October 2017
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Guifang Xue, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire, USA

I am currently a writing MFA student at the University of New Hampshire. As the only nonnative-English-speaking student and one of the few minorities in my degree program, I often feel discouraged participating in American creative writing workshops. English is my third language (Mandarin is my second language)1,and it is challenging for me to write in English like a native speaker. One of the comments I received in a writing workshop was, “To help your writing move to the next level, you better correct your grammar.” Vocabulary and grammar also limit my desire and ability as a second language writer to reach my audience.

I feel particularly troubled to write for an American audience who does not share the same educational, historical, and sociocultural backgrounds as me. For instance, my background is collectivist and family oriented. Though the American audience for my writing is not a monolithic group, Americans tend to be more individualistic. We also have different concerns and perspectives on life events. The language that I use in my writing and the approaches that I use to reach the main points in my writing are often different from common rhetorical patterns in American writing. Therefore, the flow and the style of my writing may seem awkward to an American audience. It is also hard to convey what I am saying when we do not have common knowledge and shared life experience.

Challenges I Have Faced

“Tell what you think, that is it,” an American classmate said.

Certainly it was very easy for them to do so—“Tell what they think” in their mother language, but it was never easy for me to “tell what I think” in my third language. At first, it seemed that this was because my English oral skills were not that good, and I was too intimidated to speak in class. Because of that, my professor encouraged me to take a bridge-level English speaking class. However, later I found that the reasons behind this issue were more complex. In my past educational experience, we learned English mostly through reading rather than writing. It was more about passing the standardized tests than speaking the language fluently. I was from an educational setting where I was supposed to stay silent. There were no workshops, and students did not need to give feedback to each other or speak in class.

In addition, American creative writing workshops are usually focused on craftsmanship and a set of writing techniques such as voice, character development, stories, situation, and showing rather than telling. The last technique, showing rather than telling, promotes the art of developing the characters and plot through scenes and dialogue and discourages the authors from directly expressing their thoughts and feelings. For instance, in one of my writings, I tried not only to show the scenes that my father killed our dog and beat my brother in public after my family was publicly humiliated, but also to tell the complexities of the situation—my father wanted to do something good for his son who has Down Syndrome but was caught in a culture that failed individuals with disabilities. However, it seemed the desire not just to show, but to tell was not encouraged in the workshops when I tried to express my feelings and thoughts that involved the complexities of society, culture, and the system. “Show, don’t tell” is the most common constructive comment that I have received from my American classmates.

Finally, I wonder whether creative writing in a second language is more than the art of writing strategies. Sometimes, I feel uncomfortable when I see readers and writers who place themselves in a superior position and morally judge right or wrong without understanding the sociocultural reasons behind the stories. For example, the spirit of Japanese samurai and the act of killing dogs seem foreign, weird, and wrong to Americans. It is hard to express traditional and sociocultural differences without telling because it is hard to show. When I “show” it, they measure it by putting themselves in the situation with their own cultural feelings and opinions, without any relation to its history or understanding of the culture.

Overcoming Difficulties

I took a TESOL class in the spring. It was designed to provide some basic insights into the process of language acquisition, along with an introduction to the approaches and methods that have been or are being used to teach languages in various circumstances. In that class, I gained some very valuable and inspiring perspectives that my cultural knowledge could be my strengths as a second language writer. In this class, I gained the courage to talk to my professors about my struggles and open up about my feelings. I was so surprised when my professors said that they appreciated my presence in the workshop and my cultural perspective. Though I received critical comments on what I have to improve in my writing, I also got compliments on my voice and my stories. I started gaining confidence when I realized that my minority background as a nonnative-English-speaking student is not only my constraint, but also my strength. That is, I can apply my cultural perspective to my writing. Moreover, I immersed myself in reading minority writers’ work and learned to seek my voice while writing to an American audience like they did in their work. As the saying goes, “Read more, write more.” 

1I didn’t learn Mandarin until I went to school at age 6. I am from Hainan Island, China. People speak more than 10 dialects on this island. My native language is “军话” (pinyin: jun hua; the literal translation is “military dialect,” the standard language in the military during the Ming Dynasty), and it is one of the extinct languages in China. It doesn’t have a written form. It’s entirely oral.

Guifang Xue is a current writing MFA student, and she is the only nonnative English speaker in her degree program. Before coming to the United States, Guifang had work experience as an English teacher and translator. Now she is seeking her voice in her writing as a second language writer.

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