11 MIN READ
This week in Writing Journeys, Dhirendra Nalbo, researcher, academic, and educator, writes about the politics of language and how it affects the process of writing.
As anyone who has walked in Nepal’s mountains knows, there’s no one way to get where you want to go. There are often many different paths. That’s a point that Dr. Dhirendra Nalbo makes with convincing clarity in this week’s Writing Journey.
Like many in Nepal, Dhirendra grew up in a family that spoke their mother tongue (Limbu) at home and then studied at a school in Nepali. Academic research shows that younger students do much better when they learn in their own language, but that’s generally not how Nepal’s village schools have worked. Dhirendra recounts what it was like for him as a young boy facing a cultural architecture built by others.
Dhirendra’s essay calls attention to the politics of language, and reminds of how central language and culture issues are to education and educational opportunity. Schools can create opportunities for some, but can also reinforce power structures that push whole groups to the margins. The cultural and linguistic structures built into schools can present the highest barriers to overcome.
Sometimes, those unseen but very real outside structures can even become barriers within our own minds.
“Good writers don’t come from backgrounds like mine” was an idea Dhirendra has long wrestled with. Voices in our head tell us we are not doing things the right way, or that we can’t do something well. Dhirendra wants us to silence those inside critics, so that we can get out what we need to say. Nepal becomes a better place when that happens.
“We all have our own writing journeys,” he emphasizes. “We can all be thinkers and writers.”
Thank you, Dhirendra-nessa, for taking the time to share from your journey! Keep the momentum alive!
Dhirendra Nalbo, PhD, is co-founder of the Open Institute where he teaches a course on Critical Epistemology and Methodology, and co-directs the Writing and Research Diploma Program. His research interests include violent conflict and peace, natural resource governance, environmental studies, climate change, peacebuilding, and social unrest. Recent articles include The future of democracy (The Kathmandu Post, June 10, 2021), महिला हिंसा र पुरुष (Kantipur, August 18, 2021), Asia’s new Cold War (Nepali Times, March 7, 2021), and Rethinking our conservation model (The Record, November 5, 2020).
Writing Journeys, a series on writing curated by Tom Robertson, appears every Wednesday on The Record. All of the previous Writing Journeys can be found here.
Thinking about ‘bad’ and ‘good’ writers
For students in the 1980s in the villages of northeast Nepal, even having paper and a pen before grade four was a dream. It was simply impossible, not because we lived in abject poverty, but because there just weren’t enough shops at which to buy such items. Instead, we used a twig as a pen, a nicely smoothened piece of flat wood as paper, and refined soil-powder that we produced ourselves by sifting through dirt to filter out bigger particles as ink. Fortunately, these materials were in abundance. In a sense, these improvised writing materials gave me plenty of opportunity to write and rewrite. The cost of making a mistake was only my time. In fourth grade, paper and pens came into the picture and I had to be more economical in my learning, so that I wouldn’t run out of them between opportunities to buy more.
My understanding used to be that good writers don’t come from backgrounds like mine, especially when writing in English. However, over the years, I have learned that there’s no right or wrong way to learn to write; we all have our own writing journeys.
Most fundamentally, I have learned to reserve judgment on how people write. Some of us become writers late in life and some of us earlier for various reasons. It is unfair to put tags that qualify or make some of us ‘good’, ‘gifted’ writers while others are ‘bad’. Instead, writing is the art of craftsmanship; we find our own process, voice, and reason to write. So, thinking whether I am a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writer is unhelpful. One way or another, we can all be thinkers and writers, especially when we put in sufficient effort and get support from others.
The politics of language
As we all know, the hierarchical nature of language is pervasive in Nepal. It can shake young learners to their core, shattering their confidence as thinkers and writers.
For many non-native speakers who must write in a language other than their native language, the sense of uncertainty and insecurity about their learning, thinking, and writing begins early.
My native tongue is Limbu. Switching back and forth from Limbu to Nepali was a way of life. It sometimes caused problems for me as a student.
The Limbu language has a particular sound system. This poses challenges for Limbu-speaking people to speak and write in Nepali correctly. For example, when a Limbu says ‘ghar’ (घर) or house, it sounds as ‘khar’ (खर), although the intention is to say the former. Pronouncing ‘घर’ as ‘खर’ is obviously incorrect because the latter refers to the straw used to thatch houses in rural areas. As a schoolboy, despite my intense focus to say and write correctly, I made several such unintentional errors. I also struggled a lot learning Nepali grammatical rules (mostly ह्रस्व, दीर्घ). The outcomes were physical punishment and low grades in final exams. Some teachers would thrash us with sticks or force students to do squats while holding their ears, known as उठ-बस in Nepali, and mockery by fellow students. Those were difficult moments for me: such types of punishment shook my confidence in learning and writing.
