We invited writers, artists, and musicians to share a favorite creative prompt or craft lesson, or to tell us about a book, poem, song, or film that affected them. We asked them to offer opinions and experiences on creativity, artistic processes, and the role of arts in culture. We're offering their responses here as occasional features on creativity that we're calling Still Life.

This edition of Still Life features a lesson from our archives by Crystal Wilkinson. Crystal is the award-winning author of The Birds of Opulence (winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence), Water Street, and Blackberries, Blackberries. Nominated for both the Orange Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, she has received recognition from the Yaddo Foundation, The Vermont Studio Center for the Arts, The Kentucky Foundation for Women, The Kentucky Arts Council, The Mary Anderson Center for the Arts, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and is a recipient of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature. Her short stories, poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including most recently Emergence Magazine, The Kenyon Review, STORY, Agni Literary Journal, Oxford American and Southern Cultures.  She currently teaches at the University of Kentucky where she is Associate Professor of English in the MFA in Creative Writing Program. 

On Writing Dialect in Fiction

(from a talk delivered at the Appalachian Symposium as part of the panel 
Where I'm From: Dialect and Accepted Classism, September 9-10, 2015, Berea College)

Kentucky writer Gayl Jones, who has shaped the way that I think about the Black Kentucky experience and the way that I process my own experience as a Black woman writer from Appalachia, says, “I’m not telling the story. The person telling the story is telling it.”

The way that I combat the stereotype of the dialect that represents my dual experience as an African American Appalachian is to lend an unflinching eye to my characters and their experiences, to allow them their full glory on the page and allow them to draw out their iiiiis to twang, to be their own true authentic selves on the page. Hopefully not in a stereotypical way but in a way that is true to them.

After years of struggle—trying to rid myself of my own accent, trying to white wash my writing so that it was more pleasing to the ear of the dominant culture—I’ve just decided that I am paying homage to my most recent ancestors and even to those who are more distant by allowing them to speak. They didn’t get to speak when they were alive. They didn’t get to tell their stories so it’s my job to allow them that space and time to speak to each other, to speak to me, to speak to the reader, to speak to the dominant culture at large, and I try to get out of their way and get out of my own way to allow that to happen.

How much more revolutionary can you be than to give a country Black woman 
from the hills a platform on which she can tell her own story, from her own mouth,
from her own tongue as though she is talking to her own people when much
of the world refuses to acknowledge that she exists? 

I don’t often write directly to politics or social concerns but the act of writing these characters, of particularly relying on first person point of view and drawing from the oral storytelling traditions of African and African American culture and Appalachian culture . . . I think that making Black Appalachian vernacular the core of a writer’s work could be seen as a revolutionary act. How much more revolutionary can you be than to give a country Black woman from the hills a platform on which she can tell her own story, from her own mouth, from her own tongue as though she is talking to her own people when much of the world refuses to acknowledge that she exists?

Of course it’s imagination, but I’ve come to make it my business, my mission in fact, to allow my tellers to tell. I rely solely on voice most of the time. The voice of the character, the voices they hear in their communities and the voices they hear in their own minds.

My third person point of view is not sterile. I don’t hear Walter Cronkite in my head. My third person points of view, my omniscient point of view is Black and Appalachian and most always a woman. Why not? If I don’t do it then who will? I see it as my duty as a descendent of Blacks in Appalachia. I have to allow them to tell their stories. And the hearer of the stories, which is the reader, is invited to act accordingly.

What’s unfortunate is that often Black writers, Appalachian writers, are not given credit for their "linguistic imagination." That’s a term I borrowed from Gayl Jones.

Let me be clear. When I write in the voices of my people I am paying homage to my ancestors, specifically my matriarchs . . . the housekeepers, the granny women, the heart of Black Appalachian households. But I’m not just regurgitating my own reality. With Appalachian writers and with Black women writers in particularly there is always some suspicion that they can’t create language or voice, that we can’t invent a world in which people speak as we do. Some of the comments that are made to me, I couldn’t imagine that other writers have these issues with the same intensity.  When I am writing fiction, I’m writing fiction. It’s not cute that I write this way. It’s not easy. It’s a craft. It takes hard work. It took me more than 10 years to write my new novel, The Birds of Opulence. If a member of the dominant literary culture wrote a book about a Black woman in Appalachia overcoming her struggles speaking in vernacular, using dialect, he would be regarded as a genius.

So I use dialect as a literary tool, as a conduit to my ancestors, and anyone who makes fun of them is playing with fire.


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