Claiming Space as a Writer in a Multilingual World
Writer and poet Jennifer Wong took up the position of Wasafiri’s Writer-in-Residence in November 2020. Six months on, as her residency comes to an end, she looks back on her popular programme of writing workshops that took place earlier this year – which included a special workshop for Chinese-language speakers – and asks what it means to attempt to rewrite the canon.
During the lockdown months in the UK, I was invited to develop a set of online writing workshops as part of my residency for Wasafiri. In those challenging days of social distancing, these workshops were especially precious — a virtual yet heartwarming space to connect, to fill our time with new writing. Looking back, I am so glad that we managed to create a friendly and supportive writing space for writers from very different linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
In my early days as a writer, I often felt that the biggest hurdle for me was how to gain confidence about my own voice: why should I, someone who grew up in Hong Kong, who speaks English as a second language, write in English? How good a writer can I be? Besides, what can I or should I write about?
In these Wasafiri workshops, what we emphasised was inclusivity. Focused on the themes of writing across languages and human geography, we encouraged writers from different genres and different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to come together and explore storytelling.
Running the Writing Across Languages workshop was a most exciting experience. Spanning four continents and writing across more than a dozen different languages, the participants were so receptive in sharing their encounters with language(s). In today’s multilingual world, I feel that whether it’s a fleeting image from a song you’ve heard, an unfamiliar term in the dictionary, a foreign phrase caught in a different country, or the dialect your grandparents speak — how we experience or acquire language, how we find new ways of thinking and naming things, is unique and memorable. For me, there is so much beauty, so much story in both the language(s) we grow up with and know by heart (our native tongue), and the language(s) we don’t know or acquire gradually over the years (our second language, or adopted language).
What I encouraged through these workshops was to remind ourselves that we are writers writing in a contemporary, diverse world, and that we have the freedom to assert and experiment with our voices, whatever our racial or gender identity or cultural background. I remember reading The Canterbury Tales, poetry by Keats and Wordsworth, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, etc., when I was an undergraduate student, thinking: much as I loved these works, I couldn’t help but feel how distant some of these texts were to me, how different they were from the people and stories I knew. Surely, we all inherit and admire this huge canon of English literature, passed on to us like a relay baton. But what makes up a canon? How do we write in relation to it? Dare we broaden it?
When I first started writing poetry, I looked around at the world in which I grew up – a city of skyscrapers, noodle shops, and bilingual neon street signs – and I was filled with a peculiar longing: to translate and share what I knew by heart with those who live far away and have never set foot in Hong Kong.
I still remember my friends teasing me: who would like to know about Hong Kong, anyway? It’s just a dot on the map. And what can you write about?
But everyone has a story inside them. When preparing advance readings for the workshop, I included a range of writers from different cultural backgrounds to explore storytelling and writing techniques. For me, it’s hugely inspiring when a writer articulates something at once local and universal, accessible and yet intimate. It doesn’t matter if they are British, Chinese, American, or African. It doesn’t matter how old or how young the writer is, or which prize they’ve won. What’s important is the value in the creative work.
Take Lorna Goodison’s poem, for example, ‘Bam Chi Chi La La London 1969.’ She addresses race and class by showing us the image of a Jamaican woman who used to be a teacher in her hometown, but in London she ‘eats a cold midnight meal carried from home and is careful to expunge her spice trail with Dettol.’ Or, think about Romesh Gunsekera’s evocative sense of place in Suncatcher, capturing Ceylon in the 1960s on the brink of change, and the tension in the friendship between Jay and Kairo. In our workshop, we admired Romalyn Ante’s poem ‘Half-empty’, where the poet uses medical terms to capture a migrant’s homesickness. In the workshop, we also went beyond contemporary poetry, looking back at poems by T S Eliot and Seamus Heaney on why lyrical precision matters. We also affirmed the need to be courageous as a writer, to take risks and push boundaries with subject matter and writing style, looking, for instance, at the experimental twist on a dramatised, fragmentary narrative form in Bernardine Evaristo’s dazzling novel Girl, Woman, Other.
I realised how valuable it is to build a sense of community among creative writers. In this series of residency workshops, I ran a workshop specifically for Chinese poets, and was absolutely overjoyed to find myself sharing poetry with a group of writers with a similar linguistic and cultural background, writing across different timezones. It felt like coming home. Throughout this two-hour creative journey, together we drew inspiration from fascinating aspects of the Chinese language, its intensity, the self-contained characters and the creative gap one can explore in translating meanings.
We read Mary Jean Chan’s poem ‘The Calligrapher’ in which she captures the art of writing Chinese calligraphy in detail: ‘loosen the right wrist, scrape the weight of too-much from brush/heart across ink bowl.’ Looking at Nina Mingya Powles’s ‘The city of forbidden shrines’, we were touched by how the word ‘almost’ reaches out to a distant homeland with longing: ‘almost spent a girlhood watching sandstorms/tearing through the almost golden sunlight.’ In Zeina Hashem Beck’s ‘Maqam’, we admired the way she blends Arabic seamlessly with English.
For a writing prompt, I showed the participants a list of Chinese characters with annotations of their different meanings. Obviously, it was not a test! Instead, different participants were able to focus on different characters — how they perceive these characters as metaphors. For some, these words triggered personal memories or encounters. Others focused on the visual shapes of a character, as if they were paintings.
In our ‘Writing Human Geography’ workshop, we looked at how a place – with its people, history and culture – is evoked or represented by contemporary writers. Human geography is a theme I come back to again and again as a writer, especially when writing 回家 Letters Home, thinking of Wisława Szymborska’s ‘Map’:
In the east and west,
above and below the equator—
quiet like pins dropping,
and in every black pinprick
people keep on living.
Mass graves and sudden ruins
are out of the picture.
When we talk about human geography, we talk about maps: how do we trace the human aspects of geography? What is included in a map, and what cannot be registered? I shared one of my favourite film clips with participants: the ending scene from Brooklyn, adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel. For me, it is a moving, profound narrative of exile. In that scene Ellie, an Irish immigrant to the US, confides in her fellow Irish passenger how she felt arriving to a new country:
And you will feel so homesick that you want to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from endure it, but you will, and it won’t kill you. And one day, the sun might come out … and you will catch yourself thinking about something or someone who has no connection to the past, someone who is only yours, and you will realise that this is where your life is.
Together as a group or community, we discussed the meaning and limitations of a map, and how we can best map out our experience through our own writing — how one creates a somewhat exotic world, while embracing our own sense of a place. Sometimes, this might include feeling foreign or ‘other’, sometimes not. Through these writers’ stories and poems, I began to see how major, collective changes like globalisation, migration, and our reliance on technology are all part of our immediate experience of a place.
It dawns on me that we must keep writing, because what we want to capture is and will always be changing: the ground beneath our feet, the people we care about, our own longings. More than ever, as a writer from an under-represented background, I feel the urge to write back against stereotypes. We need to write from our unique perspectives and world-views, put our personal histories and cultures on the map. We must take risks and express who we truly are and what we truly care about, and in this way, re-write the canon.
Wasafiri is currently looking for our next Writer-in-Residence. Applications close 31 July 2021. Details here.
Jennifer Wong was born and raised in Hong Kong, and is the author of several poetry collections including Goldfish (Chameleon Press) and a pamphlet, Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon). Her latest book, 回家Letters Home (Nine Arches Press), a Poetry Book Society Wild Card Choice, explores the complexities of history, migration and translation. She has a PhD in creative writing from Oxford Brookes University, where she teaches as Associate Lecturer, and she also teaches at the Poetry School. Her reviews and translations have appeared in a number of magazines including Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review and Asian Review of Books.