No issue confounds the writer from Appalachia more than the question of how to present our dialect. No other dialect in America carries with it the stigma, the baggage, of mountain speech. It is considered the mark of the uneducated, unsophisticated, unassimilated cartoon characters, the only group it’s still okay to openly display prejudice toward!
When I began to work on my novel HIDING EZRA, I knew only that I would not “handle” dialect as it was usually handled by my fellow Appalachian writers. There would be no “hit” for “it,” no “them thar” for “those,” very, very little in the way of phonetic spelling. Why? After all, those are all perfectly accurate and common occurrences in Appalachian speech, especially of the WWI generation I was portraying in the book.
The first reason was that I learned from my years of teaching that writing dialect as people actually speak, with the phonetic misspellings, etc., made the work much more difficult and often frustrating for readers. How many times did students almost mutiny on me over HUCK FINN, THE SUT LOVINGOOD TALES, and THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD because their authors used heavy phonetic dialect and students couldn’t follow those parts? I have lost many hours of class time over the years because a class would ask me to read aloud and “translate” those sections so they could understand them. Because I wanted to write a book that everyone could read and enjoy—not just people from the region—I opted not to make my book that difficult to read.
The second and more important reason was that I wanted to emphasize different aspects of the dialect: specifically, I wanted readers to hear the extraordinarily figurative nature of the language, its vividness, its lyricism, its descriptiveness, its attention to rhythm, and the continuous seasoning of scripture that permeates. My role model in thinking this way about the language of HIDING EZRA wasn’t an Appalachian writer at all. It was African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston and her marvelous book THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. In that book, all Hurston’s characters, especially Nanny, the grandmother of protagonist Janie, have an unforgettable way of talking about things. For example, when Janie comes back complaining to her grandmother about her new husband and how he just isn’t what she really wants, how she’s really not in love with him, Nanny says, “Dats de very prong us black women gets hung on! Dis love! Dat’s just whut got us uh pullin’ and uh haulin’ and sweatin’ and doin’ from can’t-see in de mornin’ till can’t-see at night!”
Now, is that the way all black women in Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida talk? No, of course not, but I bet a lot of them did. And in the world Hurston was creating in her book, Nanny talked that way all the time. And that’s what Hurston wanted to share with us-the tremendously creative, entertaining, and original way those women talked. Hurston also chose to do the phonetic spellings, but even if she had not done that, she still would have portrayed an important truth about her world, her characters, and the way language happened in that world. I wanted my character Ezra to be like Nannie in that he would represent the way speech can be more than just pedestrian communication. In my world talk is an art form; it’s currency that can buy you friends, respect, popularity and status. Reader after reader has told me that the journals where Ezra tells his story in his own words were their favorite part because “you can just hear his voice,” and he’s so funny and interesting in the way he talks about things.
There are probably some that would believe that those journals don't sound authentic, that it's unrealistic for a character like Ezra to have written the way Ezra writes in his journal; they would be wrong. In the four years I spent researching the book, I read thousands of pages of newspapers, including letters to the editor, and correspondence from soldiers. To be literate at all in that day and time was to be very literate, compared to today. My own grandfather, who had only an elementary education, had the most beautiful handwriting I’ve seen in my lifetime, loved Yeats, loved the opera, did the New York Times crossword puzzle every day. He was a cook in WWI and came home to the coalfields afterward to a job as the bookkeeper in the company store in the mining town of Splashdam, VA. The real Ezra, my husband’s grandfather, was also quite literate and actually kept a journal; that’s where I got the idea. So the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is at work in those who would make those assumptions that a simple farmer with an elementary school education would have to speak and write in a very uneducated way or would be unable to use anything approaching standard English, in my experience.
There were many stories I had to tell in HIDING EZRA. One of them is about our language. Our unique mountain dialect is rapidly disappearing, and it’s the world’s loss. My novel simply tries to capture and hold on to it a little longer, like putting lightning bugs in a Mason jar. I’m grateful that Dr. Amy Clark and Dr. Susan Hayward “got” what I was trying to do and included two short sections of the novel in their wonderful scholarly study of Appalachian dialect, TALKING APPALACHIAN, published by the University of Kentucky Press last year.
I would just like to add that anyone who interprets anything I’ve said here as a criticism of any other work or any other writer’s choice would be mistaken. It’s all good. Other writers have made different choices for different reasons, and that’s okay by me.