Author: Chiew-Siah Tei
Essay about the author’s motif of writing in English.
Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales
My childhood memory is crowded with people, with their different languages and accents: my family spoke Mandarin and Hokkien; my playmates Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew and Hainan; there were Malays among my neighbours; and every evening the Indians got themselves drunk at the toddy hut opposite our house, before stopping by my father’s butcher stall for a piece of wild boar meat for dinner, if they had some cash left.
For a child, everything seemed to be natural, the languages and the way they were spoken. As I grew up, though, I noticed how these languages intertwined, and how new words, new phrases – shared by different languages – were created. ‘苦力’ (kuli), labourer, originated in the Malay synonym ‘kuli’; and vice versa, ‘巴刹’ (basha), market, derived from the Malay word ‘pasar’.
This form of integration, I realised years later, is no longer about language but culture. It is the need to be understood and to understand, the need for this understanding to be recognised and, most importantly, the natural drive of these cultures to complement each other that had created, not just the words and phrases, but a new form of culture, of life. This discovery had planted the seed of my interest in experimenting with language in future.
As s child, I was fascinated by the first of the Chinese characters I learned: a stroke that slants to the right, joint in the middle by another that falls to the left gives the meaning of the shape it forms – ‘人’ (human); a horizontal line across turns it into ‘大’ (big) – when the [hu]man stretches out his arms. The strokes, lines and their combinations provided so much room for imagination. I drown in it.
I grew to understand that the Chinese characters took their forms from nature – the sky (heaven), the earth, the river (water), the woods, the mountains, and the like – that originated in the pictographical characters. The Chinese literature I have learned since primary school displays philosophical thoughts and human sufferings that are adequately and metaphorically presented through landscape and objects. This kind of presentation reflects the teachings of Taoism and Confucian, which have shaped the reserved and reticent characters of the Chinese. Influenced by this kind of reading, my writing in Chinese takes a similar form, with the emphasis on symbolic exterior descriptions as an indirect way to bring out internal emotion through poetic prose.
Could I adopt the same style of writing in English? This question rose alongside my increased exposure to the foreign language, after coming to Scotland to further my studies. For someone from the East, English is not just written words but a culture that represents the West. The more I learned the language, the more I became intrigued at the possibility of merging the poetic prose style of Chinese with it, of using landscape as the medium. I say medium because in this instance, language is no longer written words but the objects and landscape that appear as symbols in the texts.
My childhood experience tells me that language evolves over the years; it changes when the need for it to change arises. In a globalised world, the need to be understood and to understand becomes direr, of a bigger scale. When cross-cultural communications becomes part of our daily life, ‘cross-language’ writing is equally inevitable.
It is interesting to observe how literary styles from different cultures and languages could be integrated. Joseph Conrad, for example – who also writes in his third language – adopts the use of triple parallelism in his works, influenced by Polish; co-incidentally, this style is evident in my Chinese prose, and unsurprisingly, I experiment with it in Little Hut of Leaping Fishes.
Perhaps it is the lack of the burden of adhering to the rules of the language as a native speaker usually does – that leads to the freedom of experimenting with it – persons who write in a foreign language, as I notice, are often more flexible at inventing new phrases and sentences. Arundathi Roy’s The God of Small Things lets the readers mesmerised in her world of magical language.
The traditional ways of how words should be used, how phrases and sentences should be constructed are ignored, replaced by sometimes awkward but interesting inventions. It makes the reading experience more enjoyable, more memorable. Roy’s Antly King and Antly Queen, and their countless Antly grassroots quietly and briskly marched into my mind, urging me to explore even more possibilities.
I am fortunate to have learned so many languages; as a writer, this allows a larger space for me to fully release my creative energy.