Thoughts on literary writing in another language

Last month, I told my Korean teacher about staying up really late to finish an assignment for an online YA fantasy writing course I was taking, and she semi-jokingly suggested that I should try writing a novel in Korean.

Now, I don’t think this is something I’ll ever do or even be interested in doing — it’s hard enough to write a novel in English and I’ve been trying for a decade! — but it did make me wonder about bilingual writers who choose not to write in their mother tongue.

In the case of the diasporic writer, I get it. You become more fluent in English or the primary language of wherever you are educated. But what about writers like Yann Martel (Life of Pi), Nabokov (Lolita), and Jack Kerouac (On the Road), who chose to write in English when they were more than literate in their native languages?

Granted, you could argue that choosing to write in English is a practical move since it makes your writing accessible (and marketable) to the broadest possible audience… but as much as writing is a business, it is also a very personal and emotionally taxing endeavor that language has no small part in.

I thought back on the times that I’ve been compelled to write in Korean, not just for the sake of practicing writing, but because Korean came intuitively to me in that moment. Sometimes it was because there were specific words or sentence constructions that fit what I was feeling more closely in Korean than English. Most of the time, writing about my fears, my insecurities, and disappointments came difficult in English and more easily in Korean. As limited as my writing ability was, I found it easier to be honest with myself and express myself feelings in Korean than English.

In her memoir, Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, who chooses only to write in English, perfectly captured what I was beginning to realize:

When one thinks in an adopted language, one arranges and rearranges words that are neutral, indifferent even, to arrive at a thought that one does not know to be there.

When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction. Sometimes I think it is this distancing that marks me as cold-hearted and selfish. To forget the past is a betrayal, we were taught in school when young; to disown memories is a sin.

What language does one use to feel; or, does one need a language to feel? In the hospital, I visited a class of medical students studying minds and brains. After an interview, the doctor who led the class asked about feelings. I said it was beyond my ability to describe what might as well be indescribable.

If you can be articulate about your thoughts, why can’t you articulate your feelings? asked the doctor.

It took me a year to figure out the answer. It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible to do that in my native language.

Yiyun Li, DEAR FRIEND, FROM MY LIFE I WRITE TO YOU IN YOUR LIFE

There is definitely a sense of detachment and distance that I feel when I write about something intense and/or emotional in Korean. In English, the same sentiments come across as strangely warped or fake because it’s difficult, in a way, to properly admit that I feel those things. Conveying a worry or a painful memory in an adopted language might feel almost dissociative, but it’s also relieving.

(Side note: There’s a great line in Li’s memoir where she writes about finding comfort in Katherine Mansfield’s journals: “Is it possible that one can be held hostage by someone else’s words? What I underlined and reread: Are they her thoughts or mine?” This is exactly how I felt reading Li’s entire memoir. I have something highlighted on almost every single page. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a lover of reading/writing and have struggled with mental illness.)

In fact, a few days ago, I wrote a short poem in Korean about why I write in Korean. It’s not very good but it surprised me that I even wanted to do it; it’s the first time I’ve ever written anything in Korean that’s not a journal entry, a translation, or a TOPIK essay, and I haven’t written poetry of any kind since high school. Something about writing it in Korean made it feel more sincere and natural.

As a reader, I’ve always found poetry difficult to enjoy because bad poetry is really really bad and good poetry is usually too honest for me to stomach. But I’ve now come to enjoy the works of certain Korean poets, and many Korean writers as well, whose works I would have found difficult to get through in English. Their subjects and themes resonate strongly with me, yet also more remotely.

A lot of bilingual writers have said some variation of what Li says in her memoir — that writing in a non-native language offers them a sense of distance, that words have less personal context and therefore less “baggage.” Maybe there are some stories and subjects that fit with some languages more naturally than others.

Either way, it makes me grateful to know another language — that as a writer and a reader, I have that much more opportunity to be moved by literature.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on literary writing in another language

  1. Even though I’m not great in my mother tongue, I do enjoy adding to some pieces of my writing and I agree, knowing another language as a reader or writer is actually moving and powerful?? Idk how to describe it. Also, sometimes I see recommendations of poems or other literature via my dramas and I want to read them *sigh* but can’t find translations and it makes me want to learn another language. Anyway, great post and will you post your Korean poem soon? How do you feel about incorporating the language into your writing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m too shy to share my poem with the world just yet, haha, but maybe one day! I did get feedback from my Korean teacher and honestly it was so surreal to sit through a literary critique of your own poem in another language.

