"The Politics of Dialect" by Melissa Scholes Young

Every summer, I return to my hometown, Hannibal, Missouri, to reconnect with my roots. I have thirty-seven first cousins and most still live near the dirt road where I grew up.  Ten minutes of chatter on my mom’s front porch, holding fast to a sweaty glass of iced tea, and I sound like me again. Inevitably, one of my children comes up from the pond and asks, “How come you talk funny when we’re here?” I’d like to protest, but I’m already drawing out my vowels and slicing my gerunds.  Instead, I send the kids off to catch fireflies in a glass jar or gather sticks for roasting marshmallows.

Hannibal declared itself “America’s Hometown” because it was Samuel Clemens’s, aka Mark Twain’s, boyhood home, as well as his inspiration. The town name-drops Mark Twain on every street corner and many of us boast Becky Thatcher braids; in July, Hannibal stages the annual National Tom Sawyer Days. Quaintness is a lure that’s hard to resist. So are regional dialects that connect us on the page and in person.

When I set my novel, Flood, in Hannibal, I wanted to give voice to the rural America that raised me and my characters. Writing the dialogue in the rural dialect we use sounded right to me. After my book was published, however, I learned how wrong it sounded to some.

One reader who praised the novel suggested that my sentences might be a bit “inelegant.” A reader aware of Twain’s reception would know why that phrase tickles and haunts me. When Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885, librarians in Concord, Massachusetts, rejected it for being “rough, coarse and inelegant” and “more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” 

The common wisdom is that there is a right way to talk and then there is the way uneducated people talk. Mark Twain famously said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” Folks without a formal education have stories to tell. I believe we should not only listen to their stories but also preserve their voices in writing fiction that their stories inspire.  Rather than impair meaning, dialect can shine a light along the way.

Writing dialect is risky, especially if you haven’t lived in the culture you’re writing about. A few nonstandard spellings can add legitimacy, as colloquialisms can add flavor: however, dialect shouldn’t choke the narration. A tick up or a tick down in dialect can help distinguish characters; for example, the protagonist of Flood, Laura Brooks, knows how to code switch. Her dialect is tamer at the hospital where she works and looser with her best friend, Rose, especially in the rawest moments of their reimagined Tom-and-Huck female friendship.

When the editor at the Atlantic read an excerpt from my novel that included dialect, he wrote that my prose had the ‘raw grit of a young Bobbie Ann Mason,’ which is the kindest way anyone has ever rejected me. As soon as my publisher announced Flood’s late June launch, I knew that I wanted my novel to debut in Hannibal, where we were both born. I was asked to be a celebrity judge for the national fence-painting contest on July 4th, and I strutted up and down Main Street with a costumed Tom and Becky, the mighty Mississippi River flowing at our feet. We all spoke the same language and it fit just right.

Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novel Flood. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poet Lore, and Poets & Writers. She’s a Contributing Editor for Fiction Writers Review and Editor of the Grace & Gravity anthology. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. You can visit her at www.melissascholesyoung.com

Posted on February 22, 2018 .