Speaking Language

We must move beyond simple claims that writing ‘gives voice’, or is a form of ‘expression’. Language is both before and after the fact: it comes as retrospection and speculation. And its politicization runs deeper than mere content, the surface upon which many young writers roam and remain. We must look at the container that holds the water.

By container I not only mean structure, as in stanzas and sestinas, but also languages, forms of publication (collection, pamphlet, chapbook, anthology, magazine,…), and everything around the act of writing. How has the nature of publishing pre-programmed the what and how of your writing? How has the (re)presentation of writing as a career pre-determined your desires and ambitions? I am pressing out of the writing realm now, piercing the membrane that does not in fact exist.

The languages I refer to are not only actual languages, such as English, Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, but also (or perhaps more keenly) languages in conversation with power, such as translations of minority languages into English, or the different englishes constructed and possessed by former British colonies. What does it mean for you (who are you?) to write in English? How do we negotiate the imbalance of power that privileges one language over many others? Who gets to be the reader and/or the writer, and who has access to neither? What is inherent in your language (English or otherwise), that you need to confront before you can truly write with it?

I straddle many imbalances of power as a Singaporean Chinese person. My country is both a former British colony and a former Japanese colony. Our lingua franca is English, which gives us global power, but culturally we are often unsure of who we are. Our education system is aggressive. (Both Singapore and Hong Kong have more difficult A Levels than the UK. In 2012, it was reported that “British examinations are roughly two grades easier than those in Hong Kong – one of the world’s top-performing education systems”. I’d say Singapore is about the same.) We are multi-racial (majority Chinese), multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual but not necessarily truly plural, truly tolerant or embracing.

My upbringing is a blend of East (Singapore, Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea,…) and West (America and Britain especially). We are brought up to be bilingual, learning both English (our primary language of instruction and learning) and a ‘mother tongue’ (Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil). However, the city favours English, so often our ‘mother tongue’ language, the one supposed provide a cultural anchor, is loose, flimsy. What I mean is: I have the mindset of a majority race (despite being part of the minority in Britain), the language of the imperial centre, and the aggressive academic training of a first-world Asian country, but – I lack roots.

Where does my English come from? Who put it in my mouth, in our mouths, and why? I don’t belong in America, Britain, or China. I belong in Singapore, but Singapore is a country that has not fully conceived of its own belonging.

The story behind your language(s) might be simpler or more complex – it doesn’t matter. There is nothing to prove, but there is new power and energy in the knowing. There is hope in the chance to tackle what is difficult together, and with compassion. Without assuming that our languages (emotional, cultural, linguistic, etc.) will meet in the middle on our first or hundredth try. We are going to make a lot of mistakes, but there’s no easy way to speak or write about the things that set us apart from one another. There is no better way to learn than by trying.

by Ang Kia Yee

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