Authentic Voice or Clarity? A Conversation

Wendy denim

 Wendy Speaks:

Yesterday , while we were working on editing an A&A story containing patois, there was a genre kerfuffle and Twit storm about a Strange Horizons reviewer who complained there was too much dialect in a piece by a person of color. People lambasted the review, because, Racism. In this editorial Tonya Liburd and I want to talk about our process in allowing enough of the original flavor of our Caribbean short story “Name Calling”  without burying the story under so much inaccessible language that the tale itself could not shine through. (We’d scheduled the story for Issue 51 but published in this edition to counter a storm of  inaccurate rumors that we had stripped all the patois, bullied the author, and that I had intimidated one of my best friends – Tonya. Nobody tells her what to do! *smile* – Ed.)

We wanted our readers, who span the English-speaking world, to feel as if they were transported to the Caribbean – but without constantly feeling like they needed to stop for directions. We looked to Grenadian author Tobias S. Buckell (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose) as an example of an author who used authentic island patois without overwhelming the story to the point where he alienated a large portion of his non-Caribbean readers. The St. Thomas-born, US-residing author of “Name Calling” worked with our Canadian-born, Trinidad-raised editor Tonya Liburd to make this happen.

The original story was so full of patois that I felt the only market where the language would not have thrown people out of the story was a Caribbean market. Tonya’s original gut reaction? To hell with watering it down; let them see it in all its beauty, its glory. But the savvy side of Tonya thought, In this current day and age, Wendy does have a point: her focus is on target audience and widening it – that was the only reason for her rewrite request.  So Tonya asked the author to tone down the patois, and got not one, but two rewrites at first: one with inconsistent patois, and one with no patois at all. We both felt the story was poorer for the lack of patois, but the language would only recede behind the story if it was consistent. We think a third rewrite achieved this. (We only changed five percent of of the patios, BTW)

By the way, accents overwhelming a story is not just a question of white/non-whiteness. I gave Tonya an example of white-on-white accents overwhelming a story: George MacDonald’s Alec Forbes of Howglen (free copy here. ) George MacDonald was C.S. Lewis’ favorite fantasy author. Unlike MacDonald’s highly accessible (and recommended) short story collection, The Light Princess: and Other Fairy Stories , the novel Alec Forbes of Howglen was written in what I considered an impossibly thick, but very authentic Scottish brogue.  Howglen was re-released in 1985 as The Maiden’s Bequest, in which editor Michael Phillips toned down the brogue so the story could shine through. Toning down the brogue without totally removing it caused this 1800s novel, originally reviewed by Lewis Carroll, to sell and be reviewed well in this day and age. Toning down the “authentic” language made it accessible.

Would you accuse me, a woman with the maiden name of Campbell, of “racism” because she found the thick, authentic Scottish accents in the original novel obscured the story? Then let’s not complain that a reviewer felt that over-using phonetic dialect in a story was, in her opinion, a flaw.  (Since then SH apologized for the reviewer assuming an authentic way of speaking was merely a literary device and we’ve reviewed Long Hidden. – Ed.)

Writers can use whatever amount of accent or dialect they wish. Editors are allowed to decide on the proper level of dialect or accent for a story they publish. Reviewers are entitled to their opinions, as are readers. Disagreement about such things is inevitable, but simply a matter of taste.

At Abyss & Apex we want other cultures to be accessible to our readers. Sure, things will get lost in translation: that’s all toning down an accent or patois is, a form of translation. People will have opinions about how good a translation was. But at the end of the day, when we do such things here at A&A, we hope they say, “Damn, that was a good story.”

Authentic voice or clarity? Why not both?

Wendy S. Delmater, South Carolina, USA

tonya liburd Tonya Speaks:


My name’s Tonya Liburd.

This will be my very first editorial, so be gentle.

I’ll start with saying that I think we’re past the point now where we don’t have to be infuriated with contentions of “racism is dead because, lookee, Obama is in office; your argument is invalid,” what with racial scandals, be they the obvious, overt incidents like Paula Deen, Donald Sterling, or the subtle, more insidious ones that trigger hypersensitivity, insecurity, feeling less than, feeling other, excluded: the ones that trigger the instinct to protect a wound not allowed to heal.

