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Wednesday, 9 May 2007

"Nobody does it better"

Last Thursday, Maud Newton posted the text of Russell Banks's afterword to The Girl with the Golden Shoes, a novella by Colin Channer just published by Akashic Books. A review copy had arrived in the post a few days before, so I read Banks's piece there instead of online--for, dear readers, as keen as I am on blogging as a medium of communication, for my rapidly aging eyes, paper ever trumps pixels.

Banks does exactly what Channer's publisher must have hoped: he presents the younger writer to a North American audience probably unfamiliar with most contemporary Caribbean writing, and neatly categorises his work. The Girl with the Golden Shoes, he says, is "a nearly perfect moral fable", in the tradition of The Old Man and the Sea, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and The Red Badge of Courage. Channer has "creolised the form, giving it a strictly New World DNA". He is "clearly in the business of helping make great literature." It is a generous endorsement, with only the gentlest touches of condescension, appropriate to an older, established figure introducing an up-and-comer.

Except that halfway through this short afterword, Banks dismounts heavily onto the wobbly ground of Caribbean linguistics, and lurches in a puzzling direction. I'll quote the key paragraphs:

We ought also to admire the apparent ease and intelligence with which he has addressed a modern (actually a post-modern, post-colonial) linguistic conundrum: the problem of representing on the page the music and clarity of creolized English, which is, of course, the language his character think, argue, make love, and dream in--except when they happen to be speaking to their colonial masters or to the inheritors of the masters’ linguistic standards of excellence and correct articulation. The problem is that if one is a writer from the Caribbean, one has to write both. It’s a challenge that few of Channer’s literary forebears, even great writers like V.S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott, have been able to meet, and few if any of his contemporaries....

The perennial question for Caribbean writers is how to represent creolized English without making of it a mere dialect, a diminished version of the mother country’s mother tongue ... to somehow use and abuse the language of the oppressor in order to both subvert the oppressor’s mentality and tell a tale that’s true to the teller’s deepest, most intimate experience. Channer is the master of this bait-and-switch.... Nobody does it better; at least nobody I know.

Channer does very convincingly portray on the page the invented "native dialect" he calls Sancoche, moving fluidly from there into "standard" English and back. But to my "native" ear, he doesn't do this with such breathtaking skill and originality as to justify Banks's imperious swipe at, well, the whole tradition of West Indian writing.

Banks has spent time in Jamaica, written a book set there, and for all I know he is thoroughly read in the major works of West Indian literature c. 1950 to the present, but I suspect not. When he mentions Naipaul and Walcott--the two names everyone knows--and suggests they have not met the challenge of mastering both standard and creolised English (and the transition between them), I have to conclude Banks has read none of Naipaul's early novels or stories set in Trinidad--in which he plays vernacular dialogue against his own refined authorial voice, to great effect, comic and tragicomic; nor can he have read, to name only the most obvious example, Walcott's mini-epic "The Schooner Flight", in which the voice of Shabine can pivot in a single line from the near-biblical sublime to the street-smart demotic.

What about The Lonely Londoners, in which with each sentence Sam Selvon brings the whole unruly continuum of West Indian English to vigorous truce? What about those poems Martin Carter wrote in the 1950s, in which he uses the slippery everyday slippage between Guyanese creole and Guyanese English to suggest profound ambiguities? (Think of the opening lines of "University of Hunger"--read as creole, they are statements; read as English, they are questions. As Brendan de Caires put it in an excellent review of Carter's collected poems, published last year in the Stabroek News: "An outsider reads doubts where the local reads declarative sentences.")

What about Robert Antoni's novel Divina Trace, in which no fewer than six characters speak in their own distinctive registers at six different points along the Caribbean linguistic scale? What about Channer's fellow countryman and fellow expatriate Anthony Winkler (who has also just joined Akashic's list), who may, for my money, be the best living writer of Jamaican creole? And many readers in the Caribbean can probably add a half dozen further examples of their own.

Now, to be clear: this is not a back-handed dig at Channer, or The Girl with the Golden Shoes, which obviously must be taken on its own real merits. What I'm really working towards, I suppose, is a question as perennial and as crucial for Caribbean writers as the "linguistic conundrum" Banks describes: how to negotiate the divide between "local" and "foreign" audiences. When Banks reads Channer, he is listening for a "voice" that sounds like the Caribbean he knows. So am I, but I am measuring the authenticity of that voice--or its convincingness--against a longer, deeper, and wider lived experience of the Caribbean. So when Banks pronounces that "Nobody does it better," I'm bound to get vexed.

A friend, emailing me after reading Banks's afterword online: "I'm so tired of this." What do you think, dear readers? Is my annoyance misconceived, or not? And, perhaps I should have mentioned this from the beginning as a kind of spoiler alert, but: best read The Girl with the Golden Shoes before Banks's afterword--I regret reversing the order, because it did spoil my enjoyment of Channer's story.

