Reading Dialect in Celeste Rita Baker’s “Name Calling”

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the use and representation of dialect in fiction recently, sparked off by Daniel José Older’s response to this review of Long Hiddenwhich led to Wendy S. Delmater and Tonya Liburd of Abyss & Apex writing a post about a recent editorial decision to do with Caribbean dialect in a story, which led to Tobias Buckell writing his own response to being name-checked in their editorial.

Since then, the editors of Abyss & Apex have chosen to run two versions of the story they discussed in their editorial: “Name Calling” by Celeste Rita Baker. The first is the version with the dialect toned down; the second is the original as they received it.

There’s a wealth of things I’m interested in discussing — and have been discussing elsewhere, in private conversations, for the last several days — about the ethics of reviewing, responding to reviews, and the ways in which we write and talk about dialect, voice, and accent. But having just now read both versions of Baker’s story, I find that what I want most urgently to talk about is the experience of reading dialect, because it’s weighing on me in myriad ways.

I’ll begin with something I’ve said before: to read is to be penetrated. To read is to let someone else organize your thoughts from the inside for the duration of your reading, and for some time after you’ve finished. To read is to take words into your brain and feel the landscape of your psyche be re-arranged, be shifted and manipulated according to the author of the words you’re reading. This does not occur in a vacuum: there’s a vast network of reading and speaking and writing that’s gone into creating the psyche of the author now doing a number on yours, which is, of course, also built out of the echoes of everything you’ve read, written, and spoken.

To “Name Calling,” then.

I started by reading the first sentence of the edited story (since it’s at the top of the page), and then the first sentence of the original version. Here they are:

Ah wake up every morning at thirteen minutes before three.

Compared to

Ah wake up every mahnin at tirteen minutes before tree. 

The difference to me, as a reader, is immense. When I read the first, I hear it in my own internal voice; the “ah” for “I” hasn’t sufficiently affected the internal landscape of my mind to shift my voice out of true. “Morning” and “thirteen” and “three” — all in my voice, my accent, my dialect.

When I read the second, I hear someone else’s voice. I feel myself being shifted, inhabited, and I feel the entirety of my attention bending towards the text, the experience of the text. I feel my brain summoning instances where I heard something similar in order to clothe the unfamiliar spelling of familiar words with a sound. These are insufficient and embarrassing and full of ignorance — a memory of Cool Runnings, of Bob Marley, of Jim Carrey’s parody of “Informer.” But they’re scaffolding, these instances, and they’re quickly superseded by story, because brains are astonishing things, capable of reading words upside down and with most of their letters missing or with numbers instead of letters, and soon I’m too immersed to do anything but listen to the story I’m being told.

I decided to read the whole of the original version of the story first. And as much as I was inhabited, I was also transported. I could feel myself in a different place in a visceral, difficult way. And I saw that this was, in fact, a story about being inhabited, about being ridden by other people’s names and voices and the discomfort of that, the effect it has and the toll it takes. I thought it was brilliant of Baker to write this story in this way and offer it to an audience likely to be unfamiliar with her dialect, to convey the speaker’s discomfort through the act of reading in addition to the information conveyed through that reading.

And then I thought about code-switching, and how this discomfort I was feeling and the work that I was doing in order to read a story I’d chosen to engage with on the internet is how some people live all the time. And then my head exploded.

This is crucial. It is so crucially important to understand the dynamic at work here. When you’re a speaker of the privileged dialect of a language, you can be a tourist in other people’s discomfort. You can choose when and where you’ll be challenged on this level, the basic level of speaking and being understood. You can even dictate the terms of when and where it’s appropriate to be so challenged. You can choose when to let someone inside your head and rearrange its furniture, its architecture, its geography, and then you can choose the degree to which you want to keep any of those changes.

Going back to the edited version, I felt dismayed. I felt that I was getting a diluted experience of what I’d just had. Something that was potent, transforming and effective was now itself changed, as if by me — as if, instead of the proper relationship of author to reader, of that trust in allowing someone else into my head, I’d been the one reaching into the dialect and rearranging it to suit me.

One reading took me to an island. The other brought the island to me.

I understand the resistance to dialect, I do. But I also resent it. To me it’s a resistance that speaks of brittleness and entitlement, a valuing of stasis, like treating as default gears that have rusted over instead of working to oil them into suppleness again. And the contexts for our resistance to dialect are so variable, so inflected by race and class, as many have noted elsewhere: in academia we value immensely our knowledge of Chaucer in Middle English and roll our eyes at modern translations, we write reams of analysis on a single word in Finnegans Wake, we praise Burns as a treasure.

