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This review is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

Cover of Velkom to Inklandt. Poems in My Grandmother’s Inklisch
David C. WardFeelinks
Sophie Herxheimer, Velkom to Inklandt. Poems in My Grandmother’s Inklisch (Short Books), £12.99
The modern rule for writing in dialect – i.e. rendering spelling as if the words were spoken, usually by a subordinate, marginal or excluded ethnic group – is that you have to be a member of the group in order to do it. This may go without saying these days, when we like to think we’ve made progress on issues of race but for a long time it was not the norm in literature. The temptation to render the sonic qualities of the ‘colourful’ speech of African Americans, Cockneys and Jews (to name only three) has frequently proven irresistible, raising difficult questions about language, literature and hierarchy. The sibilant ‘Ssssss’ with which Jewish characters announce themselves makes for uncomfortable reading. In the United States, a long ‘tradition’ of whites speaking as blacks now makes for uncomfortable reading however well-intentioned the author was. Or is: just this week a poem published in The Nation by a white writer came under fire and was disavowed by the journal’s editors for using street slang and African American diction to express the point of view of a handicapped street person. The red flag of cultural appropriation was raised and the poem immediately became something other than a poem. Questions of race and exclusion aside, there is also just something stylistically odd about books that use standard English, the norm and hence colourless, and then launch into dialect when an Irishman or an African American appears.

From the inside, using vernacular language is both a sign of group identity and a vantage point from ...


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