In my third year as an MFA student, I received an email from my English department requesting that I schedule and pass a Spoken English Exam with the ESL department. The graduate school had notified my department that any “international graduate student whose first language was not English” was required to demonstrate proficiency in spoken English by passing a SPEAK Test, and I would not be allowed contact with my students until I submitted to this exam and demonstrated my proficiency. The university did not trust that I was capable of talking to its students.
When I first read the email, I was irritated, but mostly confused. I had already taught six freshman composition classes and one introductory poetry workshop—clearly, somebody in the graduate school office was trying to retrofit paperwork they had neglected years ago, a white American pointed out to me. More to the point: I could no longer conceive of myself as an international student. I attended three different grade and high schools in my home state and earned a degree in anthropology from this same university. Add in my three year graduate program and I had almost nothing but life experience in American academia. I had been naturalized over a year ago, and thought of myself as a newly-minted American citizen. I had already passed multiple English proficiency tests during the naturalization process, and filled out voter registration cards for half the elder immigrants in my row at the courthouse. And finally, English is not only my first language, but the only one in which I have ever had fluency. The SPEAK Test should have had nothing to do with me.
I wrote back to say I did not need to take the test, and explained why. In the following weeks, the creative writing admin was caught between the graduate school and me and my department advisors. One side insisted that I was an international student whose first language was not English and the other repeated that I was not. My advisors laid out my immigration history in a user-friendly, step-by-step format, and the graduate school cited a line from a law passed in 1987. I Googled said law, which was shorter than a recent assignment handout I’d given my students and a fraction as specific. I found a section of the exam on the internet. Speak into a tape recorder and complete the following sentence: “John went to the library…” The website suggested I might say, “John went to the library to get a book.” I fantasized about leaning into the tape recorder and enunciating, “John went to the library to go fuck himself.” The graduate school said they had a list of countries of origin that determined whose first language was not English, and mine was on it. My advisors informed them that English is one of Singapore’s national languages. (I did not inform anybody that my country of origin is technically Scotland by birth, knowing that where one is from is very rarely about where one is from.) The graduate school said that if that were true, I could come in and demonstrate my status as a native English speaker. The details of my immigration history were shuttled back and forth over the poor administrator’s desk. I panicked, felt like my very existence had enmeshed many people—all who had power over me—in an argument over whether I could be trusted to say “I love to read and write!” out loud.
When my advisor and I heard that I had been granted a waiver from the SPEAK test, I felt vindicated and relieved. All I had to do was go to the ESL office to pick it up. I marched in with Natural Supernaturalism in hand, a sarcastic English major waving her passive-aggressive little flag. I allowed myself to feel the moment, my victory over an offense.
My high school sweetheart was also an immigrant, but as a white male, his history reads differently from mine. It’s not coded in his speech, in his body. “She’s not pretty enough for him,” his white American friends said. “He must be with her because their pussies are fantastic.” I said nothing when I heard these comments; instead, I took them inside me and buried them deep with a lack of surprise that saddens me now. By then, my life revolved around saying nothing. I had experienced my first sexual assault some time prior and could say nothing. I did not understand why it had happened, and if I did not understand, how could I say anything? It would not be a real truth, as I was not a real girl. Instead, I starved, learned how to fold me in on myself, smaller and smaller, and I wasted in silence. I never vanished into the air like I wanted to. I find it meaningful that to go through the motion of a word without speaking it is to mouth it.
My eating problem is, as Becky W. Thompson says in A Hunger So Wide and So Deep, a methodology of creative coping, and as such, it was a part of my life through despair and self-loathing as well as happiness and love. In my early twenties, my relationship with alcohol and drugs overshadowed my relationship with food, and in all that speechless chaos I actually thought of myself as proficiently healed, because I’d found a way to make myself not care about much at all. Without a way to understand every individual trauma as part of a historical and kyriarchal whole, I drowned in a sequence of events that kept happening to me in isolation, or so I thought. I didn’t know better, because I had not yet spoken with and listened to the stories of other women and people of color with whom I share this historical whole.
