TEXT review

Points of arrival


review by Nicholas Jose


Exploring Second Language Creative Writing: Beyond Babel
Dan Disney (ed)
Linguistic Approaches to Literature 19
John Benjamins, Amsterdam 2014
ISBN 9789027234087
Hb 157pp  EUR95.00


All writers learn to write somehow, whatever language they use. But what we call Creative Writing has its origins in English-language pedagogy, even as now it is being adapted into other contexts, from France to China, where the Anglophone version doesn’t always translate straightforwardly. Creative Writing as a discipline has mostly assumed a monolingual English classroom. But that too is starting to change. One of the most exciting developments in the field is the extension of English-language Creative Writing into contexts where other languages are also in play, either in a multilingual classroom or where Creative Writing is linked to TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). The terminology may be problematic – not to mention the acronyms: the reasons for wanting to write in English are so many and various, as are the situations in which these developing writers find themselves. What they share is English as a language of choice for the exploration of their creativity and self-expression.

Creative Writing (SL), where SL stands for Second Language, is used here as an umbrella term for the wide variety of classroom experiments reported on by the lively and admirable  teachers, writers and researchers whose contributions make up this book. As much as showing how it can be done, their work argues for the transformative potential of creative writing processes that have a crosscultural, translational dimension, for students, teachers and creative communities alike. The result is ground-breaking and quite inspiring.

In his essay on Creative Writing in Macao, Christopher Kelen usefully cautions that what he describes is ‘a pedagogy for Creative Writing in a non-native context’ (75). The specificity of each teacher’s response to the complexities of the particular teaching situation makes for interesting reading, demonstrating how flexible and inventive the process can be. David Hanauer reflects on encouraging ESL students in the US to write poetry of ‘presence and consequence’ (15), starting from ‘significant moments’ (14) in their own lives, not as ‘rehearsed narratives’ but rather as openings to ‘a conceptual space where new meanings can be found’ (17). Jane Spiro writes of a collaborative ‘four-part cycle’ (23) … ‘of choice and reflection’ (40) in which her ESL students in the UK develop a distinctive ‘second language voice’, ‘with awareness and aliveness to linguistic and artistic choices which all writers might relate to….’ (28). Dan Disney’s essay is based on his experience teaching Creativity and Literary Studies in English to university students in Seoul. He has a great story about asking his students to model Rilke’s behaviour in studying the panther in the Paris Zoo before producing his break-through poem ‘The Panther’. Only in this case it was a campus cat, that wasn’t there on the Friday afternoon the class moved outside for the exercise: ‘I am not sure whether it is the gloom, the catlessness, or the excitement of an impending weekend, but a range of hasty poems are written and many of these are vivid…’ (48). These students share their first-language (Korean) cultural background and also a common education in literature, especially modernist poetry, which helps.

Eugenia Loffredo, who is associated with the University of East Anglia, and Manuela Perteghella address literary translation as a creative practice in the context of second-language writing. As practitioners of translation they want to use ‘the presence of multilingualism in the classroom’ (72) and the changing directionality that comes with translation in and out of languages to turn creative translation into transformational creativity, including within the same language, moving between versions and registers. They share the view that the process becomes critically worthwhile when accompanied by ongoing reflection in a spirit of ‘response-ability’, with the instructor as ‘problem-posing educator’ (72). Like other contributors in the book they cite Paolo Freire’s dialogic and emancipatory educational philosophy. The emphasis is not on what is gained in linguistic competence, nor whether the outcome is standard or faithful, but on what can be created in and through a new language identity. For Eddie Tay, it also about community formation and cultural critique as emergent writers own their own identities and senses of locatedness. ‘The English-language creative writing teacher of Chinese ethnicity from Singapore situated in the Department of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong is a position nested within multiple linguistic and national zones,’ he writes (115): that’s a source of energy. Like Kelen at the University of Macau, who considers the Confucian Heritage Learning Culture in relation to creative pedagogy in a nuanced and revealing way, Tay shows how a charged environment can make writing purposeful, including for the dialogue with self it demands of the student writer. The marginalisation of local Cantonese culture in postcolonial Hong Kong and Macao provokes creative resistance in English, ironically, which can become ‘a point of departure’ (109) for larger, sharper transcultural, translinguistic, ultimately political moves.

Grace VS Chin’s practice in Brunei, where students work collaboratively to write plays that draw on local experience, has the effect of underscoring ‘their inter-connectedness’ (133) across difference. Malay culture and language have official national status in Brunei, although the society includes Chinese and other indigenous ethnolinguistic groups, with widespread use of English. Chin reports fascinatingly on techniques of acculturation she introduces into her teaching to tap ‘the collectivist values and cultural identities of the students’, encouraging them ‘to bring food and drinks, as well as mats and cushions to class’ (132-3). The students become ‘core members of a community of practice’ (124), their identities changing from apprentices to knowledge creators. To judge by the stylish, code-switching examples she quotes, it works. They are affirming the English that is theirs and it need not be labelled ‘non-native’ or ‘second’.

I’m writing this review at the University of the Philippines Diliman where I’m attending the 6th Asian Translation Traditions conference, which has two sessions on literary translation and creative writing, where Philippine writers and creative writing teachers discuss the rich language environment in which they work. One writer, John Bengan, spoke about incorporating Davao City gay slang into an English-language short story. Another, Isabela Barzon, read her poem ‘Clear as Mud’, imagining how a barrage of hostile Australian slang must strike an asylum seeker with textbook English.

Editor Dan Disney pinpoints the key issue in his introduction and his own fine essay: ‘how to feel like ourselves in a language we do not quite feel at home in?’ Most writers will recognise this pressure, but it can take an acute form when writing into English from somewhere else. It can also be a creative opportunity, a plus. To recognise this marks a divide between an educational frame that seeks to ‘confer [and measure] critical literacies’ and one that seeks ‘to augment creative production’ (43). As Disney wryly puts it, ‘the emergent Creative Writing (SL) field remains largely unsupported by interdisciplinary theoretical discourses’ (55). The volume he has put together makes a valuable start. It communicates the insightful, playful and rewarding inquiry that comes with this growing field, while lighting the way for all of us, as pedagogic practitioners, to test what can happen when, in Eddie Tay’s words, ‘the English language is viewed as a space of possibility and emergence’ (103).




Nicholas Jose has published novels, short stories, a memoir, and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. His most recent book is Bapo (2014). He is Adjunct Professor in the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, UK, and Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.


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Vol 18 No 2 October 2014
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews editor: Linda Weste