Decolonizing Nonfiction: What it Means to Write in an ‘American Invention’

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NonfictionNOW featured a slew of diverse writers and panels this year. During the panel “Decolonizing Nonfiction,” four Southeast Asian authors brought a perspective to nonfiction that I had not yet seen as a young, Latina woman growing up in the Southwestern United States.

They began the panel by introducing which parts of Southeast Asia they had come from so that the audience could understand the circumstances that had informed their writing. I found it interesting as writers Daryll Delgado, Lawrence LacambraYpil, Wilfredo Pascual, and Ruihe Zhang sat before an audience of predominantly white writers and explained their journey into the world of nonfiction–an “American invention,” as Zhang calls is.

Panelists Delgado and LacambraYpil opened the panel. LacambraYpil introduced the authors and began the panel by questioning where non-Anglo writers position themselves alongside nonfiction.  “Because I have chosen to write in English and in nonfiction, I continue to relegate my voice towards an audience that is, in the end, a minority in my country –an upper middle class readership. Perhaps it’s these failures, these betrayals that make this genre continue to be interesting to me. Or perhaps it is when a genre fails itself that true writing can happen.”

Zhang spoke on the experience of having thought about placing herself in an American university for her writing.

“I am currently writing in an American milieu for American readers and in a program [apologizes, says she loves her program and she doesn’t mean anything wrong against it] that trains its students to write in American race, and so for several years even before I began my MFA–I’ve been thinking what it means for me as a writer, as an essayist, as a Singaporean, what it means to write in this context.”

She talks about falling in love with the personal essay, her journey to discovering the contemporary American essay. “The essay is not a thing in Singapore.” After discovering the Best American Essay series, she found herself gravitating towards this form of writing over the poetry that she traditionally wrote.

“The American essays say a lot about the narrator. […] There is a fundamental cultural difference between the Chinese essayistic tradition and the American tradition. It is considered taboo to reveal the personal in Chinese culture.”

Zhang argues that “as an essayist working in the American context, the challenge is both to write in what honors my cultural tradition, yet I want to communicate with an audience that is culturally different from myself.” She believes she’s found a way to accomplish the combination of respecting her cultural traditions with the American context. In using the braided essay and negative spaces in the text with nature symbolism recognized as important in her own culture’s writing, she is able to honor her culture and find herself in the world of creative nonfiction.

What I’ve done is…simply not give a fuck. –Daryll Delgado

Wilfredo Pascual followed Zhang with an acknowledgement of his feelings. “I am really really terrified. I’m afraid that I’m going to say the wrong thing, I’m going to use the wrong word. But still, I have to acknowledge this fear because if I’m going to talk about decolonization, I have to admit that I am afraid, but I am going to speak now.”

Pascual shared his experiences growing up speaking only English in the Philippines in a Catholic school and the pain and separation it brought him from his friends. He discussed his troubles in his own work and the “transit, getting lost and stuck in borders” that has shaped him as a writer who has traveled often.

“When is language dangerous?” Someone had questioned Pascual on why he writes in English–he replied that he doesn’t always write solely in his second language. “It is not a choice. I grew up in two languages, in several languages, whatever I can grasp at the moment–that’s what I use. In my mind it’s a mix of all these languages.” Choosing only one language is difficult for him. In decolonizing his writing, he chooses to look at himself not through only the Filipino lens, but through a global one, as well.

The panel descended into questions after Pascual read an excerpt from his writing. Questions on linguistic decolonization are the ones that struck up the most conversation among the panelists. One woman asked, “What do we need to do as far as decolonizing English?” 

Delgado works with English in her day-to-day life and so replies: “What I’ve done is…simply not give a fuck. I’ve chosen to write in this language. Our exposure to writing and reading was through English. As a writer, I don’t want to care anymore. I’ll use it the way I want to use it, the way I think it should be used. I don’t feel restricted by it anymore.”map_southeast_asia


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