I realize I’ve never talked that often about including dialect in my own fiction right here on this blog. Certainly in panels, and in interviews, and in passing. But I’ve never sat down and done a big post about it.
It was one of the hardest things about writing my first novel, Crystal Rain.
Me and my dialect
In 2004, when working on the first draft, ten years ago now, I was nine years away from living daily on the islands. The words were all still with me. A mix of dialect picked up from Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the US Virgin Islands. And also a friend from Anguilla.
Mind you, as much as dialect was always around me, I was a semi-participant. I am a confusing individual. My father is Grenadian, my mother, British. I lived, for many of my years, aboard a boat. So even when growing up in the Caribbean, I often was isolated.
In Grenada, with some friends I would have an accent. With my mom, on the boat, I had an accent as well: received pronunciation, with some New Zealand (my mom grew up in England and New Zealand). With some friends I had that accent. To be honest, from learning how to speak to age 9, I never thought too much about it.
Hanging out with friends in the BVI I would slip into the dialect around me. That was usually happily accepted by my friends, but people would occasionally report back to mother (I saw your son today, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying) or upbraid me for not ‘speaking correctly.’ On the other side, some people in the BVI would give me grief for trying to talk like them.
When I moved to the USVI, I began to switch over to a somewhat mid-Atlantic American accent (I still struggle to pronounce France or aunt with a hard ‘aaaa’). Some friends would get the brunt of my Tortola-learned accent. But no matter what I spoke, many friends had dialects.
In the meantime, I was also learning Spanish pronunciation as well, from my neighbors.
Even to my friends in the USVI, I know that even when I had a slight accent they weren’t hearing it, but my college room mate was doing home work while I was on the phone to a friend back in the islands once, and by the end of the call he had stopped working and started staring at me. “Okay, now I really believe that’s where you came from,” he told me.
So in my head, I don’t know what I should sound like. But in 2004, I knew what I missed hearing: dialect. And I knew what I wanted to try to put to paper. Particularly as each year put me further and further away from the islands I missed and grew up in.
But I had a few examples that inspired me. Literary fiction, Dickens and Twain, and a little bit of James Herriot.
I was told, in workshops and when reading books about how to write, over and over again that dialect was to be avoided.
But Dickens and Twain and a little bit of James Herriot, no?
In the Caribbean, I wasn’t given a lot of Caribbean dialect. Teachers there gave me canon, mainly.
But Dickens and Twain and a little bit of James Herriot, no?
And what about Clockwork Orange?
And what about…
I read an article where Dante was asked why he wrote in Italian instead of Latin. This when Italian was still called a dialect, a lower version of Latin. And he had a defense. And so did Chaucer for writing in English. And the more I delved into my English major, the more it seemed that, well, language is a big world.
People still used Shakespeare, which read differently to us now. That involved an old dialect that required me to work hard to get through it.
Writing Crystal Rain
As I wrote Crystal Rain, I did my best to bring in some of the rhythms and sound I grew up with. I knew in some ways I was trying to reinvent the wheel, and in some ways failing. Art is so imperfect, and filled with tough choices.
I tested out whole lengthy sections using spellings that replicated what I’d heard for dialect, phonetic spelling, new combinations. And I tested out ways where I used the words as they were, kind of, intended without the accent in the spelling. I tinkered, and tested, and played, and eventually settled on a system very similar to what Shakirah of Get Write covers here:
I attended a workshop were one facilitator was adamant that we should never “bastardise the English”, that is, spell the word how it is pronounced. She didn’t believe that we should use “tuh” for to, “yuh” for you, “de” for the, etc etc. She believed that if it sounded the same in Standard English, there was no need to change the spelling. Another facilitator was an advocate for writing dialect as it is spoken, because he believed that was the only way to make a true representation of the language, for example, “wunna” for you all, “wha” instead of what.
They both made good points.
I personally find it difficult to read full blocks of dialect, simply because there is no standard spelling, and we are taught to read in Standard English. I find it difficult to read newspaper columns written in full dialect like Cou-Cou and Flying Fish – it gives me a headache.
So, I made a compromise between the two. I rarely change the spelling of words that sound the same in Standard English, for example “de” for the, but then I also try to capture the rhythm of the language in how my sentences are structured. So a Barbadian person would read it and naturally hear the accent, and a foreigner would hopefully be able to hear that voice as well, but still be able to easily read the language.
