Category Archives: Readings

Writing While Bilingual: English and Graduate School Writing

I am bilingual.

That sentence was one of the hardest to write. But harder still was coming to the realization that yes, I am indeed bilingual. See, I grew up in Uganda, a former British colony in East Africa. From the time I was three I spoke both English and Luganda. One way colonialism works is it destroys indigenous languages, by forcing the colonizer’s language onto the colonized. In the case of Uganda, the official language is English. And though I can fluently speak Luganda, I struggle with reading Luganda and writing it is even harder. But Luganda is such a huge and very important part of my life, and it affects the way I think and view the world.

But just as Luganda has been a part of me, so has English. My entire academic career has been in English; beginning in kindergarten and now in graduate school. Thus, I have written and spoken English, the Queen’s English, I’ll have you know, for the majority of my learning. But my introductory writing lessons in English were in Uganda. I was taught to write in English, specifically creative writing, but in a Luganda way. This meant much of my writing was telling, what I like to call wandering stories. When I think about the way I write and tell stories, Amos Tutuola’s novel, The Palm Wine Drinkard, comes to mind. Because the way I grew up involved hearing stories told with a lot of details, tangents, and with multiple characters, some of whom had a tendency to just disappear without having advanced the plot of the story much. So, I learned to write stories the way I heard them told, even though I was writing in a foreign language.

Graduate school writing, I believe, is a form of storytelling.

Graduate school writing, I believe, is a form of storytelling. And when I started my graduate school career, I had not written for over five years. I had been working and having a child. I quickly learned that writing is a muscle– one that if you do not exercise, will quickly atrophy. But never having been one that shies away from exercise, and because I am now a graduate student, I began to collect books on writing. And I learned some good tips such as write your introduction last, use simple English, write an outline, know your audience, and edit, edit, edit. The idea of simple English has always worried me. As a child who read Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, I am forever stuck on a particular scene in that book where Obi Okonkwo’s character returns home from studying English in the United Kingdom– a decision that had already disappointed the community that fundraised to send him to school. Upon his return he gives a speech which further disappoints his community because he uses “is” and “was” English instead of using big words. I have already disappointed my Ugandan family by not being a doctor, (though I am attempting that with a PhD, it is just two letters after all), a lawyer or an accountant. I am not going to disappoint them further by using “is” and “was” English too.

The writing advice was all good. But there was the messy case of the subject matter of my graduate work; sex and reproduction among women and girls from Africa living in America. Women and girls like me. I am well aware for whom the university was built for, and it was definitely not someone like me. I wanted to write for us; for women and girls that had taken that journey from Africa to settle on this “shining city on a hill.” I wanted this story, the story I was attempting to write during my qualifying exams, to be for us. And I found I couldn’t. Because to write it in the way I wanted to, English, I found, was inadequate. I knew the mechanics of putting together a sentence. I knew a first draft would always be terrible and that it would be the fifth maybe even sixth draft that I would finally send to my committee. But the content and the way I wanted to write that content; English wasn’t working out. In my head it was in Luganda, because Luganda allowed me to say what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. But because I never learned to write it, but only to speak and think in it, English was all I had. And when I wrote in English attempting to fit Luganda into English, my paper was incoherent. I was frustrated and confused. How could I still be struggling with this god awful, clunky language, that I had been using for over twenty years?

While I in my own little world struggling with writing in English, Dr. Toni Morrison went home. And my literary world turned a little darker. A world that I had always found solace in when the real world got too much. I wanted to sit quietly in a corner for days and pore over her work. Read every novel and essay she had ever written word by word, sentence by sentence and turn it over and over again in my mind, and just glory in its beauty. I wanted to reach out to my black women friends and just talk to them about what she and her work meant to us as black women and as mothers. I wanted a month to collectively mourn her passing. But I couldn’t because deadlines.

So, I did the next best thing, I searched for audio and videos of her speaking. And I took a few minutes throughout my day to sit quietly and listen to her voice. And that is how I came across Dr. Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature lecture. That speech was exactly what I needed, and it made me furious. Because it spoke to everything I was struggling with and at the same time I felt there was no answer to my writing dilemma. I saw the whole of academia as those young people who set out to question what I was writing. But I was also the young men, holding language in my hand. A language that had been forced onto me before I was even born. But even though this language was forced onto me I still had all the responsibilities of that came with holding that bird, language in my hands. I wanted to ask Dr. Morrison what to do but she had gone home. But she had graciously left us a whole library of answers and so I went looking for an answer in her words. I picked up another of her books. I picked The Source of Self-Regard, though I prefer the visual painted by the European title, Mouth Full of Blood. And again, because every time I worry about writing, I return to Obi Okonkwo, I went straight to the essay on Chinua Achebe. And there, Dr. Morrison answered my question.

