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.
—Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life by Yiyun Li
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.