Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Multicultural Dialogue: Please Pass the Patate

Today, I'd like to follow-up on Mary Ann's response to an Ask the TeachingAuthors question submitted by Pam. Pam asked: "In MG and YA novels, do you ever use diction from other cultures or parts of the country in your characterizations? Or do you focus more on a character's actions, behavior and gestures to define them?"

When writing my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola, I had the challenge of trying to portray the speech of recent Italian immigrants. Members of my own immigrant family speak with heavy accents and often intersperse Italian words, or Anglicized Italian, with English. If I tried to reproduce such speech in my novel, readers would have a difficult time deciphering it. As Mary Ann pointed out in her post, such dialogue "can be murder to read."

Instead, I used several techniques to portray my immigrant characters' speech:
  1. I occasionally interspersed relatively easy-to-pronounce Italian words with English, structuring the dialogue and conversation so that those words could be understood in context.
  2. As much as possible, I used cognates of English words to make it easier for readers to guess a foreign word's meaning.
  3. For the characters with the heaviest accents, I tried to keep their sentences short. I also structured their speech in nonstandard ways.
  4. I included a glossary of the Italian words and phrases that appeared in the text.
For example, here's how I handled the first occurrence of the word sola:
Mrs. Morelli returned before AnnaMaria did. "I'm sorry, Rosa." She took the baby from Rosa. "AnnaMaria should not have left you sola."

"But I wasn't alone." Rosa smiled up at Mrs. Morelli. "Antonio was with me."
Because many readers are familiar with the word "solo," they might guess that sola means alone. But even if they didn't, they could surmise the meaning from Rosa's response. Similarly, for the title of this post, I'm hoping you guessed that patate means potatoes. Initially, I'd planned to say "Please pass the piselli," but I chose patate because the word looks more like "potatoes" than piselli does "peas."

Like Mary Ann, I also had to be careful regarding the historical accuracy of my dialogue because Rosa, Sola is set in the 1960s. The online etymology dictionary is a great resource to help insure historical accuracy. For example, if you look up the word "groovy," you'll learn:
As teen slang for "wonderful," it dates from 1944; popularized 1960s, out of currency by 1980.
My current work-in-progress, a young-adult novel set in 18th-century Milan, presents even greater challenges when it comes to dialogue. Unlike the characters in Rosa, Sola who speak a mixture of Italian and English, my Milanese characters speak only Italian. Therefore, it really isn't appropriate to intersperse Italian words in their dialogue. While I have read books that do, I try to avoid it. For example, to me, it doesn't make sense to write:
Luigi said, "Please pass the patate."
when, technically, it should be:
Luigi said, "Passami le patate per favore."
So in my novel set in Milan, the only time I have Italian dialogue is in complete (very short) sentences, such as:
When Maria passed him the potatoes, Luigi said, "Grazie."
I still use Italian words in the narrative at times, to help remind readers of the setting, but I avoid mixing them with English in the dialogue.

I hope this discussion has satisfactorily addressed Pam's questions. If we haven't answered your Ask the TeachingAuthors question yet, please be patient. We plan to tackle our backlog in September. Meanwhile, we hope you'll use the link in the sidebar to keep those questions coming!


Scotti Cohn said...

Excellent advice, Carmela! I'm bookmarking your link to the etymology dictionary. I'm working on a YA fantasy novel that takes place (partly) in a world like ours, where people speak different languages as well as a "Common Language" (identical to English, LOL). I can see using the techniques you mentioned to "flavor" the speech of the natives of various regions.

(In order to post this comment, I am being asked to type in the word "billacie" -- which sounds Italian to me for some reason. LOL)

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for the comment, Scotti. That's too funny about your authentication word. It does sound Italian--makes me think of bilancia, which means a scale for weighing things.

Michelle Sussman said...

Great post, Carmela! When I read Rosa, Sola I noticed the way you used Italian words and I appreciated the way they were sprinkled in.

I think the use of dialect is controversial. Recently Cynthea Liu commented on her Facebook page about her book, Paris Pan Takes the Dare. The parents in the book are Chinese and speak broken English. Cynthea remarked that some reviewers had disliked that aspect of her book, saying it was sterotyping. But as Cynthea said, "For many, it's called REALITY."

I think the proper use of dialect adds to a book and it's characters. I applaud both you and Cynthea for doing an exceptional job.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks, Michelle. I hadn't seen Cynthea's comments. I do admit it is a fine line between writing realistic-sounding dialogue and making it also readable and authentic.

Saoirse said...
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