This past election in particular, and maybe all American elections, has been about a language or style of talking that voters feel comfortable with. As emerging writers with our language constantly in flux, we were interested in talking to other emerging writers for whom writing and speaking in English is already fraught with power and politics. What follows is a thorough discussion between Eva Maria Saavedra, Sokunthary Svay, Chia-Lun Chang, Tanya Paperny, and Marina Blitshteyn, writers who work within different disciplines and from different points of origin, but all of whom contend with the subtle implications of their multiple English registers.
Our conversation touches on a number of questions: How do speakers of multiple languages or English variants play with language in their writing? What can we learn about English itself from first- and second-generation immigrants? How do multilingual writers navigate the complexities of writing for American audiences? We hope this can offer another entry point for challenging and enriching our approach to writing in American English today. We believe these perspectives will be illuminating both for those who consider English their native tongue and those who do not.
What’s your American English origin story? How did you come to the version of it you use today? How has your use of English changed over the course of your writing life or education?
Sokunthary Svay: My “American English” is living and growing. It’s often in flux depending on the context, whether it’s working in a college composition classroom, working with high school students of color in the South Bronx (where I’m a Writing Assistant), being at a poetry event, talking with musicians about theory and performance, or how I engage in language with my mother, which I find the most challenging still. I am a 1.5 generation Khmer American, meaning that I was born elsewhere (Cambodian/Khmer descent born in a refugee camp in Thailand) but came of age in the USA.
I recently completed my MA in Language and Literacy at the City College of New York (CUNY) and since being in the program, I’ve come to view English — teaching, learning and speaking it — as political. I only spoke Khmer the first few years of my life, or so my mother says, which I find hard to believe now. Once I entered elementary school, I experienced what some researchers in my field refer to as a “deletion of language.” This happens often with young native-Spanish speakers (and speakers of other non-English languages) who enter school and quickly lose their home language, where institutions place a higher value on English over other languages. I became interested in how 1.5 speakers apply English in academia, and of course myself, in creative writing.
One of the most telling ways I’ve learned to identify a 1.5 generation English writer is the huge disconnect between their spoken and written English. The speech will be comfortable, native-sounding, filled with idioms (a result of “ear-learning”) whereas the written English will be awkward and not as formal, in part because the processes for hearing/speaking versus writing are so different. I think about this with my own English and how much I struggled with academic writing in college. However, I think this is why I excelled so much as a musician, since I have finely-honed listening skills. However, now I find myself code-switching in situations, whether with my Khmer companions and family, to my more native-NYC friends of color, to my academic colleagues, and finally to my students. I don’t think I speak one blend of English; I speak a variety in any given day. So now I think more about the growth, rather than the improvement, of my English.
Tanya Paperny: I was born in a household of Soviet refugees, and my first words were in Russian, but as soon as I started attending an English-language daycare, I apparently got stubborn and refused to respond to my parents in Russian. My mother recalls that by age three, I only spoke Russian in my sleep.
My American English is basically native in this sense, but I know it’s not like other Englishes I hear around me. For one, I am terrible at properly using American idioms, probably because I didn’t hear them being used growing up. I combine and confuse idioms all the time. Also, some teachers in high school told me that my writing was “awkward.” I think they were catching on to how I used phrases in the ways that I heard them spoken, sometimes incorrectly, by my parents. All that made me self-conscious, so over the years, I tried to “normalize” my English. In recent years however, I’ve been trying to undo and unlearn all that, to allow my weird idiosyncratic (Russian?) English constructions to come out, to stop self-censoring.
Chia-Lun Chang: English is my second/third language, because everyone needs to learn English starting at 8 years old in Taiwan. Even though it’s a standard requirement, I have always struggled in English classes, even now. When I was younger, teachers taught English like we were empty boxes that needed to be filled/stuffed. I often felt frustrated and hopeless after English and Math classes.
My English has come a long way. I remember that there was a period when I was determined to improve my English skills and I just sat in class three times a week. It was a buffet-style learning center. You paid a monthly fee and went there as many times as you wanted. I picked a TOEFL or News class. Sometimes it became a 1-on-1 class because they were unpopular topics. My teacher, a Taiwanese American, came from Florida and often just chatted with me. He did push-ups in class, and made fun of me when he found out I didn’t even know the meaning of “kite.” He said “your English is ridiculously terrible” and I laughed.
