For people who readily consume and speak Klingon, Rihannsu and Dothraki, we are strangely quite fussy when it comes to our own dialects and regional languages.
–Joyce Chng, A Wolf’s Tale
Okay, on to more serious topics than Dr. Doofenshmirtz and wacky Shakespeare stuff…
For those of you who don’t follow the Speculative Fiction (or SFF) industry: there’s been an important discussion going on over the use of dialect–that is, English dialect rather than made-up alien dialect (God knows how readers would react to non-standard Quenya)–in spec lit and literature in general. I first learned about this conversation from Amal El-Mohtar, who I really, REALLY Envy in the Best Way Possible. (Seriously, if you’ve never heard of El-Mohtar, you should look her up: she’s a Nebula-nominated, Rhysling-winning author of poetry and prose, a critic for NPR Books, and co-editor of Goblin Fruit, a gorgeous online journal of spec poetry. Can anyone hear my teeth grinding with Best Envy?) The debate got started, as with many things on the Interwebs, in a convoluted way, but I’ll try to summarize the whole thing as briefly as possible. (If things get too confusing, you can read El-Mohtar’s more efficient take on the matter here.)
On May 12, Strange Horizons published a review of a new story collection called Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. Even though the purpose of the anthology was to focus on marginalized authors, characters, and communities, the reviewer, Katharine Farmar, seemed a bit ambivalent about the overall product. “There are no bad ideas here, but not all of the stories are equally well-executed,” her review states, and then goes on to mention several pieces that didn’t quite live up to expectations. It was the final comment in the paragraph that touched a nerve: “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.” To give her the benefit of the doubt, Farmar probably didn’t realize how condescending she was being. (“Charming,” for example, is a very innocuous descriptor, and yet in the context of the Long Hidden project, saying Wiggins’s piece is “charming” evokes a dismissive snobbery reminiscent of nineteenth-century colonialists sipping tea in the Belgian Congo.) Many readers saw this statement, particularly the part about written dialect being a “literary trick,” as an example of exactly the types of problems that Long Hidden was trying to correct: a privileged, primarily white and/or male establishment having the power to diminish or suppress writing by racial, cultural, and sexual minorities.
Reactions ranged from anger to bafflement. Daniel José Older, one of the editors of Long Hidden, posted a long response on Storify that shows just how strongly authors feel when their efforts to record the voices of their communities get chalked up to gimmickry or (even worse) a lack of craft. Troy L. Wiggins, the author of the “charming” story, claims to be more stunned than angry. In another Storify post, Rose Lemberg breaks down how the term “phonetic dialect” gets mixed up with nasty phenomena like language hegemony, that vicious and insidious process of silencing that happens when one version of a language becomes the standard and other versions are ghettoized as “other.”
Then the Strange Horizons review debate got even more complicated when two editors from Abyss & Apex, Wendy S. Delmater and Tonya Liburd, told their own story about a struggle to edit and publish a piece written in a Caribbean patois. The more senior editor, Delmater, wanted to dial back the dialect without eliminating it completely. Liburd was less confident about the decision but was ultimately won over by Delmater’s argument that the story would be more accessible if the prose looked, for lack of a better word, less alien. It’s hard to know exactly how public response to Delmater and Liburd went, because the comment board for the editorial is closed. However, the piece in question, “Name Calling” by Celeste Rita Baker, appeared in Abyss & Apex in both its edited and original forms. The short story by Baker and the editorial by Delmater and Liburd led to another round of discussions by El-Mohtar, Sofia Samatar, Tobias Buckell, and LaShawn M. Wanak, among many others.
So where do I insert myself in this already well-commented-upon discussion? I guess I’ll start with my own point of entry: Baker’s “Name Calling.”
My beginning starts with a mistake, ironically enough, as to where the beginning of the piece was. From El-Mohtar’s description of its publication history, I was motivated to experience for myself the two versions of Baker’s story, and, as El-Mohtar suggested, I was determined to start with the original. However, in Abyss & Apex, the pride of place was given to the less-patois-heavy revision, causing me to have to scroll down to find where the second story (which, also ironically, came first) started. Because I was reading the tiny, tiny words on my Kindle’s web browser, and because I am a bonehead, I managed to mistake a break in the narrative for the beginning of the original version and so read the end as if it were the opening. Hmm, I thought. Flash fiction. Yeah, I can see where the dialect could be an obstacle for some, but I can handle it. Okay. Challenging new experience with patois in science fiction managed. Yay for me!
Imagine my surprise when I found the actual original waiting for me after the passage I’d just read. No, I can’t assume everyone will be able to imagine, so I’ll try to describe it. At first, I saw the title again and thought to myself, you bonehead. Technology trumps Miss Fickle’s brain once again. Then, the beginning of the text, in “full patois,” as an editorial note announces under the title. I think I must have gasped. The feeling of those unfamiliar spellings, the profusion of i’s and d’s and e’s, the h’s out of place, all of it a pin jab to the mind. A thought popped into my head: “What a mess!” This was partly my editor side talking (I used to work in medical editing) and partly me as a born-and-bred white mid-western American wincing at the changes to my comfy English, infused into my psyche through years and years of spelling tests, term papers, and reading lists full of English “classics.”
