The Daily Northwestern

Multicultural writers discuss identity and their work

Suyeon Son, Reporter

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Three authors of different cultural backgrounds took the stage Thursday in the McCormick Tribune Center for a One Book One Northwestern event, engaging with the Northwestern community to discuss what it means to be multilingual writers.

Bosnian-American writer Aleksander “Sasha” Hemon, Mexican-American writer Ana Castillo and Vietnamese-American writer Bich Minh Nguyen participated in “Language and Identity: A Chicago Writers Panel,” which drew about 100 attendees.

One Book partnered with the Global Languages Initiative and the Center for the Writing Arts to present the program.

“We decided we wanted to bring in authors that would interest a big group of students from a large number of backgrounds,” One Book fellow Arianna Wise said.

Wise, a Weinberg sophomore, said the panelists were especially representative of the One Book project because they all had ties to Chicago. Chicago native Castillo, for instance, touched on political divisions she thought characterized the city.

“(The panel) touched on a lot of things I’ve been discussing in class,” Weinberg sophomore Emily Mannheimer said. “Examining the governmental structure from a multicultural point of view was so interesting.”

Castillo’s perspective contrasted from that of Nguyen, whose Michigan roots had her dreaming up a fantasy about Chicago.

“Chicago – not New York – is the dreamland in the Midwest,” Nguyen said. “I always wanted to feel like I was part of something, something bigger.”

But before discussing the panelists’ Chicago ties, Reginald Gibbons, director of the Center for the Writing Arts and the event’s moderator, asked the authors what language they dreamed in.

Nguyen said she mostly dreamed in English, perhaps because she pushed Vietnamese away so adamantly.

“When I was little, I lived in a predominantly white town in Michigan,” she said. “I wanted to identify as close to my friends as possible. I came to regret that I thought the Vietnamese language belonged just to my father.”

But her love of food led to frequent conversations with her Vietnamese grandmother that left bits of the language in her subconscious mind.

“Like the word for ice cream,” she said. “I always knew food words in Vietnamese.”

The panelists said their cultural identities were not only relevant to their personal lives, but to their work as well. Their bilingualism meant different problems for their writing. For example, one technical problem was translating the authors’ native languages to English.

“Some words, even in their English counterparts, don’t mean the same thing,” Castillo said.

She added written and spoken Spanish are reflective of each other, unlike the distinction that exists between colloquial and professional English.

“Is it legitimate because you speak it or the community speaks it?” she said. “Or is it legitimate because it’s in print?”

Another problem was that Bosnians do not formally recognize the difference between fiction and nonfiction, Hemon said.

“He is a fiction writer,” Gibbons said as he introduced Hemon, “but apparently that doesn’t matter.”

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