As a long-term language lover and a Mandarin teacher, I never thought to write in English. All I do is try to survive. I wasn’t born wanting to come to America and speak English. It was a delusion about the American dream and a possibility to earn a higher class and a better life. I write in English, and in my writing I try to express this threatening reality of losing my mother tongue.
Eva Maria Saavedra: I’m currently working as a special education teacher at a school in Brooklyn. One of the exams I had to take in order to obtain my Transitional B certificate was the Educating All Students exam. As I prepared to take this exam, I came across some information regarding bilingual students and English language learners, which stated that these groups cannot learn English simply by everyday exposure by way of say television or the radio or even overheard conversations.
I mention this because for the longest time my family told me that I learned English by watching a ton of cartoons in English. They believe that my exposure to English through television and my interactions in English outside of our home helped me learn the language. This means my origin story is muddled and it’s something I come back to often. My partner is Mexican American, also bilingual, and the question of which language we acquired first comes up a lot. He maintains that it had to be Spanish for the both of us because we grew up in Spanish-speaking households, but things aren’t that cut and dry with me because I cannot recall a time when I looked at someone and didn’t understand the words that came out of their mouth in this country.
When I was younger, I wrote in English and Spanish, but it was haphazard and messy. My poetry was an attempt to reconcile these two sides of who I am, but in everyday speech I still reserved Spanish for home and English for the outside world. Thinking back on it, there was always a part of me that feared being looked at as foreign, I just wanted to fit in. Nowadays I’m comfortable in unknown territory. I slide into Spanish in my poems and my everyday speech without hesitation or fear. I’m neither here nor there, and that kind of ambiguity is okay because it means possibility.
Marina Blitshteyn: I totally identify as 1.5 generation, and can totally relate to “ear-learning” and love the term! I remember babbling some gibberish when playing as a kid and pretending it was English! I also learned it from cartoons and radio music, which I’ve always thought informs the way I write and talk.
I also like to think my first language was Yiddish, experientially and spiritually. It is itself a muddled language, with fun idioms and scraps from all other neighborhood languages. I like to imagine something similar is possible for the future of English, like a vibrant, colorful, playful, survival concoction of refugees, but I don’t think that’s the fate of the colonizing tongue.
Sokunthary Svay: Marina, Yiddish is fascinating to me, especially because I didn’t realize I was listening to it — I had thought it was a German dialect at first! Khmer/Cambodian feels like a hodgepodge at times, with some borrowed words from Sanskrit, Portuguese, Chinese, and exchanges with neighboring countries like Thailand (although Khmer is a non-tonal language). There are still some things that I can’t say in English right away. These terms tend to be healing/medicine-related because my mother exposed me in Khmer to my first way of expressing pain and sickness. As I try to search for the words in English, I feel at a loss because I don’t think the translation does it justice or has the same feeling of caressing me with that nostalgia.
How do you define “formal English” and how do you perform or subvert it? How is your English different from other Englishes?
SS: I’ve not actually used the term “formal English” before but it reminds me of the term “proper grammar” that I’ve seen some English teachers use as a requirement in early college writing, which is the last thing I would grade on. The idea of anything “formal” places a value on correction, which can be a form of oppression. The truth is, there are so many native English speakers, as well as non-natives, who speak variants of English that would not be accepted in formal settings, and yet immigrants/internationals get the blame for any kind of deteriorating in the English language.
As far as what I do to subvert this, I’ve been trying to write in my mother’s English, which is fragmented and employs Cambodian/Khmer grammar. For example, she would say “I go to store.” There aren’t particles in Khmer nor are there past or future verb tenses, which makes it easy to learn Khmer but a real pain to try and learn English (and this is not the only Asian language that functions like this). It’s most obvious in the second person conjugations, such as “make sure he love you more than you love him” (some love advice she gave me when I was younger). To read a poem in the spirit of her English, here’s a link to my poem “At Least Prostitutes Bring Home Money.” (http://bluelyrareview.com/sokunthary-svay/)
I think, for a long time, I wanted so badly to “correct” her English because I wanted her to not be separated into the underclass of society, but now I consider her language to be such a unique expression of how she sees the world. She also uses a lot of English idioms now, as well as urban slang, as a result of living in the projects in the Bronx and working at a hotel with other immigrants and people of color. Her amalgam and hybridity of language is fascinating. Interestingly enough, for years I thought we were speaking the same language and only now do I realize that she literally didn’t understand what I was saying half the time!
