Thursday, February 26, 2015

dialects, use them or avoid them?

Fand, Celtic Goddess of the Sea,
soaking up the rays
Dialect, "a particular form of a language specific to a certain region or group" as one dictionary has it,  can be an alluring facet for writing a fictional work.  It can lend an air of greater embedment in the unfolding of a tale, an immediacy of being among, or of the characters, instead of hearing a more grammatical narrator speaking in his own voice to give a report of dialog between story characters--which is effectively a translation of their dialect, and perhaps, as translations do, loses some of the native emotive content.

A character in a short story I wrote some years ago was a young, partially-disabled vet, working on a produce farm alongside migrant farm workers from out-of-state.  They were black, and he was white.  The migrants had a rich, rural southern, dialect, and the vet had a northern, lower working class, dialect.  A lot of the story included raucous episodes the migrant workers lied and joked about during their long hours of creeping forward on the soil beds, harvesting the vegetables as they went.  I wrote the story using a voice and idioms of other farm migrants I had worked alongside, part-time, for several years as a teenager.  I then rewrote the story in a third-person limited POV, using proper, grammatical diction.  I thought the dialect version seemed richer, but they're still just drafts.

I was thinking about the pros and cons of using dialect as I read Foreign Gods, Inc., by Oke Ndibe, a Nigerian-born writer who also teaches African and African Diaspora literatures here in the US.  The theme of the story involves a Nigerian immigrant to the US who earned an economics degree here, but had been unsuccessful in landing a job in his field.  After hearing more than enough criticisms of his accent, Ike has given up pursuing that career path, and has been driving a taxi for thirteen years.  Reading an article about a dealer in foreign gods in his resident city of NY, he visits the establishment, Foreign Gods, Inc.  He proposes to sell them an ancient war deity from his village in Nigeria, but the dealer is reluctant to estimate any potential value until he can inspect the actual piece, and sees some documents or publications attesting to the provenance of the deity.  Ike borrows from friends and maxes out his credit card to make the trip back to his village in Nigeria.

A major part of the story following includes a Nigerian dialect, incorporating a sort of local, pidgin English.  Often it results in very humorous mashups of Nigerian and American diction.  In the story, Ike has neglected for some time, because of a gambling addiction developed back in the US, to send any money for his mother and sister.  Now he's come back to rob the village of their deity, Ngene. Wouldn't matter to the mother and sister, since they, with a large portion of the village, have fallen for the new allure of the Christian gospel as promulgated by a slick, duplicitous local minister.  He had viewed Ike as a probable easy American mark for $50K to build him a new church.  There's a comical, if a little unsettling, bible belt preacher vs. smug religious cynic sort of opera going on here, but it holds together well enough.  The tension created by Ike's need to purloin the deity from a sort of Elk's Lodge temple, presided over by Ngene's high priest, Ike's beloved uncle, is almost palpably painful.

I would say that Ndibe has written a pretty good story, but I found his extensive use of such an idiosyncratic dialect wore me down a bit in the reading.
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