I want to state unequivocally that writing in one’s own dialect is valuable and often necessary, and that we should make a virtue of giving ourselves over to being challenged and changed by writing. We need to be self-aware, as readers and writers both, of the position from which we’re reading and writing, and articulate our contexts to ourselves instead of assuming them to be defaults and absolutes. We need to be aware, as editors and reviewers especially, of the power we wield in articulating our contexts to others.

We are already each the centres of our own respective universes. It’s wrong to assume as our right that we should be the centre of everyone else’s.


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23 Responses to Reading Dialect in Celeste Rita Baker’s “Name Calling”

  1. Ranylt says:

    “One reading took me to an island. The other brought the island to me.”

    Tears. SO well said.

  2. andreablythe says:

    Fantastic essay. I completely agree.

    It had me also thinking about how writers are taught to never write dialect or to do it subtly. As a white writer, I’d be very hesitant about approaching dialects that are not my own, for a whole host of reasons. But I can see how for some POC writers this “rule” might be restricting, an erasure of their self and their home, denying them the kind of writer-reader connection you mention. Really interesting and I’ll be thinking about dialect differently.

    Now I’m off to go read “Name Calling.”

    • I do think it’s a very good rule for writers not to attempt to represent other people’s dialects visually unless they’ve done a LOT of research and had native speakers check that it’s not a stereotype-ridden mess. It’s not just white writers either! Consider my only references for Caribbean-sounding speech in my post; if I were to blithely attempt to “write dialect,” Jim Carrey parodying a white man’s attempt at sounding Jamaican is probably what would come through.

      Or think about how many times we get American writers of having characters say “so and so has a British accent.” That … Narrows it down to what, about 50 possible accents? Or the reverse, for that matter; British writers saying so and so has an American accent. What each is probably identifying in that case is NOT a specific accent, but the measure of difference between their own accent and ANY accent from another country, where it all becomes melted down into one easily representable difference.

      Anyway I’m getting carried away — I just love thinking about this stuff and find it hard to stop. I’d love to know your own experience of reading the story!

      • andreablythe says:

        So true. I love thinking and talking about this stuff, too.

        I read the first paragraph of the edited version and found myself hearing the accent with every “Ah” and then falling back into my own voice.

        So I skipped ahead to the original and was able to hold the voice in my head much better. I don’t really understand why it was edited in the first place because the dialect version is still so readable and has it’s own unique poetry to it. Anyway, it was an amazing story, so sad and heartfull.

  3. Siddhartha says:

    Very interesting. I don’t know if dialect should be “toned down”, but the experience of reading that story was very different for me. English is not my first language. It is one of two languages currently tied in their efforts to be my second language. It was quite difficult for me to penetrate the dialects in the original version of the story. I had to mentally translate the words to so-called “standard” English and then translate it back to my own language to understand what was happening there.

    One question (probably a very stupid one): do you think one should try to preserve the grammatical part of the dialect (the sentence structures and word choices etc,) but try not as hard to preserve the accents (primarily spelling of the words)? This is what the editors seem to have tried here and it worked for me.

    I don’t really see too many people talking about the readers whose English may not be as strong as theirs, so I just wanted to put my thoughts out here.

    • “[T]he experience of reading that story was very different for me. English is not my first language. It is one of two languages currently tied in their efforts to be my second language. It was quite difficult for me to penetrate the dialects in the original version of the story. I had to mentally translate the words to so-called ‘standard’ English and then translate it back to my own language to understand what was happening there.”

      This is a really good point, and thank you for bringing it up; it’s something I’ve been thinking about too in conjunction with translation. I was recently reading somewhere (I think in Buckell’s post?) that translators sometimes decline to translate works written in non-dominant dialects, for a variety of reasons. But while I completely respect that your experience of reading this story was different from mine, it’s an experience with which I’m familiar in other contexts.

      I speak three languages fluently — English, French, and Arabic, in descending order of ease. I’ve read books and poems in at least three varieties of French, and been exposed to different spoken dialects of Arabic (and then of course there’s the issue of classical and vernacular Arabics, which has its own set of tangles). In each case, whether in reading or listening or speaking, I did have to work harder and perform more acts of personal translation — but I ultimately felt the richer for it, and that any fluency I was gaining in my languages was stronger and more versatile as a consequence.

      I think there’s always going to be a tipping point that’s different for each person, where intelligibility is just no longer possible, and I have no easy answers there (and your question is not at all stupid!) — I’ve seen many different ways of representing different voices, and think that the context in which they’re written will probably affect a great deal. (Consider, for instance, the aspect of “Name Calling” that involves the protagonist being ridden and inhabited, and how for me personally I felt that experience through the dislocation in dialect.)

      I think that preserving rhythm and syntax is a perfectly workable compromise, one way of doing things — I just don’t want to say that there should be only one way, or that there is an ideal way, of rendering dialect.