I am bilingual. I write in two languages but mostly I write for myself and those like me.


J. Nalubega Ross is a Ugandan American living in the dry dry desert of Arizona. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree at Arizona State University. Their graduate work is concerned with how people from Africa living in the United States look for information about sex and reproduction. And once they find that information how do they use it make decisions about having or not having sex and whether or not to reproduce. When not reading books for graduate work and avoiding writing, Nalubega spends time watching and commenting on cartoons with her toddler and ranting to her partner about sex and reproduction in the United States.

Teaching Writing

The most gratifying part of being a Teaching Assistant (TA) this semester has been the work I’ve been able to do with students on their writing. I didn’t even realize how important teaching writing was to me until I had to do it. But I love when students email me, knock on my door or catch me after class to ask to work on their papers. I love when I have a question about a sentence or a phrase, then they tell me what they were trying to say, and I’m able to reply, “Yes. You need to write exactly what you just said.” And I love handing back A papers to students who think they’re weak writers because someone told them once upon a time that they weren’t.

I had a chat with my students recently about writing. I encouraged them to shift the way they think about it, with the understanding that in some ways, they can’t. Taking approximately 15-18 credits requires likely dozens of papers a semester and it’s very difficult to give the proper amount of time and attention to each and every paper. You often don’t have the time to write drafts well in advance to get feedback from your professor or TA. You’re simply trying to crank those babies out to make sure you have something to turn in.

When that’s your reality, it’s difficult to think of papers as anything but a means to an end, a hoop you have to jump through. In all honesty, I can count on one hand the number of papers I actually remember writing in undergrad. Remember, as a French and Comparative Literature double major, and an International Relations minor, I probably wrote hundreds of papers. And yet.

Still, with all of that in mind, I still proposed a perspective shift. Instead of thinking of writing as another thing you have to do, think of it as an opportunity to share the thoughts and opinions you have about our films, backed up with evidence and careful analysis.

Yet another problem I’m up against as a TA is the way we present writing as an individualistic enterprise. Because folks have so many papers to write during the semester, it feels like you have to lock yourself up in a study room in the library until you have no more words. I reminded my students that that’s absolutely not how writing works professionally. Every writer that we read in class, every book that you get in the bookstore…all published writers have editors. They have friends and family and mentors that read their words with a red pen of love at the ready. They workshop their words. That’s why the “Acknowledgements” section of books exist. Writing is a communal process, but we present it as something you do alone. So I try to make it as clear as possible that I am willing and able to work with them on their words, because they shouldn’t have to be in this alone.

I try to be as sincere as possible when I tell them I look forward to reading their words. Yes, it is my job to read and comment, but I’m curious as to what they think and how they think, especially if they’re quieter in class and discussion. Papers are a chance for you to flex a little, but it gives you the time and space to think through your response if you’re not as willing to jump in to a conversation with only a half formed thought. I try not to think of their papers as more work for me, but a chance to get to know my students a little better. I think of my comments as engagement with their thoughts.

I perhaps do all of these because I want them to love writing as much as I do. I know my efforts won’t matter to many of them, no perspective shift will occur. And that’s fine. But as long as I’m clear that for at least this semester, they have someone who cares deeply about writing and their words, I will have done my job.

So many articles exist on best writing practices and how the greatest writers write, but so much of that is crap. No, you don’t have to write every day to be an effective writer. You should practice as regularly as you can, but every body is different, every life is different, every circumstance is different. As much as I would love to write fiction all day every day, I mostly write during the summer and winter break when I have extended periods of time to devote to that manuscript. Do I write every day? Mostly every day, yes. But I consider many different things to be a part of the writing process. Tweeting is writing, blogging is writing, journaling is writing, reading is writing, note taking is writing, outlining is writing, drafting is writing, revising and editing is writing. I do at least one or more of those things every single day, but not because I’m practicing every day writing. Writing is part of my self-care, my self-expression, how I feel whole.

