Subject: Mother tongue, other tongue (Naldo Rei) 

The Business Times Singapore

October 23, 2009 Friday

Mother tongue, other tongue

Three South-east Asian authors at the Singapore Writers Festival tell CLARISSA TAN about the necessity - or not - of writing in English

THERE is one, just one, literary work in English written by an East Timorese who lived through the country's 24-year struggle against the Indonesian government. It seems almost impossible, in our age of mass communications and a practically global lingua franca, that one of the world's most protracted fights for independence has produced a single English memoir so far.

Yet it is true, and is a testimony to how forgotten and lonely the fight often was. The memoir is probably the more precious for it. Called Resistance: A Childhood Fighting for East Timor, it is by Naldo Rei, one of the authors featured in this year's Singapore Writers Festival. Rei was born in 1975, the year Indonesian troops invaded East Timor. He became a child resistance fighter after his father was killed by the Indonesian army. At the age of nine, Rei was subjected to his first bout of torture, his body sliced with razors and bayonets.

'I want the international community to understand how we suffered,' says Rei. 'I wrote in English because I want the English-speaking world, especially powerful countries like Australia, America and the UK, which provided weapons to Suharto to invade East Timor, to understand the consequences of their foreign policy decisions on the ground for East Timorese people.'

Painful memories

In writing his memoir, Rei had to overcome two things - his own traumas and the fact that English was not his native language.

'For every paragraph I wrote about torture or prison, I had to stop for a few hours and come back later, because it was very painful. It brought back memories I had tried to bury, it gave me flashbacks and diarrhoea. But I wanted to do it as part of my healing process, so I persisted.

'I learnt English after I arrived in Australia in 1997. After the 1999 referendum where the majority of East Timorese voted for independence, I decided to write. I started after I returned to East Timor in mid-2000. I wrote in different languages - Bahasa, Tetum and English - or whatever I felt like, but by the end I wrote only in English, when I was confident enough. My first editor was my Australian adopted mother who helped me find a way to express myself in English so as to make sure people understood.'

Philippine writer Miguel Syjuco, winner of last year's Man Asian Literary Prize for his novel Ilustrado, says he chose to write his work purely in English - which is to say without the usual practice, beloved of many non-Anglo authors, of sprinkling their prose with local colloquialisms.

'The Philippines has two official languages - Tagalog and English. For various artistic reasons, I made the decision to write it completely in English, rather than, as is sometimes done, sprinkling the work generously with italicised Philippinisms. Writing is essentially an act of translating the reality of the world into language, and I felt for the purposes of my book it made more sense to translate into one language.

'The Philippines has scores of dialects and languages and regional cultures; because of this there is no one real lingua franca. I hoped that despite my writing in English, the themes and subject matter of my book would resonate beyond linguistic differences.'

It's a question all South-east Asian writers have to deal with at one point - whether to write in English or in their mother tongue, or to have their local-language work translated into English or, if they do indeed decide to write in English, whether to have the local language or dialect creep into their work in the form of 'foreign' matter or not.

The Man Asian prize, in fact, was created in 2007 to help talented Asian authors get a wider, Anglophone audience: the prize is awarded annually to an 'Asian novel unpublished in English', according to the Man Asian website. The winning manuscript may have been written directly in English, or translated into English from the original language of the author, in which case the translator also gets a prize (US $3,000, compared with the winner's US $10,000). Syjuco's Ilustrado, which revolves around the mysterious death of a Filipino man of letters, will be published around the middle of next year.

'The literary world has always relied on translation,' points out Christopher Hutton, director of the Man Asian board. 'One can think of the great Russian novelists whose works reached an international readership through translation into English and other languages. Clearly, Asian authors gain access to new readers and new markets by having their work available in English. But we also recognise that there are large-scale and sophisticated literary cultures associated with the original languages, and for many authors these remain their primary literary and cultural setting.'

Lost in translation

There's also a kind of integrity to those authors who stick to writing in their native language. If they intend to write primarily for a local audience, then it stands to reason that they are happy once this audience is reached, never mind a larger offshore readership. Something is always lost in translation anyway, even if the translator is your own self - a certain nuance, a way of being, a manner of looking at the world. Also, many South-east Asian writers are just more comfortable writing in the vernacular.

Chart Korbjitti, for example, who has been described as one of Thailand's most popular living writers and the father of the modern Thai novel, does not have plans to write directly in English. 'No, I am ageing, I have no time to do it,' he says in a short emailed reply, written in English. One of the roles of a writer, he adds, 'is to speak out when he or she sees the problem in his society, at least tell the truth to his readers'.

But Chart's works have found a readership beyond Thai shores - a two-time winner of the SEA Write Award (in 1982 for The Judgement, and in 1994 for Time), his books have been translated into half a dozen languages.

There will always be writers like East Timor's Rei, of course, who write in English because they feel they want to put an important message across.

'It's really important as an historical record,' he says. 'I want our next generation to understand that the struggle for independence was not an easy one, but one that came from the sacrifice of lives.

'Now, the greatest difficulty is how to transform our mentality from resistance to development, how to stand on our own feet and not rely on aid from donor countries.'

The Singapore Writers Festival is held at The Arts House from Oct 24 to Nov 1; 

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