That last paragraph is basically my approach. Trying to create something that allows both my readerships to plug in, with my Caribbean readers ‘getting’ an accent that I’m hinting at.
I don’t always succeed for either side, I’ve had some Caribbean readers feel I missed the mark. I’ve had non-Caribbean readers complain I make things too hard (they should see the drafts I first created).
I came to this decision after almost two years of playing with drafts of Crystal Rain, and folded it into my general approach. But let me tell you, it was not made lightly or easily, nor am I fully convinced I got it perfect. It was the best, and is the best, that I can do. It works with me, my fiction, and the stories I’m trying to tell. It’s one way of doing it.
In some ways, I know using any dialect lost me readers. I know it’s made it harder to sell books (I know this particularly for translation sales, I’ve had some very honest discussions with people who’ve read the books overseas but say they can’t buy them to translate because of the dialect). I know in some ways, I’m not quite capturing the Caribbean just so. It’s an imperfect piece of art…
…but it’s *my* imperfect piece of art. I made all the decisions in Crystal Rain, for better or worse. I made the calls. I bear all the responsibility. And even though it was hard to sell, I’ve made a career on the books and my mission of adventure and characters from varying backgrounds. I wanted to see a book *just like this* exist, and now it does. And the proudest moments of my life have been reading these books on Caribbean soil to Caribbean readers, and talking to readers of diverse backgrounds who saw what I was doing and got in the game.
On Being Invoked
It became important to write all this because recently my name was invoked in an article titled ‘Authentic Voice, or Clarity?’ at The Abyss & Apex.
…1) the author they acquired a story from, Celeste Baker, is someone I’ve read before and so recognized the name. She has two previous Caribbean stories with fantastic elements in them.
The first one is from the Caribbean Literary magazine Calabash, based out of NYC, Jumbie from Bordeaux (and if you’re from the Caribbean you can see the fantastic right in the title). A snippet:
I strut off to find everybody, hands in me pockets like a big man. Plantation quiet quiet. Even though I don’t like to get up, I like de morning cause de air smell like it just bathe. We high up from de sea but when de morning breeze blow it bring de sea smell.
More recently, Celeste also published a story that I linked to on twitter called Single Entry in Moko Magazine:
Carnival time come, and I a single entry. I not in any troup or nothing. I just parading in me costume, all by meself. Everybody asking me what song dat is and where me music coming from. I tell dem I write de song, which is true, and it coming from a iPod and dese little speakers ringing me North and South Poles, which not true. I projecting de song from me core, but dey ain’t need to know dat.
So, I hope a few more people read Celeste’s stories and get to see what she’s doing with dialect there. I really dug it, I hope she continues writing more and that she contributes more to our field.
My next reaction is to this phrase in the editorial:
We looked to Grenadian author Tobias S. Buckell (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose) as an example of an author who used authentic island patois without overwhelming the story to the point where he alienated a large portion of his non-Caribbean readers.
2) I am *an* example. That’s it. *An.* And an imperfect one at that. I hope I’ve made that clear via my history, my explanations above, and showing you my compromises.
Because the way I do it is not the only way, nor is it the right way, or the best way, or more commercial way. It’s just my middling negotiation with my art and my career and my own path.
If there’s one thing I hope to get out of this, is that I don’t want to see myself invoked as the ‘safe’ or ‘smart’ or ‘best’ way to be any kind of Caribbean writer. I’m *one* path and that’s it. It was only because other people took risks and departed from the usual paths that I had the courage to do what I did. I hope to show the same. If I’m held up like this, it subverts that.
Please do not hold me up in this way. For one, it is dangerous to other writers seeking to find their voices. It’s dangerous to me, as you sell me out as a brick in the wall. And it adds to a potentially dangerous view that there is a proper way to do dialect at all. I’m one way, and I’m always flattered and humbled when I’m held up as an example. But only that. *An* example.
Please, please do not ever use me as an excuse to change dialect or the way someone speaks. I’m a suggestion. A possibility. A way.
And that is it. That is all I can say for myself.
Is dialect too much for science fiction readers?
My first reaction is always back to Junot Diaz:
“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”
But also, are science fiction readers now fragile, trembling people with such delicate sensitivities that some dialect is going to ruin them? Mainstream readers are completely able to handle this. As assistant editor Tonya Liburd, herself of Trini background, ably points out, mainstream readers today currently are able to handle Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.