EMS: I feel like “formal English” is way too concerned with sounding intelligent, but does nothing to engage people. I know that’s kind of vague so I’ll offer up this Sandra Cisneros quote in an attempt to clarify the way I feel about my language: “I wanted to write something in a voice that was unique to who I was. And I wanted something accessible to the person who works at Dunkin Donuts or who drives a bus, someone who comes home with their feet hurting like my father, someone who’s busy and has too many children, like my mother.” This quote is something I always come back to when I’m writing because being Latina means that family is at the core of everything I do/am involved with. To write something my Viejita wouldn’t be able to understand would feel like a betrayal to who I am. I’m not here to confuse you with language, I’m here to communicate with you. I’m spare, to the point, and downright vulgar at times in my writing because I don’t believe in hiding.
MB: I’m so interested in the idea of a “mother tongue” and my exile from it. It sounds like this question is already wrapped up in our mother’s language and its relationship to social class in America. I wonder what the connection is, like whether I’ve been writing away from my mother this whole time (probably) and how English is largely to blame for that rift. It’s true that my English has been one of assimilation, and assimilation as survival especially. I haven’t even begun to think about the alienation there, the continuous exile, from both my family and public life.
SS: Marina, I love your expression of how you’ve been “writing away from [your] mother this whole time.” I feel like as I explore my English voice in poetry, I’m returning both to my actual mother as well as the figurative mother that is my heritage language and country. I feel like I lost my connection to my mother and motherland early on and I’ve been trying to find it, to return to it.
Chia-Lun mentioned “a vague concept of dialect” in the English language that we could maybe think through. How do you suppose English speakers understand the idea of dialect? Do American English speakers even believe in dialect? How do we negotiate that with our own Englishes?
SS: It’s hard to talk about dialects without going into sociolinguistics, since to identify a dialect would mean that it is differentiated from the dominant version of the language. I think English speakers think they’re speaking English, not a dialect, until they come across someone from another region, or a speaker who is a non-native English speaker.
Personally, I love the sound of other dialects, whether it’s in the spreading of the mouth in a more Southern twang, a more prominent “r” sound, to the stiff upper lip of a New Englander, to my mother’s own dropping off of consonants at the end of her English words. (In Khmer, there are no words with consonants at the end; they tend to end with a verb sounds that end with either a nasal or glottal stop.) It sounds so musical and when I speak my more neutral-sounding, Northeastern American English, my ears hear this beautiful contrast of diction, lilts, and inflection. Sometimes I find myself trying to conform to the speaker, though that might seem insulting if done incorrectly, and other times I compare it to the way I speak. It feels a bit like a mental game of mix and match, where I try to place certain words and pronunciations with my own.
MB: I saw a study recently that suggested that speakers who know how to code-switch or negotiate dialects are actually using the same part of the brain responsible for handling multiple languages. In other words, dialects themselves are like different languages, with their own rules and systems of thought. (Also see this phenomenal video here.)
Obviously this question is super politically charged in America. When I was teaching high school English in the South Bronx, I used to call it “interview English”. I told my students: you need to know a version of interview English here if you want to apply to things and get accepted. Practically speaking it’s best to think of it as another language rather than the chosen dialect of oppression, which is really what it is. If there’s a language of resistance, it’s a dialect of English, and one I want to subscribe to. But I’m too new to this country to abandon grammar altogether, I’m still trying to make it here.
SS: “Interview English” — I love it! I’m going to steal that from you. I’m a Writing Assistant at charter high school in the South Bronx, and I think that term would really help them contextualize the way specific Englishes are used in certain institutions and for what purpose. Not sure about you, but I find myself learning new slang terms from them.
TP: So powerful Marina, thank you. I think about who has privilege to abandon grammar and who doesn’t, and about the role that assimilation for survival plays in people’s language choices and abilities.
MB: And remarkably Tanya the capacity for language play and innovation from speakers necessarily in the margins, like how some of the most interesting stuff in the English language is actually coming from black and queer communities, how the very best of American culture is invented there and I think immigrants intuitively know this when they come here.
Have you ever been made to feel like English is somehow not yours or that you cannot claim it?
EMS: Not to sound super clichéd, but my version of English came along with finally accepting myself at the age of 28. I grew up, I left a job I loathed, I found a new job that fills me with hope, I finally fell in love with myself, and as a result fell in love with someone for who they are as opposed to who they could be.
I think I’ve been made to live in a space in which I was always uneasy about the topics and language I wanted to explore. I constantly wondered whether the things I wrote had any value. It took a bit, but now I say fuck it I exist and therefore I matter. I’m not writing for you anyway.
