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Essay: Language barrier

Uly Siregar

The Jakarta Post

Arizona  /  Mon, June 12, 2017  /  09:05 am
Essay: Language barrier

I strayed into fiction writing when I found I had more to relate to than just the facts. Writing in my native tongue, I delighted in confronting readers with the unspoken truths of society. (Shutterstock/File)

The first stone hit me hard on my skinny thigh. I grabbed frantically at a thick branch to stop myself from falling and bit down hard on my pain so as not to give my attacker the pleasure of knowing he had hurt me.

I was high on a star-fruit tree in my yard in Palembang, Indonesia, where I grew up. The last of ten children, and a girl, I was accustomed to feeling invisible. On that day, one of my brothers had spotted me and decided to knock the “monkey” out of the tree. A few more rocks whizzed past, but I was ready now. I grabbed an overripe fruit, weighed it in my ten-year-old brown sticky hand, and launched it, hard and flat, at the upturned face far below. The fruit split on his mouth, sticky sweet juice running with his bloody nose and lips.

This was one of my earliest childhood memories. It remains something of a metaphor for my life. I got a solid thrashing that day, not my first and not my last, but I surged with a sense of confidence that I could make my own refuge, and defend it.

My childhood home was an oasis of affluence. In the early 1970s, my father was a successful contractor — which meant wealth and prestige. My parents sent me off to a good university to study business, far from my home, in the hope that I would get a degree and meet a man from a good family who would tame me. I would then spit out a fat little man child once every two years, learn to charm the men folk, gossip with the ladies and run a household like a good woman.

I went to their preferred university, but also selected one of my own, scrimping and working to pay fees for my secret degree. The secret was a bachelor’s degree in communications that I had hoped to achieve. Along with my talent for words, it would equip me for a life as a foreign correspondent. My parents would not hear of my becoming a journalist. In my family, it was not a desired career, especially for a woman. “It’s too masculine of a job,” my dad once said.

I didn’t become a foreign correspondent. I found enough drama on my doorstep to report without the need for intruding in someone else’s war. Indonesia is a country where the saddest stories take place, like a story about a man who got caught carrying his dead daughter in a crowded train. She had died of severe vomiting and diarrhea. He took her body from the hospital to his village by train because he had no money for an ambulance or a car. I myself have covered so many sad stories, from people dying of hunger and AIDS in a gold mining region in Papua to the Tsunami disaster that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Aceh. I spent seven years working as a journalist, discovering the best and worst in people and telling their stories.

I strayed into fiction writing when I found I had more to relate to than just the facts. Writing in my native tongue, I delighted in confronting readers with the unspoken truths of society. Challenging people with the brutal realities and hidden beauty of everyday life.

I fought against the injustice of being a second-class citizen because I was born female. Most of these battles were with women who wanted me to fall into their world of stifling society and a “proper place” — a world where a female senior journalist who’s the best writer in the entire magazine could also be required to charm male visitors in the newsroom. I fought for the integrity of my profession, refusing the traditional “envelope” that would give flavor to my writing, make my life a lot more comfortable, but condemn my profession to its well-deserved but unenviable reputation for corruption.

Those battles are long gone now. My life today is not that far from what my parents had envisioned for me. I’m a mother, spitting out babies — girls, not boys — and still trying to fit in where I simply don’t belong, in a foreign country whose language is different from my mother’s.

Ten thousand miles and twenty-five years behind me and I’m back on my tree, looking for refuge, but now even my ammunition has been taken away. Before I moved to the United States, no matter how dark it got, I still had my language. I could wield it like a knife, or apply it like medicine. I could heft it and throw it and be noticed because of it. I was good at it. Now even that is stripped from me, denied to me in this bright new world of shiny things.

I’ve got a big problem. The skip in my literary step turns to a stagger, and an uncomfortable fall, when I write in English. My skill in English has not kept pace with my confidence and my desire to communicate. A clumsy sculptor, I keep chiselling off a nose or a toe because I lack the basic skill of the medium. I know the form I want, I can see the beauty in my head, but I can’t construct it in this unfamiliar medium. English words don’t come easy.

I love writing. I love any form of writing: articles for newspapers or magazines, scripts for documentary television shows, short stories, prose and poems. But most of all, I love to collect and share words, especially English words and terms. When I read interesting lines or new terms, I write them down in my little black notebook. I turn closed caption on television when I watch movies, so I get what the actors say precisely. If I don’t understand the words, I look them up in a dictionary or google them.

But a language barrier is real. The major change from writing in Indonesian into creating pieces in English puts me in a never-ending battle. It’s exhausting to do double work: to put thoughts into words, and then to translate the words into English. Going to school to improve my English won’t cut it.

A writer needs to master the language intimately, to know its subtlety and its promise, to understand it like a lover, not just a friend. That way, one will be a good writer in the new language, possibly a much better writer than she is in her native language. Sadly, after a decade, I start to lose my craft in Indonesian and at the same time still struggle with the new language. Of course, giving up is not an option. A writer should write fearlessly, honestly, and well, even if she’s sometimes lost in unfamiliar words.


Uly Siregar is an Indonesian writer and journalist. She teaches at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in Arizona where she lives with her husband and three children.