In March 2020, my UC Berkeley Extension class shifted suddenly from a live classroom-based course to one held via Zoom. Although I initially found the platform challenging, I soon realized that Zoom also had surprising benefits.
During the past two-and-a-half years, I have been able to work with students from beyond the Bay Area—from Alaska to New York. In my most recent class, Great Writers Steal: How the Work of Other Writers Can Inform and Inspire You, the participants joined me from around the world.
The farthest student was 21-year-old Joan Bian, who lives in Beijing, China. As she was getting up in the morning, I was convening the class almost 6,000 miles away in Berkeley. As the semester progressed, I came to admire Joan’s determination to master the nuances of English, as well as her vivid creativity.
I also wondered what her experience was like reading and writing in a language that was not her first. My curiosity led me to this interview.
Beijing and Berkeley are 5,900 miles and 15 hours apart. How did you come across the Great Writers course?
Before the pandemic, many students from my university—the University of International Business and Economics—attended UC Berkeley’s exchange programs. An exchange experience is encouraged during the sixth semester of my undergraduate program.
Berkeley is famous at my university for the excellence of its law and business schools, but I was drawn to the English department by a desire to explore English literature in a liberal environment. But when I was in my sixth term, COVID hit and there was no hope to study abroad due to strict travel controls. Fortunately, I found Live Online courses available on the UC Berkeley Extension website and the experience proved to be worthwhile.
What inspired you to enroll in this particular class?
As a member of Generation Z, I spend much of my leisure time in digital fandoms. Fan fiction is a crucial way of communication within a fandom. Amateur authors from across the globe gather to compose stories, exchange ideas and learn from feedback on decentralized platforms such as www.archiveofourown.org.
I’m genuinely delighted whenever anyone gives me “kudos,” saying they find my work engaging or leaves me a comment carrying on the discussion that I opened in the text. I began to aspire to write in another language after I translated a long piece of fan fiction from English into my mother tongue, Mandarin.
As a translator, I became aware of what David Damrosch meant in his book How to Read World Literature: “The communicative power is unleashed by bringing stories across the border of language.” As an author, I began to dream about writing creatively for a wider readership and sharing my experiences cross culturally. Enrolling in a creative writing course in my non-native language was definitely an adventurous decision, but the desire to share my imagination and understanding of the world was strong.
I began to aspire to write in another language after I translated a long piece of fan fiction from English into my mother tongue, Mandarin.
What were your conceptions about English-language literature before this class? And afterward?
Before this class, my knowledge of English-language literature was largely defined by the works of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald—writing created by white straight men (with the rare exception of Charlotte Brontë) who lived at least 100 years ago. Studying English in a foreign language means taking a fleeting glance at English-language literature from a great distance, and authors of gender and ethnic minorities are largely neglected.
At my university, J.D. Salinger is considered audacious and classmates in the Great Writers course booed his For Esmé—With Love and Squalor as “another anxious white male talking again,” while Zora Neale Hurston won favor in a landslide. This course gave me a wider concept of English-language literature. I felt the impact of the burgeoning civil rights movement in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues. I was blown away when one of my classmates started her in-class assignment with a sentence linking the murder of George Floyd with her characters’ personal feelings.
What was it like for you to write creatively in English, which is not your first language?
For me, the experience is quite similar to writing in my first language. Even my first language seems foreign when I try to write creatively, especially when finding the best word or the correct tone. Still, there are nuanced differences when it comes to writing in English.
It is hard to create conversations when I seldom hear people in my surroundings speak that language. If I write from my own experience, the process of translation sometimes makes the tone or wording sound strange to native speakers. I tend to “borrow” oral English from all sorts of media: books, movies, TV series, et cetera. But the downside of the “borrowing” is that although the language may be correct, the conversation might not be keeping in the context of my story.
Conversations just exemplify the difficulties of straddling two cultures. But then, they also can offer new sources of creation, as Salman Rushdie well-observed: “If literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality, then once again our distance, our long geographical perspective, may provide us with such angles.”
In my final story for the Great Writers course, cultural misunderstanding plays a key role in building tension, with my introverted Chinese protagonist finding it stressful to ask for sick leave from his American boss. Feedback from our in-class discussion suggested that further elaborating on cultural differences might be a good way to improve the story.
What was it like participating in a class with other writers across the world? What did you find most inspiring about this course?
This is the first international course I’ve taken. The experience was stimulating and uplifting.
Some writers showed me courage: One classmate wrote about a wife informing her husband that she’s a lesbian in a language so concise that it was razor-sharp.
