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 your blood."

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, The Crazed.

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

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