Background: On 30th April, 2010, I gave a speech at the official launch of VAANI, a group of Asian women writers and artists based in London. The launch was part of the 8th Annual Redbridge Book and Media Festival, and I was one of three speakers for the evening. Apart from discussing Cha and reciting my poems, I also shared my experience of writing in a second language. The editorial for this issue is based on part of that speech.
I'm originally from Hong Kong, and I grew up at the end of British colonial control in the city. I was in late secondary school when the handover occurred. English had been the city's official language, in education, in law, in governance and in commerce for more than a century. Unsurprisingly, this all started changing with the handover of Hong Kong back to China in July 1997. Although English was and still is a very visible language in the city—road signs are all bilingual, for example, not all of the citizens speak the language, or at least not comfortably and daily. Most locals speak a Chinese dialect, such as Cantonese (my first language), Mandarin, Hakka and others. My parents, for example, do not speak much English except some very simple words such as Yes, No, Good Morning, Good Night. Thank You. OK, Not OK.
When we talk about Asian writers writing in English, I think there are actually two very broad categories. The two that I can think of, and I am sure there are many more subtle ones, would be those who use English as a first language and those who use English as a second or even third language. The first group of writers tend to be born and bred in an English-speaking country and are thus able to use English as a first language or pseudo-first language, even though their parents may not speak it very well. The second group of writers, I would say, tend to be born and bred in a non-English speaking country and English is a language of contact but not of necessity. For them, writing in English is often a matter of choice and a sign of passion.
Have I ever wanted to shed my ski clothes and be completely, comfortably naked so that fragrant hot water can become my glistening second skin? Have I at least wanted to have the ski-suit replaced by bikini? You bet. But this desire has subsided a great deal in recent years, especially since I have come to realise the foolishness of having an inferiority complex towards my relationship with the language. Some readers may ask: why do I use English instead of Chinese, at all? Why make things difficult, by exiling yourself in a second language? I have been asked about my language choice many times in the past, and for a long time, I felt I was never able to give a satisfactory answer. Now I wonder if it is to a certain extent a question without a satisfactory answer. In many cases, it seems to be more a question in search of a justification on the part of the author than an honest explanation. I remember in a joint-interview which took place five years ago, my friend Ellen Lai (author of the Chinese collection, Except for Spiders and Psychotic Women) commented, "They don't ask you why you're playing a Western musical instrument [...] But if you're writing in English, they'll ask you why you don't say it in Chinese." Exactly. Imagine if every Asian family had to defend their decision to enrol Wing and Yoko in violin or piano lessons!
I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry out his peculiar experience.