I Wanted To Write and Teach Literature Like My Mother Did
I struggled to find my authentic voice in my adopted literary language
I feel the recognition in my bones when I read the opening line of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” When I write in English, I feel like I’m lying. I am making up every waking thought I had since childhood, in a language that I did not grow up dreaming in. And yet, I feel the constellation of letters tickle at my senses, rebuilding a life reimagined in English. For instance, I do remember this being true: waking up in the first house I lived in, the one my father and mother built with their friends, and seeing the specs of dust moving through the beam of light that came through the wooden-framed window. In this beam of light, my mother sat at the desk wearing fingerless gloves that protected her hands from the cold. With a fountain pen with her name carved in its teal body, on green and red lined manuscript paper, she wrote her first book.
It was around then, in China, I learned the word wen xue, literature in English, from the stacks and stacks of books that seemed to spill out of every corner of our house. “Zuo jia, zuo zai jia.” My mother joked, that a writer (zuo jia) sat(zuo) at home (jia). A lover of literature, she seemed to have a joke or a poem to go with any occasion. She said she loved literature because literature allowed the understanding of love. I wanted to write and teach literature like my mother did. But in our life, literature meant Chinese literature and dedicating your life to the Chinese language meant a life of limitations. People who studied English literature could easily go abroad. People who studied other subjects could, with hard work, transition into the field of their study in another language. Choose Chinese and you choose a Chinese life. My mother said, once she became a Chinese major, she knew she’d be tied to China forever. She dissuaded me from getting tethered to this language she loved like her own house; I uttered poetry while knowing that one day, I might live in a place where no one will appreciate its meaning.
Growing up, I read through the modern Chinese literary canon, remembering the searing social commentaries by Lu Xun, tender familial memories by Zhu Ziqing, or the romantic, global perspective in San Mao’s twelve volumes of memoir, only one of which was translated into English in 2019. I liked taking a book to bed, reading it before sleep, and waking up in the morning to read it first thing. I wrote on Chinese manuscript paper like my mother did, filling each red or green square with a carefully chosen word.
I’m no longer writing in Chinese in China. I’m writing in English in the United States. I’m crafting a voice: who do I want to sound like? Who can I imagine sounding like? What does it mean to have an authentic voice when I know it will never be authentic if we take the word for its literal meaning, original and genuine?
I didn’t show anyone my prose writing for the first ten years I lived in the United States because I didn’t believe in the legitimacy of my use of the English language. Perhaps, I don’t want to believe I can write in English for the purpose of making art. For me, English has been a language of practicality, business and work, travel, and even reading, but I still doubt whether it is the language of literature in my life. But your English is so good! People sometimes confuse my ability to use English with my willingness to express myself in this language. I don’t want to pass as real. I don’t want to be caught trying.
My affinity to the English language flickers on a day-to-day basis. Some days, I feel seamless in my command of the letters, words, and sounds and their connection to my identity. Other days, I feel like I have never written anything satisfactory at all. “I shouldn’t be doing this,” I think to myself, as my essays stare back, unfamiliar, like a stranger. I wonder if my English should be perfect before it can become art. I know it won’t be.
My father, a migrant from the Northern middle-plain province of Shanxi and the first person in his village to attend university, told me he could not pursue a life of professorial teaching because of his accent. He had trouble differentiating many sounds in putonghua, and even uses a sound-agnostic input method to type, as opposed to the pronunciation-based pinyin. Even before he told me this, I could tell he didn’t sound like my kindergarten teachers or news anchors on TV. When I talk to him, I can still hear the places where his native dialect pushes through his putonghua. “Is it Lao Chen, Lao Cheng, or Lao Chang?” I teased him about saying one of his coworker’s names. Knowing he couldn’t differentiate those sounds, he opened his mouth and smiled with teeth, like a boy.
An accent is not just about pronouncing words; it’s a way of being, a posture of life. When my father talks, he starts with short, open lines, building a good cadence before blooming into an elastic speech that flows like the xipi segments of the Jin opera he likes to listen to on tape. Like an opera, there is opulence in his speech with the variety of sounds, tonal transitions and vibrations that are out of the putonghua world. Hearing his native dialect is like hearing warmth itself. If the sun made sounds when it moved slowly across the sky, perhaps it would sound as flowing, musical and thunderous as it did in Shanxi. I never learned to speak my father’s native dialect, and I grew up only speaking putonghua, which sounded neutral and official with its ups and downs more regulated at set intervals.
Polishing your speech was not just about regulating the pronunciations, either. It was always to get closer to the source of power. In my father’s case, to speak putonghua was to be wen ming. Wen ming, like wen xue, had to do with reading and writing, with being educated. I noticed him doing small odd things like insisting to call a spoon by its proper name, tiao geng, if we were at a restaurant, while my mother and I would freely use homegrown vernacular without a care for how we would be seen. I realized what he was doing much later in life — performing a facade of acceptability — when I became a migrant myself, when I knew what it was like to want to be perceived as polished and complete.
Being a bilingual writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about linguistic loyalty, which brings me back to the opening line of The Sympathizer, and how the narrator’s linguistic abilities mirror his ambiguous political identity. The cost of being fluid is never feeling true, the curse of being inauthentic to all sides. Many times in my life as an immigrant, I am asked whether I feel more American or Chinese. It is too big a question to answer definitively, but when I set out to make art on a day to day basis, the competition of languages and how much time I am willing to invest in each begs to be resolved with urgency. I had been considering the choice of a primary language as a problem of access: if my father had kept his native tongue, he would not have accessed this educated, urban life. If I invested all my time in Chinese literature, I would likely to home with my mother. In theory, we all have choices; in reality, do we really?
But here’s the plot twist: I find out that the writers who proposed and practiced ban hua wen, the modern principle of Chinese literature, were fluent in Western languages and had lived extensively in the West. Lu Xun studied English, and San Mao was fluent in German and Spanish; one of the first female playwrights I read, Yang Jiang, spoke fluent English and French from her years of teaching in Europe. The famous founder of bai hua wen movement, Hu Shi, was a student of philosophy at Columbia University in New York, and when he published his first book of bai hua poetry he named it chang shi ji, a collection of attempt, after Montaigne’s essais. I remember feeling a sense of awe, and definitely betrayal, and maybe jealousy, at this discovery. And a tinge of recognition. Some of us bilingual writers can be men of two faces, like Nguyen’s narrator, who did not exist in the rigid void between cultures, but a sleeper, an agent who must declare himself.
What if I never find myself able to feel completely loyal, authentic, original in English? Now I know it won’t keep me from writing. Literature to me has become more than a mission of furthering one language over the other. The writer, seated at her desk, still diligently describes the light that comes through the window, in a childhood home; she records it, in a language that belongs to her, a speech that requires no disguise. “I am here,” she writes, in a yellow legal pad, Chinese manuscript paper, a word processor — “to write like no one else.”