Rhyme And Reason - A LiterarySeries

The voices of the self

Is the 'I' who writes in English the same 'I' who writes in Chinese?

"Why did you take so long?" my publisher asked when I sent him the manuscript of my short story collection last year. He had read my first short story 10 years ago.

"I was searching for my voice," I said. Fiction is a make-believe world. But behind the voices of fictional characters is the voice of someone who exists in real life. The voice of an author comes from a self who has something to say about the world, an individual who wishes to engage with her society through language and imagination.

For writers who are bilingual or trilingual, the question of which language to write in can be itself a story with unexpected twists and turns. In my case, this is the story of how I learnt to feel and think in a language that is foreign to my ancestors.

For the longest time, my decision to write in English rather than Chinese seemed an act of betrayal.

Is the "I" who writes in English the same "I" in Chinese?

For many years, I grappled with this question and it hindered my creative process. I couldn't write if I was not comfortable with my voice. This can be understood as something as simple as liking the sound of your writing in the chosen language, feeling that deep and intimate connection between your inner world and what is expressed externally in words.


I was born and raised in a Mandarin- and Hokkien-speaking family. My parents met as chemistry students at Nanyang University, the first Chinese-medium university in South-east Asia. My maternal grandfather was a mature student in the same faculty.

He graduated three years before my mother, the eldest in the family. He worked as a chemistry teacher in a Chinese school before he started his own business.

The first time I encountered the English language was in a song where a man called Old MacDonald had a farm. My mother played it for me on a cassette player in a narrow kitchen filled with the loud Hokkien voices of my many aunties and uncles.

The song's animal sounds caroused around the kitchen table's spread of offerings from that morning's ancestral worship ritual - braised duck, roast chicken, roast pork.

My second childhood memory of English is also about its foreignness. It was my first day at kindergarten and the teacher was taking attendance.

I was the only child who didn't raise my hand when she called my name. After she had gone through the roster, she came to me and asked me if I was Yeo Wei Wei.

I wasn't sure who she was talking about, because at home everyone called me Ah Wee, an affectionate diminutive of my name in Hokkien.

I fell in love with English books in primary school and I wanted to be like the authors of these books, someone who writes stories and sends them out to the world in the beautiful package of a printed book. English was the language of midnight feasts in Enid Blyton books, Agatha Christie mysteries, Walt Disney cartoons, jokes and pranks in the classroom. Mandarin was the language my parents joked and fought in, the language of xinyao, songs by Singaporean singer-songwriters that provided sonic relief as I perspired over 10-Year Series assignments on weekend afternoons.

I did well in English at school. But I always knew that my English self was separate from who I was at home where I spoke Hokkien and Mandarin, languages that I didn't write in except for Chinese homework. And when I spoke to myself in the private space of a diary, I used only English, never Chinese. I felt the maddening rift between these different voices who were all me when I tried to write poems and stories in my 20s.


    Yeo Wei Wei is a writer and translator. Her collection of short stories, These Foolish Things & Other Stories, was published by Ethos Books last year.

    Reviewers have praised her "elegantly constructed prose", and highlighted the "Singaporean nature" and her treatment of "universal themes" through relatable stories.

    She has a PhD in English from Cambridge University. Her other publications include translations and essays about art and poetry. She was the 2015 NTU-NAC (Nanyang Technological University- National Arts Council) Writer-in-Residence.


    These Foolish Things & Other Stories (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015)

    A bestseller at the Singapore Writers Festival, the book was chosen by poet Cyril Wong, and translator and author Jeremy Tiang as their Book of 2015. In his review for Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Professor Philip Holden notes that the stories deal with the memory and nostalgia "through spectral hauntings and through metafictional devices woven into complexly layered plots".

    "Dante's Embodiment of Literary Tradition in the Commedia," Dante Studies (2003), 67- 94.

    Dante Studies is the world's leading peer-reviewed journal for Dante scholars. Yeo's essay deals with literary history and tradition as corporeal presences. It was the first chapter of her doctoral thesis.

    "Of Trees and the Heartland: Singapore's Narratives", in Ryan Bishop, John Phillips, Yeo Wei Wei, eds., Beyond Description (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 17-29.

    An essay about the treatment of rootlessness and hybridity in the work of Singaporean playwright Kuo Pao Kun.

I could never get rid of the feeling that my voice was an incongruous mixture of the incomplete and overdone. Or worse: There were times when my efforts reminded me of an actor dressed in ill-fitting costumes for a performance she wasn't part of.

Writing in Chinese presented a different set of problems. Chinese evokes the textures of home life, every sentence grounded in a way that seemed impossible in English. But my attempts to write in Chinese made me feel unnaturally restricted. It was like being in a house where I could see all the rooms but I was only allowed to live in one of them.

When I travel to workshops and conferences, and I am asked about the language I write in, I am tempted to answer: "English, a language I have worked hard to make my own." When I think about how this happened, I see hours spent in the company of novels, essays, poems, plays, films and songs. All that time was spent pleasurably. I cannot think of a better way to spend an hour other than with a well-crafted piece of writing. My relationship with English was never transactional.

It helped that I went to England for my undergraduate degree in literature. And after that, I went on to work on a PhD that dealt with exile, poetry and art.

My voice as a writer was evolving throughout those years.

In England, I realised for the first time that although I had acquired a native speaker's fluency in English, it was not my mother tongue.

This did not put me off, just like the way we can become friends and even develop feelings of kinship with people who are from utterly different backgrounds.

Most importantly, I accepted that my duality, my being-at-home in two languages, was not a condition I had to fix. I saw how being bilingual expanded my world view. The languages that we use to express our thoughts and feelings play a direct role in the nurturing of our mind and soul.

When the seed of an idea first appears, it is through language that we grow it into something bigger. For a multilingual person, this means that there are more resources to mine to make an idea more interesting.

Can a self that is hybrid and plural produce a coherent voice?

It was my earlier mistaken preconceptions about selfhood and voice that needed to be examined and revised.

I expected my voice to reflect the way in which I was present and active in the world, as the singular living entity of one person.

But I am not unconscious like a potato, I am not inanimate like a chair. The human self is complex and made up of many different layers, some of which are subterraneous and reveal themselves only in dreams.

Creative writing is a way of dreaming while awake.

Writing is a process of self-exploration and understanding through language.

It is also a process of communication, a relational means that is about much more than achieving tangible material ends.

The voice in my writing is the voice of someone who is thankful for the gift of language.

It is a voice that carries with every utterance its belief in the power of language and literature to shape and change lives.

Being polyglot, this is also a voice that knows the limits of language.

Knowing different languages means that you will have experienced how some things are simply inexpressible in any language, and that sometimes the most important things can't be translated.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'The voices of the self'. Print Edition | Subscribe