The POC Guide to Writing Dialect In Fiction

The author who writes dialect as an insider, as a native speaker, but who faces the disadvantages of being a POC outsider in the publishing context, needs a different answer concerning How to Use Dialect Well in Fiction than an author writing from the opposite condition. In other words, this essay could consider the needs of white or POC writers, but not of both and still be brief.

I’m Black American, while you may identify as biracial, Desi, or Chicanx. You may not be American at all, but instead multilingual and living in Sri Lanka, Brazil, or France. The term “person of color” obviously can’t do real semantic justice to such a zigzagged bounty of backgrounds. It’s a nonce-word that’s stuck around too long, but I don’t have anything better. Who and wherever you are, I ask that you translate and imagine as necessary when I speak from my particular black experience.

I’m taking it as given that stories which employ dialect, breaking sharply at times or throughout from Standard English [1], can do so to their vast aesthetic enrichment. In order to get the reader quickly to the meat of this discussion, I’m omitting three pages of analysis of excerpts lifted from the likes of Zen Cho and Nalo Hopkinson, who both extensively and beautifully make use of dialect in the ethnic/racial sense; and further analysis of excerpts from, say, Samuel R. Delany and Sofia Samatar, who make promiscuous and beautiful use of dialect in other senses.

What’s that mean? “In other senses”?

For the purposes of this essay, please consider the word “dialect” to refer to any language-pattern that communicates cues concerning race, historical period, gender, nationality, professional affiliation, queerness, etc., of the protagonist, character, narrator, etc., in a work of fiction. For example, I first became conscious of a dialect I like to call “Passive Aggressive Officialese” when I noted a little sign posted at a café in Barnes and Noble. The placard snidely suggested that it should not come ill at all if would-be freeloaders purchased a drink or dessert before parking themselves at a table. Otherwise, cheapskates were “free to enjoy additional seating throughout the bookstore.” Wow! I thought, noticing the intense little punch of annoyance the wording of the sign caused me. Isn’t that phrasing just delicious? I dipped into this dialect, among many others, when writing the Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. The rhythms of Edwardian translation from Latin, black men in the barbershop, the astrophysicist boyfriend who just assumes you understand wtf he’s talking about…

So, begin to repeat interesting bits of language aloud to yourself a couple of times, then jot it down. Carry around a little notebook, or Swype the juicy bits of language you come across into some app on your phone. (But always recheck yourself in that case! Autocorrect mangles unusual language usage especially!) Establishing this habit of muttering and taking notes sharpens your ear for language in general and dialect particularly. It’ll deepen the creative well you draw from while writing, even if you never take a second look at the notes you jot down.

How else can you improve your use of dialect? I submit myself to the following regime whenever I write with dialect—even the one I grew up speaking natively!—: Are the words I’m writing actually what such a character would say in such a situation, or are they merely my received idea of such words? Involuntarily, over the course of a lifetime, I’ve absorbed vast quantities of shit ranging from clumsily written approximations of black speech to outright racist mockery. This hideous noise is so loud by now, my fingertips can easily go awry trying to render my own spoken language into writing. Every time, I’ve got to ask myself: am I about to write something true-to-life, or does this use of dialect just regurgitate trash I’ve read elsewhere in some book or on social media, or wherever. I speak the words aloud a bunch of times. Do they still sound good? Really? And if my use of dialect safely passes all these tests, then … I cross it out. I write something else entirely, which only a native speaker could possibly have written—a phrase I’ve never seen put down accurately.

When rendering your own dialect, the goal should be to write phrases that will make other native speakers scream with delight and recognition, but make your white editor snatch up their red pen and scribble Huh? in the margins. If you’re pitching your use of dialect to be unprovocative and easily intelligible to some bland deracinated readership, then you’re just not pushing hard enough. Whether you realize it or not, by trying “not to scare the white people,” as we say out my way, you’re in fact reproducing a bunch of received bullshit pap. Grow some backbone, too, because you’ll need it for the editorial rejection and pushback coming your way.

Now let’s talk about some harder stuff.

Consider the dramatic possibilities here: by code-switching up to my highest, most polite register, I’ve intervened countless time in institutional conflicts (with police or teachers, in Financial Aid offices or swanky stores) on behalf of strangers, family, friends, and lovers who weren’t able to make such a code-switch themselves. My plummy, educated tones have often been able to turn around situations that were quickly headed south. So, then: dialect is fraught with real consequences, sometimes life-and-death consequences. Each dialect has its own power differential, a “prestige quotient,” attached to it. You can write an infinitely richer story by allowing different dialects to contend intelligently with each other, but whew! What a lot of work “intelligently” is doing in that previous sentence!

