Listening to Dialect.

Henrietta Lacks, photo via WikiCommons.

I just finished listening to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on audiobook (though I really wish I’d read it) and I can’t overstate how fabulous it was. Ta-Nehisi Coates has already noted that the author, Rebecca Skloot,* seemed to equivocate on the question of race, but her reporting doesn’t. In 1951, Lacks’s cervical cancer cells were taken by doctors without her permission. She would later die of the disease, but her uncommonly hardy cells became the first ever to grow in a Petri dish. The HeLa cells (named after their progenitor) led to so many scientific advances it’s hard to recount quickly, and the family never knew about the cell sample until 25 years later, when researchers came to ask for their blood.

The book shows clearly how racism, sexism and poverty played a role in patients’ access to medicine and in how doctors regarded patients. And Skloot makes clear that it’s not just a tale of the past: Lacks’s children have their own medical problems, and many of them don’t have health insurance. But the book is really about the life of Deborah Lacks-Pullum. Lacks’s daughter was born just a year before her mother died, and sees in the story of the HeLa cells a chance to connect with the mother she never knew.

One thing about the book unsettled me, and it was problem that was probably amplified on audio. Skloot doesn’t correct for grammar, and both Henrietta Lacks and her family members speak in a heavy Southern dialect. It’s not just them. An Asian doctor and an Austrian researcher are presented with imperfect English. And the readers for the book do voice impressions.

As the Fake AP Stylebook said on Twitter recently, “When considering whether to write in dialect, please don’t.” For newspapers, that’s generally true. It’s seen both as condescending — since people in general rarely use proper grammar when speaking but improper grammar is different from rendering dialect — and confusing for the reader. It’s also kind of a cheap way to convey a tone. But in this instance, it’s not so clear that it’s bad. One of the problems the Lacks’s had with the fact that their mothers cells had be taken was that she, and them, had been so left out of the story. Few people knew Lacks had contributed the HeLa cells at all. And even fewer knew about the woman behind them. Skloot’s mission was to correct that historical omission, and doing it in a way that lets the Lackses tell their own story in their own way seems like a good way to do it. In fact, Deborah’s voice in the book is really unique, and the language she used conveys a real sense of her personality.

But dialect: is it ok to use it? Does this make anyone else uncomfortable?

*Side note, Skloot came to one of my grad school classes, and I’ve been waiting to read the book since she talked about it then.

  • Mike

    It is kind of an interesting problem in journalism. When baseball writers used to quote Roberto Clemente phonetically it was seen by many as an excuse to try to diminish or belittle him, but attempts at an integrity Renaissance after the Jayson Blair debacle demanded that incorrect speech be transcribed faithfully because it was the true record of what was said.

  • Zesi

    I just read that book last week. Amazing. I checked it out from the library, but I will buy it (or someone can buy it for me…).

    Written dialect doesn’t bother me, unless it is used to condescend or it’s in a piece that should have a certain tone, grammar, and diction (like an academic paper—unless it’s a quote for that paper).

    I do think that speech has certain qualities that we can try to capture in the written word. One way is by using dialect—every character or person in a book has a certain way of speaking, a certain color to their language, and you can miss out on that if that person’s voice is “corrected.” Kind of like the difference listening to a spiritual as sung in some old black church and one sung by the Fisk Jubilee singers–but possibly more stark.

    I do think Their Eyes would suffer without the dialect. I think any story set in the South with some Suuuuuthun people would suffer without dialect. Some people may turn it up, some may tone it down, but I do believe it has its place, especially if you want to catch the rhythm and nuances of voice.

    I’m rambling now…so I’ll finish with this: hurrah for dialect!

  • Richelle

    I am a former journalist and university journalism instructor. I am also African American. It is best not to use dialect. Ever. If you are writing for a hip hop magazine and the readers all understand dialect and it is important to the story, use a few phrases sparingly. However, most writers cannot use dialect well. so please don’t. I don’t know if they author was afraid to clean up their language or felt it was important to the story, but at times using dialect can make the author of the story appear prejudice, elitist or with an agenda about a certain topic, so its best to remove all of that by not using dialect. That’s my take on the matter

    • I am an African American too! what are the odds?

