Writing About Languages & Travels: an Interview with Jenna Tang
by Writing Workshops Staff
3 weeks ago
WW: Jenna, could you share with us the inspiration behind creating the "Writing About Languages & Travels 6-Week Zoom Workshop"? How did your personal journey as a writer, translator, and educator influence the inception of this workshop?
JT: As a multilingual translator and someone who’s deeply in love with languages, I find it important to create a space for writers who are language lovers like me––to write about their own stories and about what brings them close to all these languages they speak or learn. There’s something in writing about these travels, these moments of connection that is really invigorating, and I hope that through this class, we’re able to transform this energy into something inspiring.
WW: The workshop covers a range of topics, from language politics to disappearing dialects. What do you believe is the significance of addressing these diverse aspects in relation to writing about languages and travels?
JT: Topics such as language politics, disappearing languages are less spoken about but are crucial as we approach and understand the concept of “language” as a whole. I believe it’s possible to inspire writers to write about experiences they may have or witnessed but haven’t thought about writing down. It’s also there to provide more perspectives to look at what language can mean to us in a profound way.
WW: You’ve worked extensively with multiple languages in your career. How has this multilingual experience shaped your approach to teaching and discussing language in your workshop?
JT: Understanding multiple languages provides me access to resources from all these languages. The concept of multiplicity encourages me to think about experimental approaches I’ve learnt in different literature to shape my own writing and to share these experiences with my students. In this class, it’s also to learn that languages aren’t just the spoken or written languages––cultures, gestures, emotional connections, and the attempts or various methods of communication are languages themselves as well. We can always redefine and reimagine the term “language.”
WW: Can you give us an overview of what students can expect in terms of the structure and content of the workshop? What balance do you strike between theoretical knowledge and practical writing exercises?
JT: The first week will be an introduction alongside pre-class readings, which will be readings that are central to this class. Starting week 2, the class will have a space for a limited number of students to be workshopped each week, and before the workshop session each week, we’ll be exploring a new theme alongside other readings. Most readings are leaning toward personal writings instead of theoretical contents: excerpts of memoirs, personal essays, and chapbooks about languages.
WW: Reading and discussing a variety of texts is a key component of your course. How do you think engaging with works by multilingual writers enhances the learning experience for your students?
JT: Reading personal essays about different writers’ emotional journeys with their languages is a good way to inform our writing––these are the readings that inspired me with my own stories and helped me learn experimental ways to develop personal storytelling. These readings are also meant to inspire us all to reflect on the fact that language brings multiplicity, diversity, and accessibility in its own way.
WW: The course promises a 'safe place and community' for writers. Can you elaborate on how you plan to foster this environment, especially in an online setting?
JT: In the past, I have offered this class uniquely for writers of color. However, in every workshop I teach, I list out workshop guidelines for all participants before we start our class and workshop each other’s writings. Our writing and revisioning can be a vulnerable experience, and by setting up initial guidelines, for example, encouraging participants to ask questions instead of making assumptions, letting the writer speak and ask questions during the discussion instead of being silenced are all important and part of these guidelines.
WW: Writing about body languages is a unique aspect of your course. Could you explain the importance of this topic and how it fits into the broader theme of languages and travels?
JT: I feel like body languages are languages often overlooked, since they can be expressed in unconventional ways. The capacity to learn a new language, the ability to speak multiple languages––ultimately all comes from our physical bodies. Exploring our own relationship with languages also meant that, in some ways, understanding ways we communicate with our own bodies, and that’s definitely an aspect I don’t want to miss out on for this class.
WW: How do you envision your students utilizing the skills and knowledge they gain from this workshop in their future writing endeavors or literary careers?
JT: Through all the themes we’re going to explore in class, I hope the discussions help students explore aspects of languages they haven’t explored much before. I also hope to provide resources on where to look for writings about languages in print and in digital versions. I would also be happy to share tips about how to pitch our own writings to literary magazines.
WW: Could you share a personal story or experience that particularly influenced your view or approach to writing about languages and travels?
JT: I’ve been traveling a lot for years, and in the past few years, I traveled extensively across Latin America, East Asia, and many parts of the States. On my journeys, I keep a small Moleskine notebook with me, and it’s not to keep it as my travel journal, but as a booklet collecting things people would say or write to me in different languages before we said goodbye. To me, it was meaningful to make a decision to ask someone to write something for me. I would intentionally not read any of them until I got on a plane, and I often cried reading them. All these languages that threaded together my memories, my travels would later make their way into my own writing. And I call this whole experience “my language.”
WW: One of the course takeaways is learning how to pitch personal essays. Can you elaborate on the importance of this skill in a writer's career and how you plan to guide your students in getting comfortable and/or mastering it?
JT: I have a list of resources and communities I would encourage my students to build connections with. It’s important to read and write on a regular basis, but it’s equally important to learn how to advocate for our own writings. How do we do an elevator pitch? And how do we prepare a letter for editors to get to know our work as an emerging writer? How do we summarize our work and find the most efficient strategies to let our work make its way to publications?
WW: What advice do you have for writers to effectively infuse their personal experiences and language journeys into their writing without losing the universal appeal of their stories?
JT: Every story is unique in its own way, and there might be moments where we wonder if we need to elaborate more on the cultural aspects or on a personal level to reach certain clarity. But it’s worth asking ourselves, what does clarity mean to you as a writer? Is it really about more specificities, more details, or is it more about writing to the core of what you’d like to fully express/unexpressed?
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Instructor Jenna Tang is a Taiwanese writer, educator, and translator who translates between Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French, and English. She is a board member and chair of the Equity Advocates Committee at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). Her translations and essays are published in McSweeney’s, Latin American Literature Today, World Literature Today, Catapult, AAWW, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. Her forthcoming translations include prose from Lin Yi-Han (The Paris Review) and Lin Yi-Han’s novel, Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise (HarperVia, HarperCollins).