When I got to the ESL office, I told the receptionist that I had come for a waiver. A woman came and greeted me, then led me to a seat in her cubicle, where she asked me a series of simple questions. Where are you from? When did you first move to America? When did you last move to America? Her mouth smiled, but her eyes never left my lips’ movements. When I told her what my mother did for a living, she did not know the meaning of the word, and an ungracious thought flashed through me. I ate it.
“Well,” she said brightly, “your English is very good. Your department should get notification that you passed before the quarter starts.”
I went numb, a typical response that has served me proficiently, as it tends to ameliorate rage. Feeling like I was floating up to the pocked white ceiling tiles, I asked again for the waiver. She said there was no waiver.
I held off my rage until I was back on the sidewalk. I wish I could tell you that I spent the rest of that year and the beginning of the next channeling it into creative action, into activism, into writing, but I didn’t. I ate it, and I drank it.
For a long time, it felt safer not to speak or write at all. It mostly still does. The anxiety of how I would be perceived, then judged, renders me speechless. I’m overprotective of my usage, my opinions. Spotting a typo in an email I already sent, my stomach goes cold and small and hard. If I pour my heart into a blog post—really speak my mind—it is a miracle if I do not delete it. When I work a long shift after two sleepless nights and say to “illuminate” instead of “eliminate” an answer choice, I wonder whether my high school student is making at least one assumption about me as an immigrant. I wonder if they will say something to their parents, and if their parents will send an email to my boss, and, in the future, to their child’s graduate school, requesting a bona fide native speaker for their money. I am exhausted by a peripheral fear of what it means to exist in the fields of education, higher education, and, by proxy, the poetry community. I never took myself seriously as a candidate for jobs in higher education after I graduated, and did not realize this could be why. Even the act of writing this essay becomes one more variation on a theme of exhaustion. The act of drawing attention to my proficiency of my first language will never not feel like a test. For people who look like me, there can be no typos.
I am sorry to say I used to qualify my immigrant identity with the number of years I had lived in (white) America. I might as well be American, I said. I feel grateful to know better now. The more I stand up for my rights as a human being regardless of citizenship, the more alien I become. For people who look like me, there is always an immigration history, a place to be told to go back to.
It was thanks to the same university that forced me to take the SPEAK Test that I met my friend Ally Day, now a disability studies professor. She all but physically placed Thompson’s A Hunger So Wide and So Deep into my hands. This was the first book I had ever read that argued that trauma and creative survival can be understood as systemic, as inseparable from misogyny, homophobia, racism, classism, xenophobia, transphobia, ableism. The next book my friend helped me discover was Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. This was the first book I had ever read that addressed both poetry and whiteness’ role in systemic racism without apology. I had not known that was possible. I was a feminist with no education in feminism, so I followed Ally’s suggestion and compiled a reading list, one that, thankfully, has no terminus. I learned how certain powerful, dangerous, vulnerable writers could help me survive a world that would erase me. There is much I am unsure of, but not this: feminist poets, storytellers, and artists have given me the gift of creative survival. Survival, for me, has been defined by shame for many years. But every time I read a powerful poem, story, or book, or attempt to write one, I am gifted the chance for shame to evolve, even if slowly, into a location of purpose and—dare I say it—hope. For me, hope is both joyful and frightening, because it is neither a closed circle/cycle nor a straight line. It by necessity invokes the unknown from out of our collective knowledge of trauma. It is only by the generosity of feminist writers and artists that I may navigate hope at all.
I love to read and write.
It is not enough to allow marginalized people into white American institutions. Even being accepted and supported by my creative writing community of peers and mentors did not ultimately change the reality of the institution in which we lived and worked together. It is crucial and hope-inspiring to have more diverse contributors’ lists, and I think we can do more, starting with more diverse mastheads and boards and faculty and presidents, of this country as well as of its academies. As long as there is a kyriarchal institution, there will be people who must survive it creatively.
If you have ever suffered for the opportunities offered by an institution and have experienced the need for a new canon, I know where we can find it. John, why do you go to the library? I go to the library in anticipation of every person who distrusts the existence of people of color in academia. I go to the library to find art and poetry that may convince me that my body is not collateral damage. I go to the library to learn a new language.
Lo Kwa Mei-en is the author of YEARLING (Alice James Book 2015), winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize. She is from Singapore and Ohio, where she currently lives and works in Cincinnati. You can find her at www.lokwameien.com.