Some showed me new perspectives on life: One author, who was much older than me, affectionately depicted his view of fatherly love. Being a daughter, his sensitivity revealed the depth of many life experiences that I have taken for granted.
And then there was also one writer who was as young as me, who sent an email after class inviting me to be her pen-pal so that we could help each other correct grammar mistakes.
I believe literature is humane. It was our little writer community in this class—with people from around the world and all walks of life that shed new light on life and my attitudes toward life—that demonstrated to me the possibilities of creativity and to spread kindness, all of which are so important for a writer starting out.
The most inspiring feature of this course lies in its design: “stealing” from literary giants. For someone who started creative writing with fan fiction, reading successful examples of short stories gave me a foothold for producing my own original work. When Zadie Smith launched her fictional debut White Teeth, she claimed Nabokov and David Foster Wallace as members of her “writers’ family.”
While White Teeth was honored for its strikingly original storytelling, I believe some of its success can be attributed to her literary “relatives.” In my case, I’d like to learn from Tobias Wolff’s attention to detail and comic delivery. I constantly revisit his story Bullet in the Brain, looking for inspiration to light my creative writing journey ahead.
Feedback from our in-class discussion suggested that further elaborating on cultural differences might be a good way to improve the story.
What was the most challenging? How were you able to overcome these challenges?
Finding my voice was the most challenging of all. As language is embedded with social and cultural implications, how could I write about culturally different experiences and environments using standard English? I felt as if I were imitating or that I had to retreat to fantasies where culture, perhaps, matters less.
I remained confused until I made a comparison between V.S. Naipaul and Sam Selvon. Both authors are Trinidad and Tobago immigrants in Britain. Naipaul is known for his high culture and non-judgmental observation, while Selvon writes using a down-to-earth creole dialect. I found the latter provided a much more comfortable path for developing my own voice. If the narrator should speak “Chinglish,” hell, then let him/her/they speak Chinglish. I was greatly encouraged by comments on my last assignment saying that finally, I was beginning to write directly from my mind rather than implanting sample sentences from dictionaries.
How has your fiction, nonfiction and/or poetry changed as a result of this class?
My fiction has improved in terms of awareness of sensory details. Before the course, I tended to generalize. My fiction often grows from an idea to an outline before being filled with details.
The problem was, without guidelines, it was challenging to figure out in what aspect and to what degree I should add specific details. I didn’t realize that I tend to omit details about settings. Environmental depictions in my work only existed when my characters entered or left a scene. It was as if they were conversing or acting within a void. It was the story Good People by David Foster Wallace that made me aware of the importance of setting. When a taboo is at the center of a conflict, the characters beat around the bush and the narrative camera can zoom in on the environment. I was amazed at the details Wallace used to capture the relationship that the author established between the external setting and the characters’ internal feelings. Adding that approach to my writing empowers me to develop my characters more deeply.
In a piece I wrote after the class, a couple who are both artists go sketching in the park. Despite a seemingly harmonious conversation, the same park appears dramatically different in their eyes.
As starters, stepping out of your safety zone and embracing new possibilities might improve your writing more than clinging to old writing patterns.
What advice would you give to other international students on how to succeed in creative writing courses?
Don’t panic and have fun! I’ve experienced the anxiety of writing not nearly as well as native speakers. Nevertheless, creative writing is not a competition but an act of creation. As long as you are not writing for a living, I believe having fun in the process matters. As starters, stepping out of your safety zone and embracing new possibilities might improve your writing more than clinging to old writing patterns.
Don’t be afraid to use your local setting, but be aware of your readership.
If it is tricky for you to imagine a foreign place, it is alright to write about the social and cultural environment that you are familiar with. That said, you might want to supplement explanations or footnotes so that your work can be understood by an international audience.
Interested in learning with Laurie and a global community of writers? Then check out her upcoming The Craft of Writing course!
Laurie Ann Doyle is the author of World Gone Missing, which The New York Times bestselling author Edan Lepucki praised as “a gorgeous debut.” Winner of the Alligator Juniper National Fiction Award and a Pushcart Prize nomination, her stories and essays appear in McSweeny’s, Alta Journal, Under the Sun, Jabberwock Review, The Rumpus, The Santa Fe Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review and many other publications. She teaches writing at The Writers Grotto and at UC Berkeley Extension, where she is an honored instructor. Find her online at www.laurieanndoyle.com.
Joan Bian lives in China. She is an undergraduate in Business English from the University of International Business and Economics. Though a beginner in English creative writing, she has translated and written several novellas in Chinese. She is inspired by female authors with various ethnicities such as Amy Tan, Bernardine Evaristo and Zadie Smith. Currently, she is working on a short story discussing multiculturalism and Eastern-Asian identities.