SALIK SHAH: You have been teaching English to immigrants and non-native speakers of myriad cultural and linguistic backgrounds for nearly two decades. How do non-native speakers see the English language? What does it mean, say realistically, to learn or teach a foreign language — especially when it is the language of the recent colonists and the neo-imperialists?
DAVID A. HEWITT: For the sake of both accuracy and treating the question with the seriousness it deserves, my answer to this will fail the brevity test, but so be it…
I taught English in Japan for about eight years: to middle-school students for whom English was primarily a means to the end of passing high-school entrance exams, to upper-elementary clubs for whom it was a fun diversion and head start on their middle-school work, and to adults ranging from the very serious who needed it for careers to young adults looking mainly to expand their horizons and meet others with like interests. Though Japan was occupied by U.S. forces after the Second World War, it was never truly colonized; schooling in Japan is and always has been conducted in Japanese, and so nearly all the Japanese I met looked upon English learning more as an expedient, a tool for international communication, than as a mandate imposed by outsiders. This is a sharp distinction, obviously, when compared with educational “reforms” imposed upon, say, Nigeria or Kenya or South Africa or India or Vietnam or for that matter the First Nations of the Americas. Japanese people almost without exception treated me, a Euro-American, with impeccable politeness and often stunning kindness. But from news and conversation it soon became clear that the military alliance with the U.S., and U.S. influence over Japanese politics and policy, was a matter of much controversy–particularly in issues surrounding the U.S. military, from bases eating up land in a densely populated nation (Okinawa bears a grossly disproportionate burden in this) to the question of American nuclear weapons being housed on or near (in naval vessels) Japanese soil–memory of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks isvery much alive in Japan, and anti-nuclear sentiment runs high.
Since returning to the U.S., I’ve taught English to immigrants and college students from a wide range of nations. Here, too, for most, learning English was above all a pragmatic matter–a means to an end for pursuing financial well-being for self and extended family. I’ve always considered the ESOL classroom a place where I can learn every bit as much as students do, in trying to understand the cultures and customs and values and hopes and fears these students bring to the U.S. with them. I always considered it important, working with those insecure about their English-language skills, to honor their accomplishment as speakers of two, or even three, four, or five languages, rather than pathologizing deficits in English ability–something I sometimes see in educators who should know better. In this, what echoes for me is a passage from Chögyam Trungpa: “Transcendental generosity is generally misunderstood . . . as meaning being kind to someone who is lower than you. Someone has this pain and suffering, and you are in a superior position and can save them–which is a very simple-minded way of looking down upon someone. But in the case of the bodhisattva, generosity is not so callous. It is something very strong and powerful: it is communication . . . Communication must be radiation and receiving and exchange.” I’m convinced that without this spirit, even with benevolent intentions and careful choice of texts, effective non-colonial or anti-colonial education cannot occur.
I think of the presence of international, immigrant, or Generation 1.5 students as invaluable in classes where they mix with native-born U.S. citizens. Non-Americans’ knowledge of Americana tends to be extensive–in what corner of the globe are the names of Steve Jobs or Michael Jordan or Bill Gates or Beyoncé unknown?–but American-born students are, on the average, woefully lacking in global knowledge, let alone perspective. This dearth of perspective became all the more clear, frighteningly so, in 2016.
For years, I steered clear of overtly political discussions in my ESOL classrooms, but there came a time in 2016 when, to the utter dismay of many, Donald Trump began to look like a viable candidate for the Republican nomination. And there came a day, after hearing yet another anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican tirade, when I decided I needed to stand in front of my classroom full of West African, East African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and other students and lay my cards on the table–tell them how profoundly I disagreed with this man’s statements, and declare explicitly how in my classroom and in the college and the community as a whole, every one of them was valued and welcome. This felt like not only an ethical but a pedagogical necessity: How could they feel at ease enough to learn effectively, let alone confide any personal difficulties, if they suspected their instructor might secretly harbor even a tiny measure of that same vitriol?
I am very interested to know when and how you started translating Japanese fiction into English?
I have no Japanese cultural heritage by upbringing; as a suburban American white boy, my interest in Japanese sprang from a deep fascination with martial arts in my teen years. I began to study the language and culture as an adjunct to this obsession, eventually completing a B.A. in East Asian Studies. Initially, teaching English was an expedient to secure a visa and pay the bills so I could live in Japan and pursue classical martial arts. I eventually left the martial arts world some years ago for . . . reasons. But by that time I’d frequently served as an interpreter during training sessions and had done considerable written translation, mainly of martial arts-related materials. During this time, I translated for tech and financial securities firms, but when opportunity arose to work in anime, I leapt at the chance. That’s the bulk of what I’ve worked on in the past decade or more, with the occasional brief foray into fiction or poetry.
As a translator, you have to manage expectations of two or more entirely different cultures or communities of readers. What are some of the main challenges that you face as a translator-writer?
