Tuesday, May 20, 2014

long hidden dialect roundup


So, this anthology has been available for what, 10 days? 2 weeks? Anyway, it hasn't been long, and already Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History has sparked a rich and necessary debate about the use of dialect in fiction.

It started with Katherine Farmar's review of the anthology in Strange Horizons, particularly this sentence:

"Troy L. Wiggins's 'A Score of Roses' features heavy use of phonetic dialect, a literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred—a shame, because the story underneath all the 'chil'ren's and 'yo'self's is charming."

The dismissal of the use of African American Vernacular English as a "literary trick" is particularly unfortunate since the anthology is concerned with marginalized people, histories, and expressive forms. As Amal El-Mohtar commented on the review: "I don't understand, at all, how a diversity of Englishes is out of place in an anthology explicitly about showcasing diversity and placing marginalised narratives front and centre."

Strange Horizons issued a very professional apology, which people (including me) really appreciated, but the discussion of the issue continued, and this is where it gets interesting to me, because it seems that there's a deep need among SFF writers to talk about this.

Troy L. Wiggins responded here.

Long Hidden editor Daniel José Older was, I think, one of the first to respond to the review; see the storify here.

Rose Lemberg wrote about language hegemony: that storify is here.

Abyss & Apex posted an editorial here, in which the editors discuss "toning down" the patois in a story by a Caribbean writer. I was mentioned in that editorial, so I responded; a storify of those tweets is here. Please read Tobias Buckell's response here. You can also read the unedited and edited versions of Celeste Rita Baker's "Name Calling," the story discussed in the Abyss & Apex editorial; Amal El-Mohtar talks about her experience of reading both versions here.

Most recently, I came across LaShawn M. Wanak's thoughts on writing dialect here.

This is merely a SELECTION of the stuff you can find online that has been inspired by this anthology and the review.

It's not all a fun conversation; some of it's been difficult. But to me it's still really exciting, because people are writing about their experiences transferring spoken words into writing. Writers who do this in their fiction are blogging about it for the first time. Personal writing histories are coming out, tentatively and with pain, because language is so closely tied to identity. Identity has language (whether that language is verbal or not) the way skin has nerves. Language is how identity interacts with the world and, in a weird way, how it feels. That's why a negative comment about someone's language hurts so much, especially if their identity is already bruised.

And that's why people are writing these long, circuitous posts, I think, trying to say what language means to them, the language they speak and the language they write. It's so complex, and they don't want to get it wrong. And by the way, this is a conversation that's spread beyond the issue of different kinds of English, into what it means to write different languages together, whether or not people use italics, why to code-switch and when, how to write in a language that's usually not written at all. It is AMAZING. And I don't think this jinni is going to go back in the bottle (jinni, genie, genius). And I think that's great. It's great that SFF writers are being explicit about how we use language. It's great that we're thinking about it. It can only make our voices stronger. All these long hidden thoughts on language coming to light.

Updates, because people are passionate about this topic! Recommended reading:

Joyce Chng, "Languages, dialects and accents: why our voices matter"

Charles Tan, "Language in the Written Word"


AJD said...

So, I really feel like there are two very separate issues being conflated here: the use of a nonstandard dialect like AAVE in a story, and the use of nonstandard "eye-dialect" spellings like chil'ren and yo'self. Eye-dialect spelling has a long history of being used to "other" or to express contempt for the character in whose mouth it's placed. Rarely is eye-dialect used to represent the pronunciation of standard-language speakers (with whom the reader is supposed to identify), even when the pronunciation departs from the spelling!

I think it's worth distinguishing the use of an authentic dialectal voice in fiction, which is very important for all the reasons Wiggins and Older and others describe, from the use of eye-dialect spelling to express that voice, which very easily reads as condescending and othering, even if it's not intended that way on the part of the writer. They're independent of each other; writing dialogue in an authentic dialect doesn't entail using eye-dialect "phonetic" respelling.

Tourmaline said...

Thank you for the roundup.

It would be good if there were also some perspectives from

(a) people who read and write in English as a second language;

(b) speakers of Englishes that fall outside the White American/Black American (AAVE, Caribbean) dichotomy: Indian, Nigerian, Hong Kong, Scots, Irish, Singaporean, Canadian...

This is an excellent discussion to have, but so far the commentators seem to have focused on the Ameri-centric perspective. Which in itself leaves out certain voices.

Sofia said...

Thanks for these comments!

AJD, I agree that it's possible to do dialect without respelling; I also think respelling is a legitimate option. Complicated, of course, for the reasons you mention, but still worth exploring, as the Wiggins story proves. Also, in that story, as in the work of a writer like Zora Neale Hurston, the reader is clearly *not* supposed to identify with standard-language speakers, but with AAVE speakers.

Tourmaline, I agree with you too! It's worth noting that people have been discussing UK dialects from the beginning of this conversation (several have noted the way language is used in S. Lynn's story "Ffydd (Faith)" in the anthology; the Abyss & Apex piece discusses dialect and George MacDonald).

I've just added a link to a piece by Joyce Chng & will be linking to one by Charles Tan shortly; these broaden the conversation significantly. I'll update as I find more! Thanks for reading.

rinue said...

I only recently read Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I thought was incredible, one of those books I read and immediately think "why didn't I read this ages ago; I could have had it in my head for all this time."

The dialectical spellings slowed down my reading considerably; I had to work harder to understand some of it, and consider the way the voices sounded, instead of simply reading the text for information. It made me read the text more emotionally than I might have otherwise.

It really changed my feelings about eye-dialect spellings; although I've always liked them in poetry, I inclined more toward the hegemonic opinion that in fiction they're a distraction at best, a means of belittling othering at worst. I think I felt that way mostly because I was used to seeing people in positions of power condescend to "lower" dialects (or conversely to show off by interspersing French or Latin).

But Hurston provided such an obvious example that the problem wasn't the technique, but the way the technique was being used (and who was using it); it completely changed my mind. I never felt she was writing that way to keep me at arms length; saying how the words sounded was the same as saying how the sun hit a tree.

Sofia said...

This comment is so lovely, thank you!