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.
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