5 min read

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.