But then I'm not the North American reader Banks was clearly addressing.


Anonymous said...

As the utterer of the line "I'm so tired of this," I'd have to say that your annoyance is far from misconceived.

But does anyone else also find Banks' use of the stock phrase "the language of the oppressor" problematic? Anachronistic? Is it safe to say that this phrase has become a cliché? Do people (writers, especially) of the current generation still think in these terms, or have we begun to frame things differently? To what extent do we Standard English-speaking Caribbeans still feel "oppressed", linguistically speaking, by external forces?

Anonymous said...

I read the Afterword’s fulsome praise of Colin Channer’s “nearly perfect moral fable” with an ever-increasing sense of wonderment. I gasped as the novella was placed alongside Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey; Faulkner’s The Bear and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

I was overwhelmed by the admiration of “the ease and intelligence with which Colin Channer has engaged the ancient and honorable, essentially European tradition of the moral fable” and how he (Channer) “has introduced into it elements that are native to the Caribbean archipelago and therefore to the African diaspora”.

Well, Nicholas, you got vexed with Russell Banks for presuming to pass his mouth on the range and variety of our authentic voices and for his apparent ignorance of our fine literary tradition and writers beyond Channer, Walcott and Naipaul. I got vexed when brap! all of a sudden, after the exorbitant bigging up of Channer, I suddenly read this: “It’s unfair to compare it to those great and finally incomparable works, as this is the work of a relatively young writer still mapping the shape of his imagination, and consequently there is here and there then occasional stylistic tentativeness one associates with such a writer”.

I had to go back to the beginning and read the Afterword again, carefully. And this is what I think. Russell Banks wrote the last paragraph only. Someone else – the publisher? the author? wrote the rest.

jt said...

The divide between Old World and New World, classic and creole, has been Derek Walcott's most enduring theme. To suggest that he cannot put creole on the page convincingly, or slip from one mode to the other, is ludicrous. Any writer dealing with any sort of dialect or creole has to master that skill.

In the early Miguel Street stories, Naipaul showed how it can be done without losing either respect or authenticity. Sam Selvon did the same much of the time, particularly in The Lonely Londoners with its creole voices. Earl Lovelace has done it very effectively, especially in The Wine of Astonishment, where the narrator is thinking and talking in creole.

There are plenty of other examples. I have not yet read Channer’s new book. But the basic solution to the problem seems to me to be judicious compromise, without hard and fast rules. Spelling, and the presentation of language on the page, is important, but control of tone, rhythm, idiom, authentic usage and structure are just as important; together they form a palette from which the writer selects according to context.

This is essentially how writers in other cultures have dealt with the problem as well (we wrongly tend to assume the Caribbean is the only place with dialect). Hardy wrote characters using "Wessex" dialect; DH Lawrence did the same with Nottinghamshire. To take random examples:

"And now 'tis on'y Saturday, and he gone away? ... I don't know how to tell 'ee ...that ever I should ha' lived to say it" (Hardy)

"My wife onywheer! ... I've niver 'ad no wife, I niver knowed what a woman wor like afore. Did thee? ... Dunna yer want me?"

Both writers compromise. Hardy writes and for an’, don’t for don’, allows the d sound in the Wessex Saturday to be represented by a conventional t, and I for a sound like oi. I’m not sure whether say means say or see. Lawrence is bolder but still compromises with my, wife, I’ve, want: the dialect is established not only by the spelling but by the rhythm and construction of the sentences.

Faulkner (to take just one example from the US) does the same.

"Dem folks sho do play dem horns ... Tell me man in dat show kin play a tune on a handsaw. Pick hit like a banjo ... Whut dey give Mr Buck ten dollars fer?"

He’s happy with dem and dat and dey, convincing with sho and kin. But if he was relying on phonetic spelling to convey the sound of the language, wouldn’t tune be written as toon, handsaw as han’saw, dollars as dullers? But he doesn’t need to go that far because he has the other tools to use too.

The key is knowing where to stop. Too much phonetic spelling, and you lose the reader who only knows “standard” English and relies on it as a lingua franca. The text becomes laborious to read, annoying and distracting. It becomes condescending or patronising, partly because so many writers (especially white writers dealing with non-white cultures) have used jokey dialect to indicate how colourful and endearing they consider the natives to be. Also, the further you go down this road, the harder it is for the dialect to carry weight or seriousness. You quickly reach things like "dis, dat an de udder", “de troot o’ de matter” or “Den ah gwin troo Sain’ James”, by which time it is too late.

