Dialect and Bias

“Well… yawl have looked long enough. What you think about them?”

“We been watching… who they now?”

“Displaced Persons…. Well now. I declare. What do that mean?”

“It means they ain’t where they were born at and there’s nowhere for them to go—like if you was run out of here and wouldn’t nobody have you.”

“It seems like they here, though… if they here, they somewhere.”

The above is excerpted from Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person,” published in 1953 in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. Since O’Connor’s death in 1964, the way we use dialect in fiction has changed significantly. The dialect in which O’Connor wrote her characters’ dialogue was complex enough in the 1950s. Sixty years later, it seems to me that the use of dialect is a dying practice—not least because with each passing decade it’s become increasingly racially, politically, and socioeconomically problematic. Dialect can also signal the contemporary reader to read a character as ‘other,’ which in turn can take that reader out of the story and discourage identification with the character.

But dialect can also be powerful. Nothing conveys a character’s voice and tone with as much immediacy. And in a time when reading has become an essentially visual experience—the text we read online and on our phones is compressed, abbreviated, translated into symbols—dialect can encourage the reader to connect with the written word on an aural level.

Visitors to the site The Dialectizer can input text and have it translated by a computer program into a number of dialects, including Jive, Cockney, Elmer Fudd, Swedish Chef, and even Hacker (the last of which I suspect isn’t a dialect at all, since it’s only ever typed, not spoken…). Imagine reading the following in a story, a familiar joke I ‘translated’ into a dialect the site calls Redneck: “Whuffo’ did th’ possum crost th’ road? To git t’t’other side.” In the work of a contemporary author, I imagine that little line would come off as satirical at best, offensive at worst. For the writer, though, particularly during an era when creating dialect is as simple as inputting text into a Web site, it can read as lazy characterization.

Ultimately, I suspect that the problem of dialect is just one facet of a much larger one: Good dialogue—like a good man—is hard to find.

What’s your opinion of dialect in fiction? Is it an outdated practice? Or can it be used wisely? We’d love to know your thoughts!

Inside IR: Meet the Editors

Welcome to the first installment of our “Meet the Editors” series, in which we get to know the people behind the scenes who make IR happen!  First up, our fearless and visionary leader, Editor Deborah Kim.

Where are you from?
San Diego, California, though I’ve lived in many other parts of southern California. I miss the constant sunshine the most.

Favorite issue of IR?

Our upcoming Winter 2011 issue, 34.1 — which is maybe a boring answer, I know! It’s hard not to be biased toward something you’ve worked on for so long; I remember fighting hard for a lot of the work. We hope every issue is compelling and ambitious, but for me, this one especially is amazing. And the cover artwork!

Favorite non-IR journals?

Annalemma publishes both print and online content and this magazine is newer than others, but a gorgeous artifact in both mediums. Lucky Peach only has two issues out so far, but it’s a wonderful, clever, absolutely fun magazine about food, and I’m totally in love with it. GRANTA is also so so so good. Every issue is dense and put together so cohesively. Finally, I also admire (among so many others!) the work of Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, Hobart, Ninth Letter, [PANK], and Fairy Tale Review.

What/who is on your reading wishlist right now?

Stuart Dybek’s collections, Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, just to name a few.

Okay, so imagine you have a whole afternoon at your favorite coffee shop to read all those books. Where are you and what do you order?

Oh, probably Sweet Claire’s [in Bloomington]. Raspberry-chocolate coffee and a fruit brioche. It’s a cozy place with the most wonderful staff and also spectacular pastries.

Mmm.  Thanks, Deb!

National Novel Writing Month

Today I ran into a colleague of mine who looked particularly haggard. It being the rear-end of a long and grueling semester, I thought nothing of it at first. But after watching her fall asleep during office hours and noticing the black pies pooled below her eyes, I asked how things were. Great, she assured me. I must have looked at her skeptically though, because she proceeded to explain that on top of her teaching and coursework, she has undertaken quite the task: writing a 50,000 word novel by the end of November. This means a little more than 1,600 words a day–no small feat! The novel must be new (no copy pasting from older writing) and all the original work of the author, and more than one word. Other than that, no rules, except the clock!

As I heard this I wondered a) at her sanity and b) at the type of writing a project like this fosters. On further reflection though, I can’t help think this is a pretty neat national campaign, especially in a culture less than obsessed with the written word. The value, I think, becomes less in finishing a 50,000 word masterpiece in 30 days, and more in putting up a valiant effort. Many people never finish, and only one wins the official contest, but the benefits are far greater. Making writing a habit, approaching it as a creative challenge worth pursuing, embracing it as a way of life–all things National Novel Writing Month fosters–are things I believe in.

I’m not a fiction writer but a poet, so the idea of writing 50,000 words scares me silly. That being said, I think I can learn from my fellow writers–part of writing is putting something on the page every day and believing in one’s ability to write something grand. It’s about writing as part of a community and encouraging each other in creative pursuits. About the powers of chocolate and caffeine and the inspiration procrastination can lead to. We’re halfway through November, so I don’t think I’ll be writing a novel this month, but I will be writing. Every day.

Tell us about your novel writing experience, or get going. Only 14 days left!

IR + Gulf Coast + Writers We Love + AWP 2012 = A Reading You Won’t Want to Miss!

Image: smartdestinations.com

As Barbie says, “Math class is tough,” and like Beyonce, I don’t know much about algebra, but I do know this: when you add together the collective energies of Gulf CoastIndiana Review, and five writers that have been featured in recent issues of both journals, you’re sure to come up with exciting results. That’s why we are thrilled to announce our first GC/IR reading, which will take place on March 1, 2012at AWP’s annual Conference & Bookfair.

Plan to join us for an evening of incredible readings by Michael Czyzniejewski, Ross Gay, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Leslie Parry, and D.A. Powell at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago (just around the block from Hilton Chicago & Palmer House Hilton), at 8:30pm. There is a suggested donation of $4.

We can’t wait to see you there!