July 6, 2009

"Bad" Words & Storytelling

Geoffrey PhilpDuring a radio interview in the eighties, Peter Tosh said that there were no "bad" words and I believed him. However, to many in his listening audience this was a radical concept and another example of Rasta-speak. But to overstand what Peter meant, one has to realize that he, like many Rastafari, realize that words in themselves are not "bad," but they are merely the vehicles of an awakened or unawakened consciousness. Or to put it another way, if one's mind is "as clear as a hillside lake," as another of my teachers said when I was telling him about "bad" and "good" energy," one would be able to see through "bad" and "good" as merely events--without attaching limited judgment to phenomena.

What both these men were trying to teach me in less mystical terms was that every individual creates a context, largely defined by language, through which s/he perceives the world. If the contextual framework is removed or expanded, then the relative terms, "good" or "bad," begin to lose their meaning because of their limited relevance to reality. My teachers' worldview can be summed up in the Taoist story of the farmer.

Yet context (character, plot, setting) is at the heart of fiction and one of the guiding principles of my storytelling is to use only the words or sentences that will either advance the plot or reveal character. And since many of my stories are about working class or middle class Jamaicans with a patina of "sophistication," how the characters speak, especially when they are faced with conflict--the essence of storytelling--is vitally important. If a writer betrays his characters because s/he fears what the audience will think, the story will lose its soul and the audience even if they are amused by changes, will realize that the writer has been unfaithful. And that is a certain death of the story and perhaps the writer's career because trust--the willingness of the writer to speak the truth of a character and situation--is the element upon which all good stories are built. That trust is sacrosanct.

It was against this backdrop that one of the most embarrassing episodes in my writing career took place.

In July 2003, Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes, and I were invited to read at Jamaica College, an all boys' school, as part of the school's efforts to rebuild the library. I was very excited about reading Benjamin, my son, my coming-of age novel, because much of the action takes place at Jamaica College, my alma mater.

In Benjamin, my son, I use the framework of Dante's Inferno to challenge the illusion of Jamaica that is promoted by our tourist brochures and to illustrate the loss of moral vision in post-Independence Jamaica. The latter has had a corrosive effect on every aspect of culture, which extends to games such as dominos or cricket--two staples in the lifestyles of Jamaican men. One could even argue that mastery of these games is a male rite of passage in Jamaica.

As an alumnus of Jamaica College, Jason Lumley, the protagonist of Benjamin, my son, approaches women from a background of fear and hostility. But as he wanders through Standpipe, a neighboring community of Jamaica College, he encounters many different women who affect a change in his attitude, and by the end of the novel, he is reintegrated into the protection of the sacred feminine.

So, for my triumphal return to the school that was the setting of my bildungsroman, I thought I had chosen the perfect section from Benjamin, my son--the domino scene.

I chose that section to exemplify many of the social attitudes that are still prevalent in Jamaica: disrespect for women, homophobia, and machoism. For although dominos is largely a game of chance, in order to win, the players must possess certain skills to "read" the game. And like cricket, about which CLR James ruminated in Beyond a Boundary, there is a social contract that involves camaraderie, community, and playing by the rules of the game. All of these rules are violated in the domino scene.

Also by using the conventions of dominos, character can be revealed, as I've done in "Beeline Against Babylon" in Who's Your Daddy?, through dialogue that will also advance the plot. In other words, the "bad" words that appear the the text reveal the characters' attachment to their definition of what is means to be a "man." And when that definition is threatened, they spew out a torrent of hellish "bad" words--this is how demons squeal when they are faced with awareness.

After I read the excerpt, I had expected to be congratulated for accomplishing something akin to what Derek Walcott had done in Another Life: using the local Caribbean landscape to illustrate global themes, such as the loss of innocence.

Was I wrong.

One woman in the audience congratulated Colin and Kwame on their writing, but then started to curse me with a string of "yous"; "Why did you have to read that? You…you… you." She complained about all of the "bad words" that I had used in the story when I knew there were children present. To be honest, I hadn't seen any children, for if I had I would have read from the "resurrection" scene near the end of the novel.

But no matter how much I pleaded or argued about freedom of speech or artistic integrity, she would have none of it. I apologized.

She went back to her seat, confident in her victory.

Later that night, a friend of mine, a JC Old Boy, consoled me over a Red Stripe and I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Were there children present?

That reading changed me. It hasn't changed how I write (my fidelity will always be with the story and the imagined characters), but it has changed the kinds of material I read for Jamaican audiences. I understand the context and given the deeply conservative nature of Jamaican society, I now choose my sections carefully.

So, even now when I'm still accused of the gratuitous use of the word, "B*mb*" (children may be reading this) at the beginning of Benjamin, my son, I realize that if the person could be more offended by this word than the material conditions that the novel portrays--the word symbolizes the Jamaican male revulsion to the feminine--then, I realize that my work, as a fishmonger once said to a friend of mine, "Ain't for everyone."


This post is part of Middle Zone Musings: What I Learned From Bloopers, Mistakes, and Embarrassing Moments


Zen teacher and writer Cheri Huber says, “Every time we choose safety, we reinforce fear.”

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Robert Hruzek said...

Excellent lesson learned, Geoffrey! You really DO have to consider your audience; if they get caught on one single word, they'll never get the rest of your message!

Hey, thanks and a hat tip for joining WILF this month!

Jdid said...

nice post. I ma be one of those conservative west indians cause I do notice the use of so-called bad words in storytelling.
i'd say if it adds to the authenticity of the storytelling i will give it a bligh but some writers do tend to go overboard with that sort of language without adding anything of substance or progressing the story

Geoffrey Philp said...

It's been a real pleasure participating in these WILFs.

Thanks, Robert!

Geoffrey Philp said...

JDID, ANY word that doesn't reveal character or advance the plot should be cut. And even when they are our most precious well wrought sentences in Standard English.

Fred H Schlegel said...

Interesting how as a storyteller you must be conscious of both your story and your audience to get a message through.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Welcome, Fred.
Yes, both come together and as a storyteller I've learned that this works in both publishing and in reading for an audience--context matters.
I still believe, however, that if one's integrity is at stake, it's better to stick to one's principles. It is better to lose a reader than to go against one's muse.