Friday, August 31, 2012

using dialect to spin a tale

I've been rereading Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and have been intrigued by his use of dialect peculiar to rural folk of northern Mississippi in the early twentieth century.  However, I've heard teachers of writing caution against a use of dialect in stories.  They seem to feel that the use of a proper syntax is the best vehicle for delivering a story of any literary quality.  They of course must allow for exceptions, like Faulkner, but would maintain it's always a hazardous undertaking.

My reflections on a few writing classes suggest that some of these hazards probably include being thought of as not politically correct, or PC; that is, of stereotyping people, especially if the writer may not be of the same socioeconomic class as his characters.  What a straitjacket for creativity.  Even if some of the vocabulary Faulkner uses for  folks of his famous Yoknapatawpha County is obscure, and the syntax  often very irregular, it certainly adds to the mood and moral dimensions of As I Lay Dying, as well as others of his novels and short stories.

One of the works-in-progress in the digital archives of my hard drive is a story that includes migrant farm workers on a truck farm near my boyhood home on Long Island.  They were from Florida, and became farming migrants as the annual growing season started up and progressed north.  I was an occasional worker on the L.I. farm in my later teens, because it was an available job and money was scarce at home.  I spent some long days in the fields alongside the migrants, harvesting vegetables and listening to their stories, and  accompanied them on some of their evening trips to beach towns near our area.  I'll use an excerpt from the draft to give an idea of what I think is a fair representation of a dialect that  intrigued me over the weeks and months I shared with my cohorts.
A field of kneeling, crawling men move forward in the muggy, warm air. The hunched over pickers are strung out along rows of radishes: Wild John, Bama Boy, and Edward, up ahead, to Artie, way back in the rear.  The migrant workers are picking four rows each, snatching up small red globes like found money, and swirling round each bunch with a cord loosened from a bundle carried beneath their belt.  Artie picks from just two rows, hesitant, gauging whether he has enough for a full bunch.  He loops his cord around the stems, pulls a double roll knot, and tosses the bunch to a pickup lane before sliding ahead on his knees.  He uses the back of a dirt-caked hand to wipe away gnats from an earlobe, and right there,  has another of those voojoo-day things, a sense of having been in a place like this before.  Like last summer, with a platoon mucking through a rice paddy in Korea, on his belly, pushing a rifle ahead.  Not so long ago, really.

Edward goes on in his laughing, singsong voice.  “So Lilly’s old man, Chester, he comin’ in a front door, still gots the postman suit and hat on, and Lily and me, we jus’ leavin’ the bedroom and comin’ out the hallway.  When I sees Chester, I fishes out a pad and pencil and I’m ‘zaminin the walls.  ‘I think I got all the numbers I needs, Ma’am, an’ I will be havin' you a es’imate a’ this paint job by tomorr'a mornin’.’”

“Well, you ain’t done no such thing,” says a picker a couple of yards back, laughing.

Edward turns and grins as he’s flying a string around another bunch of radishes.  “Sure ‘n hell I did, ‘n on the way out I tells Chester he can have a choice ‘a the five year, or the ten year warranty on the salmon paint, ‘n the black paint come automatic'al wit’ fifteen years.”

“Salmon ‘n black, my, you sure the man 'a the times,” says Bama Boy.

More laughs and digs on the story from pickers coming up behind .  A blizzard of  bunches flop into the pickup lane as  men waddle forward on their knees.  The farm owner, Mr. Mueller, the only other white picker besides Artie, scowls: damned nonsense is going too far.  He’s working just a few feet behind Edward, tight-lipped, and tugging his strings like he was garroting each redheaded bunch.
Edward has the boys humming now.  “That’s right, no jive,” Edward says, “The next day I’m layin’ low, see, case Chester do a drop-back to see this be a paint job or a snow job.  But the nex’ day—“

 “All right,  enough of that,” Mueller, says.  “We don’t need to be listening to all this trash—we're here to work.  You want to go on like that, pick up your pay and head down the road."

Silence descends, interrupted only by the flutter of leaves as radish bunches continue to loop through the air.  Later, a few comments test the subdued mood, a baseball score, deal-making on used car lots, chicory in coffee.  The migrants feel the tension, but it always be there. Mueller gets up and walks back along the pickup lane, tossing fresh bundles of strings to pickers as they call out, making a tick mark next to their names on his pad, and stops beside Artie.

I'll probably want to work more on the use of dialect in this story.  I think it holds promise for an effective telling of the story.

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