Writing The Way We Speak: Is There Space for the “Caribbean” Writer?

I am a Caribbean writer, and I go out of my way to include “Caribbean” in that title. I am not just “a writer”. Making this distinction means that you know immediately I am from a hot place. So my mouth hot too. It means I know a good bit about innovation, and racial mixing, and developing nations. It also means I speak a certain way. I can wind my words between the colonizers’ standard language, in my case that is English, and the masterfully adapted creolised tongue that continues to evolve still. I am from Trinidad and Tobago, and I write stories about people from there who talk in a kind of sing-song like I do. Who abbreviate with glottal stops and liaise two, three words at a time.  For a while I debated with myself, whether I could write professionally in my dialect, and be understood by a wide audience. As I became a more avid reader of Caribbean literary fiction, I found my answer: I must. 

Samuel Selvon says it best in the introduction to The Lonely Londoners. Standard English “just would not work”. Susheila Nasta wrote “the language was not sufficiently pliable and could not convey the feelings, the moods and the – as yet – unarticulated desire of his characters. The oral vernacular simply could not carry the essence of what Selvon wanted to say. Once he switched to the idiom of the people and shifted his register to fuse Standard English with the full range of a broad and hybrid linguistic continuum, he was able to bring new life and rhythms to the book.” This fell in my garden.

When I write dialogue for a Caribbean character, it only makes sense that I express them in their dialect. I struggle between deciding to do this phonetically, or to use the most common spellings of the words, but either way, it has to be their authentic tongue. Caribbean language is not easily written, because it is a very physical thing. It is in the gesture. It is highly Onomatopoeic. Someone acknowledges? Eh heh. Something falls? Bud ups. We have words for things that only exist to us, and we have things that only exist to us that don’t have formal words. Caribbean characters written without some assertion of the language are simply impostors. 

I watched a great interview with Grenadian-British author Jacob Ross and Shivanee Ramlochan for the Bocas Lit Fest recently, and he said: “The most intelligent character in my book speaks like a Trinidadian in the street. Speaks like a Grenadian in the street. As a St. Lucian, without any pretense of speaking Standard English”. He elaborated on what he called the “unconscious prejudice towards language”, that Standard English was considered superior to creole. I agree that there is prejudice, but I cannot say it is unconscious. Speaking standard English in the Caribbean is still considered a mark of intellect. I even find that the discrimination comes strongly from our own speakers. We get our ears wrung in school for speaking in dialect. “Broken English” they call it. As though when this English broke it didn’t sprout a genius infusion of diverse cultures into a new living vernacular. Kei Miller wrote in Augustown: “It’s funny, isn’t it, this whole process– how various dialects bleed into each other: how every language is a graveyard of languages, how every language is a storehouse of history. But what does it all matter, this useless fretting over the beginnings of a word?” The stereotype of uneducation that comes with the way we speak is a myth. We are expertly bilingual or multilingual, being able to seamlessly bob and weave between languages. We have a multifarious vocabulary that translates through sign, sound and verb.

Because our languages are so distinct and nuanced though, my concern about writing in dialect is whether international readers would understand. Sometimes I purposely include a type of explanation for a Caribbean word or phrase to give context, but generally I wonder if the non-Caribbean readers are getting it. Or worse, if it is too tedious for them to decode so they give up on the story. Bajan writer Cherie Jones just debuted her novel “How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House” in the US to rave reviews. The language in it is thickly Bajan, right down to the cuss words. With the media success of the book, clearly, the parlance was no hurdle. I asked her if she was concerned about the understandability of the text, and whether she made any conscious effort to dilute the authentic island voice to make it more sellable. She told me that her main concern when writing was being true to the story and authentic in its delivery.

“I was less worried about whether diverse audiences would understand than I was about getting the characterization and story as a whole right. I didn’t think much about the audiences understanding it at all.”

Cherie Jones

She brought up something else I consider as well, about the “proper” way to express Caribbean words. She said: “The challenge with writing the dialogue is that there is no universally understood way to represent Bajan “dialect” on the page. I did the best I could with it.” She then told me a story about a writing class she took during her MFA. She was the only Caribbean person and only person of colour in the class. When it was her turn to submit work for critique, she did a story firmly based in and about a Bajan rum shop, feeling responsible to represent her island. At the end of the reading though, one of her colleagues said she could not make head or tail of the language and suggested she include a glossary. When she refused, her tutor supported her. Jones says that once the writer can get the reader invested enough in the story, they will make the effort to understand and hopefully experience something in the process.

Caribbean works written in the individual countries’ unique locutions are not having any trouble finding fans. Authors like Sam Selvon and Derek Walcott have boldly and successfully written like this throughout their careers, winning them worldwide acclaim. More recently authors like Ingrid Persaud and Marlon James have also been blatant about it, writing complete narrations in full Caribbean voice, while winning top accolades. I have overcome my insecurities about writing in my authentic voice, the way I does talk when I in the house or in the road. I don’t care to be understood anymore. I find our languages supreme. I am bold-faced about it too. Rightfully unapologetic. With the path paved before me in good old pitch and gravel, I will proudly write in and promote Caribbean languages wherever there is pen, paper, or keyboard.

4 comments
  1. Brava! This was such a joy to read. I get it. Nothing broken here. Plenty jubilantly recreated. Thanks, eh!

  2. Frigging AWESOME comprehensive dissection of the elitist misconceived concept of a STANDARD ENGLISH. 11 thumbs Up on this piece

    @Anthony2021mdh30Vibes

  3. I’m an actress/writer of Jamaican parentage and when I started worrying less about what people think, I did the best work!!! The brainwashing is real but as Islanders we have learned to overcome and prosper regardless!! Good for you and keep up the good work! An inspiration to the young Islanders!!!👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾

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