by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
When I graduated from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, I stopped writing stories because I felt like I had nothing to say. And I was right.
I pursued writing in the first instance in search of nothing less than artistic truth. But my apprentice stories felt overly-constructed, hollow, false. If I couldn’t bring realism to my work, then why write?
I wouldn’t write a story for months. Post-program and concerned with basic problems like making rent, I was dangerously close to reverting to what I had been earlier in life: a writer who didn’t write. Then the voices came.
The paradox of every work of fiction is that the author knows more than her protagonist but not quite as much. You, the writer, create the character, of course. But successful characters often have qualities, experiences, and beliefs that you don’t. While many of my narrators don’t look or sound like me, the same holds true for countless writers, including icons like Toni Morrison, who had no problem writing complex males such as Milkman Dead, or Charles Dickens, who was said to have performed his characters’ accents and mannerisms in the mirror to make sure he got them right.
When I returned to writing, I felt depleted. But I didn’t want to give up. And living meant fighting. So when I sat at my laptop and stared at a blank screen, I didn’t gin up a high-concept idea or meticulously sketch a five-scene story arc. I listened.
The voices were those of people I knew or the voices of people who I saw around my hometown, New Orleans, and thought I knew. Voices: a dozen voices, a thousand of them, a million. I let the most persuasive voice in my head take the mic. He was a fourteen-year-old prostitute who catered to tourists visiting the French Quarter. I never spoke to anyone like him in real life. But I observed boys like him. He was uneducated, but smart. He didn’t like tap dancing as a cover to avoid being arrested, but he had hungry siblings at home and dreams of escaping the trap-life he had been born into.
Other voices manifested. Figures with unexplored lives waiting in the mist, their eyes on me, their hands reaching down. By then, I must have read thirty stories about twenty-somethings going to lake houses or cabins in the woods only to get into fights with their significant others before one of them disappeared. But I never read anything about the kids I grew up with. I never read about the kids I saw on street corners when they should have been in school. I never read about the kids who went to jail because they weren’t cut out to work as maids or dishwashers.
In New Orleans, our schools are nearly as segregated as they were before Brown v. Board of Education. Unemployment in our African-American community is multiple times the national average. As a city in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated nation of the world, we imprison anything brown that breathes. I’m trying not to be hyperbolic, but making the point that lake houses and cabins in woods don’t speak to the authentic experiences of the children of my city.
Tweedy, the child narrator of my story “The Children of New Orleans” that appeared in AGNI issue 83, was born from these feelings of separateness, desperation, and oppression. In a city where being black and getting arrested for possession of marijuana could mean many years in jail, I occasionally had this thought: “they’re out to get us, all of us.” It was Tweedy who called out from some time in the future and told me that she was last one, the only black child free on the streets of her New Orleans. She wasn’t a criminal or a freedom fighter. She was five.
Someone much smarter than me once said that the act of writing while black is a political act. But the idea is broader than race. I believe the principle is true of all groups who don’t have access to the full panoply of human rights. It applies to women, people in the LGBT community, religious minorities, immigrants, etc. But I’ll admit there’s something ludicrous writing a short story about racism, fascism, and resistance from the POV of a small child. Tweedy knows nothing of the civil rights movements of the twentieth century. She doesn’t understand what death is. She can’t spell—or even say—fascism.
So why select her to tell the story? Because it is her story.
Of all the voices in the mist, Tweedy spoke loudest. I simply played transcriptionist.
Which leads to the question of voice and dialect. One of the hardest novels I ever loved was Their Eyes Were Watching God by the genius Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was a trained anthropologist, and she interviewed real people, recording their voices. It was no surprise that she used full dialect in her masterpiece. Hurston’s characters drop “g”s from the ends of their words, they use colloquial terms, and the text itself often approximates the actual sounds of the speakers’ homegrown speech patterns through spelling. (“Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else.”)
But that presentation of dialect isn’t for everyone. And there’s a point at which language obscures more than it reveals. Whereas the character tells the story, the author transcribes. The transcriptionist has the right to control things like spelling and punctuation. Why? Because a well-told story is as limpid as it is true.
And too, in the wrong hands, full dialect can be not only hard to understand, but also insulting. In the minstrels of the olden days, black characters were presented using modes of speech meant to reinforce their perceived lack of humanity and intelligence. The use of dialect was often inaccurate, too. This means the trick of using dialect is to offer up a language that is truthful but humble. Tweedy is extremely young and, other than a few home lessons, has no education to speak of. But she’s wise beyond her years and as observant as a detective.
The work of transcription is one that classically trained actors know from their studies. Constantin Stanislavski said many things. He advocated for using one’s own emotions to create true portrayals. Then he pushed relearning basic physical behavior, like walking, in search of realism. Later, he embraced both techniques. Then neither. But his system really boils down to “do what works.” I’m not Tweedy nor will I ever be. But I can listen to her.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Callaloo, Massachusetts Review, Redivider, Green Mountains Review, The Pinch Journal, Unfathomable City: a New Orleans atlas edited by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedecker, and Situate Magazine. He is the winner of the 2014 Iowa Review Fiction Award, the 2014 So to Speak Journal Short Story Award and the 2014 William Faulkner Competition for Novel in Progress. He is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.