Sunday, June 26, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks, "What challenges have African American writers faced when attempting to use Negro Dialect or Black English in their work?  Is there an "authentic" black voice? How do black people talk?  Is it difficult to convey the full texture of our language on the page?"

I thought I would take a stab at this question because in October I've agreed to read a new story (on income inequality) for Richard Hugo House in Seattle, and teach a three-hour workshop on narrative voice or ventriloquism. Voice can be an elusive dimension in fiction, but it is an element of craft I've devoted myself to exploring since 1972. In his recent essay on "Popper's Disease," writer Tom Williams also touches upon other stories in that collection, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and describes the tale "Exchange Value" as "a story in dialect...that rivals Hurston and Twain." 

Obviously, the "dialect" Williams refers to in that story is nothing like the Negro dialect we associate with, say, the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Nor does it resemble the caricatured form of black speech we see in the Plantation school writers or, for that matter, in Mark Twain's black characters. In those cases, you will notice, all the black characters speak the same way in a kind of generic, butchered English that fails to individuate one black speaker from another. This is simply the wrong way---the lazy way---to put speech in the mouths of black characters, because like all human beings every black person speaks differently. Consider this observation by philosopher R. G. Collingwood:

          "Speech is after all only a system of gestures, having the peculiarity that each gesture produces a characteristic sound, so that it can be perceived through the ear as well as through the eye. Listening to a speaker instead of looking at him tends to make us think of speech as essentially a system of sounds; but it is not; essentially it is a system of gestures made with the lungs and larynx, and the cavities of the mouth and nose. We get still farther away from the fundamental facts about speech when we think of it as something that can be written and read, forgetting that what writing, in our clumsy notations, can represent is only a small part of the spoken sound, where pitch and stress, tempo and rhythm, are almost entirely ignored. But even a writer or reader, unless the words are to fall flat or meaningless, must speak them soundlessly to himself. The written or printed book is only a series of hints, as elliptical as the neumes of Byzantine music, from which the reader thus works out for himself the speech-gestures which alone have the gift of expression." 

As an exercise, think of how you might portray different cadences, intonations, accents, tempo, inflections, and speech-sound qualities in dialogue for Barack Obama, Fifty Cent, Rev. Jeremy Wright, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday or Ethel Waters. Is it possible to have something of their unique sound "cling" to the words we place on the page for them to speak? In other words, to not ignore, as Collingwood puts it, "pitch and stress, tempo and rhythm"? Personally, right now and whenever I think of the next story I wish to write, whether in first or third person, regardless of whether it is set in the past or the present, I'm intrigued by the idea of creating a character who primarily speaks in periodic sentences---like this one you just read. 

When I wrote "Exchange Value" with the story in the voice of the character Cooter, my aim was to see if a philosophical fiction, one about our experience of money, could be the vehicle for a voice entirely rendered in contemporary (at the time, the late '70s) black slang. That language is 180-degrees different from the first-person narrator of "Popper's Disease," who is a physician acquainted with many sciences; and it differs yet again from the third-person narrative voice of the title story for the collection, which is the voice of the traditional folk-tale or fairy-tale storyteller. The first observation to make, then, is that there are potentially as many black narrative voices as there are black people---voices flavored with a West Indian patois, or ones that are black and British. None is more "authentic" than any other. Compare the voices of Frederick Douglass, Rev. Richard Allen, Phyllis Wheatley, and the character Tiberius in the Soulcatcher and Other Stories collection. Each differs in diction based on their background, education, and the way each individually tailors language to his or her vision of the world. The ideal in a work of fiction would be for the dialogue for each character to be so unique and specific to him or her that we could dispense altogether with the tags "he said," or "she said," just as we don't need them to recognize people we know speaking around us in a room. For an example, see my story "Poetry and Politics," which is all dialogue without a single line of description or narration.
The second observation to make is that achieving narrative ventriloquism requires that (1) a writer must have an ear sensitive to the rich variety of black (and white and other) voices around him; (2) he or she must carefully weigh each possible word choice so that the voice is consistent; and (3) the writer, like an actor, must enjoy playing a role or putting on a mask for the duration of the story.

Ideally, a line by a first person narrator in, for example, Middle Passage cannot be lifted from the text and simply dropped into Dreamer. In the former novel, Rutherford Calhoun's speech is textured by the language of sailors and the sea---I read an academic study of Cockney slang (and all of Melville's sea stories) in order to occasionally sculpt his sentences (word choice, syntax, rhythm) and those of the sailors with language appropriate for their Life-world and lived, daily experience. (One of the delights of doing that was discovering just how much of the language of sailors and the sea is a part of our ordinary daily discourse, and the fresh possibilities for creating metaphors that it allows.) Now, contrast that language to the third-person narration in Dreamer, which is saturated with two millennia of theological words and concepts appropriate for the Christian vision and voice of Martin Luther King Jr. Then contrast the voice in both of those books to that of the first-person slave narrator, Andrew Hawkins, in Oxherding Tale, where his language now and then is a mock version of narrators in the early English novel and, in one instance, the one we find in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shanty. A world is invoked by each word the narrators use in those novels and, therefore, their voices are not in any way interchangeable when those narrative voices are at their purest. 

We see how this works most clearly with first-person narrators because there each line of narration is also a revelation of the individual character---it is both narration and a character line; the narration could, in fact, be a monologue (or testimony) by a character. (See my story "Confession," which is a monologue in which only Tiberius speaks until the end of the story.) 

 However, the presence of voice---a personality infusing the narrative---should also be recognizable in third-person narratives where the narrator is not a character in the story. This can happen in two ways. First, if the story is third-person-limited to one character (usually the protagonist), the narration can occasionally employ the individuated speech of that person, i.e., when he perceives something or makes a judgment, the narrator uses his idiosyncratic diction as happens in the story "The Education of Mingo." The second way of approaching a third-person narrator who is outside the story (like God would be if he was narrating a tale) occurs, for example, in one contemporary fiction I recall, where the narrator employs full omniscience by first physically describing a character for us, then saying, "Now let's go across town to her bank and see what's inside her safety deposit box." There, the narrator---although not a performer in the story----becomes as much of a "character" through his voice as someone in the dramatis personae. He can stand back from them, comment on and judge them as the narrative unfolds, and in the hands of a skillful writer this can be highly enjoyable. (Yet another approach for third-person full omniscience, one that attempts to achieve the neutral illusion of the "objective" camera's eye, is one where the writer scrubs clean all personality from the narration, but we see that in this case objectivity is an illusion because where one places the supposedly unbiased camera is already a decision and a judgment and a choice saturated with subjectivity.)

Let me conclude this post on voice by saying that every fiction is experienced as a "whole." In order to discuss different aspect of a story, we only isolate them for the purpose of pedagogy. But it should be clear that any analysis of voice inevitably segues into a discussion of viewpoint, and that---like pulling a thread of a sweater---leads one to an examination of the character that particular viewpoint represents.

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