Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language

I joined a fiction writing group on Facebook and was surprised to find that nearly half the members were writing in English as a second language. Not all of them were fluent and many were inexperienced writers, so the questions posted on the group largely consisted of very basic things like “Is grammar important?” I think we have that same question, in various renditions, posted every week.

Of course the ability to write with something resembling forgivable grammar is an absolute requirement. But learning grammar is only a small step in a much more difficult enterprise. That is not to say that learning grammar is not important or that it is easy. It is merely dwarfed by the much bigger efforts that lie ahead.

Take a word, any word, in your native language and list what connotations and/or imagery that word is associated with. Now take an equivalent word in English and list what that word is associated with. The word “lemon” in Japanese, for example, is associated with life giving freshness. In English, it is a word for a defective product. The word “lemon” signifies the same citric fruit in both languages but it carries different images. The word that implies a bad product in Japanese would be “imo”, which means “sweet potato”.

And that is just one word. How about a series of words? How about situations? How about ideas? How about behaviors? A drunken behavior that is normal in Japan would destroy careers in the US, while an aggressive behavior in, say, a basketball game that is perfectly acceptable in the US could cost you friendships in Japan. What is considered normal in many parts of the world is considered misogyny in the West, while what is perfectly normal in the West could be considered disrespect in other countries. (The English language does not even have a word for “disrespect against elders”. The Japanese language has at least three.) This means that whatever situation you write can be interpreted differently by your English speaking audience.

Then there is the matter of cultural background. You might have watched the latest HBO programs, stayed up to date with the Marvel franchise, and listened to rap music, but if you have never seen the Grinch steal Christmas, or Toto out of Kansas, or Kevin set a trap, or Opie chafe against Andy, or more cowbells, you will be unfamiliar with a whole backdrop of cultural references. Not all cultural references come from the screen, such as, do you know how likely it was to see the Indians and the Tigers both at the World Series? Or the likelihood that the Indians would appear in the World Series in the same year the Cavaliers won the Finals? Which Manson is scarier, Marilyn or Charles? Cultural background can also be events, like street parties, PTA bazaars, Labor day parades, and sleep overs. A whole spectrum of experiences could be alien to you.

All of this on top of learning how to compose a story, build a plot, sustain tension, build suspense, and structure dialogue.

After you have mastered the grammar, the word associations, the attitudes, the social norms, the cultural backdrop, and all the elements that go into structuring and executing a well constructed story, the last wall that stands in front of you will be humor.

I won’t go into the discussion of what humor is to the Western audience and how it differs from humor elsewhere. That alone will require volumes. Suffice it to say that it took me a month of trial and error to translate ONE alligator joke by Milton Berle into a Japanese version that works. After thirty years of trying, I have yet to make a yotaro joke work in English. And after you succeed in making people laugh, you will have to learn, say, which is more offensive, a blond joke or a Pollack joke? Humor will be your last boss in conquering the art of fiction writing in English.

But after you have mastered all of that, you are no different from any random NaNoWriMo contestant whose mother tongue is English. It took all that effort just to stand at the starting line. Now, you can actually try to be good at it. Good luck.

(See also part 2: “Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language: Code Words“)

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