There’s nowt I love more’n a tale teld in tha own voice.Whether it’s a regional accent or a cultural one, I want to read it. For me this is a logical step: I have a non-standard accent, many other people have non-standard accents, why wouldn’t I want to read them in their own voices? Not everyone feels the same way, however. The most repeated reasons I’ve heard for this are that readers find non-standard accents difficult to read or even alienating; they don’t understand why writers make this choice when Standard English is accessible to (almost) everyone.
We live in a world that’s becoming increasingly homogenised, where the dominant narrative is controlled by those who speak Standard English with a Received Pronunciation or Estuary English accent. It saddens me when people don’t take the extra time to read a novel about – or even by – someone who’s only recently been allowed to tell their story in their own voice. A voice that might soon disappear.
A writer who writes in the accent of their character(s) gives the reader something personal. It invites us into the character’s world, to understand them and how they live. It might be a world we never knew existed or a voice that reveals we’re not alone. It’s no coincidence these stories are almost always about working class characters.
If reading a book written in a non-standard accent feels daunting, I recommend reading the first few pages aloud. It helps internalise the voice and makes it easier than it looks on the page. It’s also good fun; I’ve never laughed as hard as the time I taught Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and read sections to my students. I also happen to know that Roddy Doyle reads all his dialogue aloud as he’s writing to check it sounds authentic, and if it’s good enough for one of the greatest…
If you’re flayed of a bit of dialect (that’s scared if you don’t speak Yorkshire), writers probably use fewer non-standard words than you think. Most of them can be deciphered from the context but if you’re really stuck, or just have to know, there are a number of online regional dialect dictionaries which will provide you with a standard alternative. (If my opening sentence has you baffled, this one might help.)
If that’s got you thinking you might give one a go, here are ten of my favourite novels written in non-standard accents. After all, what’s a wee book when you’ve watched 60 hours of The Wire?
The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon
A Fiction Uncovered winner in 2013. It’s 1830 and 14-year-old Mary is one of four sisters – a disappointment to their father who wanted a son to inherit his farm. When the local vicar needs someone to care for his ailing wife, it’s Mary who goes and her father who collects her pay. Her time at the vicarage will get her an education but it will also bring her trouble. Written in Mary’s voice, with some non-standard words and grammar, it’s this which really brings the story to life.
Pig Iron – Benjamin Myers
John-John Wisdom’s just out of prison having served five years for murdering his dad, bare-knuckle boxer and self-proclaimed ‘King of the Gypsies’, Mac Wisdom. His parole officer’s found him a flat in the centre of town and he’s got himself a job running an ice-cream van route. He plans to keep his head down but realises that’s not going to be possible when he has a run-in with the local hard nuts. Tales about Mac are told between John-John’s story, all in a North-East accent.
Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo
A Fiction Uncovered winner in 2014. 74-year-old Barrington Jedidiah Walker has been married to Carmel for 50 years. She thinks he’s a womaniser. But Barry’s never slept with another woman, Carmel’s mistaken: Barry’s gay and in love with his best friend, Morris. Twenty years after Morris made Barry an offer to see out the rest of their days together, Barry decides he’s taking it. First though he’s got to tell Carmel. Told in a wonderful, rhythmic Caribbean accent, this novel’s an absolute joy.
The Barrytown Trilogy – Roddy Doyle
The trilogy begins with The Commitments, the novella which launched Roddy Doyle’s career, and also includes The Snapper and The Van, all set in the same community and following the fortunes of members of the Rabbite family. Doyle follows the rise and fall of Jimmy Rabbite Jr’s soul band; daughter Sharon’s pregnancy, and Jimmy Snr and his friend Bimbo’s fish and chip van. Told in an Irish accent with lashings of humour.
Buddha Da – Anne Donovan
The first of four novels on this list written in a Scottish accent. The Scots (quite rightly) are keen to distinguish themselves from the English. Buddha Da tells the story of Jimmy, his decision to become a Buddhist and the affect it has on his wife, Liz, and their eleven-year-old daughter, Anne Marie. It shows how marriages can change and how messy life can be.
The Bus Conductor Hines – James Kelman
Probably my favourite of the writers who write in a non-standard accent and also one of my favourite books. Rab Hines lives in a bedsit in Glasgow with his wife, Sandra, and their baby. He works on the buses. This is a story about what it’s like to be a working man with a family to support and principles to keep. It’s a gem of working class literature.
Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
Possibly the most famous novel to be written in a non-standard accent. Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie are a group of friends and heroin users from Leith, Edinburgh. That is except Begbie, who thinks junkies are the lowest of the low; he prefers to get his kicks through violent altercations. The novel is told through a series of short stories and vignettes about their everyday lives.
4am – Nina De La Mer
This appears similar to Trainspotting at first: it’s the story of Cal and Manny, squaddies in the British Army who live for clubbing and pills. Narrated by both of them, Cal’s from Glasgow and his sections are told in his own accent, while Manny’s a southerner who uses some slang. But Manny’s struggling; he only joined the army because his parents forced him and he’s finding it increasingly difficult to cope.
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth
Set in the three years after the Battle of Hastings. It’s told by an Anglo-Saxon man in the Lincolnshire fens, a free tenant with a farm he’s determined to defend. Soon, his sons are dead in battle and his farm house is burned down with his wife dead inside it. He, along with a small group of men, begins to fight the invaders. Told in an updated version of Old English, rendering a vivid portrait of the time.
The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman
My current favourite. Set 100 years in the future in the Nighted States. White people have died out from a disease called WAKS and the remaining black people have truncated lives, contracting posies and dying when they’re eighteen or nineteen. As the novel begins, Ice Cream Star’s brother has the disease and when she discovers there might be a cure, she sets out to find it. Narrated by 15-year-old Ice Cream Star in an imagined futuristic version of African American Vernacular English.
Naomi Frisby is working towards a PhD in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her thesis is in gender and diversity in circus and sideshow literature. She blogs at The Writes of Woman, a one-woman attempt to address the gender disparity in mainstream book reviewing. She can be found on Twitter @Frizbot.