School also seemed propagandistic to me, so I was prepared for dreary, moralistic tales about the value of being upstanding citizens. And although some of the assigned reading did fall into that category, what I remember most is Lim’s “Monsoon History”:

Again we are taken over
By clouds and rolling darkness
Small snails appear
Clashing their timid horns
Among the morning glory
vines

Drinking Milo,
Nyonya and Baba sit at home.
This was forty years ago.

My mind was blown. Here was a poem set in a Malaysian fishing village, written by a Malaysian writer who obviously had intimate love for the landscape, from its damp air to its snails, gnats, and termites. And people in the poem drank Milo, something I did every single day! But they also read Tennyson (“Reading Tennyson, at six / p.m. in pajamas”). The reference seemed jarring at first, yet wasn’t it a mirror of my own life? Was it any stranger than a girl in small-town Malaysia reading Archie comics from the library? That was when I started questioning: why Tennyson? Why, for that matter, Milo? It wasn’t a local invention, but the drink had become such a staple of everyday life in Malaysia. There must be a reason for that.

“I finally saw that English was not a language of escape for me, but that it rather represented a painful negotiation between myself and my environment.”

Once I started trying to find answers, they were everywhere in plain sight, like the hill my small town was known for, which has two names: one that belonged to the colonial officer who “discovered” the hill, and a local name people started using after the colonizers left. I gained an inkling of understanding that, as a postcolonial writer and reader, I am not as removed from the problems of English as I’d assumed. I drew a line from Tennyson in Lim’s poem to my grandparents’ careworn faces, their tight-lipped refusal to speak about their pasts. I finally saw that English was not a language of escape for me, but that it rather represented a painful negotiation between myself and my environment. My family had used English like a tool to carve out a living. Perhaps I, too, could wield English to reinvent myself—or my selves, as in the case with writing fiction.

So yes, I decided to write in English. I don’t see this as capitulating to a colonizing language, however; I see it as an act of acknowledging history and of claiming space. Lim’s poem, “Learning to Love America,” speaks to this:

because it has no pure products

because the Pacific Ocean sweeps along the coastline
because the water of the ocean is cold
and because land is better than ocean

because I say we rather than they

The magic of this poem is that Lim has assembled, out of English words, a declaration of identity that is ambivalent and full of turns, a kind of feint that claims a space (“American”) while leaving room for so much more. It got me thinking: what kind of layered identity could I create for myself, if I, too, claimed the language and used it the way I wanted to? Even the resignation in the poem’s ending lines—“because it is late and too late to change my mind / because it is time”—spoke to me, reminding me that I, just like anyone else, am shaped by forces that are beyond me, long in motion. This has a kind of perverse comfort; if I am thus shaped, then might I not be participating in the shaping of forces to come, even though my efforts may seem puny and the effects invisible so far? And why not participate while wielding the language that so shaped my family? As Elaine Castillo puts it in her essay: “The reason I write in English, and the reason I use untranslated words, are one and the same, the punchline to that rambling, viciously grim joke also known as history.”

Here I am, writing in English, which is mine because my grandparents used it to survive, and because I have written my truth in it. Encountering Tennyson in a monsoon poem helped me become more critical of how I pieced myself together and of my relationship to language. I believe in literature’s ability to connect us. But I also think it can help us discover the ways we are ensnared. And that is the first step to doing something about it.

YZ Chin is the inaugural winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize for her short story collection Though I Get Home. The prize honors Louise Meriwether’s work by publishing a debut work by a woman or nonbinary author of color; submissions for the 2018 prize are open through June 30th.

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