November 13, 2002
Finding Words in a New Language
Imagine writing evocative poetry, prize-winning prose. Now imagine
writing it in an adopted language. It's one thing to write in the
language you have heard and spoken since your earliest days. But
choosing to write in a language learned later in life can feel,
as writer Ha Jin once described it, "like you are changing
Jin, born and raised in China, could never have predicted the life
he has as an acclaimed writer of English-language novels and poetry
and a professor of English at Boston University. In 1985 he arrived
at Brandeis to study English literature in preparation for an academic
career in China. But after the killings in Tiananmen Square, return
felt impossible. His most clearly marketable commodity was a degree
in English, so, in a fiction-worthy plot twist, his new language
became his means of survival--and of artistic expression.
Now, 17 years later he is the author of nine books, including Waiting,
winner of the 1999 National Book Award, and the newly-released novel,
Recently Jin sat in the fall sunshine, calm amid a hubbub of hurrying
students and Commonwealth Avenue traffic, and reflected on the adopted
language now at the center of his life. "In the Chinese language
I had clear traditions. In English I had to reconstruct my literary
heritage. Once I decided to live differently and write differently,
I had to understand the consequences. I wasn't just writing a book.
My life, my existence would be in another language."
His decision has led to him to write of his native country in the
language of his present one. "I believe a writer mainly exists
in one language. But I think it is good to have another language
to supplement your thinking, your perception, and your choice of
words. English is a more rational language compared with Chinese,
which is more speculative I have to write with all the weight of
the language and that is very hard. English is more expressive,
more liberating, more powerful. The United States is a superpower
and English is a super-language."
Adnan Adam Onart is another writer who has chosen English as the
language of his writing. Onart, whose work has appeared in Prairie
Schooner, The Boston Poet, International Poetry Review, and Poetry
Motel, first began writing poems in 1994, in his native Turkish.
Then he began translating his work into English. Ultimately, he
began writing directly in English.
"I write and I speak in a very specific language, the language
of first-generation immigrant Americans," he said recently,
sitting in a nearly-deserted coffee shop. "My poetry is written
in that language. The language varies with the country of origin.
In my case, I have difficulty with articles because Turkish has
no articles, and with the placement of adverbs. It is a language
I pronounce in my mind differently."
"Writing in Turkish is not any easier than writing in English.
I was experiencing life elements in Turkish. Once I made the switch,
I experienced them directly in English. My poetical universe became
more and more entrenched in English."
Still, Turkish has a major role in his life. Onart notes that, after
a weekend at home speaking Turkish with his wife and watching Turkish
language television programs, he often finds his English a little
rusty on Monday morning.
Like Jin, Onart is aware that choosing to write in English has pulled
him out of the literary context he had within the Turkish poetry
community. "When I write English I forget completely that I
speak Turkish. I feel I am immersed in the English language and
influenced by English language poets. But I am not part of a community."
Also, like Jin, Onart uses his new language to write about the culture
of his birthplace. "I have a certain experience I would like
to convey to an American audience--my daily life as I was growing
up in Turkey, with a long, rich history in a specific place. And
I feel a special obligation to introduce Crimean culture and history
to an American audience."
Onart also comes from an area of the world with deeply complex political
sensibilities, which he tries to leave behind when he begins to
write. "I take extreme care not to recreate the tensions, the
hatreds from other parts of the world to my adopted country. We
should bring richness in our luggage but leave dirty laundries behind.
America, the way I perceive it, is a country of fresh starts."
And new words.
City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If
you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at email@example.com.