The OF Blog: A few thoughts on "outsiders" as "insiders" and the use of dialect in fiction

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A few thoughts on "outsiders" as "insiders" and the use of dialect in fiction

Earlier this week, there was some discussion generated on Twitter and a few blogs after a Strange Horizons reviewer made the following comment about Troy L. Wiggins' "A Score of Roses," which appears in the just-released Long Hidden:  Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History.  Most of the focus was on this comment by reviewer Katherine Farmar:

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.
Leaving aside the cross-cultural faux pas that Farmar made, that of failing to recognize how loaded a term "phonetic dialect" is in terms of non-WASP Americans writing in a dialect similar to the non-prestigious dialects spoken by wide swaths of Americans, there are some interesting elements in play here that go far beyond a reviewer's careless comment.  How do people who come from certain backgrounds, we'll say "privileged" in the sense of having their cultural experiences being viewed as the most esteemed in a multicultural society, evaluate fiction written by and told in the dialects of those who come from less-visible communities?

This is a difficult question to answer.  Certainly the story in question, "A Score of Roses," presumes a certain knowledge that those who are not Americans, more specifically those who are not Southerners, and most specifically those who are African-American Southerners will not as readily grasp as those who are "insiders" to this culture.  Below is a representative sample of the dialogue:

"Tell the truth.  Shame the devil."  Sunshine took a sip, stopped, slapped her thigh.  "Oh shit, he ain't real.  Forgot.  'Scuse me." 
"Yo mouth gon' get you in a lot of trouble.  Fine, you want truth, here it go:  I come from the dirt." 
"And I come from yo' neck bone.  Gimme me some mo liquor, Jerry.  And you, gimme some mo' answers." 
"I tole you, I come from the dirt and live wit' the dirt, laugh wit' the dirt, love the dirt and everything that come to be because of it." 
"You soundin' like one'a them big foot country boys that just learned the world was bigger than a fool's middle finger, baby." 
He laughed, a boom boom from deep in his chest that sounded like a drumbeat delivered from the top of a mountain.  "Maybe so."
"Hearing" it in my head, it sounds 'bout right, but perhaps a bit restrained, as though the speakers were code switching a bit, mixing in certain elided words (mo', wit') with pronouncing the "th" in "one'a them," something that is sometimes switched to "d" in both Southern and AAVE speech.  So for myself, a mostly white Southerner, Wiggins' dialogue fits the region well, plus there are a few instances where the changes in pronunciation may mark certain shifts in non-verbal tone.  But I am almost an "insider" when it comes to this particular dialect, as it is close to what I hear everyday and in which I sometimes speak to others.  For those who are not "insiders," there may be negative connotations (from minstrel show blackface to Hee Haw caricatures) to "hearing" this non-prestigious dialect.

So how does a reader reconcile his or her cultural prejudices with fiction written by those outside his/her cultural/ethnic group?  Obvious, the reader might be expected to put in a greater effort to empathize with the expressed viewpoints, but this would only be a start and not necessarily one that will immediately be productive.  As I was reading the online debate on the Wiggins story and the Farmar review, I thought back to the opening story to the just-released Conjunctions 62:  Exile, "Splaining Yourself," by Cuban writer H.G. Carrillo.  Carrillo's piece is much more challenging for English-speaking Americans of all racial/ethnic backgrounds to understand, as it involves understanding a mixture of Cuban Spanish and English in which colorful figurative language in both languages is employed to make a point about how Afro-Cubans are separated in so many fashions from others around them:

It is similar to negro, which you only know to mean love in the Caribbean, never quite finding a place here without an explanation.  Here, all that is heard when you say it is what your body was called before it was "black," which it was called before it was called "African American."  The difference, mi negro, between our negro and their negro is the line of demarcation between love and hate, affection and derision, the past and the present.  It's black and white. 
Oye, negrito, you will need to learn nigger in all its valences, acclimatize yourself to be prepared to know when it is calling you to fight, fuck, or just go out and play pool and get drunk.  Pero, without a lifetime of hearing it – like American football will seem to you – understanding it or getting a clear explanation of what it is may be as illusory and abstract as attempting to describe to a yanqui who is trying to learn Spanish the differences between por y para. (p. 9)
Carrillo's story I think underscores what truly is at play here.  No matter how much the "insider" can try to understand the "outsider" and no matter the efforts the "privileged" make to understand the world-views of those from other traditions, there are always going to be gaps, spaces where misunderstandings and resentments can and will arise.  Those have to be acknowledged first before any true awareness, much less understanding, can take place.  Going back to the Farmar piece, it is fairly evident that she was not very aware of what the use of "phonetic dialect" would mean for members of cultural groups who have resisted centuries of efforts to eradicate any traces of their own cultures.  In some parts of the world, the use of non-prestigious dialects (or in some cases, languages) is intrinsic to expressing one's own identity and culture.  As Carrillo has his narrator observe, "understanding it or getting a clear explanation of what it is may be as illusory and abstract as attempting to describe to a yanqui who is trying to learn Spanish the differences between pro y para."

However, this does not mean that because there is "white noise" in the semi-failed transmissions between cultural/ethnic groups that attempts to understand these other groups is futile and should be avoided.  If anything, the opposite should be transpiring; people should endeavor to work even more diligently to understand the views and expressive symbols of others, even when – or especially when – these endeavors will lead to faux pas and misunderstandings.  That, at least, is what I take from debates such as the one over the Wiggins story or when I encounter diglossia in forms that I struggle to comprehend.  Sometimes, the "outsiders" become their own "insiders" and those who are accustomed to having others strain to understand their world-view while they themselves nary lift a finger to assist are confronted with the reality that communication is a multi-way street, replete not just with pitfalls but also with "hidden" treasures to discover.


Matthew Cheney said...

There's even more going in with dialect in writing because it is, in fact, in writing, and so part of the challenge is not just to replicate particular ways of speech, but to figure out the signs that will create that sense of replication. Thus there's a distinction between diction and syntax on the one hand and orthography on the other. That, too, is affected by culture, geography, and history. It becomes not just a matter of dialect, but of how dialect is encoded in a text by a writer and then how that dialect is decoded by a reader, and the influences on how a particular writer encodes and a particular reader decodes are not limited only to culture, geography, history, but also all the various forces that affect how we make sense from text.

Lsrry said...

Sorry I'm late in responding to this, Matt, as I've been mostly offline the past few days, but I do agree with what you say here. How I'd spell certain words if I were writing in my Nashville-area dialect would signify certain things to me, but present some problems for others. Saying "both" as something close to "boff" is an example of a word that I try not to do when speaking to certain people, but I "slip up" and say it when speaking to others who I have known for decades. Written out as I occasionally pronounce it, it would carry certain connotations that might lead others, the "outsiders," to presume certain things of both myself and my region, that "insiders" would not see.

And that's just the tip of the syntactical/semantic icebergs. Language is just so fascinatingly complex, no? :D

Matthew Cheney said...

Language is just so fascinatingly complex, no?

Yes, indeed! I often think that however complex we say language is, it will exceed even that complexity. Which is perhaps why I've spent my life fascinated by it.

I was brought back to these thoughts the other day when reading some Dickens, and encountering a bit of dialect that made me struggle for a moment, and then I realized the struggle wasn't with the sound, but with the particular way the sound was rendered -- and then I wondered if any contemporary writer (from wherever) would render the sounds in quite the same way. (I can't for the life of me remember what the passage was, though, as I was rushing through a bunch of books in search of something else at the time.)

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