The Gaps Between Languages

David Plowden, 1967. Statue of Liberty from Caven Point Road, Jersey City, New Jersey. Seen at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa.

David Plowden, 1967. Statue of Liberty from Caven Point Road, Jersey City, New Jersey.
Seen at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa.

It’s been three weeks since I arrived, slightly shellshocked at over 24h of travel–my United flight got delayed and I spent a night in Denver–to the Iowa House Hotel, shaking hands with over ten writers at the lobby, each from different countries, then, almost immediately after throwing my stuff in the room, rejoining them in the poet’s bar, IPA and cheeseburger in hand. Tip: eat elsewhere.

While the city has a distressing lack of good Asian food, the experience of making friends with and hearing from writers all over the world has been indescribable. My favourite times of the week coincide with the IWP readings, and I often find myself wondering why I am here at all, alongside people who have ten books or those who work under unimaginable socioeconomic conditions. During the first Global Express rehearsal, where theatre MFAs devise dramatic readings of our writing, I was blown away by the range of themes and concerns, even when translations didn’t seem to do the work perfect justice. I find myself ‘learning’ much more than ‘doing,’ preferring to read and research and listen, rather than do any actual writing. I wonder if I should listen to my guilt instead.

Only a very small subset of us write in English, and I am reminded of my own love/hate relationship with this language, as well as that of Chinese, which might be more accurately described as obsession/fear. Very rarely am I part of a conversation that revolves around a love for language. It’s kind of gross to praise the Western canon, and masturbatory to even suggest there is such a thing as a canon in Singapore, and who even knows other literatures in depth, anyhow? The literary conversations I’ve been part of usually revolve around overrated or bad writing. When I’ve fanboyed about Wong May people get that look in their eye (he’s at it again…), when I say that xxx’s work is not as great as before, others join in, almost gleefully. Only certain NYT pieces get a lot of exposure. It was at a dinner, hosted by the legendary Nieh Hualing for all the Chinese writers, where I got a rare glimpse into a scene of people hunched over black-and-white photographs, recognising this or that face, realising that so many small-c canonical Chinese writers of note have visited this small town in America. They sat here against this wall, she got into a heated argument with him. And through all of this a deep love for the language and literary culture shines through. It is a rebuke to cynicism, especially because I was the youngest in the room.

It is through this troubled relationship with all my languages that my writing draws strength from, I suspect. On the Lake McBride trail I tried explaining to the others: I want to write in English in a way that makes it clear that this couldn’t be written by an American. An American can write in American better than I can. I used “American,” but really I mean anyone writing in English, even/especially another Singapore writer. I’m translating a Chinese short story, and self-studying Malay, and under the cacophony of languages in my head I’m being confronted by the gaps between those languages, those cultures. Poetry, and by this I mean literariness regardless of genre, I’m beginning to accept, lies in that space (what is an elegant solution to 高级游民? 苦夏?) of untranslatability.

And yet, after a five minute reading at the bar, two or three strangers came up to me after to say they liked my work, one of them approaching me over a week later in the bookstore. Unused to such direct appreciation, I probably smiled awkwardly each time. And yet, I am ruined by a monologue originally from the Russian. Perhaps untranslatability can’t be analysed, but it can be felt. I have to insist it can, if there is to be a point to any of this.

Hao Guang Tse