When using dialect in a story, managing to render it accurately is only the start of your work. Nor is it nearly enough to get every detail right when representing a complex interplay of various dialects, with all their relative power dynamics. What is the crux, then?

Dear friends of every race, please don’t create fiction that perpetuates all our disgusting real-life biases concerning dialects. In The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps I wrote most characters speaking some version of African American Vernacular English—one of the dialects of lowest, if not the lowest prestige, in the US. Some characters speak a version of AAVE of relatively more prestige—say, a light, Obamaish inflection here and there—while others speak the version of AAVE meme-makers adore to mock, English teachers delight in reviling. The protagonist, a real stand up guy, speaks this latter version: and he had to. Why “had to”? Because there are other characters in the book, mostly in positions of power, who use extremely high-prestige dialects. Stories make a very poor use of dialect if intelligence, goodness, or abjection easily correlates to who is speaking which dialect.

“Abjection”? By that I mean, speech patterns shouldn’t dispose among protagonist, secondary and tertiary characters such that those using low-prestige dialects read primarily as wretches, fools, or scoundrels. Beauty, genius, and heroism—all the trappings of full humanity—should appear at least as broadly and profoundly among speakers of low-prestige dialects as among those speaking high. And for fuck’s sake, don’t write stories designed for readers to smugly identify with the characters using high-prestige dialects. Here’s some homework. Imagine a story largely written in brilliant patois: Local girl made good gives up a promising StarFleet career to go back to her dingy home-asteroid and prep the next generation’s best and brightest for the entrance exam … sounds potentially fun, right? But are you also spotting all the poisonous colonialist, neoliberal, Eurocentric uplift bullshit this scenario almost inevitably entails?

Now for some bad news. Obviously I think it can open rich, new imaginative space to muddle up the concept of writing with many incommensurable sorts of language, and yet call all these “dialects.” But let’s get real for a minute. Using a dialect that implicates race, nationality, class, or ethnicity entails for the author of color far more drastic consequences (for good and ill) than writing in the jargon of a coffee barista or Marine Corps slang and terminology.

POC who write in high-prestige dialects—that of the British Regency, or WASP physicists, or post-Harvard Manhattanite millionaires (to name actual examples of recent works by POC)—will enjoy from publishers, readers, and critics a far different reception than that coming to writers who invoke low-prestige dialects: say, the screaming, laughing profanity of black/brown teenagers on the NYC subway, or the English of a Chinese immigrant who only began learning the language last month.

If you write in a low-prestige dialect, then know that you’re making the road to publication harder for yourself. A white writer, even working with the same dialect as you, even doing so with horrific inaccuracy, can win glowing reviews and be fast-tracked toward success, while you may find yourself rendered unpublishable, or that you’ve significantly increased the number of years it takes to find a publisher.

Furthermore, many readers of every race point-blank refuse to engage with low-prestige dialects. The use of such dialect strikes them as bad grammar, “broken English,” it “takes them out of the story,” or they think it’s “gimmicky.” People come to these beliefs through lifelong acculturative processes, so no pretty little argument you or I can make is going to win them over. Bear in mind, then: Nobody categorically hates well-written Standard English. Many people won’t read even gorgeously written dialect— cannot, in the first place, perceive the beauty in it. So, if you choose to write in a low-prestige dialect, the already difficult road to publication (and, thereafter, to a wide readership, and to acclaim) steepens. When I wrote my second novella, A Taste of Honey, I turned the flame of belletrism up high, turned the black demotic down low, in part because of the crushing discouragement and feedback I was getting during years of trying to get The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps into print. But I don’t just love my blackness and yours; I love our vernacular, too. A Taste of Honey is deeply although subtly spiced with it. I’ll never give up writing with dialect, never give up a provocative use of it. As you think about where you stand on the question, as a writer and person of color, I hope all this gives you food for thought.


[1] That is, the dialect from which any deviation will cause copyeditors or English teachers to break out the red ink: that version of English most acceptable to, and easily understood by, a notional reasonably-educated, probably-white Anglophone. “Standard English” is a sort of mass hallucination, and the sometimes-practical, often-oppressive politics that sustain this worldwide figment deserve an interrogation I don’t have space for here.

A Taste of Honey Kai Ashante WilsonKai Ashante Wilson is the author of A Taste of Honey and The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, his stories “Super Bass” and “The Devil in America,” the latter of which was nominated for the Nebula, the Shirley Jackson, and the World Fantasy Award, can be read online gratis at Tor.com. His story «Légendaire.» can be read in the anthology Stories for Chip, which celebrates the legacy of science fiction grandmaster Samuel Delany. Kai Ashante Wilson lives in New York City.

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