To Drawl or Not To Drawl?

Don’t you love it when everything collides – in a good way? It’s like the fellas[1] at CERN must have felt when they found God with a 5-sigma level certainty.[2] I don’t live in a super-collider, so I have to take my tiny glimpses of God as they come.

I have been trying to think of a witty way to tell you about the mail I received last week: that funny little cassette tape and the oddly cryptic sticky note. But, I can’t find a way to be witty about it, so I’ll just tell you.

Are you ready to tee-tee your pants just a little?

Mama Lisa, in the last days of her life (apparently knowing this), could not type very well and couldn’t hold a pencil hardly at all. It must have been agony to scrawl my address and “More to come.” She grabbed a tape recorder and a cassette and talked me a lesson. Given that I do not have a tape recorder (a fact that still puzzles me), I sat in my car, on a day when the sun beat down 106 degrees, with the AC blasting and Mama Lisa’s voice spilling from my speakers. Now, Mama Lisa has never been my mentor in the formal sense of the word. She has guided me and advised me and taught me plenty, but she has never been my ceremonial trainer. A Louisiana Voodooisant to the core, she and I walked parallel roads that were, nevertheless, different roads.

In what I will call the “epilogue” to the cassette, Mama Lisa explained that her grand-nephew was her appointed executor and that she was leaving her “earthly belongings” to her kin (obvs) but that she wanted to impart some knowledge to a few of us who “meant something” to her.[3] She explained that her daughters had passed on before her (I had not known this) and that her sons had chosen the path of Christian Pastoring (I had known this). Her late sister’s grandson, Wade, was the only kin she had who remained sympathetic to her practices. For this reason, she needed to know that her “know-how” would live on beyond her.

The rest of the cassette was full of recipes and exercises and methods of conjuration. Now, you might romanticize this and hear Papa Justified’s voice and cadence from Skeleton Key. But, somehow, the soft-crackling under-nuanced simplicity of her voice was more powerful. Or maybe that’s just what admiration does to one’s perception.

In the end, she told me that I had permission to “write it all down” and do “what [I had] to with it.” It seems Wade will be sending me some sort of release . . . someday. Until then, I have a problem to discuss with y’all.

Here’s where the collision happens.

As I have become fond of the dialectic between bloggers, I will tell you that today I read a post from fellow blogger. The main gist seems to be the structuralist thought that when we label something, we diminish intuitive meaning in that we confine it to language. She applies this to Pagan practices and to a little incident in our town.

To recap/paraphrase-to-near-non-recognition that story – but not to co-opt it (on accoun’o’ its part of my story too):

Once upon a time there was a Pagan teacher. She kept her nose clean at work and didn’t tell nobody she was a Witch. Then one day a student stumbled onto her Witchy blog and snitched. As if it was a bad thing. Said teacher got her pointy-hat proverbially handed to her. And, “even though others in her department had been a bit more, um, ‘out there,’ . . . a whole passel of angry townsfolk show up at her career door. . . ” (emphasis added). This makes me down-rightly defensive on said teacher’s behalf.

On accoun’o’ – I wear a (visible) pentagram to work every day, I openly discuss religion and even assign it as a topic in my Cultural Diversity classes. I’ve told y’all. On occasion, I have shared my blog with very particular students when they press me hard enough. I am the faculty advisor of the Pagan Student Organization. I’m whatcha call “out there.” But I guess I don’t look “native” enough to get pegged. Strange, no?

I’m off every radar; I was even called a “prude” by a Wiccan once.

In the past, I have been accused of not being “A Real Southerner.” But when my kin have been on Alabama soil since before the Revolution, some since time unknown, I don’t know what else that makes me. Sure, I was raised partly in Chicago (during the school years) and learned not to speak with a drawl or to call folks “Cracker” in public and what really goes on a hot dawg and that pizza should be big enough for a knife and fork, but does that negate the fact that my Momma taught me how to make biscuits and sausage gravy, pickles, and Muscadine jelly, that standardized spelling and grammar were never really my friends, that shoes ain’t been worn ‘less they got red clay in the treads, or that I know a fire ant from a chigger from a seed tick? Donna Harraway might call me a Cyborg.

Just because I wear shoes when I’m outside doesn’t make me anything less than a generation removed from Appalachia.[6] But are flip-flops really shoes when it’s January? But if it don’t quack with a drawl, is it really a Southern duck? Darn-tootin’. Quack, quack.

