Whose English Is It Anyway? – The Immigrant Experience
– my notes for the panel discussion at Waterstones Cheltenham, Aug 13th 2016. With novelist and writer Susmita Bhattacharya and chaired by Zeba Talkhani.
The title brings to mind
– “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” – comedy, improvisation
– “Mind Your Language”, the TV comedy show about immigrants to the UK
– question of authenticity
Fluent in English but not considered a “native” speaker.
I grew up in Malaysia speaking English as my first language. It’s not that common. Quite specific to the era whereby my parents lived during the time the British were still in power in Malaysia. They aspired to be be part of the British education system. They were, I think one of the first waves of teachers who trained in the UK. This specific history and relationship to the EMPIRE. The status of English language and the English nation signalling civilisation and culture. My parents, I infer, were aspirational. Speaking good English as a class marker. Today, Buku Fixi, a highly successful indie publisher in Malaysia, includes this in their manifesto: “We use American spelling. This is because we are more influenced by Hollywood than the House of Windsor.”
Problem – “native” speaker = someone “British”? What is Britishness? Doesn’t take class into account, or immigrants – how many generations before one is a native speaker? “Native speaker credibility” seems meaningless to me.
Did “my” English help or hinder me when I got here?
I grew up speaking The Queen’s English. Colonial speak. This is hardly spoken here, in England. You hear it from people of a certain generation, from certain colonies. Literal words vs. slang. Accent. The codified or indirect meaning.
I longed to get here. It signified home, safety, escape from the mess that I felt Malaysian society was. England was familiar because of books. Getting here was disorienting.
Strategies to fit in: dumbing down my accent and my self. Using American vocab and accent. This intersected with gender expectations esp. in the girls school I was at where smart wasn’t cool. Ambition wasn’t a good thing. A level English literature students couldn’t spell.
I am rather literal. It is the safest way for me to communicate. Or I use sounds. I tend not to complete my sentences. I spend a lot of energy on being understood and or seen. And I stay quiet if I feel that nothing I do will help me be seen or heard. When I’ve given up. In other countries e.g. Germany, it feels as though people listen more. Friends whose first language isn’t English tend to listen on a deeper level.
I make work about communication and connection. Experiment with language. Does language connect or interfere? Non-verbal communication. Performativity and construction of meaning.
Does being an actor influence fitting in?
Politicised a few years ago. Found out about institutional bias. RSC Orphan of Zhao debacle where white actors were allowed to play Chinese leads but East Asians weren’t allowed to play “white” leads. Acting is very tied to the visual. I didn’t feel yellow until I was labelled an “oriental” actor. In recent years, the terminology has shifted and the label is “East Asian”, which essentially means, “Chinese-looking”. The word. The stereotypes. Sidekick, yellow face, almost white so we can play almost powerful establishment roles e.g. professionals, scientist, but not the boss. How does our status compare to other actors of colour? We have to sell our selves as products. What is our value, with skin colour that is not white?
It is tiring, the construction and presentation of self repeatedly. Intersect with gender – actresses get a raw deal. Cindy Gallop – women have to prove themselves. Men just need to show potential.
Privilege is not having to think about it. These issues never cross the mind.
My accent – who do I sound like? Not working class. Not regional British. Colonial British or international/transatlantic accent.
My pitch – take up less space if you’re given less space? Which comes first. How is the English language different in America?
Being a writer
People tend to like what confirms expectations – Danuta Kean report on publishing and BAME literature. My sentimental writing – exotic descriptions of Malaysia + food – tends to be popular because it’s evocative. “banyan tree” writing – where the cover of every exotic African story has a banyan tree set against a sunset. I don’t write about China or Chinesensss because I’m not from there. Where am I from? Where is home? What space can I make for myself with language? I experiment to find this space. Reference Mac Wellman and Dodie Bellamy and how they use language. I write about connection and use sex. Sex is connected to power. I am interested in muscularity and performativity of words, the tension between words, and I find that sexy and fun.
Small, yellow, woman – the hypersexualisaton of the asian woman is a problem. Talking to Coco Khan, different women of colour are sexualised in different ways.
The word “asian” as used in the UK, is a problem.
Once you see something, you can’t unseen it. It is a violence. Mental health – race trauma is real.
Shadeism – how and why it exists.
Dualism of black vs white. Very old idea. Good vs evil. Skin lightening products. Mixed race race and lighter skinned – more white- or familiar-looking people of colour in the media. What or who is more sexually attractive? We are attracted to those who look like us. “Hard to light them” on set. Make up artists don’t know what to do with skin tones or hair. A drama school teacher told a black boy to wear a red hat so he could see him. Laws against interracial relationships. Dating sites and the racism there.
Looking at me and the other panelists, are you able to look us in the eye and rank us according to worth, beauty, intelligence, civilisation, based on how light or dark our skin is? We do. Advertising industry does. Every day e.g. would you use a black man to advertise insurance? Scottish accents used for banks. RP is no longer trusted. Some regional accents are always used as comic relief. What sells?
Ownership of English – Back to Buku Fixi: “ We believe that omputih/gwailoh speak is a Malaysian language”. “We will not use italics for non American non-English terms…those words are not foreign to a Malaysian audience. So we will not have “They had nasi lemak and went back to kongkek”…Nasi lemak and kongkek are some of the pleasures of Malaysian life that should be celebrated without apology; italics are a form of apology.”
Future of publishing- fragmentation of access to work.
Change. Who owns what? Borders are lines in the sand. What limits the imagination. Timescale changes everything.
Thank you to Zeba Talkhani @zebatalk for inviting me to talk on this panel and inadvertently changing my life for the better; thank you for the books, the laughter, your fresh eyes and beautiful heart, and your generous soul thirsty for beauty.
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