“My mother withdrew into silence two months before she died. A few nights before she fell silent, she told me she regretted the way she had raised me and my sisters. I knew she was referring to the way he had been brought up in the midst of two conflicting worlds—the world of home, dominated by the ideology of the Western humanistic tradition, and the world of a society dominated by Mao Tse-tung’s Marxism. My mother had devoted her life to our education, an education she knew made us suffer political persecution during the Cultural Revolution. I wanted to find a way to convince her that, in spite of the persecution, I had benefited from the education she had worked so hard to give me. But I was silent. My understanding of my education was so dominated by memories of confusion and frustration that I was unable to reflect on what I could have gained from it.
This paper is my attempt to fill up the silence with words, words I didn’t have then…”
These are the opening lines of Min-zhan Lu’s “From Silence to Words: Writing as Struggle”—they set the tone for this personal academic essay in College English. They also set up the stakes for Lu writing this piece and for students who feel torn between linguistic traditions. Lu goes in to detail her conflicted childhood, where she code-switched between English at home and Standard Chinese in school. While she originally was able to switch without feeling conflicted, eventually she felt torn and self-conscious about these different linguistic traditions and cultures. Lu goes on to relate this to her own work as a compositionist and her work with translingual students.
I read this article in my Teaching College Composition course at Emerson College and have taught the text in almost every one of my own courses. This provides an excellent example of how high the stakes of language difference can be. This text is also helpful in complicating our assumptions about academic writing and the division between creative or personal and academic discourses. “From Silence to Words” can also help to contextualize Lu’s work in basic, multilingual, and, finally, translingual writing.
In a course, you could treat this as an academic piece or as a literacy narrative. Lu’s article might be paired with Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior because they both discuss the experiences of Asian women and explore the theme of silence. For an exploration of personal academic pieces, “From Silence to Words” might be compared with Nancy Sommer’s “I Stand Here Writing.” In my experience, students react very positively to this piece.
Lu, Min-Zhan. “From Silence to Words: Writing as Struggle.” College English, vol. 49, no. 4, 1987, pp. 437-448.