But then I kept reading, and I realized, no, this is not a mess at all, this is in fact a skilled and elegant rendering of voices I rarely hear, the work of a powerful writer. And I loved the story.
Of course, afterward, I had to go back and look at the edited version, which I admit I didn’t manage to read the whole way through. It was…all right. Very clean, very carefully wrought. I could see the editors’ care in reworking the prose, so that it would be just a tiny bit closer to standard written English, and I could also see that they were committed to not making the text too “easy” for the uninitiated reader. The voice was still there. But it also wasn’t the same.
In part, I agree with El-Mohtar’s analysis. There was a certain spirit, an energy, lost in the edited translation of the story. But after having thought about the experience for a while, I wonder, too, if part of my brain had simply bonded with the dialect system devised by Baker and didn’t want to consider another one. My reading mind puzzled out the Baker method and came up with a standard. The newer non-Baker method was now unworthy.
I’ve heard that one of the basic problems with converting spoken language into written words is that writing itself is an inflexible medium, never quite able to record the infinite continuum of sounds that humans can make in their speech. If you’re a linguist, for instance, and you try to come up with new symbols to account for pronunciations of the letter e, you’ll find that, like a line you can always cut into another fraction, there will always be another sound on the spectrum to the left or right of your newly composed letters.
The brain, however, craves patterns, and whether because of science or language hegemony or a little or a lot of both, readers balk at unfamiliar ways of seeing their language. If it’s a new language–Elfish or Klingon or Dothraki–we learn the rules, we figure it out, we “master” it. Yes, the manner we go about this is governed by language hegemony, the “one rule over all” mentality, but I’m convinced there’s a profound insecurity underlying this urge to learn and enforce the “proper” way to write. We all want ease of communication. We all want to know what we’re saying and not be misunderstood.
Speaking from my few years of editing experience, I can imagine that dialect in fiction is an editor’s nightmare. Not worse than having your primary way of speaking be the target of disgust, laughter, and prejudice, mind you. Editors are always in a position of power, and writers are always in danger of being brushed aside into silence. Even so, the open-minded, new-literature-loving, boundary-pushing editor is bound to encounter some snares when trying to “correct” or “clean up” or “improve” a dialect-heavy text when written dialect technically has no rules. How can an editor not familiar with a way of speaking tell whether an example of written dialect is effective or not? (Ferrett Steinmetz tackles the problem of the non-dialect speaker here.) How do you judge its authenticity? You can’t go by the author’s skin color–that’s akin to saying white people talk one way, black people talk another. You can’t necessarily go by personal history, either, because an author’s exposure to and facility with a certain kind of dialect will always vary, as LaShawn M. Wanak talks about in her post. How, too, do you go about polishing the prose to make sure that the text appears as its absolute best if you have no basis to judge what’s best? Do you go by consistency? Frequency of use? The way the words on the page translate to the sounds in your head? What if a character, purposefully or unconsciously, speaks dialect inconsistently–what then? That’s an artistic choice, but how does an editor judge if that choice “works” or not? What if you’re a conscientious editor and you’ve questioned your own resistance toward a piece of dialect writing, but you’re still honestly convinced that the dialect could be better conveyed? Do you just shut up about it or do you ask for changes, knowing that you’re using your position of power to influence an artist’s original vision?
Obviously, I don’t have the answers to all of these questions. Indeed, I’m probably being a bit of an anxiety-ridden catastrophizer, trying to dig up more and more issues to worry about until my brain bursts in a fireworks display of self-generated angst. That tends to be the way I roll–at least when I’m being Editor Me. Editor Me is a mess. I do think, though, that the spec lit community, writers and editors and publishers, have a unique opportunity to explore issues of dialect in writing. Discovering an alien branch of one’s own language can and should be an experience that readers have in a genre built on examining the relationship of self and other, whoever that self or other might be. I would encourage editors to take more risks. I would encourage editors and writers not to fear the potential messiness of the publication process or blowback from resistant readers. There are always readers out there who just want to pick up a book and get lost in the fantasy. Most of the time, that fantasy is a mirror image, or an idealized image, of themselves. But to truly face the alien, the unfamiliar, the difference that rattles your foundations and jabs a pin in your mind: that is something all readers should have the opportunity to experience.
I have more to say on the issue of dialect and otherness (which I’ve just now come up with as a way of describing my perspective–yay years of churning out English essays on the fly!), but I don’t want this post to go on forever. So I’ll end here and pick up my endless rambling in another post. Stay tuned…
(For the record, Strange Horizons posted an apology for the review of Long Hidden, as well as its own list of commentary on the issues that arose from it.)