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Writing in English: The Writing Life in Transition and Translation


Chen-ou Liu

In her most renowned poetry book entitled She Tries
Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, Canadian poet
and essayist Marlene Nourbese Philip explores themes
of race, place, gender, colonialism and, always,
language; she exposes the tension between father
tongue –the white Euro-Christian male canon, and
mother tongue –Black African female. Most quoted is
the chant like refrain at the core of her innovative
poem entitled “Discourse on the Logic of Language:”

... and English is
my mother tongue
my father tongue
is a foreign lan lan lang

Yes, I concur with her words whole heartedly: “English
is / … / language / l/anguish.”

Since my emigration to Canada five years ago, I have
both wrestled and despaired with learning English, and
I eventually came to a conclusion two years ago: I, a
non-English speaking person aged over forty, had no
way of mastering two languages at the same time;
therefore, I needed to break with my Chinese self and
to re-build a new English self in order to achieve my
goal -- becoming a writer.

Generally speaking, writing is hard; writing in a
foreign language is harder than I ever thought it
would be. It is always an ongoing struggle to bridge
the gap between what I think, what I'm going to write,
and what I'm able to write. Writing, sometimes, seems
to me to be displaced on the broken line between the
promised and lost ways of thinking. Worse, the
awareness of and concern about my intended readers may
distract me from expressing my own thoughts. Writing
is, as it always has been, a toiling act of expressing

Writing in English is very different from writing in
Chinese, linguistically and culturally. The modern
written Chinese language is highly literary and
highbrow, and it is detached from the spoken language.
Comparatively speaking, it doesn’t possess the
flexibility of English, which is highly expressive and
has a strong capacity for playing games with words and
diction that are close to the spoken language. In
Chinese, especially if you write a literary work, you
don’t write in plain speech; if you do so, you’re
definitely looked down on as a third-rate writer. A
lot of words and phrases are deeply rooted in a
centuries-old literary history of allusions and should
be skilfully yet not self-inventively used in the
context of the Chinese classical literary tradition.

To write in English requires different ways of
thinking and focuses more on the expressiveness and
innovation of words and phrases. During the course of
my adjusting to English writing, I have slowly begun
to squeeze the Chinese literary mentality out of my
mind, and I have learned to write down what I try to
say truthfully and innovatively. As Chinese American
writer Ha Jin, author of the National Book
Award-winning novel entitled Waiting, said
emphatically, “it was like having a blood transfusion,
like you are changing your blood.”

Up to this moment, I've gone through a blood
transfusion for two years. For me, English writing has
been and still is a twisting search into heart and
mind. During the writing process, in the strain of
translating spontaneous ideas or heartfelt feelings
into grammatically and semantically correct sentences,
I, due to a lack of mastered vocabulary and literary
expressions, have to simplify the way I think and
write when I force myself to put on my writing

Writing is hard, and writing in English is even

Honestly speaking, I had felt depressed for months,
unsure of my future in Canada. One year ago this
month, on a wintry morning, I had been walking on the
snow-covered streets of Toronto for almost an hour
with no destination in mind. All of a sudden, feeling
an uncontrollable urge to cry out, I stopped walking
and raised my head, screaming towards the sky, “I’m
really tired of starting over. It feels like no matter
what I do, it gets wiped out and I am left with
nothing and need to begin again. I want to build
something in my life and have something meaningful
left behind. I cannot live a life that it is like
walking on a snowy day with no footprints left
behind.” Everybody around me at the time was scared

About two weeks after my “Screaming Incident,” I was
surfing through the Internet and came across an
excerpt of a talk about writing in English given by Ha
Jin. Requested by his audience to offer some words of
encouragement to aspiring writers, Ha Jin responded,
"In this profession, the only thing that will wait for
you is failure." He also went on to describe his
philosophy about the craft of writing, "Writers don’t
write for success; they do it because that’s their way
of life. That’s how I confronted failure." I was
deeply moved by his unflagging spirit in learning
English and his unshakable commitment to English
writing. All of a sudden, I was enlightened and
liberated from my depressed feeling of being afraid of
failure and of starting over.

One year has gone by. I still keep the practice of
English writing. As the poet Robert Louis Stevenson
once claimed, "Our business in this world is not to
succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits." I
find that writing practice can be a way of paying
attention and acknowledging traces, of revising and
erasing. I have gradually come to a conclusion about
my life: I am always, in some way or another, starting
over, and building a new beginning again.

Moreover, writing in English oftentimes forces me to
see, think, and write differently; thus it broadens
the horizon of my world and knowledge, which is the
main reason I emigrated from Taiwan to Canada.
Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said,”
If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a
somewhat different world.” I concur! For me now, to
write in English is

To attempt
To test
To make a run at something
To function with relative freedom
To strike out toward the unknown
To invent myself from moment to moment.

Writing in English is the key to The Door of No
Return, helping chart my journey of immigration. I
will not cease my English writing. After all, it seems
to be one of the possible ways, and sometimes even the
only way, to work through my inner turmoil, and to
reach out to the bigger society around me. Maybe the
end of my English writing will arrive where I started,
and I will know what English writing means to me for
the first time.

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