Here’s Trainspotting, which is written in Scottish dialect:
That’s entirely a valid choice. And in now way does it invalidate the novel in question, nor has it hurt the novel’s accessibility or readership.
So if mainstream readers can read that, are science fiction readers somehow less courageous? Less literate?
To be honest, I think that’s a bit unfair to science fiction readers. Probably, it would be best to let them decide.
Back to this editorial
So back to this Abyss and Apex article, which people keep asking me about.
The assistant editor, Tonya, who is Caribbean, has editorialized her experience of trying to birth a story from a writer of Caribbean and trying to navigate Wendy’s confusion with the accent. There are some interesting exchanges in the narrative here:
I found myself completely code-switching when I had to talk to Wendy while reading the submitted story for inconsistencies and nitpicks. But we got it done. And then this controversy arose.
I talked to Wendy about the point well made with Shakirah Bourne’s GetWrite article “On Dialect – How Caribbean people supposed tuh talk in a story, eh?”
Wendy then promptly mentioned the example of George MacDonald, which she goes into detail in her section, above.
So the chief editor put on the brakes with this example of a Scottish novel from 1900, 114 years ago, to demonstrate that making the dialect ‘more accessible’ helped the novel sell more copies than when it first came out.
This is a horrible example, because this happened 114 years ago. At the height of a time when dialects were looked down upon, nay, even suppressed. But the more recent example of Trainspotting is ignored when Tonya points to an article that references it.
That’s… pretty awkward.
Tonya didn’t initially want to be included in the editorial. Again, the awkwardness comes across here:
She started talking about a judicious use of spice in food as an analogy for accents; I said, “But then spice is seen as an ethnic thing isn’t it?” So again…
Then Wendy got frustrated. “I’m feeling like a failure (about handling accents and racial issues).”
I said, “Yer not a failure! Why are you feeling like that?”
“Because I don’t seem to be quite getting the cultural context of what you’re saying.”
So, I wasn’t a fly on the wall when this happened. But if Tonya is representing this exchange fairly, it’s another extremely awkward moment. Because I believe the focus is all wrong. This isn’t about Wendy. This is about the story, and the dialect. Can it work, is it worth the (possible, but I think entirely surmountable based on Trainspotting’s success) ‘challenge’ of the dialect? Are they committed to publishing the piece, yes or no? Instead, Wendy is upset because she feels like a ‘failure’ but that’s not the point of all this.
Some people refer to this as White Womens Tears phenomena, when a white woman gets uncomfortable and begins to get upset about a tricky situation (or outright racism).
Please do not read this as me calling Wendy racist. I’ve only met her a few times and barely know her. The Abyss and Apex folk, as far as I can tell, have been cool cats about building up some careers of writers of color and international voices. However, the tactic of getting frustrated and making it all about your pain, and your feelings when trying to get through a complicated conversation like the above: that’s not fair to the work or the person of color trying to educate you.
But to be honest, I wouldn’t have fixated on it, if it weren’t for Wendy’s introduction:
Would you accuse me, a woman with the maiden name of Campbell, of “racism” because she found the thick, authentic Scottish accents in the original novel obscured the story? Then let’s not complain that a reviewer felt that over-using phonetic dialect in a story was, in her opinion, a flaw.
So, there are two things being conflated here. Wendy is trying to pre-empt accusations of being a racist for asking the story have the dialect watered down, and she’s trying to defend a reviewer at Strange Horizons who was recently taken to task for being dismissive of dialect.
So now we’re looking at a mess of an editorial that really isn’t an editorial, really, but a defense against being called racist and a defense of that other review.
Make of that what you will. Mostly I feel very awkward for Tonya getting caught in the middle and being asked to change the story. She seems to have tried to do her best in an awkward situation. I’d hate to see Tonya take heat, as far as I know she’s the only Caribbean assistant editor in the field. I also am curious to see how the author felt about all this, and whether this was a positive experience or as awkward as it looked. The power differential for both Tonya and the author is unbalanced, as the author is trying to get published and make the sale, and Tonya trying to be an assistant editor.
Mostly I see a train wreck that could have been avoided by focusing on making the story be the best it could be, and not focusing on whether it was ‘accessible.’ Abyss and Apex, after all, publishes poetry, which is often not ‘accessible’ and requires work to be read. Sometimes art is a little challenging. And that’s okay. We don’t need to buff out the diamond’s edges for it to be worth something. We need to cut it to let it shine.
And those are my thoughts.