Here the problem wasn’t just the dialect and accent, which I found hard to understand. It was the voice.
This gripping and heart-wrenching story is told through the narrative voice of Adunni, a 14-year-old girl from a small rural village in Nigeria. She speaks in what I believe is a version of pidgin English, which struck me as similar to the speech of many non-native English speakers. Many listeners praised this “Nigerian accent” in Amazon reviews.
I’m all for dialect, too. I used it myself extensively in my historical novel Time’s Fool. This novel consisted of diary entries from a variety of speakers, from different worlds. I tried to mimic the way they actually spoke.
But I found the dialect in The Girl With the Louding Voice distracting. And disturbing. Combined with a heavy accent, it made the audiobook hard to listen to, especially at first.
The language and pronunciation bothered me throughout book. What language was Adunni supposed to be speaking? Does Adunni speak English, the official language of Nigeria, back in her village? Or does she speak Yoruba or one of the many native languges sill spoken in rural areas?
I kept wondering why she would choose to tell her story in pidgin English when she has presumably learned better grammar by the end of the book? I wondered whether this was the way she hears her own story in her head, or the way she explains it to an English speaker.
I’m far from an expert on these matters (in fact, my knowledge of language in Nigeria comes completely from Google searches). But wondering about these matters, and simply trying to understand the words pulled me out of the narrative–always annoying but particularly so when you’re listening to a book and have to to press pause.
Adjustment to Accents and Dialect
For the first half of the book at least, I couldn’t follow the story. The syntax was wrong. The diction was wrong. Combined with the reader’s heavy accent, I found the book so hard to understand that I missed full sentences.
Not hearing the names right also pulled me out of the narrative. “Lagos” sounded like “legos.” The narrator’s younger brother is named Kayus, but it sounded like “Chaos.” I had to laugh every time she referred to him.
I adjusted to this kind of thing over time. I discovered that the author did it deliberately, and often quite effectively. The way Adunni speaks turned out to be central to the story, and part of its charm.
Once I understood that this novel is told in the voice of a 14-year-old who just left her rural village, it made sense that she speaks English imperfectly. She speaks in the voice of a Nigerian new to English, not in the voice of a rural and uneducated Nigerian.
But I had been distracted out of the action early on and still wonder if that was worth it.
An Authorial Choice
I took me quite a while to see that Adunni’s dialect had to be written on purpose. There were certainly clues–particularly the fact that because other characters spoke more fluently, including the cook in the house Adunni works at as a maid.
Daré is also clearly acutely aware of language, too. Not only do various characters speak with different dialects, but Adunni herself notices differences in pronunciation, syntax, and language. She hears the word as “sorry” and asks if that was a sad place, for example. That’s a pun that only makes sense if they were having a conversation in English.
Adunni also likes to read the dictionary and often reflects on English words. She observes that one house staff member always pronounced p as f and vice versa. She uses English words to illustrate this point: “So when he say help, it sound like helf.”
Adunni even comes to understand that English, a language she strives to speak and read better, isn’t a sign of superiority. “Now I know that speaking good English is not the measure of intelligent man and sharp brain….Nothing about it is special.” It’s just a language like any other language.
The Language of the Louding Voice
Language, of course, is at the heart of any writing—and certainly a challenge in any form of communication. But in a book so clearly about language (even its title mentions “voice”), the quandary of which voice and language to use is particularly challenging.
And I credit Daré, and this novel, with forcing me to think more about that.
Indeed, my reservations about Daré’’s intentions disappeared when Adunni herself showed her keen awareness of dialect. Everybody in the whole world be speaking different…,” she observes. “They all be speaking different because we all are having different grain of life. But we can all be understanding each other if we just take the time to listen well.”
I guess I need to learn to listen better.
Narrator vs. Character
Because Adunni is the narrator, we believe we are hearing her authentic voice. But The Girl With a Louding Voice is a first-person novel by a non-native English speaker written in English for English readers. This adds another layer that needs unravelling about character and language alike. It raises questions about who is speaking, to whom, and when that wouldn’t occur if story were told in English by a native English speaker.
Writing in pidgen English certainly gives the book flavor and shows us how Adunni came off to others in Lagos. We get a sense of how Adunni speaks as she strives to improve her English. But what about Adunni’s voice? Is that the same thing as the way she speaks?
What troubles me here is that Adunni does speak Yoruba fluently. Ms. Tia, a woman who comes to her aid, literally says so. So why doesn’t Adunni tell the story in that language and/or its English equivalent? Surely that would better reflect the way her mind works.
Of course, the book had to be in English. But could it have been in the English equivalent of Adunni’s level of fluency in her original tongue? Or was it better to have her speak the way we English speakers would hear or perceive a person like Adunni?
Finding the Real Louding Voice
If Adunni had just been a character, not the narrator, these questions would never have arisen. Adunni’s speech could have been conveyed in dialogue, which would have captured the cadence of the Adunni’s language and her struggles to learn English.
It’s not that I object to using the first-person to tell the story. That’s exactly what I did in Time’s Fool, in fact. But because that was an epistolary novel, told in a series of memoirs, the voice of the narrator never conflicted with the voice of the character.
But Adunni is not just a character, but the story’s protagonist–so she really has to tell the story. Alas, as both protagonist and narrator, she comes off to readers as half illiterate. And in some ways that is good. The voice leaves readers with a sense of Adunni’s incomplete education and innocence–perfectly right, given both her experience and her age.
And yet I left the book still feeling a bit cheated by the multi-layered voice that represented one language with another. Aside from the distracting me from hearing the narrative, they left me feeling like I didn’t have full or fair insight into Adunni’s mind.