My First Love Is Words. So Why Can't I Find The Language To Describe Who I Am?

Treasures & Travels/Stocksy

There is a spot on the living room floor of my parents’ house, in the far corner of the room next to the patio doors. It’s a small spot: To sit there, you have to squeeze behind the sofa and tuck your legs to your chest. With the cold glass of the doors against your back and the floor seeming to grow harder with every passing minute, it’s pretty uncomfortable. Yet to young me, it was one of the best places in the world. It's where I fell in love with words.

Yes, I know what a cliché of a writer it makes me that words were my first love. But clichés are born of truth, and here is mine. It’s a love that remains to this day perhaps my longest, strongest, most constant relationship. It is definitely my most difficult one, as I’m sure many other writers will attest to.

I can’t count the hours I spent in that spot growing up. I just remember all those long — and because it was England, rainy — afternoons squirreled away, book propped on my knees, a cup of hot tea between my palms. The smell of ink and earl grey never fail to take me back. I’d while away whole days this way, lost in faraway worlds. Biscuits were my snack of choice, and crumbs still live in the folds of my childhood books, like tiny edible time-travelers.

I suppose it was magic in a way, just as falling in love always is. Those shining, gilded moments as a relationship unfurls.

On lucky days there’d be a break in the clouds. I remember it perfectly, that feeling, how sunshine would pour down over my shoulders and back, so warm, so golden. I swear, it was just like magic.

I suppose it was magic in a way, just as falling in love always is. Those shining, gilded moments as a relationship unfurls. How intimate and secret, life in HD, all senses heightened and blissfully new. Or, for later loves, renewed.

And so it was here, in these stolen moments squashed behind the back of my parents’ ugly sofa, that I fell in love for the first time.

The fall was swift and easy. What was it about these neat lines of text that captured my heart so? Was it the way the perfect turn of phrase sends goosebumps up my arms from its sheer beauty? The lullaby of sentences, their rhythmic rise and falls calming my soul? The characters so true, so alive, they become a sort of extended family, especially to a young only-child with social anxiety and health issues that kept her at home and often alone?

Even after all these years, it still amazes how words do that. How with the simplest of ingredients — just a handful of letters or symbols — and the correct processing, they are rebirthed into so much more.

Like a good lover, words provide comfort, escape, support. Like the best of relationships, they provide a safe space to be yourself.

There’s a reason why the opening of my novel Girls of Paper and Fire begins with a ceremony that captures a person’s fate in a single word. Language is just so damn powerful.

Like a good lover, words provide comfort, escape, support. Like the best of relationships, they provide a safe space to be yourself. To be brave enough to bare the deepest, most complicated parts of you and have them received with kindness and understanding.

For someone who loves words so much, I’ve always had difficulty expressing myself. But I think it’s because it is here, in the bountiful sea of language, that I find what I need to give life to my voice, that I love it so much. Any passionate reader will be familiar with the feeling: The kernel of truth nestled in the passages of a text, whether written by your own hand or that of another, which feels so right, so real, so nakedly true it’s as though it was plucked from the center of your soul.

And yet. Just like any relationship, there have been many times when words have let me down.

If words provide a language of expression, then the one language I’ve never truly been at ease with is that of my own sexuality.

At 29, I’m finally comfortable with saying, I am queer. And it feels kind of right. But I’ve been in love with words for long enough to know there’s still more for me to discover.

This is all it comes down to really, isn’t it? Being able to say here, here I am, here is my heart, please understand?

Those who have studied a new language as an adult will recognize the particular pain of having things to express but just not being able to. I moved to Paris almost two years ago. Having spoken barely a word of French when I arrived (and for what felt like an awfully long time after), I can attest to how torturous the process is. The thoughts are there, the ideas, the desire to share. And yet the words just cannot, will not come. It’s crazily frustrating. When they finally do arrive, they often come out jumbled, a weak representation of what you had in your head. Or it’ll be the same phrases over and over, basic and childish: I want this. I did that. I feel this.

I feel this.

This is all it comes down to really, isn’t it? Being able to say here, here I am, here is my heart, please understand? At least, this is how it’s always been for me. More than anything, I crave feeling. To experience the world as much and as fully as possible. Words are what bind me to these experiences. They’re how I process life, how I share with myself and others everything bounding around in my head and my heart.

Growing up as a mixed-race Chinese British-Malaysian doesn’t exactly make issues of identity easy for me, but add non-straightness into the mix and let’s just say it’s been… difficult.

So how to say I feel this when the vocabulary available seems so lacking?

Growing up as a mixed-race Chinese British-Malaysian doesn’t exactly make issues of identity easy for me, but add non-straightness into the mix and let’s just say it’s been… difficult.

When I was young, there didn’t seem to be many options. There was straight, gay, and then the mystical bisexual no one I knew ever really talked about. If queer did exist – which is what I’ve been using the past few years to identify as – I hadn’t heard of it. Neither of my parents ever discussed sex with me. All we had at school were a couple of classes that dealt with the mechanical basics of hetero sex. Nothing on the emotions, or sexual identity, or consent, or anything that didn’t assume we were all straight.

Porn (thankfully, in many ways) wasn’t readily available yet. The stuff on TV and in movies was almost entirely cisnormative and straight – though I did manage to secretly record the BBC’s 2002 miniseries Tipping the Velvet, which I watched on repeat when my parents were out, discovering many feelings about my sexuality, in the process. But still, no words to really express them.

Part of the problem is I’ve never felt a kinship with the language we have for sexual identity. One of the things I love most about words is that when they resonate, they truly feel as if they belong to you. Even the words of others; it’s as though they came from deep within this space within you that someone else was also miraculously, marvelously able to access. But straight, gay, bisexual, pan don’t resonate. They don’t rise up from that deep, sacred place within me.

When others have placed them upon me, as others will do, they’ve felt grating and wrong.

When I myself have spoken them, they’ve felt dull and insincere.

Though you may not have the words yet to express how you feel, this does not make you lesser.

I love that now, more and more, our vocabulary of identity is rapidly expanding. Most of my readers are teens, and the ones I’ve had the luck to meet are smart, respectful, and incredibly considerate when it comes to many things, but particularly this. So many of them are vocal about issues of identity in ways I still struggle with today as an almost 30-year-old. I feel so proud and hopeful that young people today are growing up with an increasingly diverse language of sexuality to help them understand the – surprise! – incredible diverseness of sexuality.

All of this is to say, I suppose, that I’m still learning. I’m still that young girl in love with words hiding behind her parents’ sofa trying to understand who she is — and that’s OK. Unlike French, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this language. So feel, explore, be free. Be true with yourself. Most importantly, be kind with yourself. Though you may not have the words yet to express how you feel, this does not make you lesser. It’s brilliant to be able to stand up and shout, This is me! I feel this! But it does not make you less valid if you can’t, or don’t want to.

My vocabulary is not yet complete.

I’m still waiting for that moment where I’m crouched on the living room floor, cup of tea in one hand, book in the other, as sunshine breaks through the clouds to spill over my shoulders and back, so warm, so golden, that I swear, it will feel just like magic.