Meg Kaizu’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 two of Meg’s poems here.
Japanese was the first language I learned from my mother, and though I also learned to write in Japanese first, I now write almost exclusively in English. Before I was born, one of my grandfathers became mute following a car accident. To say I never spoke to him feels strange, as though we lacked a means of communication. I recall understanding him without speaking, and so one of my earliest forms of communication wasn’t a codified language. I didn’t choose to speak Japanese or learn English, in the same way that I didn’t really choose how I would communicate with my grandfather, nor did I really choose to speak in the first place. My mother also taught me English, and I later studied it in school, as part of compulsory education. Without that, I’m not sure if I’d be writing in English now. Language was based first on circumstances and necessity, and only later on choices.
At a certain point, I chose to write in English because I felt I could reach a more diverse audience. English felt more multinational and less confined to a specific country. I also appreciate that English allows me to play with tenses and articles. As a language teacher, I tell my students that Japanese is a high-context language; we can rely on the context and omit much information, such as subject and object, and there are only two tenses: present and past. To write in Japanese would require a conscious decision on my part because I don’t use it on a daily basis. And I’m not sure what I would write in Japanese. Would I write stories about the US in Japanese? I could, but I don’t know if it would make sense to me.
Learning my third language, Russian, was my choice, and I feel less confined in it. Russian has words, consonants, vowels, and concepts that are nonexistent in Japanese or English. I appreciate the unique sound and look of Russian, and I also find it to be both precise and flexible—it offers more choices in terms of word order, sentence structure, and expressing subtle nuances. Moreover, working in Russian has made me think about and approach my writing in very different ways because of the different declensions and cases.
Language is the container or frame in which I explore relationships and conflicts between people.
To some extent, I feel I’m a different writer in different languages. I adopt different personalities in the same way that I do when speaking different languages, when how I express myself and interact with others may change. At the same time, my disposition and temperament remain constant. Similarly, the language I use when writing may change, but my fundamental aesthetics and values do not. Language is the container or frame in which I explore relationships and conflicts between people, and between people and their environments. Whatever the language, I consider word choice, syntax, and semantics, as well as the cultural, social, and historical contexts for the choices I’m making. And I try to go beyond the words on the page to evoke gesture and body language. I utilize imagery, the senses, dialogue, landscape, weather, and emotions to support my ideas beyond grammar, syntax, and semantics, relying on my knowledge and experience as a painter to create the right atmosphere, mood, color, and light. I believe that what is not said is just as important as what is said. Of the various forms I write in, I feel the least confined in poetry, which I feel has less stringent national and cultural boundaries than fiction.
Traveling in different continents, and working in Japan, Russia, and the US, has also shaped my work. My writing has become, to some degree, borderless. Ultimately, it is not my goal to make a character sound quintessentially like a Japanese, American, or Russian national, for example. I focus instead on characters’ values, emotions, narratives, experiences, awareness, and so on. Sometimes the borderless nature of my writing creates challenges. One of the questions I recently received from an editor was about where the short story I had submitted was taking place, because the specific setting wasn’t clear. I was reading about the Yugoslav Wars when I started writing the story, but I ultimately decided to set it in Russia and Brussels, against the backdrop of the Chechen Wars, as I had unique relationships with those places. While place was important in that story—and plays an important role in my writing—many of the themes I explore are non-site-specific. What I value is being empathetic, conveying honest emotions, and exploring the human condition and our connections to each other through stories and poetry.
Despite the occasional ambivalent feelings I’ve experienced with language, I choose to write to express and communicate ideas, thoughts, and emotions as an artist. By sharing knowledge, perspectives, experiences, and parts of myself, I am able to participate in an enduring tradition of facilitating dialogue and understanding through writing.