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.


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.

Language Tag

Well, this is fun! Riccardo of Kaito Monogatari tagged me in this language learning questionnaire. Of all the people I know studying Japanese, Riccardo is the most prolific reader of Japanese literature that I know of. I hope I can be just as good some day.

Anyway, thanks for tagging me, Riccardo! I’m always happy to talk about myself (heh).

What would you consider your native language?

English and Marathi (of the South Indian variety, but who’s nitpicking?). Marathi is my mother tongue; my entire extended family speaks it and I’m still attached to it, though I’m not very good.

What was your first language learning experience?

French class in 5th grade. I don’t know why my elementary school offered a second language, but I’m glad it did, and I learned a lot, surprisingly! Pretty much all of high school  French 1 was a repeat of what I had learned in 5th grade.

What languages have you studied and why did you learn them?

Oh gosh. Where do I even begin.

  • French  – I studied this for four years in high school (and that one year in elementary) because it was part of the curriculum.
  • Japanese – I’ve studied Japanese on and off since high school and took 1 year of it in college. I’m still really really not that good at it. I can speak it well enough to get around Japan and I can read manga more or less, but Kanji kills me.
  • Korean – To this day, I don’t have a straight answer as to why I decided to study Korean. It’s more like… Korean chose me. I started off being intrigued by the way the language sounded and then started actually learning things after listening to TTMIK’s podcasts.
  • Sanskrit – My grandfather is a Sanskrit scholar. I spent a whole summer learning the alphabet and some basic grammar. I have a bunch of books too, but haven’t revisited the language in a long while.
  • Italian – It sounds so beautiful! Also one of my best friends knows Italian quite well so I wanted to learn it too. I’m not that good at it, nor am I learning seriously. I’ve just been playing around with it on Duolingo.

How does your personality affect your language learning?

I lack focus when it comes to my hobbies. I always want to do a million different things all at the same time. When I’m studying Korean, I all of a sudden start thinking about studying Japanese or writing my novel or blogging or coding… my mind starts wandering. I find it really hard to focus in front of a textbook. I basically fail at studying, which means I can never advance past a certain level of fluency in any language. Sigh.

Do you prefer learning a language in a class or on your own?

On my own.

What are your favourite language learning materials?


How much time do you spend on language per day?

I always do something that relates to Korean everyday – whether that’s reading a webcomic or novel, listening to music, watching a variety show/drama. But as for actual studying? Hahaha….

What are your short-term and long-term language goals?

  • Short-term: Pass TOPIK Level 6 in October.
  • Long-term: Become fluent in Korean.

What is your favourite language?


What is the next language you want to learn?


What advice could you give new language learners?

Be proud of every small thing you accomplish. It all adds up!

And now I shall tag some fellow language learning peeps:

The problem with self-studying

It’s not a problem per se.  More like a challenge, and one that can be frustrating and amusing in equal measures.

When you’ve moved past the beginner stuff and are now immersing yourself in the books, TV shows, music, etc. of a certain language, you’re probably going to develop a very specific – and sometimes irrelevant – vocabulary.  Unless you’re super diligent and make an effort to diversify what you’re reading and watching, you’re going to find yourself learning words like autopsy and murderer and suspect instead of normal words like… uh…  mailman.

Maybe that’s just me.  (I like watching crime shows.)

Case in point:  I can’t believe I went six years not knowing the word for mailman in Korean.

That’s like one of those words I roll my eyes at when I find them in textbook vocabulary lists (e.g. “Chapter 3: Your Neighborhood”) because do I really need to know how to say words like bank and grocery store when I’m probably never going to live in the country where the native language is spoken?  Just teach me the good stuff!

I’m not even kidding when I say that I learned my numbers in Korean and Japanese only when I was physically in said countries.

The simple, basic vocab lists found in textbooks are just so difficult for me to learn because I don’t have any context for them; make me memorize them and I will forget immediately.  The words that I learn through immersion are the ones that stick around – but if the only context I’m getting is crime thrillers, I end up with a very skewed vocabulary.

So that’s why, twenty-something pages into 엄마를 부탁해, I had to look up 우편집배원 in the dictionary and then facepalm myself.  In my defense, I totally know what the word for post office is in Korean (우체국).  In my long and undisciplined pursuit of Korean vocabulary, I must’ve found appropriate context for that one to stick.

Okay, but this is getting to be a serious problem.  At SOME point I want to be able to take TOPIK and not miss questions because I don’t know ridiculously common words.  It’s also kind of embarrassing when you’re talking/writing to a Korean friend using moderately complex sentence structure, but suddenly realize you don’t know how to say chopsticks.

