May 20th, 2014

spies mfu facepalm napoleon

sorry absinthe you're much too slow

I've been reading the ongoing, nuanced, thoughtful, intensely personal discussion of the use of dialect in stories in science fiction and fantasy with a lot of interest. It's a good discussion, and the inimitable Sofia Samatar (Hugo and Campbell nominee: read her stuff) has a good link roundup and reaction post here.

I also found LaShawn Wanak's post, here, particularly moving.

LaShawn is a former student of mine who has since become a friend, so what she has to say speaks very personally to me. For one thing, I'm certainly guilty of counseling my students to avoid "eye dialect" under most circumstances. By eye dialect, what we generally mean is writing that attempts to phoneticize dialect, and which is often used for comedic effect or to represent a particular character as an ill-spoken hick or foreigner. (Think the inevitable bumpkins in Shakespeare.)

Too often, "eye dialect" is used to mock a marginalized group, and that's (a) not funny and (b) distracting to the reader and (c) just plain rude.

But the current discussion has exposed to me a particular kyriarchal shortcoming in my own thinking on the issue, because what I've often done when asked, "Okay, how do we represent dialect?" is counsel being faithful to the rhythms of the speech, but using more or less standard spelling, or standard variations of spelling. (such as "gonna," "ain't," "chillun," "feets") and also avoiding bumpkinizing characters by use of eye dialect.

And I always make a point of stressing to my students that "There are no rules in fiction writing, only techniques that do or don't work in any given circumstance." And of pointing out cases where dialect is used well and strongly--Nalo Hopkinson has a fabulous ear for dialect, for example, and so does Nisi Shawl. You can settle in and hear the voice speaking in your ear.

I think where I've failed my students is that I've failed to stress that if you're using your own dialect, or one you've extensively researched and/or lived with, then the advice to avoid eye dialect absolutely does not apply. That yes, eye dialect will alienate some readers who aren't willing to do the work to get through it, and that those are the choices that every writer makes every single time they decide between transparency (ease of reading) and complexity/nuance/depth/shades and layers*. But that sometimes it's worth losing a few readers to say something truer and less whitewashed, less commodified. 

The writer, having developed through practice and experience sufficient tools and skill to control their point of aim--gets to choose that point of aim and hopefully even hit it.

And as Amal El-Mohtar points out in her essay here, sometimes the writer's true voice, truly represented, offers a much stronger and richer experience to readers willing to do the work.

So I think I owe LaShawn and my other students an apology on that front. 



*Both are literary values, you see--and while they are not diametrically opposed, they are in tension with one another. 

Note 1: Speaking as somebody who has studied perhaps a little more linguistics, anthropology, and English literature than is healthy for the human mind: standard or "proper" English is a social construct intended as a measure of class control and segregation. It doesn't exist as a real, unconstructed thing. The linguist's viewpoint is that "correct" language is any language as spoken by a fluent native speaker. The end.

Note 2: This discussion is also interesting for me from a personal point of view, because I am the grandaughter of immigrants, and being well-spoken was of Very High Value in the house I grew up in. My grandfather learned English when he was 12, and spoke it with precision and power, because being well-spoken was recognized as the way to get ahead among the immigrant communities in New York City in the nineteen-teens and nineteen-twenties. My native speech was therefore crisp enough that I was often mistaken as an immigrant by other immigrants. And when I moved to Nevada, suddenly that same diction (and my traces of a Yankee accent, which basically only show up on one word out of a hundred--water, quarter, roof, root. library--and in certain dialectical choices) marked me out for fairly severe mockery and a certain amount of reflexive prejudice. My participle endings have suffered as a result, which I sort of mourn.

Note 3: I've also damn well used dialect in my own work, extensively, where I felt i could represent it well. Often with the help of a native informant. Often, I have myself chosen to downplay it, either by using standardized spelling (what I refer to as the nature-identical Elizabethan flavoring in Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth, for example) or by being somewhat sparing in what I chose to accentuate as with Razorface in the Jenny Casey books and Don in Whiskey and Water.

Some of this sparingness is because I know I don't have a particularly good ear for accents and dialect, and I'd rather go easy than get it wrong. That also makes me work extra hard at it when I use it, and yell for help a lot.

But I have used it when it felt necessary, in "The Cold Blacksmith" and in Karen Memory and probably in a hundred other places that currently don't spring to mind.

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