But here’s a kick in the head: A drawl can be faked. And as we all know, sadly, a High Priestess status can be faked too. I’ve seen it happen. So do our signifiers truly signify? Judith Butler calls it performance. When is it performance and when is it lying?[7]

Ah, but here’s a kick to the other side of the head. A drawl can also be suppressed: it’s presumed to be not just OK, but preferred for a “hick” to adopt standardized speech patterns and aesthetics. Folks get buggy if we twist it the other way around and suggest that Southernisms have a value worth emulating. And one’s religion can likewise be suppressed: it’s presumed to be not just OK, but preferred for a Pagan to “hide” behind Atheism or Agnosticism. Folks get buggy if . . . you see what I mean?

Is it more of an insult to emulate non-standardness or to be expected deny one’s non-standardness?[8]

This brings me back to point A of my collision.

Mama Lisa’s speech patterns are, um, distinctive. We’ll go with distinctive. My first impulse is to type out her words in my PhD-totin’ voice. Then it occurred to me that I should try to remain true to her voice rather than overlaying it with my own voice, and that I should transcribe her words exactly. But then it occurred to me that I might be creating a caricature of a revered figure by producing dialect. Then it occurred to me that this is stoopid, why would a dialect take away any of the reverence I have for her (and that everyone should have for her). Then it occurred to me that folks can be arses and that dialect often (mistakenly) equals to pigeonholing[9] and that a little white chicka writing in the voice of a substantial black woman from the bayous of Louisiana might perceived as black-face.[10]

So. What’s a Witch to do?

Do I:

A) Write Mama Lisa’s brainchild in Standard English thereby losing some things that just don’t translate. Do I translate “You gotsa do it like dis fo it t’werk right” into “Follow this practice for best success”? Though the meaning translates, it just sounds – what’s the word I’m looking for? – pompous. “Pompous” will do. Mama Lisa was never pompous a day in her long life.

B) Do I “clean up” the phraseology while still remaining colloquial? This is what the gospellers did (for the most part, ‘cept John). They took what was undoubtedly said in Aramaic and wrote it in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Sure it made Jesus seem educated and accessible to a Romanized audience, but it took away his Quack. But then again, I am in love with Mama Lisa’s voice and want to represent her well, but have you ever read The Color Purple? The dialect can be cumbersome.

C) Or do I “Go Native” and run the risk of overdoing the parlance? I am, after all, a little white girl from the Shoals + Chicargo.

All advice will be gratefully accepted.

B, Q, 93,


[1] Girls can be fellas. Don’t razz me about this one. I have bigger balls than most of the men I know.

[2] If you’ve been under a rock: read this.  And to be sure, henceforth, The Bad Witch will be using the term “5-Sigma” to apply to all measurable levels of things.

[3] I was bawling by this point.

. . .

[6] Actually been arguing with my Bad Sister this week over genealogy. While Momma and Daddy are related only by marriage, I know clear-well that they are both related to themselves a dozen times over. What I didn’t know was that some of their brothers and sisters married kin as late as the 1960s – maybe later. My sister refuses to be inbred. I’ve decided to find it chaaaaaming.

[7] A:         When the performance is truthier than the “truth.” (I think I’m supposed to cite Stephen Colbert here.)

[8] This is not a jibe at those who chose to remain private about life-choices, religion included. It’s a smack-down aimed at those who think “that’s the way it oughtta be.” Just pretend to be straight/white/Christian/conservative/whatever-else-you’re-not-that-might-make-us-uncomfortable. And being unwillingly “outed” in any way, shape, or form (especially at a private function) is downright ugly.

[9] A co-worker once made the mistake of telling me that we teach students to read “great literature” so that they can have souls. I asked him if my illiterate auntie who feeds the invalids of North Alabama or my (much older) Native cousins who live on a reservation in Oklahoma and chose not to attend English school but who practice Earth Healing (and now run a lucrative casino – but not at the time) were soulless. He stammered. Like the time he commented on the inappropriateness of “Lower Stratum” studies before learning that I had just published a paper on Rabelaisian Carnival and 20th Century adult-themed animation. <Faceplant.> See, I don’t look like a redneck so folks feel free to show me their bigotry. Quack. Like the time I left the all-white (all-boarder-states-at-best) department “band” because when they selected their music, they chose the most grossly racist versions of “real Alabamian” music to play at a local festival and then tittered about it. Quack, quack.

[10] Now that I think of it, I met Mama Lisa while in NOLA at an academic conference geared toward American Humor Studies; the primary subject was Mark Twain and “minstrelsy.” Not a collision at all.

