Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Color Purple: I can't read it, but I can hear it - #NaNoReMo

A funny thing happened in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. While I have trouble reading it sometimes, I can hear it perfectly.

It's novel written mostly in a dialect of the 1930's U.S. South, adhering to a different grammar than those dominant in modern style guides. Deep as the chapters get, the sentences are largely simple. We start the novel in such dire situations that the simplicity increases the empathy for what our narrator is living through. Consider the opening of the second chapter:

"Dear God,

My mama dead. She die screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me. I'm. I can't move fast enough. By time I git back from the well, the water be warm. By time I git the ray ready the food be cold. By time I git all the children ready for school it be dinner time. He don't say nothing. He set there by the bed holding her hand and cryin, talking about don't leave me, don't go."

Unless you've read a lot of dire fiction lately, that is a situation that begs for interest and empathy. Interest in what killed her mother, and who the "he" at the end is. Her father? Lover? An older brother?

I've read very little fiction written in this dialect. Even now, every couple of pages I'll get micro-pauses, as I rearrange the words and parse them into the way I typically use language. Sometimes I savor her manner of phrasing, but more often I'm trying to wrap my head around this written syntax.

The funny thing? I can hear it just fine.

On an experiment, I picked up the audiobook. I listened for an hour while driving on errands and never had a single micro-pause for comprehension. Part was the skill of the narrator (my copy is actually read by the author herself), but I've heard people speak this way for most of my life. Out loud, in the mouth of a fluent speaker who can use inflections, it's smoother than poetry to my ears.

Returning to the hardcover, much more of the book reads familiar. It feels like elementary school, as I associate things I've heard growing up with things on the page for the first time. My problem is that while I've heard people speak this way, I've seldom read them write their words down. There's a gross pressure in literature to homogenize and cater to style guides. I recall two professors instructing our class that, even though Mark Twain was very good at writing phonetically and in dialect, we should never try it. It was too confusing to readers.

Well it's too confusing because readers never read it. If you're exposed to different approaches to prose, they become more natural to you. It's the same phenomenon that causes so many amateur critics to deride present tense storytelling. I was on their side as a teenager because I read it so rarely that it came across as stilted - its rareness made me read it that way. As I got older and read more, the uncanny quality went away.

It's also why I'm optimistic on the generation growing up now with tweets and text messages. There is some data to suggest they comprehend standard-grammared testing better kids without phones because they've played with language more, and even if they haven't consciously regarded it, it's unconsciously part of them.

Would challenges like reading The Color Purple, Trainspotting, A Clockwork Orange yield similar benefits? 200 pages in, and I think The Color Purple has equal (if not greater) merit to being taught in high schools as Twain's Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. If you're going to test teens with language outside of their box, it's a book as deep as any other in this paragraph. There's so much to chew... But that should come in a later post.

For now, I am a damned glad that I picked this book. Doubly glad I found Walker's audio.


  1. Reading dialect is difficult if you're not familiar with it. The audio would give one a better grasp, that's for sure.
    Good to hear there is some positive in those kids using their cell phones.

  2. I have read The Colour Purple and A Clockwork Orange. Both required what I think of as immersion reading. I couldn't read a bit, do something else (read something else) and come back to them. Both were more than worth the effort. Difficult reads. Difficult truths, albeit not my truth, but so very worth it.
    Off topic? I am considering The Witches of Eastwick as my March classic.

  3. That paragraph you posted I found tricky to read, but I've seen the movie and would probably have no problem listening to the audio book.

  4. I read The Color Purple in my early 20's and found it engrossing once I got into the mindset to "hear" as I read. It really does put you totally into the story if you can get over the initial mindwarp of being used to conventional grammar. The first Outlander book by Dianna Gabaldon was rough like that, too, with all the phonetic Highlander dialect, but again, it makes the story more authentic once you get used to it. You have to make that initial reader-investment and then it always pays off if it's done right.

  5. I know exactly what you mean, as I read that paragraph you showed I heard it clearly but reading it made me stumble - I also have Twain's Adventure of Huckleberry Finn sitting in my bookshelf, perhaps I'll be brave enough to tackle the dialect one day! ^_^ Glad you're enjoying the novel though, and hopefully you'll get to see the movie when you're done.

  6. Oh, I love reading dialect, mainly because I'm not a native speaker and it's just so much fun going through such sentences as you've posted from The Color Purple. It's just a play pretend thing, but I always imagine how it sounds, picking the dialect from movies, or songs, or interviews I've heard spoken in that dialect. I had a lot of fun with A Clockwork Orange too.

    Glad you're enjoying the novel, John. I'll have in mind to check the audiobook in the future.

  7. Oooh, I wonder if my local library has the same audio book you're listening to... or the film. I wrote an end-of-term essay on this book, and yet somehow I've got this far in life without seeing the film. I must fix that.

  8. I'm reading a book by Joe R. Lansdale right now, set in East Texas about 70 years after the Civil War. He's quite good with dialect, as well, and I'm enjoying reading it. Given, I've lived with folks from Texas and Oklahoma all my life, so I'm accustomed to the more modern version of it, but I've read bad versions, too. I haven't read The Color Purple yet, but it's an eventuality. I want to read A Clockwork Orange, as well. Also, I love when an author reads their own audio book.

  9. When I read Gone With the Wind in high school, I had to read the slaves' dialogue out loud in order to understand it. My brain couldn't process it as written word, but out loud it was just fine. Fortunately, that's a small portion of the (gigantic) novel. When I tried to read The Help a few years ago, I couldn't get past the first few pages. It was too much work to understand an entire narration in another dialect. I'm typically not a fan of audio books because I find that my mind wanders and I can't stay focused on the story (a side effect of being a preacher's kid, perhaps?). Or perhaps it's time to give it a try again. We'll see. :)

  10. Yeah, the dialect took me by surprise, too. But I've never really heard anyone speak like that. Well, not a lot, random strangers here and there.


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