I am not alone in experiencing such moments. When I was in grade three, a teacher asked one of the students to say ‘dhanyabad’. The student, who was from the Sherpa community, said “dannayabat” (sounded like दन्नयबात). The teacher asked him to say it again. “Dannnaya..bat,” he repeated full of nervousness. The rest of us laughed out loud and the teacher caned him on both hands. He was absent for several days.
I read and write fluently in Nepali and English. I predominantly use English in my professional life but I speak with my family exclusively in Limbu. My social life is a mixture of Limbu, Nepali, and English. I dream in all these languages. The mind’s ability to process the ideas and thoughts we generate — and communicate them in writing — is difficult to comprehend and articulate. I suspect that my readers who have non-Nepali mother tongues can relate.
So, how we learn to write, in what language and why, are deeply personal, professional, and pedagogical questions. We confront these questions in our own ways. For me, trying to find answers to these questions helps me see the reasons to write.
Finding a process
Research has shown that the ability to speak in multiple languages is broadly a good thing. While I’m unfamiliar with this exhaustive evidence base, the critical point concerns what multilingualism looks like as a lived experience. While we all face challenges that vary, if we are passionate about writing, finding a process and practice that works well can make all of us writers, regardless of our class, caste, gender, and schooling.
Let me recall Bhupi Sherchan:
लामो सास फेर्छन
Bhupi Sherchan’s lines remind us that all writers go through specific processes that are essential to writing. Apparently, he wrote the poem sarcastically. To me, instead of sarcasm, it depicts writers’ reality: write, delete, rewrite, pause, and write-and-rewrite – the fundamental process to produce solid writing. In that sense, poet Sherchan is not a ‘bichara’ because the very process he embraced and practiced made him a renowned literary figure in Nepal. I intimately relate with Sherchan’s experience: we all have our own journey, and we should not feel terrible because everyone has to write and rewrite.
Keeping momentum alive
When we read something we love, we simply enjoy the awe-inspiring experience, admire the author’s work, and often say, “I wish I could write like this.” Getting inspired is fantastic, but in romanticizing the finished product, we overlook the process.
I learned my writing process – write, erase, and rewrite – when I began my writing journey with a twig, some wood, and dirt in the foothills of the Kanchanjanga, known as “phaktanglugma” in Limbu, and it remains fundamental.
I never forget three things when I write. First, it is important to allow my ideas and thoughts to fall in a coherent and clear manner so that I can write in sentences and then paragraphs. This does not happen easily. I need to allow the process to unfold. Going through the process can be difficult and, in some cases, it can get agonizing: staring and staring at the screen or spacing out. But this very process allows me to experience ‘aha’ moments! These breakthrough moments are the fuel for me to continue my writing, particularly when I get stuck and frustrated.
Second is the process of receiving feedback. For novice writers, getting tons of feedback often feels overwhelming and discouraging. I meet researchers and writers who often feel disheartened when receiving endless comments on their writing. I understand those feelings. But I feel strongly that writing is inherently an act of sharing one’s thoughts and ideas – a knowledge generation process. The real beauty is the dynamics of creating and sharing ideas with supporting examples and receiving feedback. It is necessarily a public conversation, and hence a knowledge-production process. Of course, it is up to the writer whether to accept or reject the comments. But I think we should consider getting feedback a ‘luxury’. As a writer, I deeply appreciate the back-and-forth process, which ultimately helps me to produce better writing that, quite simply, makes me feel good.
Another crucial piece of my writing process is the practice of patience. I consider writing a marathon, not a sprint. I need to find a pace that is steady and focused. If I rush it, I don’t produce the writing I like; I may burn out, and I may even give up. This is what often happens in long runs, especially if you sprint in the beginning. This does not mean I take forever to finish my writing. Instead, to me, it’s all about keeping the momentum alive, remaining open-minded, and being aware of the deadline/timeframe. This also means taking short breaks, especially when the writing gets really hard.
Why write if it is so hard and frustrating, particularly when at times it can feel like life has stacked the cards against you? I find writing difficult but also joyous and empowering. It gives a voice not just to yourself as a writer but also to those who don’t have the time and means to write.
A friend whom I met after my PhD tells me to search for vigorous words and sentences wherever I go, whomever I talk to, and whatever I read. I find this advice incredibly useful because it helps me pay attention to what has been said or written, along with how it was said, who said it, in what context, why it matters, what it means to me, and how I can rearticulate it through my own understanding to my readers. In that sense, I need to know why I write and what resources are out there to help guide my ideas and arguments.
As in any professional engagement, a person does not automatically become a natural or ‘gifted’ writer. Instead, to become a writer, one needs to find reasons, invest time, put in sufficient effort, and most importantly pay attention.
Some of us out there may feel that the cards are stacked against us. Yet we should remind ourselves that through the complexities of our lived experiences, radically diverse as they may be, we are in the ‘right’ to write – to express ourselves – with the tools we have. This way, our writing can reflect the true nature of our societies: complex, diverse, and rich.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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