MB: I can remember vividly how it felt one time in middle school when I won a poetry contest and the mom of a classmate said “you do so well in our language.”’ I knew exactly what she meant by “our” and how she wanted it to mean “not your”.
I use a lot of those same feelings when trying to master and then break the English language.
SS: I think it happens mostly when I’m in parts of the country that are primarily white. Because I’m Southeast Asian, it’s a quick assumption based on the shape of my eyes and my olive skin that I don’t speak English. And I watch to see how people’s expressions change when I begin to converse in an (relatively) unaccented English. Sometimes they’ll either relax or have an expression of surprise at my speech. And then there are the (dreaded) questions of “where are you from” and “have you been back.” I tell them that my parents are Cambodian but I was born in Thailand in a refugee camp so I can’t actually go “back” there, and I’ve “been” to Cambodia but I can’t return to a country that I was never born in nor lived in. I don’t care much for the term “micro-aggression” but the repetition of such incidences, especially since my partner, who is not Asian, is rarely asked such things, reminds me that in others’ eyes, he and I are not equal on many levels. In addition, I have feelings of displacement since I was neither born in the place of my heritage nor in the US, my place of citizenship.
CC: Always. One time, I was discussing one of my poems with a friend. She said, I like this poem but I have a sense that you and I are reading this poem radically different. Perhaps what she meant was we have dual perspectives. However, to me, it meant that even though I wrote a poem in English, I still cannot have full access to enter the language boundary. On the other hand, now I see English as a lover since I wasn’t born to speak English. It doesn’t belong to me and it never will. May I still hang and mingle with it everyday without claiming my territory?
Abroad, learning American English isn’t easy. You have to be rich enough to hire a tutor, hang out with Americans, spend time studying, and eventually you might be successful. However, after these talented multilingual people move away, they become American. The future will be a style of contemporary colonization since America only wants the best people. On the other hand, it’s easy for Americans to travel around the world and find a teaching job because everyone needs to learn English at school. Americans made everyone learn English and sell a dream that will probably never come true.
TP: Whether one relates to the concept of micro-aggressions or not, so many micro-aggressions deployed against people of color center around language. Where are you from? You speak so well. Wow, you’re so eloquent. The literary community sometimes talks back to comments like these, but sometimes replicates them, like in the case of white gay poet Mark Doty making fun of the English on a Chinese restaurant menu.
What have been some responses from monolingual English speakers to your work? Have they differed from how multilingual speakers respond to your work?
SS: I’m fortunate that I live in New York City, because the reception has been great, although it’s more common for me to have bilingual people in my life (especially since I live in Queens) so I can’t quite tell whether people are mono- or multilingual. However, I actually don’t know what the response would be like, for example with the poem in my mother’s voice, in other areas of the country where English is the only language. I imagine that it would not be valued; I could be wrong but that’s my guess.
Multilingual speakers (Asian and non-Asian) immediately understand why I have placed this accented English at the forefront of a poem, to show that behind the sharp, blunt talk is a depth of emotion if one could see past the accent, something I admittedly had a hard time with for many years. To put my mother’s English up front is to validate her and her experiences. That is how I do language politics. I want people to think differently about people who don’t speak “standard” English (which is a myth, really) and rather than immediately falling back on stereotypes, to listen to the actual words they’re saying, to not be so dismissive because you don’t immediately understand. How often have you seen people shut out immigrant speakers, and not even bother to try to understand them when they’re asking for help? Is it really that difficult to try or have strangers already made up their mind that these people are not worth bothering with? It makes non-native English speakers more invisible.
MB: You and I have talked about this IRL but I’m always wary of presenting a more ‘broken’ English to Americans, especially since I did not grow up in NYC, because I worry about reinforcing stereotypes or even capitalizing off my family’s foreignness when I can blend in more easily with Americans (aside from my name) and they can’t turn it on/off like I can. That was a real struggle I had when Russian for Lovers came out with Argos years ago, my first chapbook, which felt like I was desperately trying to explain myself to all these New York poetry readers. And inevitably obviously failing. But I did get a lot of Russian Americans and their descendents coming up to me after readings to tell me their stories and it kind of reaffirmed for me that we’re all struggling with these questions to some extent but don’t have the linguistic framework for it.
