Closer Still: On Reading What I Could Not Understand by Isabella Wang

Some artists first learn to draw by tracing the work of others – sentence structure, tone, plot, word play, imagery. Until I found my own voice, I wrote in the voices of other writers that I read from and tried to mimic.

If I were to name one most influential title in my early life, it would be Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The book filled me with false hope; I was drawn to it by how much young Matilda resembled myself, before I was ever made aware of our differences.

Emerging from dysfunctional families, we were both neglected and left to entertain ourselves while the adults bickered, talked over us. In this sense, books became a refuge. They showed us that there was a world out there with characters we could connect to. Even if that spatial reality was a construct – the result of someone else’s imagination – the fact that the authors believed in it perhaps meant that we weren’t alone. Matilda began reading at the age of two. By four, she was making her way to the library everyday herself, and having read every book in the children’s section by the age of six, she moved on to Charles Dickens and Moby Dick. In this way, the books served as a protective filter—how she shielded herself and developed superpowers that in turn allowed her to break free from her oppressors, and abscond to the land of eternal, happily ever after. For years, I grew up wondering why I couldn’t do the same.

I couldn’t read. Picture a girl at seven years old, lost at the street parade on Canada Day, with her mother nowhere to be seen (that happened). Now imagine her in that same position, after just having arrived to a new country, not being able to understand a word of what anyone is saying around her. She is alone and isolated despite the crowd, forced into a state of indefinite alterity. That’s what it was like for me, to open up a book to English for the first time.

I want to say that I’ve always known that I wanted to become a writer, that I’ve loved books and reading since I was very young, and that is what lead me into writing. But that is not the case. I never liked reading as a child.

In 2007, there were two other students in my class who were Chinese, who had immigrated like I did a few years earlier, and were assigned to be my translators. One of them – a boy – convinced me to eat liquid whiteout because I couldn’t read the labels myself, or communicate my needs . Through the act of irresponsible translation by these two students, my requests for help landed me in the principal’s office for things I didn’t do, whereupon my mother would be called in; events that never ended well. Nor was I able to retaliate when they made fun of the way I spoke, and of my name — once, that same boy referred to me as “Izzybeeler”, and the nickname stuck. Back then, I read not for enjoyment, but because I knew that if I were to survive, I would have to learn the language. Until then, I would fake an illness, force a bout of sickness by eating moldy pizza, hurt myself — climb to the top of the space net and jump down, or bang my head against the fence until I had a concussion; anything to get out of school.

My mother didn’t know enough English when we first came here, but she was all that I had. She took beginner English courses for adults at Langara College, and taught me what had been taught to her. We started with the alphabet. She would write the letters on a white-board, and I would trace them with my fingers, making out each individual soft and hard sound as I went along. Except I always asked the wrong questions: What was the difference between clauses and Santa Claus? F and ph made the same sounds, so wasn’t it redundant to have them both? Sp is actually pronounced sb, so why not just replace it with a b? And, the word ‘the’ sounded like ‘they’ when placed in front of a vowel. I used the two interchangeably to the fury of my mother who took it as deliberate ignorance.

“That is how the language works,” she would tell me. “Just know it!”

This was so long ago that I can no longer recall much of the process, only that it was excruciating for both of us. After all, how do you explain language to a seven year old? I wanted to understand what my mother could not explain. I was slow to learn. Late nights saw me trying to make out the words on every page and my mother hovering over me — the book being ripped out of my hands and strewn across the room if I stalled or hesitated for too long. It was through the fear of not knowing this language, and my inability to communicate, that I progressed quickly, making my way from picture to chapter books to novels.

Writing offered an escape, in that I wrote to escape my own body. I wanted to get as far away from myself as possible, and from the spaces that occupied me. I read a lot of great literature growing up, but the stories that were recounted back to me never depicted the lives and circumstances of those like myself.

I did not know where to look for them. Sure, we would be handed reading lists at the beginning of every summer. Most students only sieve through one or two titles. I would go to the library and check them all out. I thought I was being a good student, but looking back now, I can only ask why there weren’t any Chinese characters in any of the recommended titles. It would explain how in the fall, when instructed to construct essays on how we connected to the texts, I always got a C+ on my papers. My teachers would call my essays skimming the surface of things.

It would explain how I could not identify with any of the characters on the page. I lived vicariously through them instead — through their adventures in phantasmal worlds if I pictured myself hard enough in their bodies. In my own stories, I could pass myself off as almost beautiful, almost happy, and never Chinese.

This is not to say that the books I grew up reading, like Matilda, have not influenced me as a writer, or that I do not appreciate them immensely despite having realized now, that it was the very lack of representation during those years that have left me feeling excluded and disconnected for a long time. Reading was what led Matilda to her superpowers, and it led me to writing. Both allowed us to re-write our stories, draw on what’s unresolved, unsettled, the certain places in our lives that had gone wrong, and in the act of doing so, reach towards resolution. But I’ve learned where to look now.

It takes a certain leap, a recognition. Until I immigrated to Canada, I didn’t know that there was a world out there beyond the one I had already known. I didn’t know that pursuing an English degree was a possibility until I read of the Chinese-immigrant boy who went on to become an English professor in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You — the first Chinese character I encountered in a book. Until writing led me to connect with Chinese-Canadian writers — Yilin Wang, Rita Wong, Phoebe Wang, Jane Shi, Elaine Woo, Lindsay Wong, Natalie Lim, LJ Weisberg, Doretta Lau, Kagan Goh, Carrianne Leung, Evelyn Lau, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Larissa Lai, Fred Wah, Beni Xiao, and Jen Sookfong Lee, to name just a brilliant few —, I didn’t know that I could be who I was, and still be a writer. I needed permission to write into myself rather than against. Maybe now, I think, I’ll know where to proceed from here.



Isabella Wang is a young, emerging Chinese-Canadian writer from Vancouver, B.C. At 18, she is a two-time finalist and the youngest writer shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Essay Contest. Her poetry is published in Room Magazine, The /tEmz/ Review, Train Journal, Plenitude, and Looseleaf Magazine, and she holds a Pushcart Prize nomination for poetry. Her essays are published in carte blanche, and forthcoming in The New Quarterly. She is pursuing a double major in English and World literature, and a minor in First Nations Studies at SFU. As well, she is co-ordinating the Dead Poets Reading series, serving as the youth advocate for the Federation of BC Writers, working with Books on the Radio, and interning at Room.

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