Yoko Tawada: On Writing in a Foreign Language -- as a Woman

By Bruce Humes, published

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A number of emigrée authors are consciously choosing to write in a foreign language, rather than their mother tongue. For instance, among Chinese from the PRC, there are Xiaolu Guo in the UK and Yiyun Li in the US. Some because they believe -- rightly, I'd say -- that this will help shorten overall time-to-market. But others for different reasons.

I found this conversation between two writers, Japan's Yoko Tawada, now living in Germany and writing in German, and Madeleine Thien, daughter of a Chinese couple who moved to Canada, to be interesting from this perspective:

Madeleine Thien: When your narrator makes the leap onto the train, it’s a big leap. Maybe, in some ways, before, women in literature, when they make a big change, it must be a leap. It’s a somersault. The forces are so intense that you have to have so much propulsion to risk another life. Whereas maybe men can sort of blur from one position to another, or there’s more shading from self to self. I have the feeling that women, for a long time, if they wanted to make that jump, it was a deep cut. A break.

Yoko Tawada: Yes, that’s right. Today my friends, my male friends, do not want to go abroad or live in Europe. For a certain time, or if they’re working for a Japanese company, then it’s okay.

Madeleine Thien: But your women friends do?

Yoko Tawada: Yes.


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