CC: MB, I’m worried about the same thing, and I can’t even turn the foreignness off. I have always told myself and tried to explain to others that “broken English” is not part of my work. On the other hand, when I answer questions about ESL issues, I don’t want to sound like a stereotype, especially angry. Because I’m not mad at just one thing. Instead of resenting being forced to learn English, I prefer to focus on the transition, globalization, and extermination of modern languages, or the key role that the USA is playing in this without knowing it. Furthermore, I don’t want to sell my wounds or struggles or, like you mentioned, I do not want to be pigeonholed by identity or language.
How can we use our experiences thinking in other linguistic systems to further expand the possibilities of American English?
TP: Being born in a bilingual household, and having some level of fluency in a few languages, is probably part of what made me a writer, what makes me stop and listen to the sounds of words and phrases and not just what they define/connote. I hope that these experiences make my writing work on several levels (e.g., performed, read, silently muttered, typed, etc.). Can multilingual writers shape the English language or just their own texts? I guess I’m a pessimist: I know that our linguistic backgrounds inform our styles, but I don’t know that the world is ready to allow the influence of other “Englishes” to seep in.
CC: I’d suggest Americans learn another language in this English-dominated world. When I speak English not only do I create another personality in a different social environment, but I also exercise a muscle that I’ve never used. I appreciate how I master old muscles that I speak with.
SS: Great question! I think I’m experimenting with that now in the various Englishes that I use in my poetry. In addition to the one in my mother’s “immigrant-speak,” I’ve been writing poems that honor and harken back to the slang of my upbringing in the Bronx — primarily African American Vernacular English (AAVE). This is my way of speaking to and speaking through the language worlds that I’ve been immersed in. I would like for my poetry to be inclusive and not only sound like the gatekeeper’s English. I’ve even noticed some “Asian American” poets projecting and mimicking mainstream Eurocentric styles in order to take advantage of the white power structure in the writing world — and I don’t want any part of that.
I will have multiple voices: they will be musical and singing; they will be organic and come from my mother and household; they will be the abusive nature as well as the loving kindness of men I’ve experienced; they will be the language of my boroughs and of my refugee/immigrant discomfort. Lastly, my voice will contain anger — something that seems to be brushed aside in the “Asian American” world since no one wants to rock the boat. What does “Asian American” anger sound like? And for me since I don’t identify as Asian American (I think it’s a problematic term) but as a Khmer New Yorker, what will that sound like? Will it be accented, either urban or immigrant? Will it cuss? These voices in my book will be an amalgam of my universe and the beautiful people inside it and they WILL be read as a whole. I will not allow myself to be pigeonholed, and I will not apologize for my language(s).
Eva Maria Saavedra was born and raised in New Jersey and now resides in Brooklyn, NY. She received a BA from SUNY Purchase and an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia’s School of the Arts. Her chapbook, Thirst, was selected by Marilyn Hacker for the Poetry Society of America’s 2014 New York Chapbook Fellowship. Her poetry has appeared in Callaloo, Catch-Up, The Acentos Review, Generations, Prick of the Spindle, and Apogee Journal.
Sokunthary Svay is a Pushcart-nominated Khmer writer (poetry and nonfiction) and musician from the Bronx, New York. Her writing has appeared in FLESH (Fixi Novo, 2016), Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time (Seal Press, 2006), and more recently in Prairie Schooner, Women’s Studies Quarterly, LONTAR, and Mekong Review. She is the recipient of the First Friday Residency at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, and the Willow Arts Alliance/Weeksville Summer Arts Residency Fellowship. She is a newly-minted Willow Books Emerging Writer currently completing her first manuscript scheduled for publication in Fall 2017. In addition, she is writing the libretto for a monodrama opera for soprano and piano, as well as Poetry Editor for Newtown Literary, the only literary journal for the borough of Queens in New York City.
Photo by Diane Allford
Chia-Lun Chang is the author of a chapbook, One Day We Become Whites (No, Dear/ Small Anchor Press), recent poems can be found in Lithub, Home School, Brooklyn Rail, iO poetry and 92nd Street Y. She is a recipient of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, The Center for Book Arts and Poets House. Born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan, she lives in New York City.
Tanya Paperny is a writer, translator, and editor in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Harper’s Magazine, PANK, Washington City Paper, VICE, The Millions, The Literary Review, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing and literary translation from Columbia University’s School of the Arts and is the recipient of fellowships and grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Vermont Studio Center, and OMI International Arts Center. More information at www.tpaperny.com.
Photo credit: Fid Thompson