Marivi Soliven ​| Blending the Other into Dialogue

Marivi Soliven is visiting Anchorage Sept. 24 – 28 through an author exchange program sponsored by Adventures by the Book. In partnership with the Alaska Writers Guild, 49 Writers is featuring these visiting authors in workshops at the AWG conference on Saturday, Sept. 24 and also at a members-only salon event on Sunday, Sept. 25.

Press recently postponed the release of e. E. Charlton-Trujillo
’s young
adult novel
When We Was Fierce because
of what the publisher termed “…the dramatic contrast between pre-publication
reviews …[and] …many of the social media and blog responses…” Closer
examination of
blogger’s response
reveals a stinging critique of the dialogue which Charlton-Trujillo
created for the novel’s African American characters.
pre-publication reviews praised this novel about an African American gang,
author Jennifer Baker described Charlton-Trujillo’s dialogue as “…constructed
Ebonics… deeply offensive and extremely hard to read without rereading not for
interest but for comprehension.”
is an extreme example of what happens when a writer gets carried away writing “authentic”
dialogue for racially diverse characters. When accents are handled skillfully,
dialogue brings a character alive more effectively than any amount of physical description.
Done poorly, dialogue turns that character into a caricature.
peopled by characters of many different ethnicities is not merely a publishing
trend but a reflection of the multi-cultural communities in which we live. The
writer’s challenge lies in composing dialogue which captures the nuances of a
non-English speaking character without hitting the reader over the head with
winning author Jhumpa Lahiri does this by adjusting her character’s syntax — the
arrangement of words in a sentence — in a scene from her short story, “When Mr.
Pirzada Came to Dine”[1]:
day in October Mr. Pirzada asked upon arrival, “What are these large orange
vegetables on people’s doorsteps? A type of squash?”
Pumpkins,” my mother replied. “Lilia, remind me
to pick one up at the supermarket.”
And the purpose? It indicates what?”
You make a jack-o’-lantern,” I said, grinning
ferociously. “Like this, to scare people away.”
I see,” Mr. Pirzada said, grinning back. “Very
exchange suggests that Professor Pirzada learned English at school, and thus
speaks it with a formality not used by the average American when discussing
way to signify otherness is through diction or word choice. In this scene from
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story “On Monday of Last Week, ”[2] her character’s
diction demonstrates how a word takes on entirely different connotations in
different cultures:
you could teach Josh a Nigerian language?… He’s very quiet, very sweet, a great
kid, but I’m concerned there aren’t any bi-racial kids like him at our school
or in our neighborhood.”
Bi-racial?” Kamara asked.
Neil’s cough was delicate. “My wife is
African-American and I’m white, Jewish.”
Oh, he’s half-caste.”
There was a pause and Neil’s voice came back,
thicker. “Please don’t use that word.”
in the story, Kamara, the babysitter, had mused about how, in Nigeria, “half-caste”
children were blessed with “…light-skinned good looks, trips abroad to visit
white grandparents.” Her subsequent conversation with his father highlights the
dramatic difference between their interpretations of this word.
learned much about composing dialogue from both these authors when writing my
novel, where class, not race, defines the way characters speak. In this excerpt
from The Mango Bride[3], Amparo, a well-born
Filipina argues with an unschooled Filipino WWII veteran over medical care:
fought in World War II didn’t you? Don’t you get veteran’s benefits?” Amparo
was clutching at rhetorical straws now, working off her scant knowledge of
American history.
HA! Yes, I am a veteran, and yes, I deserve
veteran’s benefits.” Manong Del’s voice rose as he waved an angry arm. “But do
I GET those benefits? No!” A vein dissecting the old man’s forehead pulsed like
a brown root. He sat rigidly erect in bed, more enraged than Amparo had ever
seen him. “Why don’t I get veteran’s benefits? Why, you ask? Because that
gaddamn Harry Truman signed the Rescission Act after the war. That’s why I don’t
get no gaddam veteran’s benefits….”
this case, I used a phonetic misspelling of “Goddamn” to capture the
over-determined accent that many older Filipinos put on when speaking English.
If you would like to practice writing
dialogue for a multicultural cast of characters, consider attending the Native Tongues:
Blending the Other into Dialogue
workshop I’m teaching at the Alaska Writers
Guild Conference on Saturday, September 24. Please click here for

Soliven has authored seventeen books and taught creative writing at the
University of the Philippines and University of California San Diego. Prior to
publication, her debut novel,
The Mango Bride (Penguin 2013) won the Grand
Prize at the 2011 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Philippine
counterpart of the Pulitzer Prize. The Mango Bride later won Best Contemporary
Fiction of 2013 at the San Diego Book Awards. Grupo Planeto released a Spanish
edition, Hace Una Eternidad en Manila in 2014 and National Book Store published
the Filipino edition in 2015. Learn more

Jhumpa Lahiri, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” in The Interpreter of
(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 34-35.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “On Monday of Last Week,” in The Thing Around Your
(London: Fourth Estate, 2009), 76.
Marivi Soliven, The Mango Bride, (New York: NAL Penguin, 2013), 279.
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