woman in Lagos, Nigeria

The author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston could not find a publisher for her book Barracoon that did not want her to make extensive changes to the manuscript (as I mentioned in my last blog post), and so her book was not released until 50+ years after her death, 80+ years after it was written.

The cause of the disagreement between Hurston and the publisher was that Hurston had written the story of Cudjo/Kossula in dialect. That is, she had transcribed his words as he spoke them (as an anthropologist concerned with preserving the speaker’s voice), instead of “translating” his words to “proper” English (as an author concerned with reaching a wide audience). The former style is more accurate; the latter style is easier to read.

I remember reading Huckleberry Finn for the first time—as a former high school English teacher, I have read it many times—and experiencing confusion and frustration when encountering Mark Twain’s rendering of the character Jim’s speech. I must have been halfway through the book before it finally dawned on me that chile meant “child” pronounced without the “d” sound. I kept reading it as “chili” (meat and beans in a bowl) or “chili” (a hot pepper) or “Chile” (the country) . . . none of which, needless to say, made any sense.

When I read Barracoon, I had no trouble with Hurston’s rendering of Cudjo/Kossula’s speech. I very much enjoyed reading the story in dialect, and I concur with her instincts to tell his story that way.* Then again, I am an experienced reader with two degrees in English. I wonder how well I would have been able to follow the story had I read it in my teens, or not pursued English degrees.

I am curious what you think about the following passage. Here Cudjo/Kossula describes his life as a 19-year-old, just before his town was raided and he was captured:

“I stand round de place where de chief talk wid de wise men. I hope dey see Cudjo and think he a grown man. Maybe dey call me to de council. De fathers doan never call me but I likee very much to be dere and lissen when dey talk. . . . I likee go in de market place too and see de pretty gals wid de gold bracelets on de arm from de hand to de elbow. Oh, dey look very fine to Cudjo when dey walkee dey sling de arm so and de bracelet ring. I lak hear dat—it sound so pretty.”

How easy or difficult did you think that passage was to read? What do you think about books that make extensive use of dialect?


*In full disclosure, I made a similar decision when writing my unpublished novel The Water-Creatures . . . and may well face the same consequences as Hurston . . . if not worse.