Migrant Writing | Karen Kao

a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions
I am a migrant. I moved from the United States to the Netherlands because my husband got the job of his dreams in Amsterdam. My parents are migrants, too, leaving China for America for education (in the case of my mother) or to flee the Communists (in the case of my father). I’m an imaginary migrant. In my writing, I complete my parents’ journey by returning to my father’s birthplace in my Shanghai Quartet.

migrant homes
Britta Marakatt-Labba, Historja. Photo credit: Karen Kao 
Migrant writing comes from that place between homes. But where is home? It may be the place you were born, through no choice of your own. Or, it’s where you happen to live now. I write my best inside that halfway house between cultures and languages, too. In this one respect, it’s not such a bad thing to be a migrant. We writers are gifted with an embarrassment of riches.

my spanish

Take language, for example. I grew up speaking English at home, my parents determined not to jeopardize my school career by confusing me with Chinese. But out in the streets, another language lurked. Spanish was on the store fronts, inside the library, blasting from the speakers of a lowrider cruising by.

In high school, Señor Civetta tried to teach us Spanish. He was a migrant from South America who grew up speaking Spanish, French and Portuguese. His Spanish was different from the one spoken in the homes of my friends whose families had migrated from Mexico, in some cases generations ago. And their migrant Spanish was light years away from the slang bandied about on the streets of East LA. 

My Spanish is an explosive spoken word performance by Melissa Lozada-Oliva. A love song to every migrant who lives between languages.

in the margins

There are lots of writers like Lozada-Oliva who dwell in the margins between the dominant culture of the street and the one that lives indoors. Jenny Zhang on growing up in New York City’s Chinatown. Sandra Cisneros about the clash between old world Mexico and new world America. Edwidge Danticat on holding onto your Haitian past.

All of these examples are US-centric but writing from the margins is not a uniquely American experience. This is the song sung by migrants all over the world. Think of Madeleine Thien on Chinese students fleeing to Canada or Mohsin Hamid on the current migrant crisis in Europe.

You could call this writing from the diaspora. All of these writers have found themselves living in a country not of their own choosing. It’s an accident of birth or a decision others took that places them into a gap between two worlds.

a chosen language


And then there are the migrant writers who choose to abandon their mother tongue. I see plenty of them at my writing workshop. It’s not just the multilingual Dutch but also the expats. They come from Iran and Israel, Cairo and Rome, and they all choose to write in English. That decision could be driven by the logistics of the expat life but there are other reasons, too.

Yiyun Li seeks distance from China, her native tongue and a troubled relationship with her mother. Distance is solace to her. English is a place where she can breathe.

A new language can be a minefield. One of my first Dutch teachers recorded our sessions for me to listen at home. She saw those tapes as educational. All I heard was the unusually high pitch of my voice as it veered into hysteria.

Writing fiction in a new language must feel like learning Braille with your tongue. Yet this is the choice Jhumpa Lahiri has made. Italian is her new modus operandi. Her goal is to fall in love with a language just as she once did with English.

But abandoning your own language comes at a price. Nilanjana Roy, in her maiden column on books for The Financial Times, wrote:
Writers who shift from the language they inherit often face accusations of betrayal.

two worlds

Is it possible to straddle both worlds? That’s what Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o does. Fiction, poetry and drama belong to his native Gikuyu, while critical theory and essays live in English.
one language became a river carrying the works of his imagination, the other a stream taking his ideas and non-fiction out to his readers.
Delft blue dishes melted together
Delft blue kiln waster, V&A Museum. Photo credit: Karen Kao
For me, Dutch is the language of law and law firm politics. I was pregnant in Dutch and garden in it now. Genre doesn’t define my language boundaries but rather the happenstance of my life.

Or, maybe not. English is the language I use to speak to my husband, our children, the characters who populate my stories. It’s the language I use to address my readers, wherever they may be. It is, I suppose, my migrant language of love.

Note: "Migrant Writing" was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir


julia jones said…
What an excellent blog, thank you. The only snippet I feel like adding is the case of one of my cousins -- an English native, hopeless stutterer. Perhaps he was naturally left-handed but went to a school where this was not acceptable? I don't know. Later in life he worked in France & learned French. Surprise surprise! in this new language his stutter vanished
This post resonates with me on so many levels. Thanks for posting! In the workshops I teach, the primary language may be English, but I encourage writers to tap into childhood and community through codeswitched dialogues. Works beautifully. Writers are wary about codeswitching but Diaz and Rushdie do it all the time and it elevates their work.
Enid Richemont said…
An impressive and thought-provoking post. Thank you for it.
Umberto Tosi said…
I grew up in a family of migrants who spoke Italian, Spanish and English fluently among themselves, plus various dialects - as code - when they thought they were discussing something I wasn't supposed to hear. My mother sang opera roles in Italian, Spanish, French and German. Artists from Eastern Europe, Greece, France, Mexico and China worked with her and often visited our home. My fluency in other languages is limited at best, however. English remains my native tongue - the language in which I write - but all those migrants conveyed their respective sensibilities, enriching my own, for which I am grateful.Thank you for yet another savory and stimulating post, Karen!

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