      • Siddhartha says:

        Greetings and salutations from a fellow trilingual person 🙂 (sorry about the lengthy comment, but this is something I find quite fascinating)

        “… I just don’t want to say that there should be only one way, or that there is an ideal way, of rendering dialect.”

        This is exactly the problem I had with the Strange Horizons review as well as the Abyss & Apex editorial. “The representation of dialect was too difficult for me to understand. It did not work for me and I felt that it took away from the story instead of adding to it.” is a somewhat valid criticism. If I were the author or the editor, I may not agree to this criticism. I may feel that it says more about the critic than the story. But criticism is often subjective and something that did not work for someone may work for someone else. But “Writing in dialect is merely a literary trick” or “Tobias Buckell did not write this way” are not valid criticisms or concerns. They seem dismissive and somewhat uninformed.

        I understand the use of dialects in the stories in question and I know that there is no easy answer to this problem. To give an example: In the great melting pot that is India, most of us speak at least 2 and understand at least 3-4 languages. Even then, a few sentences of English usually suffice to place a person’s origins and first language. If I were to write fiction set in India, it will be impossible to portray all that diversity without resorting to use of dialects and inconveniencing a substantial number of readers.

        Regarding translation of dialects, I sympathise with the translators. I have translated a (very) few stories and poems from my first language (Bangla) to English and it gets exponentially difficult to accurately portray the differing rhythms and syntax of a speaker using a dialect. As you said, a dialect is not only a different way of speaking the same thing – to the (informed) ear, they convey the whole history, culture (and even stereotypes) associated with the dialect.

    • Silvia says:

      As a fellow English language speaker, I have the same issue. Though I found Trainspotting harder to read than Caribbean Patois. With Scottish stuff I have no idea what I’m looking at, with Caribbean I can make a decent guess with my Spanish and French knowledge.

  4. Excellent essay. Like Andrea (and you) pointed out, I think that there are a number of reasons why this is dangerous to do in a dialect that is not your own or one that you at least know extremely well. To me, this feels like a more perilous variant of writing characters/scenes incorporating another culture. Are you trying to add ambiance to your story at their expense? Are you perpetuating a false stereotype to enrich your setting? Is someone going to call you out, despite your best intentions? It definitely takes careful research — and probably equal measures of courage and humility.

    The target audience matters, too. If you can’t count on your reader to have the “scaffolding” necessary to easily parse the dialogue (even if it is “Cool Runnings,” which I’ll sheepishly admit to loving), you’ve just turned the reading experience into a tedious language puzzle. It’s tricky, but when it’s done correctly — when the writer knows her stuff and the reader has the necessary ear, it really can transport you. Baker seems to pull it off.

  5. Great post. I’d thought I’d better mention that your link to Tobias’ post is snarfed

  6. Thank you so much for this.

    Criticism about local dialects being hard to understand is understandable, but then I don’t see how it’s so different from your random Goodreads reviewer writing gems like “I didn’t see why the protagonist had to be female, I couldn’t identify with her and I felt it didn’t add anything to the story”. In both cases, people refuse to see that what’s a deviation from the norm for them (femaleness, or a dialect they’re not used to) may well be completely normal and default for someone else, and no something “added” or a “trick”. They also refuse to acknowledge the discriminations people have to live with just because they don’t fit what’s considered as default. Stating that local dialects should be avoided in literature because they’re hard to understand contributes to making discrimination easier just as much as stating that female protagonists (for instance) should be avoided because they’re hard to identify with. All right, it may make the story less comfortable to read for you. What of it? If I’m correct, the definition of “dialect” as opposed to “language” is that speakers of different dialects can understand each other with relative ease. Putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes demands some work, I know. It should also be done every now and then by anybody who doesn’t want to die a jerk. I definitely agree with you that trying to understand what it’s like for people who don’t speak the majority dialect is a necessary effort.

    People speaking a local variant of a language regularly feel terrible about not using standard speech. When they try to reach a wider audience, they get ridiculed unless they accept to let themselves be pigeonholed as “local”, “exotic” or “picturesque”. Speaking with a local accent will destroy your chances of being taken seriously any time you dare put a foot in academia, politics or arts in many places. There will still be people who will try to make you speak “correctly”, and who will find any pretext to deride your use of the language as incorrect. How can we hope that local dialects will stop being a cause for discrimination, if the only times we accept to listen to them is when they’re spoken by peasants, nationalists or sports commenters? Toning down dialect is not “trying to reach a wider audience”. It’s just doing our best to prevent local speech from ever being taken seriously by a wider audience.

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  9. Celeste Rita Baker says:

    Hi Amal,
    I want to thank you so much for standing up for me (and everybody) regarding my story Name Calling. You really are helping to bring the heat to the discussion of language and inclusion and that’s such a good ting! Your compliments were great too. Thank you so much.

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