      I think there are some words in Korean that I know the nuance of really well so I feel a lot more comfortable using those in my writing than words that I know the meaning of but don’t fully grasp the nuance of. Like what if I wanted to use a word in a positive way, but it actually has kind of a negative nuance? That throws the tone of whatever I’m writing completely off.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. i loved this entry and agree with what you wrote but sometimes when people say x in x language is x I get a pretentious vibe from the person. I don’t know why but it irks me. does that ever happen to you?? lol

    I had written about it in an informal bookreview on goodreads for this book
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20685373-without-you-there-is-no-us

    I cringed she said she feels more pain hearing certain words in Korean vs english. The words were division and war. It just irked me. I find it so unnecessary and I think it’s the last thing a person writing a book in English should be writing for many reasons. You don’t have to really think to think deep about it to find reasons as to why that statement is superfluous and detracting to the book… Usually memoirs don’t contain statements that piss me off but this girl did the unthinkable . Any other Koreans feel the same way or is it just me?

    The part where she said she would write the subtitles if she were to struggle in the social network makes me wonder how well versed she is in Korean culture. As anyone who knows anything about South Korea they have fast internet and in other words they pirate a lot of sheet* and a lot of korean people speak English so even if this book took place before the movie came over from the usa there definitely were Korean subtitles already made and available. Hell the chinese are really good at that shit too and they have sites blocked in their country.

    And so I just have assume from this observation and more she’s probably not that well versed and it makes the aforementioned statement even more irritating to me

    +++
    I only read this book because I got obsessed with north korea and was binge-reading every interesting book about north korea in english (Then I had to read the books about north korea that weren’t translated into english so I read the versions translated to japanese since the korean books are out of print and super expensive) . there are so many books about north korea and that book was mediocre

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand feeling annoyed when people say they’re affected more strongly when x or y is in another language, especially if they don’t sound genuine about it and they don’t seem to have any kind of cultural association with it… like I can understand a word triggering an emotion in you because it was associated with a specific memory because your parents said it over and over again or something.

      Omg is that the memoir where the writer whines about missing her boyfriend over and over again? What books/memoirs would you recommend about North Korea?

      If you ever want to read some REALLY cringey accessorizing of Korean (and Japanese!), read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. At first I was like… well, she’s Korean American, can I really accuse her of accessorizing, but I mean, what else can you call including phrases like “oishi desu” and “his wife’s masterful noonchi.” *shudders*

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t remember if she whined about her boyfriend but that book was so whatever because there are so many AMAZING books from north koreans. She irked me in many ways and that was just one of them. She acts like she has all this insight about North Korea but she really doesn’t. It’s really apparent if you have read any other well-written book about North Korea whether it’s in English or Korean.

        For some reason I inherently have no interest in books written by Korean-Americans. I’d rather read a book written by a Korean person who only knows Koream. i just assume “asian-americans” aren’t good at korean or english. I know it’s bad to make assumptions (I can’t help but make this assumption as an asian-american who lives in america who has a fair amount of experience hanging around asian-americans. most people just suck at both or one is better. Of course there is the rare person who is fluent both languages and is great at writing.) but for some reason that’s in the back of my head. So I did hear about the pachinko book you mentioned and dismissed it very quickly for that reason lol and the 2-3 star amazon reviews.

        these are north korea related books I rated 4 stars and above.

        non-fiction
        This is paradise – Kang, Hyok
        Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee—A Look Inside North Korea -Jin-sung, Jang
        The Tears of My Soul = written by a north korean spy/agent who killed a lot people on a plane.
        A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power
        The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project
        Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

        memoirs from people who have spent time in the political prison camp:
        these are all disturbing and page-turners. It’s like reading books about the concentration camps in the holocaust.
        Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West – harden blaine + the north korean guy
        The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag – Kang, Chol-hwan
        Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman – lee soon ok
        Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor- Kim, Yong

        ———————
        more memoirs from north korean people
        The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story
        Stars Between the Sun and Moon: One Woman’s Life in North Korea and Escape to Freedom
        Under the Same Sky: A Memoir of Survival, Hope, and Faith -Kim, Joseph

        ++++
        완전 통제구역 · 안명철
        and this memoir/non-fiction book IS NOT availble in English ( I read this in Japanese 北朝鮮 絶望収容所 (ワニ文庫) 安 明哲). This book is really disturbing and scary but it’s the truth. It’s also a page-turner.

        I also read a fiction book about north korea in english. that’s how i found about kim young ha. It’s your Republic Is Calling You – Kim, Young-Ha

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think when 완전 통제구역 · 안명철 was published in South Korea it was a big deal (it’s full of shocking stories and I read it in Japanese so i’m sure in korean it’ll sound even more shocking, visceral, etc with the way he describes stuff) but it never got translated into English.

    Liked by 1 person

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