Professor J.D. Scrimgeour, chairperson of the English Department at Salem State, has a new book being published this fall. The book, Banana Bread (Nixes Mate Press), is a collection of poems in both English and Mandarin, that documents the experience of the strange new reality presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scrimgeour, who has started studying Mandarin over the past few years, wrote entries in diary form in the language as a way to practice it. They discussed the daily movement and happenings of his new life during the pandemic. He then translated the pieces into English. As a new student of Mandarin, Scrimgeour turned to his Mandarin tutor, who was also one of his students, Mingyue Tao (Ming), to help with the poems. The CRCA had the opportunity to sit down with both Scrimgeour and Ming, to discuss the book and the process of learning Mandarin.
Scrimgeour first began taking Mandarin back in 2017 when it was announced that Salem State would begin the CHEPD 1-2-1 program. The CHEPD 1-2-1 Program is a program that invites students from Chinese universities to spend one or two years at one of the thirty-nine AASCU universities across the U.S., and earn a dual degree from both their Chinese home institution and their U.S. partner institution. In addition, a SSU professor also teaches in Nanjing each semester to help students get a sense of the program and style of teaching they will experience at Salem State.
Professor Scrimgeour was one of those professors, and traveled to Nanjing in Spring 2018 where he was able to get to know the students who would be coming to SSU that fall to study at Salem State. Scrimgeour claims that while he had been taking some Mandarin classes, “he didn’t speak much of the language by the time he arrived in Nanjing.” However, when he returned back to Salem, he continued his lessons. And when the Chinese students arrived in the fall, he began working with Ming in Salem State’s language lab.
The Banana Bread book developed nearly two years later, in spring of 2020, when everything was shut down for the Covid 19 pandemic. It started as a fun way to entertain students and colleagues who had been meeting over the course of the year to discuss Chinese poets and poetry. When Covid hit, the group created a google document instead, where they shared updates, funny anecdotes, thoughts on poetry, and anything they were working on. It was here Scrimgeour first began sharing his poems.
The theme of ‘banana bread’ came after Scrimgeour brought a loaf of his wife’s banana bread to the group (when they were still able to meet in person). All the students kept asking when he would bring more, and it became an inside joke of sorts. So, when everything went online, Scrimgeour found himself including banana bread into the daily writings he was posting for the group. At first the entries were nothing but a way to pass the time and practice his Mandarin, but soon, they began to develop into something more. Scrimgeour began meeting with Ming to have her help edit some of the poems, and after a while, he decided he had something that would be interesting to try and get published.
It was important for Scrimgeour to only use words that “popped into his mind,” for the book. Meaning, he did not look up words in a dictionary or try to find the best synonym to make the poetry sound more proficient. Rather, he stuck to the vocabulary he had acquired through his lessons. Ming too, encouraged Scrimgeour to stay true to his original word choice. One, because she hoped it would make the poems seem more authentic to the experience of someone trying to write in a new language. And two, because she felt his use of words sometimes added something new to the meaning of the poem.
For instance, at one point Scrimgeour used a Chinese word for “old” to describe bananas, only to find that the word actually meant something along the lines of “for a long stretch of time” not an adjective used describe nouns. But in that way, the word sort of took on an unintended poetic meaning as the poem was discussing the passing time and the waiting that Scrimgeour was experiencing while working from home and not being able to meet with his students and colleagues.
In this way, Ming and Scrimgeour were able to collaborate on the project that would eventually become a book of poems. The book will be available for purchase this fall, and Professor Scrimgeour, along with Professor Kevin Carey, will be doing a reading of his work at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 2nd in the Ellison Campus Center as part of the Writer’s Series at Salem State.
As for Ming, she is currently in a graduate program at Concord University in Montreal studying Drama Therapy.
Congratulations to both Ming and Professor Scrimgeour on this unique and interesting work!
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