Writing in a Foreign Language: An Interview with Accent Accent

CJLC’s Interviews Editor Lucia Cao interviews Na Zhong, Jiaoyang Li and Hongru Pan, co-founders of Accent Accent (Accent Society and Accent Sisters), about the experience of running a literary platform/bookstore and writing in their second language.

Founded in New York City in 2018, Accent Accent is a cross-border, multi-disciplinary platform devoted to connecting creators who identify as Chinese and of Asian heritage through a variety of activities, including bilingual workshops, publishing, residencies, open calls, and art exhibitions. Accent Sisters (IG @accentsisters), a bookstore and art space, opened in Jersey City in 2022.

Na Zhong, the co-founder of Accent Society, is a fiction writer, literary translator, and literary podcaster based in New York. A 2023 MacDowell Fellow and 2021-2022 Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellow, she has published with Guernica, Carve, A Public Space (online), Lit Hub, The Margins, The Millions, among others. She is the Chinese translator of Sally Rooney’s three novels.

Jiaoyang Li, the co-founder of Accent Society and Accent Sisters, is a poet and interdisciplinary artist. Her work spans poetry, lyrics, video game scripts, and experimental text for performances and exhibitions, showcased in publications and venues such as Life magazine, LA Reviews of Books, the New York Live Arts Center, and others.   

Hongru Pan (pen name Xiao Yan), the co-founder of Accent Sisters, is a bilingual poet. She has published a few poetry collections in Mandarin and English: Invisible Tel Aviv, Cafe After Dawn, etc. She is also an entrepreneur in technology & education business and was rewarded as Hurun 30 under 30 entrepreneur in 2022.

The interview was originally conducted in Chinese and has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Lucia Cao: How did Accent begin? What is your vision for it?

Jiaoyang Li: I met Na about five years ago in New York, when she was doing her MFA program at the New School and I was doing mine at NYU. We were both the only students in our programs that were from China. We soon came to the realization that the themes and issues that interested us were quite different from those of Asian American writers. This prompted us to reflect on our own identity as Chinese writers in the US, and look for such a community. 

As people started to reach out to us asking about our experiences as Chinese writers in an English-speaking environment, we realized that we weren’t the only ones. This is how we started Accent Society: a space by and for Chinese writers. We want to show that we can be very different and write in very different ways, and challenge existing stereotypes about writers from a Chinese background.

Na Zhong: In the beginning, we did interview series, events, poetry and translation workshops that sought to bring together Chinese writers writing in English. We were asking the question: why can’t we write in a language that isn’t our mother tongue? But we also really value bilingualism; the Chinese language is equally important to us as our writing in English is. 

The word “accent” in the name reflects our aspirations: when we first started to learn English, we were always told to get rid of our accents, but accents also make us unique. I think a main part of our identity and goals is to accept that we are “foreign,” but in the meantime be able to speak to audiences in an English-speaking environment. 

LC: What prompted you to start writing in English? Does it feel different when you write in English than in Chinese? Does it feel as though you are writing to a different audience somehow?

Hongru Pan: I grew up loving Chinese literature and have always wanted to become a writer in the Chinese language. Even after coming to the States, I kept the habit of writing poetry in Chinese just to stay close to the language. I even published a poetry collection in Chinese after four years of college in the US. It was later on in grad school that I picked up English as a writing language. I didn’t enroll in an  MFA program like Jiaoyang and Na; instead, I got a degree in bilingual education, where I learned about the concept of “translanguaging” : when you feel at ease in a bilingual or multilingual environment, when using different languages becomes a natural process to you. I think this term can well describe my experience of writing. 

JL: In China, creative writing is not an established field of study. When I went to college in China as a Chinese major, I was disappointed to find out that there were no classes or resources on writing. After dropping out of college, I stayed in Beijing and interned at a magazine and attended many workshops and events at a bookstore, where I discovered creative writing in English. Later, I went to the UK to get a degree in creative writing. 

