I am currently editing a thing or two and getting in a total stew about language. In this case, what other people have written and whether I dare challenge.
And I think I do dare.
Language matters – what it connotes and the attitudes it betrays; words other and marginalise and encourage others to do the same. I found, when writing The Revelations of Celia Masters (this is my fourth book, currently on submission after a revise and resubmit) that I took apart some of Trump’s words and phrases. They are not new. My book is about settlers in the Middle Plantation of Virginia during the English Civil War and I came to look at such words as ‘tame’, ‘infest’; ‘crazed’ and ‘animal’. One of the things many have observed and protested about is that language – presidential and administration language – matters and Trump is roundly casual about the way in which it is used, blaring and glaring; full of brutality.
Trump’s proud ‘We tamed a continent’ says a lot, doesn’t it? The verb ‘tamed’. It says something like, they were savages, but I am not: I am civilised. And the pronoun itself, we. The colonisers who did tremendous things and set the natives straight. The we. We are still that we and it’s still encumbent on us to tame them, he would have you believe. It’s so erroneous I don’t even know where to get started. Trump also refers fairly constantly to ‘Western Values’ which has absolutely no meaning at all. It’s a shadow phrase which I doubt he could even articulate.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the important of language choice when I was preparing Celia Masters (as I am now as I edit others’ work); mulling over sources and academic works like David Hackett Fischer’s exemplary Albion’s Seed. I was thinking about how the Cavaliers, coming into asylum under Berkeley (which is the starting point of my book) held freedom in the highest esteem, but that within it was the freedom to oppress others – and I realise I have expressed that in very broad terms, so you’ll have to read the book! (His and mine!) I explored how, through noting contemporary sources, you could see that colonists clearly believed that their settling of America was God’s work and that He had intervened to make it possible. I promise to write more about this later – and you can see that Celia Masters becomes repelled by it because of what she sees, comes to understand about herself and her true past and what she creates…
Back to the editing.
I am, for example, struggling with some of the phrases white writers use to describe skin which is NOT white; this has to be handled so very carefully or not handled at all, some might say. What do you think of ‘honey-coloured’ or ‘cocoa-coloured’? I’d say you delete it if you’re a white writer. Do you baulk at that? I am also…bothered by the phrase ‘traditional cultures’ in that I see it used by anthropologists and sociologists, but I see academics in the same and in other fields taking it apart. Am I on shaky ground? Quite possibly, but I want to have a discussion about it and with different sources. And I personally don’t think anyone should be using the phrase ‘third world’ because that IS diminishing, patronising and othering. My older boys were mortified to learn that I had challenged its use in their secondary school. I am a person who is sometimes chided for being ‘too PC’ which makes me tremble with a sort of punchy anger. Overreaction?
When I was writing The Revelations of Celia Masters, I had to think very carefully about the language and concepts I handled because my protagonist is a mid 17th-century white girl tangling with cultures and worlds that ate deeply unfamiliar to her. She has seen only Somerset, the Dorset coast and the court of Charles I. I was really worried about how I was going to write about the use of slavery in the colony and also to write about the Algonquin Indians who are in my story and, like the slaves, integral to it. I sought advice from an excellent source and was led, amongst other things, to the article below; I also discussed how I might approach my exploration and found that what I needed to explore was Celia’s whiteness. I turned it on its head. ‘…write you‘ in the words of the article in this link. As you write, reflect on your own privilege and power. There are plenty of jarring narratives about black culture from white voices. Also, I was damned if I were going to reduce folklore to some hokey thing about fairies, when it’s fire and blood and richly syncretic. The article was useful for that, too. Read carefully, discus with various sources, don’t shoot from the hip, be prepared to be totally and utterly wrong (you might enjoy what the late Hans Rosling has to say about this in Factfulness) and remember that words have power.
What do you think? About any of this?
(Article from Buzzfeed: succint, intelligent and pithy – and I’d love to discuss it further!)