I had anxiously awaited feedback from Catherine Brady, the editor of the novel I’m writing, A Thousand Crowning Sorrows. I brought the feedback with me on a family vacation to Maui, Hawaii. While I insisted to myself that I could write and vacation, anger and resistance stopped me from using the feedback to complete the novel draft. When I read the words variant spelling, I just got mad and stopped working on it. Any time I thought the words variant spelling, I stopped working.
After a day on Kihei Beach, a delicious portion of Gus’ shaved ice, and excellent curry from a food truck near our resort, I sat staring at my laptop. One of my extended family members, Maela, asked me how I was doing as I stared at my open laptop. I said the usual for three days, “I’m fine,” which was a lie. After speaking those words in the third say, I had a hissy–fit. I told my daughter, my partner, and our extended family how mad I felt whenever the subject of dialect and variant spelling comes up regarding writing dialect. I pounded my fist on a table. I raised my voice and shook my head in upset. I explained that this feedback has been consistent in both my MFA programs and a constant admonition before then. I had waited before entering these programs. I knew I would benefit from studying my craft and I had always been afraid, with reason, of losing my voice and the voices I carried within me. While there are exceptions, I experience adhering to the standards of white–English as absolutely expected and a constant intrusion in the mind and spirit of a writer.
Now to be clear, Kate, Catherine Brady the novel’s editor, recommended that I “Minimize reliance on variant spelling per se and rely on diction, sentence structure, word choice, and idioms instead,” to convey the rhythm and lyricism of the language being given literary expression.
My head kept exploding anyway. This constant suggestion or encouragement or direction communicates to the core of me that the different languages I hear must be forced into standard English, that phonetic spelling, spelling out how the words are pronounced or sound, is not acceptable and my language, the language of the characters in my imagination and memory, is variant, deviant, and illegitimate.
Put that aside for a moment. I have a towering craft challenge. How exactly do I use sentence structure, word choice, and colloquial idioms to convey the rhythm, flow and music of the languages I remember and hear? How do I constantly learn and use writer’s craft to breathe life into the language that the characters in the novel speak?
These same concerns raged during the Harlem Renaissance in some Colored writers’ responses to Zora Neal Hurston’s writing. In The New Yorker, February 17, 1997 edition, Claudia Roth Pierpont addressed the charge of Hurston’s work mimicking racist minstrel depictions of Colored people by Richard Wright in, “A Society of One: Zora Neal Hurston American contrarian.”
Disowned by the founders of the Harlem Renaissance for its association with the shambling, watermelon-eating mockeries of American stage convention, dialect remained an irresistible if highly self-conscious resource for writers, from Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown to Wright himself (whose use of the idiom Hurston gleefully dismissed as tone deaf). But the feat of rescuing the dignity of the speakers from decades of humiliation required a rare and potentially treacherous combination of gifts: a delicate ear and a generous sympathy, a hellbent humor and a determined imperviousness to shame.
One of my family members, Maela, asked the questions at the heart of my dramatic hissy fit display. 1. “What and how do you want to write?” 2. “What might it cost you and the novel if you write what and how you want to write?” 3. “How might you and the novel benefit by being written solely in standard English?” 4. What do you need to write the voices of your characters the way you feel, understand and hear them?
To the last question, I answered without hesitation, “Courage.”
I had lunch with Kate when I returned from Hawaii. After catching up on family, politics, and vacations, I told her about my hissy-fit. We talked about all of the ways a writer can convey language and the voices of characters in the novel. We talked about authors whose characters’ times and voices are authentically expressed. I made a list as we talked. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayle Jones, Toni Morrison and more. Kate later recommended, Rotten English: A Literary Anthology, by Dohra Ahmad It is a non-standard English anthology of the uses of dialect and non-standard English past and present from all over the English speaking world. It is a treasure trove of expanding understanding and learning about the uses of authentic languages.
At home, I pulled books from my shelves: Toni Cade Bambara, Gorilla My Love; Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God; Gayl Jones, Corregidora; Toni Morrison: Beloved; Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination; and What Moves in the Margins; and William Faulkner, Absalom Absalom!
In response to my sharing my hissy fit, one of my Goddard teachers, Beatrix Gates, suggested I read Tracy K. Smith who is currently serving as the American Poet Laurate. Bea’s note was brief,” And Tracy Smith. Keep going. Bea.” I Duende. The first read immersed me in Smith’s use of uncomplicated language with each line connecting to the last, lingering, and creating its own life through the reader and beyond. The poems fold social, political, and historical events into emotional and spiritual cores speaking of human beings cycles of life as paths to fulfillment. The combination of inspired uncomplicated wording and patient dynamic pacing allows me to use Smith’s poetry as a primer on diction. Her work embodies the concept of art speaking through the artist.
My hissy fit, my family gathered celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, and Maela’s questions have served their purpose, to interpret and make powerful and productive the use of my resistance and anger. I continue to complete the draft of the novel with Kate’s edits. I read. I study. I hone my craft. I teach myself to write with courage with the help of seasoned teachers.