Rather than give a broad-strokes answer, allow me to leap into a specific case: Japanese has a series of honorifics or name-suffixes, -san/-sama/-kun/-chan, and more. Which is used depends upon age, status, gender, or familiarity. In some cases, a client might ask that these tag-words be transplanted directly into an English translation, to give the work a Japanese flavor and as “fan service” to acknowledge diehard anime fans’ pride in knowing elements of the language. This is a valid choice, but it also sets up a barrier for the newer or more casual viewer. So what if a character uses the incorrect honorific out of lack of education? Or uses the incorrect one, intending sarcasm? Or chooses to not attach one at all, as a form of insult? There are solutions in English–a sarcastic “Yes, Your Lordship” or the like, but it can easily feel like overkill, or underkill, or painfully unfunny in the target language when it’s hilarious in the original. In this respect, I’m very glad to have studied fiction writing as well as language. Translation and creative writing are different realms, but whatever sensitivity to nuances of elements like foreshadowing, tone, or thematic or symbolic echoing I’ve developed in either serves me well, I think, when I shift to the other.
My greatest challenge is time. I teach full time for a community college, which means a lot of hours spent on teaching, planning, conferencing, and responding to student writing. My writing time is thus constrained, and I sometimes have to make hard choices. Not long ago I was offered a novel by a well-known Japanese SF writer to translate, but ended up declining–it would have meant setting aside my own writing for the better part of a year, and would likely have impinged on my work responsibilities as well. It may have been the wrong decision–I certainly would have earned more from the translation than from my own fiction, and language ability rusts when not regularly polished–but to paraphrase Milan Kundera, with only one chance at life, we have no real way of judging whether a past decision was right or wrong, and so forward we go.
Your new novelette “The Great Wall of America” [Read / Amazon] is set in what could be described as an internment camp on the move. It presents a nightmarish yet plausible scenario of what could happen if the migrant caravans breached the southern Mexico-American border and crossed into the US territories. Tell us about the origin of this novelette. When and under what circumstances did you start working on it?
I originally conceived “The Great Wall” in the long-ago days of late 2015, when Donald Trump’s candidacy looked mainly like a publicity stunt, akin to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, with about the same likelihood of an ignominious end. Hearing his rants about this ridiculous wall-to-end-all-walls set off a series of associations in my mind: the Depression-era American public-works projects of the 1930s; the fact that U.S. government coffers could not possibly pay for such a thing; the cynical realization that as with so many industries in the U.S.–agriculture, construction, manufacturing, hospitality, and more–the only affordable way to sustain such a program would be the cheap, backbreaking, and thankless labor of undocumented immigrants; the American for-profit prison industry and its cozy relationship with lawmakers; parallels with the Great Wall of China and the hundreds of thousands of dead laborers who were in some cases interred in the foundations of that Wall . . . the futility, stupidity, and cruelty of it all. When I first began tinkering with the concept, its tone was satirical. But after that long, utterly sleepless election night of watching state after state fall to Trump, I knew in my bones the story had changed. There was nothing the least bit funny about any of this, and the tone had to be stark and realistic, since what once seemed a laughably ludicrous dystopian future was now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.
“The Great Wall of America” deals with the timeless themes of migration and exile, subjugation and loss of personal freedom — it happened in the age of empires in Egypt, China, Japan, and England, to name a few. And it’s happening again right now under the regime of neo-imperialist powers like America, even China and India, where a whole region (Xinjiang) or a state (Jammu and Kashmir) have turned into de facto police states—prison camps even—for the people of a certain minority religion or language or both. How did you research or go about your worldbuilding for “The Great Wall of America”? Conversations, field visits, books or too much “fake news”?
Here I must confess, abashedly, to not having done any great amount of research specifically for this story. As an East Coast dweller and native Midwesterner, my envisioning of the Southwestern desert is drawn from the odd visit as a tourist and additional research to pin down factual or visual specifics. Technical and construction details are drawn from having known people in the building trades and from my own very limited and amateurish construction or renovation experience. I asked two Mexican-American friends to read the story, which they generously agreed to do, and to tell me where they saw I was getting something wrong or being obtuse.
More than anything, as a longtime student of martial arts, strategy, and history, the question of power endlessly haunts me. I had the questionable privilege, years ago, of interpreting and participating in an interminable conversation with a high-ranking member of the U.S. Border Patrol, who regaled us with unlikely tales of his many near-fatal scrapes along the Mexican border and how his superior hand-to-hand fighting skills had often saved the day. My touchstones for the guardias of the story include this individual to some small degree, but to an even greater degree the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the Holocaust, and countless other incidences of abuse of authority, the psychological roots of which have been made disturbingly clear by the experiments of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. I don’t see this story as a representation of any particular evil at the heart of America, any more than the examples you mention signify any inherent evil at the core of China or India or Japan or ancient Egypt. The U.S., though, continues to be the most powerful nation on Earth; Power does what Power does, and when that power is unchecked, particularly in an atmosphere of dehumanization, the results can be horrific.
More often than not, those who enslave or impose barbaric rules against the minorities are often outsiders — the elected or appointed leaders of a dominant group or ideology, the result of flawed or hacked democracies of the modern world. Despite all our scientific and technological advancements, don’t you think we have failed to evolve politically? Is there hope for a radically new future — a new kind of politics? How would that world look like?