What I didn’t know also makes me feel whole is helping someone else craft clear and substantive prose, helping someone find their voice and run with it, and encouraging them at every step of the process. I love being a sounding board, an editor, a cheerleader– all important parts of writing. I love it all. Teaching writing is difficult, as is writing, but I still manage to find joy in it every day.

A Debrief on Oral Comprehensive Exams

I passed.

Not just the written, not just the oral– the whole thing.

I have now advanced to candidacy and am All But Dissertation (ABD).*

*(Note: This distinction varies from program to program. I know a lot of people who aren’t ABD until they defend their prospectus, including some people in a different field at my institution. I think the primary reason I get to declare candidacy and ABD now is because we in American Studies at W&M do not necessarily “defend” a prospectus. You write one, you get it approved by your advisor, and then you meet for a colloquium with a committee for feedback on it, but it’s more of a conversation than a defense.)

I had almost a week between the end of the written exams and the oral. After I did 24 total hours of written testing, my brain stuttered to a complete halt. I knew I should at least try to prepare, but in the end, my preparation consisted of attending Free Comic Book Day, buying ten new books, and sitting in on my friend’s MA defense. As I have said before, there was nothing I could say in an hour that would negate the 24 hours of written testing that I did, nothing particularly new that I could cram in my head beforehand that would make that much of a difference.

I thought about the oral exam as if it were a short class session for which I had done the reading.

It seemed to work for me.

The day before the oral, I was in Target, spending more time than I want to own up to, trying to conceive of the perfect exam outfit. My dad always tells me dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and while that doesn’t work for everyone, for me, it’s solid advice. If I look good, I feel good, then I do good.

After cleaning up and a face mask Thursday morning, I left the house in a black swing dress as a base, a pink, orange, and burgundy color blocked scarf, a bright orange purse and platform sandals. I had done my nails, given myself a pedicure and headed for Aromas with my notes so I could review for a the few minutes I had until the exam started.

With maybe half an hour to go, I made my way to College Apartments to make sure I had all the appropriate paperwork in the event that I passed. I nervously walked around the building, nearly running into my advisor on several occasions.

Then finally, it was time.

Everyone had convened by exactly 11 and I sat at the head of the table in room 5 with my committee around me. I was allowed to pick the order that I received questions, so I started with African American Intellectual History. Dr. Ely definitely scared me a little bit, asking me about specific passages from books that were now fuzzy and ill defined from others, asking me to spin out lines of thoughts I could barely follow, but fortunately many of his questions were leading and when he saw me stumble, he would redirect his question to help me regain some confidence in my answer. I didn’t start having fun until Dr. Pinson asked me about the ‘bonus unit’ I added to the syllabus I created for one of her answers. Essentially, I had created a syllabus of modern African American literature, and added a bonus unit on a Black Women Writers’ Renaissance in the Digital Age, citing writers like Brittney Cooper, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Eve Ewing and Morgan Jerkins to name a few. She asked me to draw connections between these writers and our Black feminist ancestors– and I was off.

After that, I began to settle into myself, answering questions with much more grace. I often stopped myself after talking for a while as I answered, to make sure I was answering the question I had been asked and not just talking off into a corner, as what happened quite a few times as I answered Dr. Losh’s questions.

Before I knew it, there were mere minutes left in the hour long exam and my advisor, Dr. Weiss, simply asked me to reflect on why I had chosen Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to represent African American literature from pre-Civil War. I stumbled over my answer, though ultimately I think I answered well enough.

Then I was asked to leave the room while my committee deliberated. As I stood in the hallway, Chris poked his head over the third floor bannister to ask me how it had gone. I was still recapping when the door opened again and my advisor stepped out to get me.

“Okay, Ms. ABD.” she said with a smile.

I let out a loud “YES!” then re-entered the room so we could do the appropriate paperwork.

***

I celebrated my latest victory at Nawab immediately afterwards, as one does, surrounded by all my W&M friends. I even showed up at the American Studies pre-graduation celebration later the night. I got the best sleep I had gotten in months.

I had conquered my latest obstacle.

I returned to Suffolk to chants of “ABD! ABD! ABD!” by my father and hugs from my mother.

And though I deserve the most restful of breaks, I’m going to capitalize on my post-comps energy and do the faculty writing retreat starting Monday to start on my prospectus.

Now, I just have to write a dissertation. One step at a time.