Instead of picking genre fiction (I think it’s pretty well known that I have a weakness for Korean historical fantasy novels), I think I need to read more contemporary- and/or non-fiction.  엄마를 부탁해 is great pick for that, I think.  More on the actual book in a later post but suffice it to say that I’ve come across a ton of words that “I should” be knowing.  And I’m gratified that there are a ton more that I do know well!

Q&A: How to start learning Korean

Ishani asked: Hi Archana! I am dying to learn Korean! I know a bunch of random Korean words but cant frame them in sentences…I want to start from ABC of Korean..but how and from where do I start? Please show me a way…kamsahamnida!

Hi Ishani!  Thanks for the question.  There are lots of different ways to start learning a language.  I can share with you how I got started and point you in the direction of some resources, but if this doesn’t work for you, don’t get discouraged!  There are tons of blogs out there about language learning and there many different approaches.  This was my approach.

  1.  Listen to a lot of Korean.  I am a very auditory learner and I’m guessing you are too!  I started learning Korean the same way as you – by picking up random words from songs and TV dramas.  I kept a word document with a list of words I “learned” through listening to dialogue.  This was before I even learned Hangeul, so my list was just romanized approximations of the words.  For example: sarang – love, chingu – friend, bap – food/rice, etc.
  2. Learn Hangeul.  Romanization can only get you so far.  After you’ve familiarized yourself with the sounds of Korean, I would immediately move on to learning Hangeul.  Hangeul is super easy to learn.  Flashcards are probably the best way to go if you want to memorize them quickly, but I never bothered.  Instead, I went to my romanized list of words and tried to spelling using a Hangeul chart and then using a dictionary to see if I spelled it correctly.  Another thing I did was to look up romanized lyrics to Korean pop songs, put them side by side with the Hangeul lyrics, and basically memorize the way each syllable looked and sounded for each word.  I wrote a more detailed post about how I learned Hangeul here.
  3. Listen to TalkToMeInKorean.  Hands down, this is my favorite resource for beginning to intermediate Korean.  TTMIK is an education podcast founded by native Korean language teachers.  ALL the podcasts and their accompanying notes are completely free.  Again, I’m an extremely auditory learner, so listening to a couple episodes a day on my iPod worked beautifully for me.  Since my days as a beginner, TTMIK has evolved from being solely a podcast to a multimedia Korean language learning experience.  I highly, highly recommend them.
  4. Invest in a good textbook.  I’ll be honest – I don’t really like language textbooks.  I buy too many of them thinking I’ll use them, but inevitably, I learn more from watching TV shows and listening to podcasts.  There are a couple that I did use consistently while I was a beginner/intermediate learner.
    • KLEAR Integrated Korean:  A really great series of books.  I did a review of the intermediate books here.
    • Beginner’s Korean:  This was my very first Korean textbook.  Even though it’s supposed to be for beginners, I would highly recommend listening to TTMIK or using KLEAR before getting this textbook.  I think the grammar explanations are quite good, but it’s poorly organized, in my opinion.  Better used as as reference than a learning source.
  5. Find a language partner.  As you start learning new grammar patterns, you’ll want a place to practice your writing and speaking.  I suggest finding a language partner – there are lots of different venues for this.  Most of my Korean language partners are people I’ve met in person or through blogging.  I connected with some on Shared Talk (which, sadly, was shut down on September 1, 2015!  The cofounders are working on a new language exchange platform, so keep your eyes peeled.)  I highly suggest writing posting regularly on lang-8 too!  It’s also a great place to meet language partners and new friends.
  6. Learn how to type in Korean.  This is essential if you want to use online dictionaries, message/email/chat with your language partner.  Get yourself a set of Hangeul keyboard stickers and practice, practice, practice.  Luckily, there are lots of different typing games available online – like the one I talk about here.  I can touchtype Korean without stickers now, nearly as fast as I can type in English!
  7. Take notes.  Carry a notebook around and jot down new words and grammar points as you encounter them in dramas, songs, and reading material.
  8. Practice reading.  Don’t be discouraged if material is too difficult for you.  If you’ve done some beginner Korean, you will be able to recognize new words and sentence patterns and, if you can type in Korean, you can look them up online yourself and take notes!  There are a lot of blogs and resources online that can help with learning new words and grammar, which will advance your reading fluency.  Most Daum and Naver webcomics are free and a great place for beginners to start.  More on reading in Korean here.
  9. Do a little bit everyday.  Don’t try to cram in hours and hours of study in one day – you won’t retain anything!  Spend some time studying, but also spend time exploring what you love about the language (music, variety shows, idols, movies, etc.)  That will motivate you to get better and better everyday!  And when things get busy with school and/or work, make sure you to spend a little time immersing yourself in something Korean everyday, even if you can’t bring yourself to pick up a textbook.

Hope that helps, Ishani!  Good luck!