For an editor at the desk, though, appropriate spelling is the most urgent task. In Trinidad, for example, where many words and expressions have French roots, do we write cobo or corbeau? Do we accept vie-ki-vie, tout moun, lagahoo? We can hardly translate Allyuh read dis, nah! Into All of you read this, now! But when normal speech leaves the final consonant off dialect, going or partying, do we put it back (less authentic), replace it with an annoying and fussy apostrophe, or leave the word exactly as it sounds (a bit patronising on the page)? Dey done dead arready obviously can’t become They have died already, but if a Jamaican speaker says Mek we dweet, should that be watered down for the non-Jamaican reader, and is Make we do it even thinkable?

The th sound is a especially problematic. In everyday speech (and often in formal situations) it is routinely replaced by d or t.
It may be accurate to have an orator declaim De troot shall set yuh free, or a priest intone De fadder, de son an de holy spirit, but to many readers that will look comical on the page and the character will become ludicrous. An editor then has to try and retain both authenticity and respect, and will almost certainly do something about De troot and De fadder.

These are just simple examples from current discussions here at MEP as we talk of overhauling our style rules. I’m (obviously) no literary or linguistic scholar — just intrigued by the way everyday familiar speech can become such a problem on the page unless very skilfully written and/or edited. And how colleagues out there deal with these practical issues.

Kia said...

I haven't read the Banks afterword or the Channer book, which I'm only just hearing about having wandered in here.

I'm not sure a solution to the difficulty of writing in Caribbean's numberless Creolized styles of speech can be prescribed. I think all such artistic solutions are created not by prescription but by someone who finds their own way of solving it that works for his or her ear and for the reader's ear. I read newspaper writers all over the region who have solved it; some of our novelists have, and some have not.

Naipaul's dialect in his early novels is an interesting point. It may or may not be authentic, but if it's inauthentic it's inauthentic in the way that something like 17th-century English poetry is inauthentic: An artful evocation of nature that seems more "real" than nature, which is one of the things that art does. And Caribbean writers have that option too. They've got all the options. What matters is what works, what persuades the ear. Most Caribbean people can pick out a false note in written or spoken dialogue, but they may or may not choose to pay much attention to it. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that everyone would prefer not to hear a false note.

Spelling, punctuation, endings, are all dependent on context, it seems to me, just as in the novels of James Joyce, or in those Irvine Welsh novels written in Glasgow dialect. Or in the examples jt cites. Ultimately, I think, we are best of learning from the writers who do it best, and we have a good supply of them in the Caribbean, especially among the newspaper writers.

From an editor's perspective the job is challenging but not impossible. Accuracy for the ear is of paramount importance, and you build your house style accordingly. Accuracy will travel across the region -- these dialects vary so much even in one country! -- whereas a standardized model will end up not fitting anybody.

Another example that is pertinent to this discussion is someone like James Joyce, who did write in more than one shade of dialect.

Kia said...

In answer to georgia/caribbean free radio:

Yes to your first three. I don't know what writers feel about this, except me, and I think it's a bore. But in postcolonial lit. and Caribbean lit. classes all over the United States, people who have never set foot in the Caribbean (knowing anything about Caribbean culture is not a necessary qualification) teach exactly this framing. It is mindless and unobserving, worse than a cliche. It's where Caribbean literature gets gobbled up and integrated into American neuroses, if you ask me. On the other hand it gets you readers and the more of those you have the more likely you are to hit on one who is a bit more discerning. Any Caribbean writer who gets this sort of attention should remember Liberace: you can cry all the way to the bank. And you can just keep on writing over the heads of silly people.

Geoffrey Philp said...

From the British writer John Baker:

Even when you wish to write dialect you will find that actual reproduction is inadequate. What a reader will tolerate is the idea that the speaker is using dialect, but he won’t appreciate having to struggle with the reality of unintelligible words. You can get away with inversion and the occasional oddity of phrase. But don’t try to push it too much further. You will achieve your effect by suggestion of difference rather than by presentation of it.

We all speak dialect. Even, and sometimes especially, those of us who don’t think we do. Many people try to hide it, but there are truly few people who are absolutely free of racial or geographical speech marks.

For the writer it is a matter of judgement how many or how few special marks his characters are given to differentiate them from each other. Each mark is paid for by extra effort on the part of the reader.

And after the manner of the transcripted speech has delineated character, race, nationality, social standing or whatever else it has to do, it also must help to advance the narrative.

Nuff said.

jr said...

The phrase "the language of the oppressor" isn't just anachronistic or a cliché, it's just plain silly. English is no more or less than a lingua franca, and we've taken it and made it our own and created all sorts of linguistic marvels from it just as the French and Spanish and Italians and Picts and Celts did with Latin. Whenever someone apologises for having to use "the language of the oppressor," what I want to know is, if we didn't use English, what language would we use to talk to each other? Taino? Yoruba? Bhojpuri?