I wish with all my heart I could frame an effective, even optimistic, answer to this. American democracy has shown itself to be deeply flawed and vulnerable–not just the Republican party but the entire two-party system has devolved into a team sport in which heaping blame upon, or trolling, political enemies occupies vastly more of our collective headspace than level-headed, evidence-based attempts at solving pressing problems. I wish we could more often see in politics what I might call a sincere and open-hearted populism: a populism based on addressing issues that affect the greatest number and cross-section of citizens, rather than the all-too-common populism of scapegoating and Othering. Gandhi is perhaps the finest case in point: In his anticolonial protests and strikes and marches and with the Homespun movement, he stood proudly for the interests of India and the Indian people. This was a form of populism, but a form which looked to unite the broadest possible swath of the population against the predations of power, rather than cynically slicing and dicing, playing the powerless against the powerless, man against woman, black against white, Christian or Jew or Hindu or Buddhist against Muslim, native-born against immigrant, intelligentsia against working class, as the panderers and scoundrels of so many nations endlessly do.
In the American system, algorithms that can identify and quantify gerrymandering could be used to promote fairer election outcomes, and experiments on the local or state level in proportional representation, rather than the polarizing winner-take-all system, give some glimmer of hope. A host of other promising small-scale solutions exist, but the political will to implement them is almost entirely absent in the two major political parties, and the population at large seems too captivated by the horse race, the neverending spectacle that the media so love to sell them, to pay much attention to minutiae of process and incremental change.
As an educator, I want badly to believe that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning, effectively taught, can save the day, but I’m not particularly optimistic. This is a slow and uncertain process, especially in the face of a wave of neo-fascism, at a time when both the refugee crisis and the climate crisis call for swift, thoughtful, and decisive action. I’ve come to think that even more important than critical thinking, and perhaps easier to attain, is convincing people of every age and political persuasion to listen and to recognize everyone, wherever they reside on the political spectrum, of whatever nationality, ethnicity, gender, religious persuasion, or sexual preference as human beings–to protest or resist too, by whatever means, when necessary, but to decline to play the game of us-against-them. As human beings, we are all us. We can’t wait for media, celebrities, or politicians to guide us in this; it must proceed through the grass roots, and it’s an effort every one of us can press forward a little more today than we did yesterday.
Why did you choose an ambiguous ending for “The Great Wall of America”?
I don’t think I’d use the word “choose.” I can analyze in retrospect and say that, though I would love to have seen a happy ending for Rafa, Windward, Lori, and Asaad, if art imitates life, at this moment in history such an ending would be untrue to the reality currently unfolding. A grimmer clear-cut ending in which all four characters either die or are forced back onto Wall detail would seem to deny the possibility of our collectively working through and beyond the ills of this historical moment. The ambiguous ending could, I suppose, be seen as representing the leap into the unknown that is America’s current flirtation with neo-fascist nationalism, and the precarious fate this thrusts upon those caught in its crosshairs.
The truth is, though, I went through no such thought process in actually writing the ending. Fundamentally, I believe conscious efforts at symbolism or allegory are too likely to come across as heavy-handed, and though I was aware of the characters and the situation as symbolic of people or realities in our world, I believe the most potent elements of a story usually emerge from letting go of conscious, discursive thought and . . . letting the story and characters take on a life of their own, letting the Muses have their way, letting the Unconscious unspool its hidden threads–call it what you will. When I reached that part of the story, that was the ending that emerged from my pencil onto the page in the flow of the moment; and when I went back and re-read it, it broke my heart. This seems only right: the complacency of those who claim good intentions has played a powerful part in allowing the world to become what it now is, and since I count myself among those–the well-intentioned but complacent–I deserved to have my heart broken, as both penance and wake-up call.
When can we expect a new story or a novelette?
A longer novelette of mine–very different in tone from “The Great Wall,” a humor piece called “Donald Q. Haute, Gentleman Inquisitator, and the Quest of the Last Unicorn”–was published very recently in the anthology Second Sojourn, from Blue Stone Media. I have another couple of these Donald Q. Haute stories, a couple of other SF stories, and an assortment of poems all currently going the rounds for possible publication. As to precisely when and where they might see release, for the moment this is in the hands of powers greater than I, whether divine, karmic, or editorial.
What are you working on these days?
I’ve got another of the aforementioned Donald Q. Haute stories waiting for its second draft, and three graphic novel concepts in various stages of completion, including one very nearly ready to shop around to publishers. Beyond this, I’m working on our basil, pepper, and tomato plants as the growing season winds down, working with community-college students on their writing, and working on my own self through writing or walking or sitting or watering or other forms of practice.
How did you find Mithila Review? What prompted you to send this story to us?
I initially learned of Mithila Review through the Duotrope website, which is an excellent resource for authors and poets. Mithila Review’s international scope impressed me, and I was awed at its list of past contributing authors. To stand in such company, as a writer of limited publication experience, is both humbling and a true honor.
Many thanks, David! We are truly grateful, honored and excited to publish this story in Mithila Review. We look forward to your next one!