After spending about a year with this accommodating community, I joined another writing group–this time a British one. Here, I was reminded of my ESL identity once again. This time though, the compliments were more backhanded than those of the American writing board. As a member of a critique group in the new community, I was required to submit a new short story every month and review the ones submitted by other members. On more than one occasion, my stories would get such notes as “I found the sentence structure a bit awkward. I know it’s difficult to tackle that, and given your ESL background, it was a good effort.” I swallowed the remarks since my primary focus was to improve my writing. But now that I can share it with you, let me vent a bit on that perception. No, those views didn’t hurt me. They angered me.
Such a perception made me angry not because I think too highly of my English proficiency. Far from that. As far as I am concerned, learning–especially that related to writing–is a lifelong endeavour. The idea of me being an ESL, and therefore, only the second best ruffled my nerves because of the sympathetic undertone to it. Yes, English is not my first language. So what? Should that make editors take a lenient approach while reading my work? NO! When I am writing in a given language, I should be rated alongside all others who write in that language, regardless of whether they speak that in their daily lives or not.
For the record, I studied British English in school. The legacy of our colonial rulers is still in place as far as India’s education system is concerned. English happens to be the language of instruction in a lot of schools (including mine) here. So I am not a latecomer to the learn-English club. I started scribbling A, B, C as a toddler, just like any American or British would. Therefore, if I am to be credited for a reasonably okay grasp of the language, I should also be the one to take the onus for any slips and slides I make.
At the same time, readers need to be conscious of what to expect from writers of different geographical backgrounds. As an Indian, whose first language isn’t English, I am not likely to use it like an American, British, or Australian (or those whose native tongue is English) would. Just like the language itself, the slang that cultures using English as their first language have made up, are foreign to me. If my Indian characters start speaking like that, my story will end up being a ridiculously phony disaster. You won’t even buy into the characters, would you? Another point that comes to mind is when I write about rural Indians, I am mostly translating their words into English. For, they would never speak in English; most don’t know the language apart from some basic words. All these factor into my writing of this immensely universal language.
Are those points excuses for making weak prose acceptable to the Western audience? Never. More than one non-native, or should I say ESL, writer has proved how much English belongs to the whole world and not just to pockets where people speak it.
I am sure there are more. And the world of words is only richer because of them.