Monday, February 16, 2015

New Series: Techniques in Appalachian Fiction

In an effort to breathe some life back into my blog and to force myself to set aside time to read in my genre, I signed up for an independent study course at my university. My goal for the class is to analyze and compare a few writing techniques in the very specific genre of the Appalachian novel.

I chose the following novels with publication dates spanning 26 years:
  • Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina (1987)
  • Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith (1993)
  • Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1994)
  • Gap Creek by Robert Morgan (1999)
  • Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (2001)
  • Bloodroot by Amy Greene (2010)
  • Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (2013).
My initial plan was to write a blog post about at least one writing technique in the openings of each of these novels. But I think I'll do something a little different and bring you along for the ride.

In the first series of posts, I'm going to look at the opening chapter of each novel and examine how the author executed the very tricky technique of rendering dialect - both in the dialogue and in the narration. Characterization will necessarily be included in these discussions because narration and dialogue are techniques that are used to develop the characters. The tricky thing about this, which I struggle with in my writing, is developing realistic dialogue and first person narration while simultaneously not playing into or perpetuating regional stereotypes.

My family is Appalachian, all of them from as far back as I can trace. Most of them were sustenance farmers, which means they grew just enough to feed their families and kept whatever animals they needed to ensure their family's survival. Many of the men were coal miners. The families were huge with a baby born at a rate of about one per year, especially in the earliest generations, and each family lost a good percentage of the babies. I have reviewed more census records than I can count and learned that hardly anyone before my great grandparents' generation attended school or could read or write.

I want to honor my ancestors by realistically portraying fictional characters who lived in the same place. What I know of them is they were smart people despite the lack of traditional education; they survived under impossible circumstances. To portray them as anything else would be rude and disrespectful.

When I was a child in the 1970s, I spent some time in Phelps, Kentucky, with my grandparents. I remember how tickled my grandma was with all the hype about "hillbillies" (which I now realize is a a bad word, something never to say out loud). I remember going with my grandparents to a restaurant that had a sign on the table with a translation for "hillbilly" language, like a "poke" is a bag (if I remember that correctly). My grandma thought that was awesome and got a huge kick out of The Beverly Hillbillies. She thought it was so funny anyone would find Appalachians entertaining and didn't mind it at all. She didn't perceive any of it to be negative or condescending; I guess it's all a matter of perspective. I think even if she did perceive it to be rude, she would have turned the other cheek; that's just how she was.

Recently, I've read a huge amount of scholarship on the ways stereotypes have negatively impacted this region and its people. I tend to agree and choose not to contribute to the stereotypes.

One of the things I'm going to look at in my course (and in this series of posts) is whether the depiction of Appalachians in these novels changed over time and how that depiction was pulled off technically. By the end of the semester, I hope to have reached a decision about what techniques related to dialect and characterization I will use in my novels.

All of this is way too much for a short blog post, so I'll look at one novel at a time and maybe knit it together into a longer essay in the end. I might do a little profile on each of the authors too if anyone is interested.

Have any of you read any of these novels or other books from these authors? Anyone writing historical or regional fiction where dialect is an issue?



Tonja

11 comments:

  1. I've not read any of those books.
    Your grandmother had a good attitude. Just laugh about it.
    I wonder if hillbillies became rednecks in some areas?

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    1. I think that's a more current term, but it definitely has a racial connotation (in a bad way).

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  2. Awesome. Cold Mountain is one of my all time favorite novels. And I've read the Kingsolver book, Prodigal Summer. Good picks. :)

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    1. I have only seen Cold Mountain. I posted on it today. Lovely story. I am in love with it just with the opening chapter.

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  3. This sounds great. I haven't read any of those novels, though. Hmm, I might be adding a few to my TBR list.

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    1. They are all really great so far. The openings really have grabbed me.

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  4. I read Cold Mountain and remember getting into an argument with my teacher over Ruby's race. I think her name was Ruby. It was a good book (not one of my favorites) but I remember thinking they were diverse characters. I read Poisonwood Bible by Kingsolver, and that was a great one. I admire you for wanting to write something personal, and doing it in an authentic way so you don't feel disrespectful. I like writing sci-fi/fantasy because I don't have to get everything lined up and accurate, because it's as accurate as I want it to be, in the world I create. Which one are you reading/writing on first?

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    1. I posted on Cold Mountain first, but I've read the openings of some of the others - Gap Creek, Storming Heaven, and Bloodroot will be next (not necessarily in that order). I specifically don't write sci-fi/fantasy because I love the worlds that already exit - from Star Trek, Battlestar Gallactica - okay, neither of those are books - LOTR, etc. I think creating a new world would be too much since those are so wonderful. I like messing around in fiction using the real world.

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  5. I have not read any of those books, but I found your blog post fascinating. I can't wait to hear more about your family and what you learned in this course. Writing in dialect so that you are a) accurate b) understandable and c) not condescending or contributing to stereotypes is going to be a challenging task!

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    1. Right now, it's the most challenging thing about writing this novel.

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  6. richard williamsJune 26, 2016 at 2:59 PM

    I'm late to your blog, but I truly hope that you are still working in this area. I have no idea how I came upon it, but I think that Harriette Arnow's THE DOLLMAKER (1954) is a major work of American fiction. THE DOLLMAKER should be required reading in our schools. To be brief, I find the book to be significant because (1) it gives a good sense of life in Appalachia at the beginning of WWII (2) it give a clear eyed sense of the difficulties people from Applachia had adjusting to the North (Detroit) in order to find work during WWII and most importantly, (3) the subtle way in which the novel allows readers to experience the strength and intelligence of "Gertie Nevels from Ballew, Kentucky." The latter point is particularly important because in the hands of a less sensitive author Gertie would have been the basis for "Hillbilly" stereotype.

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