I attended the latest Auckland Writer’s Festival a few weekends ago. It was my third year and I felt like a veteran; I had my session times, locations and authors listed by day on my phone calendar, paced myself better (no more than three session a day), and signed on for several sessions featuring four writers to make the most of my time/energy.
Kim Thuy was a lovely surprise. Originally from Vietnam, her family moved to Quebec, Canada when she was a young girl. She grew up using Vietnamese, French and English as languages but said she doesn’t feel at home in any one. Rather, while using one she often finds herself choosing words from another that will express her thoughts more clearly. As well, she found herself misunderstanding words that in another language could have a different meaning. A case in point was the word ‘rebel’. When she first heard it she thought it meant ‘re-bel(le)’ which in French could mean ‘to become beautiful again.’ She loved the idea that a person or thing could have been beautiful, become ugly, but then have an opportunity to become beautiful again. I was enchanted.
As a second language teacher I have added French, Spanish and a smattering of Italian, Japanese and German to my vocabulary. Having lived in New Zealand for nearly twenty years I’ve also learned some Te Reo Maori. What resonated with me was the thought that not one language always has the best words to express what someone is feeling. Te Reo in particular is filled with single words that express a whole definition. Mana; the strength, respect, and wise experience that a person carries with them is one example. Whanau; the extended group of family and friends that make up your personal village of support and learning. In French, tant pis; literally, ‘tough udders’ but essentially the idea of ‘that’s too bad’, when something doesn’t work out the way you expect or want it to but with a bit of ‘that’s life’ thrown in, and usually includes a shrug of one’s shoulders.
Kim Thuy writes novels but they read like poetry. She selects her words with care in order to express herself with as much clarity and depth as possible. She has inspired me to do the same and perhaps to incorporate the cultural understandings of words borrowed from other languages.