Ge Gao’s essay appears as a part of a special series featuring New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program fellows discussing their relationship with language. You can read an excerpt from Ge’s nonfiction here.
George Orwell published an essay in 1946 entitled “Why I Write,” which became required reading for MFA students. Orwell had four reasons for writing, which were both personal and political. Writers write because we are egoists and narcissists who have suffered because of angry mothers or disappointing fathers. We want to be remembered. We want to be loved. We have a sense of injustice and feel that our stories—either stories about us or stories by us—need to be heard.
After having us read Orwell’s essay, a professor of mine asked our class to think about our particular reasons for doing what we chose to do—paying ridiculous amounts of money and spending two years to learn how to write a story. I tried to come up with a list of my own. As often the only writer whose native language is not English sitting in a workshop talking about Joan Didion or James Baldwin, I felt the urge to explain not only why I write but also why I write in English.
I live in a city where seventy percent of residents claim they are “a writer” or “trying to be a writer.” When I tell people I am a creative writing student, most will ask, “Do you write in Chinese or in English?” At first, I feel slightly offended—do they think my MFA professors read and write Chinese literature? (Actually, one of them does!) But I have gotten used to this question, as I have grown to expect that some Americans’ only impression of China is Jackie Chan and cheap Chinese food. When asked about the language I write in, I answer, “I write in English.” And then I always feel compelled explain why.
This urgency to justify myself to others feels like a validation of my own insecurity. I know the obstacles of writing in English and I experience them in my daily practice. After living in the States for eight years, I still struggle with words, grammar, sentences. In my workshop, I often worried that my essays read like a high school teenager’s diary to my American colleagues. That the choice of words and the voice sounded childish. In the countless sleepless nights during my MFA program, I questioned myself again and again—what is the point of my writing? My efforts? I can never be as good as a real English writer. (Of course, I have learned that disappointment is a common trait of all writers.)
I blush when I call myself a writer. In Chinese, the word writer (zu jia) means a “master of writing.” I am not a master of writing or language, either in English or in Chinese. The English word writer refers to a person who writes books, stories, or articles as a job or regular occupation, or a person who writes a particular text (i.e. the writer of the letter), or a person who writes.
A person who writes! This specific noun/name is simply defined by one verb/action—to write. There are no required results or accomplishments to fulfill this identity. I don’t need to publish a hardcover book with my name on it to declare myself a writer. If I write, am writing, wrote, have written, I am a writer. The English definition liberates the word and opens a world to me. And it provides an alternative. I have two languages, two cultures. I didn’t choose English over Chinese. I simply chose something new, fresh, unknown.
If I write, am writing, wrote, have written, I am a writer. The English definition liberates the word and opens a world to me.
All my worries about not being good enough are derived from my ego—they are about what happens after the writing. I often forget that the writing itself is the reason why I write in English. And so, to answer my professor’s question—and my own—here are the reasons why I write in English:
1. Because of my limitations, I feel free. I am like a five-year-old who hasn’t learned her boundaries yet. I try new words, I twist the usage of grammar, I wonder why an English sentence always needs a subject. Every word, sentence, paragraph is an experiment. I am collecting my limited resources to build a skyscraper. I have to be creative with my words and ideas. How can my words be precise enough to portray the picture in my mind? The practice of utilizing that creativity is exciting, scary, and so much fun. Isn’t that the essence of all writing? To apply words from your mind to an actual piece of paper? If it fails, well, I am supposed to make many mistakes. Writers often struggle with shame, inadequacy, and self-loathing. But strangely, when you write in a language other than your mother tongue, it makes you brave, eager, and innocent.
2. Writing is a personal choice. Ge Gao who’s writing here and Ge Gao who talks to her parents on weekends are two different people. Two languages, two attitudes, two sets of minds and emotions. One is still a teenager who has stayed in China and hasn’t learned how to say no to things, to people. The other is in California, in Minneapolis, in New York. She has grown up, drinks wine with friends at night, studies Western philosophy, falls in love, and tries to ask better questions about her life in this world. I appreciate Emily Dickson’s poems the same way that I treasure ancient Chinese mountain-river poetry. But all of my education and experience as an adult has been in English, so when I want to contemplate, question, and write about complex ideas, English is the language that enables me to do so.
3. Writing is political. It is ultimately about the freedom of speech. In his essay, Orwell argued that all writing contains certain political opinions. As a Chinese writer and a female writer, I used to struggle with those labels being applied to my writing by default. Why do readers assume that all of my writing is about China? Do I have a responsibility to represent China? Does art have to be political? Since November of 2016, I have become more conscious of the subject matter I explore, and I have started to think more deeply about my audience, most of whom are English speakers. What is my purpose in writing in English? If writing allows readers see what you see, feel what you feel, connect with what you experience, then my essays are the images and sounds and smells of cities and people that I’ve encountered. Some of those details are rooted in and about China and Chinese people. Others are about America and Americans. These personal stories reflect on the larger social and political context of both countries.
Interestingly, the word that Orwell used the most in his essay is failure: “It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure.” He continued, “But I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.”
Every word, sentence, paragraph is an experiment. I am collecting my limited resources to build a skyscraper.
Writing in English sometimes feels like a personal failure for a writer who can’t communicate by using her native language, nor fully express herself in another language. Writing in a foreign language also seems like a political statement about failure—citizens have to choose alternatives for writing and speaking in order to disagree, to feel safe to disagree.
After finishing my MFA in creative nonfiction writing, I have begun to find answers about why I write in English and the kinds of books I want to write. Every word I type here feels like an attempt to say, to articulate, to explain, and to understand the me who is in between.