And it’s those more subtle, insidious, *institutional* ones that get us where we live, don’t it? And what may be the underlying reason for current anxieties.

People like Jayme Goh, Sofia Samatar, N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor can put one foot in front of the other when it comes to articulating matters such as this. Delaney? Shawl? Hopkinson? Due? They’ve walked miles. Tobias Buckell’s been addressing similar issues in his tweets and blog about what it’s like in his neck of the woods for years now. Tempest is just… a force of nature. Fearless.

Me, I’m still learning to walk.

I just officially put myself into editing for real in November, and it STILL feels like I’m a kid playing dress-up. I joined Abyss & Apex simply to read slush, and Wendy put me as Associate Editor because she saw my chops, skills and instincts. She had faith in me. And after her running Abyss & Apex for over 10 years through thick and thin, that meant something.

Rather than saying whether or not I agree with the opinions on either side of the ‘literary trick’ issue in the Long Hidden anthology review over at Strange Horizons, this is where I’m taking a page from Toby’s book; like him, I’ll offer up my own experience.

And don’t go taking my word for this, either. My viewpoint ain’t the be-all and end-all.

I’m not aspiring to write something here on the level of Nisi Shawl’s “Reviewing the Other” or Delaney’s latest Strange Horizons article, “Escaping Ethnocentricity?” where the text is so full of learned, considered, and (in Delaney’s case, for me anyway) dense matter, that you can’t stick a fork in it; you can use it almost as gospel, a template, a handbook for education. This is my approach: this is me, this is my life, these are my experiences. Here you go.

I’ll relate the conversation here between myself and Wendy, and hopefully, a conversation that could continue elsewhere.

Handling “Name Calling” was a learning exercise for me. This was the first time I had to actively mother a story into production from the get-go, and it was based on my mother tongue: patois. (Every island has a distinct patois, mind you, and Jamaican and Trinidadian patois are two of the most distinct sounding in terms of contrast, when heard side-by-side: Jamaica’s German to Trinidad’s more romantic, sing-song sounding Spanish, Italian or even French)

When Wendy suggested that I help with an editorial, I said immediately, “No way.” But I realized I had Wendy’s chops to fall back on. And where she fell short, I felt I could definitely more than pick up the slack on this subject.

I was encouraged to bring in new voices. So I did what I wanted to do: I cast a net, and, it caught something. A nice something. A beautiful something. A Caribbean something, to boot.

I found myself completely code-switching when I had to talk to Wendy while reading the submitted story for inconsistencies and nitpicks. But we got it done. And then this controversy arose.

I talked to Wendy about the point well made with Shakirah Bourne’s GetWrite article “On Dialect – How Caribbean people supposed tuh talk in a story, eh?”

Wendy then promptly mentioned the example of George MacDonald, which she goes into detail in her section, above.

I had to pause.  She had a salient point.

She started talking about a judicious use of spice in food as an analogy for accents; I said, “But then spice is seen as an ethnic thing isn’t it?” So again…

Then Wendy got frustrated. “I’m feeling like a failure (about handling accents and racial issues).”

I said, “Yer not a failure! Why are you feeling like that?”

“Because I don’t seem to be quite getting the cultural context of what you’re saying.”

Wendy’s already gone into my gut reactions in her section, so I won’t repeat them here.

I started asking around and found that opinions varied, and Wendy’s opinion about handling accents and patois wasn’t exactly an unusual one. Which relieved me, for various reasons; some, you know, obvious.

So. To paraphrase Leonard Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory… that’s how we’re rolling in this part of the shire.

How do you roll?

I’m interested (anxious?) in what my peers and elders of colour in the field think.


Tonya Liburd, Toronto, Canada

Note: The short story, “Name Calling” by Celeste Baker will be highlighted in the next edition of Abyss & Apex. (Changed to this edition, see above – Ed.)

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