The biggest difference for me when it comes to writing in English is probably that I started writing poetry. Back in China, I was only interested in writing novels. I never had the habit of reading poetry either, probably because in the Chinese education system we were used to memorizing the poems and analyzing them according to set rules. But after taking poetry classes in English, I began to understand how poetry actually works, and that with English-language poetry you can even create your own “rules” with great flexibility as a non-native speaker. In poetry, when I made mistakes, my teacher would see it as an interesting expression. It’s also interesting that after I picked up poetry writing in English, I got to know some amazing Chinese-language poets too.

LC: So for you, English is also helping you reapproach and reevaluate literature and writing in the Chinese language? 

JL: You can say that. I believe literatures in different languages are still interconnected. Since there is not an established system of critique for creative writing in China, after I studied creative writing in the English language, I can apply the methodologies to Chinese literature as well, and develop my own criteria for writing. Accent Sisters actually established a prize for poetry – we wanted to judge a piece of writing purely by how good the writing is.

NZ: For me, writing in English is also kind of liberating, for it provides a sense of privacy. I can write in English what I can’t write in Chinese. But I would still translate my writing into Chinese and see if it works – without caring about censorship of course. I think it’s also about finding the right audience. For us bilingual writers, I would say that the most ideal audience would also be bilingual – those who can understand both Mandarin and English.

LC: My following question is about the idea of a “Chinese” identity. You’ve mentioned that there are existing stereotypes and expectations for a “Chinese” writer. In Sinophone and diasporic studies, “Chineseness” has also been a widely contested problem, and has undergone countless attempts of deconstruction and reconstruction. What does it feel like from your own writing experience?

NZ: What is “Chineseness”?

LC: Exactly. I guess I posed the question because the problem of identity and cultural identification generates so much discourse in the contemporary world, and still haunts our engagement with literature and writing by minority groups. How do you view the relationship between identity and writing?

NZ: I remember I hosted a workshop on the theme of “approaching authenticity.” After the first session I realized that there is no such thing as “authenticity” – when you are Chinese, you don’t really think about what it means to be authentic, to be Chinese. 

HP: Having grown up in China and moved here from China, our experience can also be very different from Chinese Americans who grew up in the US.

LC: I remember that in an interview, one of you mentioned “living in a chaos of cultures.” For us who live in a different culture than the one we were born in, rather than writing about a so-called Chinese identity, maybe it’s more like writing about this unique experience of cultural hybridity?

NZ: This reminded me of what writer Zhao Lin said in an interview, that being in the margins also means being in the middle of two things, which gives you a quite powerful perspective.

I was also thinking about the idea of “writing or translating the ‘Chinese’ experience into English,” which to me is never going to be achieved, for the Chinese language is itself an experience that can’t be translated. What comes out of our writing is often a hybrid creation: it can never fully capture anything, but something definitely happened in the process. It is not something that can be written by a writer in English, nor a writer in Chinese. It is kind of like alchemy:  something new is achieved in the process. In fact, many great writers are those writing in the margins, which made me realize that there is so much energy to be found in the margins. 

LC: What does it feel like to be writing from such a perspective as Chinese writers in the English-speaking literary world? Is it easy to find a place?

JL & NZ: Not really [laugh].

HP: Well, I do feel like we have a certain privilege: people don’t expect you to be the same. It’s like you can dress in a very weird way and people won’t think you’re weird; they’ll just be like, you’re Asian [laugh].

So going back to our earlier discussion, another thing that is special about writing in a foreign language is that you can be truly bold and shameless. When you write in your native language, you might worry about using the wrong word, or feel a little embarrassed about your writing; or you might not want to write with total clarity, with fear of being seen in a particular way by people of your own native culture. But in your second language, you are liberated from all of this. 

LC: So you’re saying that because English is not our native language, it is an empty space, open for exploration.

HP: Yes. And oftentimes your readers won’t really know who you are [laugh].

LC: I have one last question for you. Are there projects that you look forward to carrying out in the future?

JL: We’re actually starting to do publishing, which is something we want to focus on in the future. In Mainland China, getting published can be a difficult process especially for experimental writers, and censorship is a big issue. We are trying to provide a platform for writers who want to share their writing through self-publishing. We are also thinking about the possibility of creating a literary magazine that is based in New York but welcomes writing from Chinese writers all over the world, writing in English or Chinese. We want to establish a platform outside of China, which magnifies Chinese voices.