Read ‘Em and Speak

Since summer 2013, the theme showing up in my reading, poetry and fiction, has been one of colloquial and native language, patois/pidgin.

According to Wikipedia, “patois” is “any language that is considered non-standard, though the term is not formally defined in linguistics”.  Despite this lack of formal definition, class distinctions are embedded within the phrase.  It does not cover slang, interestingly enough.  It occurs to me to wonder what patois is considered to be non-standard in relation to.  The answer is probably English English.  No regard then, in this definition, for all the local variants of English spoken which might themselves be called patois.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry has been showing up in small chunks here and there, since Christmas three years ago, when I took his poem “Talking Turkeys!!” to a party to read. I really fell for both the concept of the poem and the language it is written in.

Then, at the Faber and Faber stand at the Poetry Book Fair in London in September, a new book, “To Do Wid Me” showed up; an anthology of previously published poems with a dvd of performances/interviews.  Zephaniah is designed to be heard, almost more than read.  Poetry was always designed to be read aloud, but these days I understand the different appeal of performance poetry more clearly.

This theme of patois carried on with Amitav Ghosh’s “River of Smoke”, the second book in the Ibis Trilogy.  Ghosh is a Bengali author who writes beautifully in English, and is not afraid to use the varying languages of the colourful characters – Arabic, Cantonese, and Hindi, to name a few.  Additionally, Ghosh has published a “chrestomathy” on his website, a sort of very specific glossary of terms used in the book, discussing not only a word’s origin, but its’ usage.

The theme continued more formally; with the gorgeous “Garden of Evening Mists” and “The Gift of Rain” by Tan Twan Eng. He is Malay by birth and writes with Malay, Japanese, South African and Chinese angles to the stories, also using phrases in those languages.

The other shared threads here for me are not only storytelling ability, but a richness of language which I imagine is born out of growing up multi-lingual in their various countries and cultures. It adds depth and authenticity, helping the reader to immerse themselves.  What a good story should do.

In August this year I finally picked up Dave Lordan’s first book of poetry: “The Boy in the Ring”.  I had a small degree of reluctance to read this, though not because I didn’t want to. I read his second collection “Invitation to a Sacrifice” first and found it well written, engaging, as well as lending itself to performance.

Despite different backgrounds, we grew up in the same area of Ireland at the same time, though we never met till recently.  It is a funny business to be confronted on the page with your childhood landscape, from another perspective.

Lordan uses Hiberno-English, and though I was exposed to it most of my early life, I’ve learned that the particular English spoken in Ireland has its’ own formal place in the linguistic scheme of things. In our house, English English was expected and elocution lessons formed part of my education.

It was a delight to read phrases such as “atall” and “thicko”, and adjectives that drop their “g” on the page; well used to illustrate that language I was surrounded with.  Lordan describes (fictionally) some of the kinds of people I served in the family bar so well I was nearly serving them again.  I also had the pleasure of seeing the results of his West Cork Literary Festival workshop for teenagers; through which I relearned the importance of both challenging yourself and having fun with what you write.

In many ways it seems like I have travelled the worlds offered on all these other pages, in search of what I’m after, only to find myself at home again.

For the time being anyway.