  • R.A.B.

    I’ll just say this: Their Eyes Were Watching God is an unbearable book. #thereisaidit

    I mean, there are frames where it feels appropriate/necessary: ‘Push’ comes to mind. But everyone speaks in some dialect. To drag a reader through that fact in every spoken word of your characters is, at least, making a statement — whether you mean to or not (cf. ‘The Heart of Darkness’) — and, at most, stomping the point.

  • I don’t know. I feel that context and your audience is important. I think for purposes of reporting, or non-fiction, I prefer not to read or hear dialect. Dialect has a bias depending on who your audience is (some folks may feel you’re presenting people in way that may make them look… unreliable or uneducated.)

    Push and Their Eyes Were Watching God are works of fiction. There’s a specific purpose to that. Particularly, with Their Eyes… Hurston was a cultural anthropologist, and recording that dialect in relation to story was significant. Twain’s Huck Finn has dialect. Shakespeare is dialect. I think I give more latitude to fiction because it’s driven by character that show dimensions of the human experience. I think with journalism, I’m looking at the situation driving the human experience and skip over dialect? I’m rambling a little.

    I haven’t read all of Skloot’s book yet, just the intro, and was surprised to see the first person narrative in dialect there.

  • R.A.B.

    No one speaks the Queen’s English – and even if they did, that’s a dialect too. Unless nuances and deficiencies of language are an essential conceit to your fiction – which is why I think Push works and Their Eyes does not – saturated dialect reads, to me, lazily. If your character sounds like JJ Evans, you need to communicate that sense to me in a compelling way, through diction and description; that doesn’t mean you need to type like JJ Evans.

  • I generally hate phonetically rendered dialect–it’s distracting and almost always draws attention to itself and to the “alienness” of the speaker’s mode of speech. (There are exceptions for situations where you have a first person narrator and a very skilled author, or for common words like “gonna”, etc.)

    But not correcting for grammar? To me, that’s just accurate and respectful transcription.

  • Zesi

    The dialect in the book is not hard to read. I think it captured the different voices and highlighted the differences between the world of the Lackses and the world of Skloot and the scientific world. I could hear the voices, and they didn’t sound like my own, you know? I also believe—correct me if I’m wrong—one of the Lackses asked/told her not to screw with his words, so she didn’t.

    • quadmoniker

      You know, it’s completely possible that’s true and I missed it because I listened to it from audible. That would make sense, since that seems to be what she’s doing, is not changing a word from their story.

      And it bothers me less than it might elsewhere because she also keeps the dialect of the researchers, for whom English is a foreign language, intact. That seems less lopsided than dialect usually does, when we usually only see it when it’s meant to communicate lower class.

      I think I’m torn about this because I can’t decide what’s more condescending: not fixing dialect or fixing it. People can speak however they want to, but once the word hits the page you already have translating going on. So how we decide to translate is a big deal.

      Lastly, I’ll say it only ever bothers me in nonfiction. Fiction is fiction, and dialect either works or it doesn’t, but it doesn’t have real people behind it.

      • Zesi

        I definitely agree w/you about the decision to standardize someone’s language.

        why do you think it is not very accepted to write dialect in non fiction? i can see that it has “real people behind it” as you say, but i feel that may not be the full answer, especially since some non fiction isn’t careful with the real people being written about.

  • Lovette Carter

    When it’s all read and done, each of us for given an impression of the author’s primary purpose of deciding to use, (in the case of Skloot’s narration) dialect of others in a book. But if she or he does, there strong possibilties of some readers disapproving. When she repeats,” uneducated” why wouldn’t many individuals wonder if this is condescending when clearly being a farmer, black, poor and in the ” South” is enough said. Clearly this is a touchy subject when black communities of yesteryear and even today know by generational storytelling and having self-witnessed, we have been flagged as ” the lesser” in most situations. However, Skloots seems to be the fairest of all in the case of Henrietta Lacks and the legecy of her “immortal” HeLa cells.