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Sunday, 29 April 2007
Cute pidgin pie
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Over-hyped, over-written and overrated as Zadie Zmith’s novels may be, at least they are written in proper English. Proper English is a necessary, if not a sufficient condition of a good English novel, you might suppose. Not anymore. The latest piece of ethnic chick lit to be fêted by the critics is written in Chinglish. From The Independent:

A Chinese author who deliberately wrote in "bad English” [has] been shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.

Except it wasn’t “deliberate”, was it? She just couldn’t speak English properly:

Xiaolu Guo, 33, a Chinese writer whose romantic comedy A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is written in deliberately incorrect English and is based partly on her own experiences, has been nominated for the £30,000 award, which recognises international women's writing.

The book's central character is a Chinese woman who calls herself Z after she finds that no one in England can pronounce her name.

Guo, who was born in a Chinese village and wrote her first novel in English only five years after moving to London, based the book on a diary she had written when she first arrived in Britain.

"The English I spoke four years ago was different and much more basic than the English I speak now," said Guo. "I wanted to use my broken English to write a novel. It was a natural process. It's not intellectual."

You don’t say. Jonathan Mirsky, whose review in The Spectator has the same title as this blog piece, is suitably dismissive:

Slight. A slight story, slightly poignant, slightly drawn characters, occasionally slightly funny. It also has a grating aspect that is not slight: its language. The central character, a young Chinese woman in London, tells this story, I don't know why, in fractured English. So there is a lot of this: 'Patty Surly' for Patisserie, 'Queue Gardens' (get it? ) and when she is in Italy talking to a lawyer, he is described as an 'Avocado'.

Enough already. In 50 years of listening to Chinese learning to speak English I never heard this kind of thing: 'I not meet you yet. You in future.' Astoundingly, half way through this book there is a passage in a different typeface, signed 'Editor's translation'. It confesses, 'I am sick of speaking English like this. I am sick of writing English like this.' This is a misdirected torpedo below the waterlines of readers trying to suspend disbelief while coping with the cutesy narrative.

Ethnicity and foreignness do not make a dull work interesting. But they get many a dull and mediocre work published. Conversely, if an author lacks an interesting ethnicity, he may not get published unless he pretends to have one, as Theodore Dalrymple argues in his excellent article An Imaginary Scandal.  Perhaps before long even Shakespeare's work will be given an ethnic makeover to make it less elitist. No? Sorry to say this has already happened. Here is Ferdinand Mount in The Spectator:

In the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Roundhouse, the play is performed in seven Indian languages plus English (mostly rather broken). The actors flit up and round scaffolding, swirl and swaddle themselves in brightly coloured scarves and burst through paper screens to a rapturous reception from the audience. Now and then fragments of Shakespeare’s words break through. The programme says rather severely that Indian audiences, let alone English ones, are not to mind if they cannot understand three-quarters of what the actors are saying, because

their unreasonable expectation of mono- lingual drama arises not only from habituation to that mode, but also from the tyranny of literary studies dependent on the reading of books printed necessarily in one, ‘pure’ language, even more so when that language is the revered Bard’s very own English.

I like those inverted commas round ‘pure’, suggesting that those who prefer to hear stuff in their own lingo are imperialist racist fascists. The director of the production, the gloriously named Tim Supple, concedes that ‘the original text has a special quality, whether Shakespeare or Schiller.’ That’s nice of him. But, the Supple One continues, ‘on the other hand, I can’t accept the superiority of any language’. Not even a language you can understand? Ah well, these insubstantial pageants do fade. Still, the punters loved it.

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Posted on 04/29/2007 7:26 AM by Mary Jackson
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