Many people, like myself, feel like we are not good enough to write, especially if language never came easy to us.
Since the tender age of five, I remember taking a pen and scribbling short black lines and half circles on a piece of paper, tracing them to resemble the writings I saw my father make in his journal late at night, hours after his work.
I would put those notes on the wall, pretending they had a language of their own—that those scribbles held some sort of meaning that was only accessible to me. It always fascinated me that a mere combination of symbols and lines held knowledge and information about things that were previously unknown; whether they were secrets about someone (mostly something I learned about my older brother), or the secret locations of where I hid my precious stuffed toys.
However, just as illusive as those characters I created in my childhood, language constantly evaded me. Moving to four countries, due to my parents’ job postings, I had to switch countries, schools, and eventually the languages I communicated in—always starting at square one. The new words in the languages I had to learn started to look more like those scribbles. And the words I wrote were understood only by me.
Of course, that experience became isolating, especially for someone who dreamed of painting thoughts and ideas through prose and lyrics. How was I going to communicate my world to others? How was I going to create my experiences of the landscapes, cultures, and religions of Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, and Russia with just scribbles?
It did not help that I failed middle school, high school, and barely got into my English program at university. Repeatedly, I was stuck learning how to write and decipher each word one by one to gain access to the secret world of knowledge that my peers had.
Although each time I managed to catch up, the hours of learning were discouraging. Like many of the students I see who struggle with writing, I feared I would never be as good as native speakers who had years ahead of me in learning a language.
While I had so many languages under my belt, I was never good enough at any one of them to communicate as effectively as I wished to. In my home, sentences such as “Robbie, dekho, cute chernaya kozlyata!” that translated literally to “Robbie, look (Bengali), cute (English) black baby goat (Russian)!” were normal, and always managed to leave the guests confused. My sentences were combinations of incomplete parts of the world just like me.
Perhaps people like us, who are behind and have years of learning ahead of us, are not meant for writing. Perhaps writing is only reserved for those select few fluent or talented individuals who had the privilege of affording teachers and being raised in the country of their native tongue. Maybe being a little bit of everything is never enough.
Today, I see students and artists refuse to share their work and art, because they are afraid they will never be good enough. They are afraid that they have a long way to go. They are afraid to make mistakes.
It is a shame, because they forget to look at what makes great writers great.
Books by Joseph Conrad and Salman Rushdie tell us that weaknesses are our greatest advantage. Those writers broke the rules and showed us that language is bendable. They showed that we did not need to be fluent in a language to say what we needed to say. We need to embrace our own unique writing voice. We need to be ourselves.
English was Joseph Conrad’s fifth language, but he became a master prose writer in it. He spoke Latin, Greek, Polish, and French. It was in picking the simplest words that he created meaning and brevity, instead of writing filled with superfluous words and phrases. His writing did not need to be complicated to convey meaning.
Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, unapologetically used Hindi terms intertwined with English in his novels in order to paint an intersecting world that was much like his identity. He brought Indian culture to the English language, forcing the readers to do the work to look up the words they did not understand. Something about those non-translated words captured the sights, tastes, and smells of his surroundings better than any English word could.
Even in modern times, we see that language are still changing and evolving. We use emojis and colour to communicate meaning. In graphic novels, we combine images with words to express tension and story changes. In music, melodies say what the lyrics miss.
So, who is to say we cannot bend the rules that decide who is able to write and who cannot? Who is to say that our broken English, mixed English, or accented English cannot convey meaning? In fact, it can convey new meaning, beyond the confines of rigid accepted use.
Today when I read my work aloud with phrases from the languages I collected along my journey, or in simpler or shorter sentences than others may use, I pull my audiences deeper into the worlds that I so want them to connect with. I do it by saying the words only I can.
I hope that folks who feel like they do not have a language mastered know that they do not need to be perfect to say what the world needs to hear. They need to speak their truth, like they mean it—broken, stuttered, and real.
Author: Robbie Ahmed
Image: Flickr/Stephen D. Strowes
Author: Travis May
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