After Page One: Experience
A guest post to motivate, encourage and inspire…
Immersion: Seeing Through Different Eyes
When I started writing a book about my husband’s childhood in Vietnam, my critique group told me that, while they loved the stories, it sounded like an American-born, English-speaking woman was telling them. They were my husband’s experiences, but my words. How could I show the world he grew up in when it was so different from my own? How could I write in English without losing the context of Vietnamese language and culture?
I rewrote, paying attention to expressions like “Wow!” that sounded too American. I switched to Vietnamese equivalents: Ồ for Oh, hì hì for a tittering laugh, Ui! for Ouch! Another easy substitution was onomatopoeia: the broken speakers squawked rẹc rẹc rẹc, the pig rooted around ột ột ột, cooking pots and pans clattered lảng cảng.
I searched for words that seemed out of place. Novocain became “numbing medicine”; the ICU was a “cold room”; and shoulder-pole seizures meant tetanus. Whenever possible, I described things using Vietnamese analogies. Grandfather complained that he was carried like a sack of rice. The principal’s lectures clung and stretched like leeches. I asked my husband to say dialogue for me in Vietnamese, so I could hear the words and try to match them in English. But still, I missed things. “You use too many absolutes,” my husband said, “never, always, ever. We don’t do that.”
My husband had helpfully converted everything from the metric system to the foot-pound system when telling his stories. I converted everything back. Likewise, for monetary transactions I used Vietnamese đồng or sticks of gold, not dollars or ounces. But I tried to give clues. I wanted my readers to experience the flavor of the language and culture, not feel it was inaccessible.
I questioned every turn of phrase, trying to see the world through a different language and culture. Do you say, “Hold your breath?” I asked. “No, we say silence your breath,” he answered. I learned that suicide is “the quiet way out,” and hide-and-seek is called five-ten because kids counted five-ten-fifteen-twenty. I collected Vietnamese sayings. “The frog dies because of its big mouth,” his mother would warn, reminding him not to say too much. But trying to write a memoir in my husband’s voice made me feel like the frog in another Vietnamese proverb—the one sitting at the bottom of a well thinking the sky was the size of a platter.
Over the years it took to finish the book, my own experiences began to help. We visited Vietnam and saw where my husband grew up. My in-laws embraced me and our children grew up in an extended Vietnamese-American family. As I tried to see the world through my husband’s eyes, comments from my critique group changed to “I felt like I was there.” Still, when I gave my husband the complete draft, I worried what he’d think as he read his own story. “It’s like reliving my past,” he said. I had finally managed to climb up and see a little more of the sky.
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4 replies on “After Page One: Experience”
loved Luong’s comment about being able to read his childhood helped him remember the sky! Great success to you!
Thanks, Tammy. I’m glad that after all the rewriting I was finally able to tell his story. It took a while for me to climb out of that well. I think that after working together on this project we both see more of the sky.
Powerful wrap-up with analogy between his comment about your story being like reliving his past, accomplished through your diligent search for authentic words and descriptions, and the bigger sky, representing the expansive world of his you captured with those words. Can’t wait to read the book Michelle.
Thanks for reading, Molly! I’m glad you liked the analogy.