15 comments on “To Drawl or Not To Drawl?

  1. Quite a choice. I will offer my one viewpoint, which is that I detest reading dialect, and I suspect that it is devilishly hard to write well. Mark Twain did it well enough that I was able to finish Huckleberry Finn, thank the great Gods. M
    Maybe the audio and your commentary need to be on a CD.

    • Freeman,
      Thanks- it’s an idea. But she’s no more easy to understand in audio than in writing! But a step in a good direction. Maybe a companion audio?

      I write it like I do when studying linguistics. But it’s sometimes hard to translate phonemes to readable letters.

      It’s a bit of an overall aesthetic choice, yes? It seems consistent that someone who dislikes dialect and prefers formal speech is more suited, like you and I, to CM. Someone who enjoys folk practices might find it endearing. Maybe??

      PS – Love Twain. Hate Huck Finn.

  2. Ah interesting issue. I am rather divided on my opinion, and not for really the same reasons lol. On one hand I like that idea of using her words as they are (with a forward explaining whose words these are and the history behind it), and on the other hand I would imagine that there would be folks who have some difficulty with getting the meaning of them. Having lived in the south for several years myself between having lived briefly in Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina kicked me out, North Carolina for four years, and then in North Carolina for two years, I have less problems and would say go for it…write the way she talked. But those who lack exposure to southern phrasing and drawl might be less enthusiastic….for which you might consider lessening it without completely rewriting it.
    For the example you give you could modify it to say:
    “You got to do it like this for it work right”
    In this way you could bring clarity to what she is saying without changing the words themselves.

  3. Aubs Tea says:

    Go native!

    I lived in Texas, off and on, for ten years. While I was down there, I picked up an accent “to blend.” I didn’t realize I was doing it until it was already pretty firmly entrenched, so really, it wasn’t much of a conscious decision on my part. I liked that I could blend and I liked that I had gone native, so to speak. It made me feel like I was made welcome. The thing is that I moved back up north and was made horrible fun of for having an accent, though I’m from one of the rarest places in the country that actually doesn’t have one. (Western MA.) It really burned my biscuits to be made fun of for saying “mile” and “while” a la southern drawl. The words still mean the same damned thing, it’s just the sound that changes.

    And really, the sounds are little more than flavoring. It’s why Mexican tacos are better than Taco Bell tacos: the flavor.

    So, my rambling done, I go back to what I said first and vote, “GO NATIVE.”

  4. von186 says:

    I kinda float in the B range. I think too cleaned up, and it loses something. But if the dialect is too hard to read, I would be more distracted by trying to figure out what is being said, as opposed to what is being conveyed. I have this issue when listening to harder accents on tv as well. I get so caught up in ‘what was that word?
    that they are usually 2 paragraphs down the line before I figure out what words I missed. I would worry that even in a text format, this could happen.

    That be my random .02

    • I know what you mean – but when it comes to brogues and burrs.

      My family’s accents are so strong that I have become accustomed to them. It cracks me up that “Swamp People” has subtitles. That’s just to say I have to remain sensitive to others’ thresholds.

  5. Cin says:

    I think you should do a middle ground. As someone above said, make a statement about why its written the way it is, with the history so that someone doesn’t snark. Then write it in her voice as you hear it. Any of the statements you think are too out there or hard to understand.. make a footnote with a translation.

  6. Ishara says:

    My two sheckles – write it like she said it. Maybe reading dialect is a bitch for some folks, but if they are truly interested in the real Mama Lisa, her words, and all of her own uniqueness, they’ll put the effort into reading it twice or three times or just reading it nice and SLOW.

  7. […] my last post: Y’all tell me how this works for […]

  8. Camylleon says:

    I’m with Von on this one…I’d go with B, with some additional “Pure Mama” phrases here and there. Pure Native would be a bit harder on the eyes & sometimes really hard to capture *just right*. I think that if the reader is aware where this is all coming from in the beginning, like in most fiction works, they’ll be able to imagine a different dialect themselves.

    But then I’m alllll about the compromises. You gotta do what you gotta do (says the girl who lives about 2 hours outside of Chicago & husband’s pure Southside Polish…lol)

    • Oh, damn. I heard that right: “Yoo gotta doo whatcha gotta doo.”
      Hey – do you know where Szalas is on Archer? Go and have their Gypsy Style Grilled Pork (unless’n you are a veg/vegan, of course). It’s like sex covered in bacon.

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