Sounds of the street: How authors are turning to slang narratives as a more authentic mode of storytelling

Stephen Kelman's feted first novel is told largely through youth speech and street slang. Arifa Akbar talks to him and other writers to explore the vernacular tradition in literary fiction

Friday 04 March 2011 01:00 GMT

The Scottish novelist, James Kelman, caused a small literary earthquake nearly two decades ago when his book, how late it was, how late, won the Booker prize. Written as stream of consciousness in grizzled Glaswegian dialect from the perspective of a foul-mouthed ex-convict, it was seen as a breakthrough, albeit it a contentious one.

No fictional work in a dominantly working-class vernacular had been recognised in the same way, in the history of the Booker at least, although critics remained divided and one intransigent judge branded the whole outcome a "disgrace".

Sixteen years later, Stephen Kelman - unrelated to his elder namesake - has caused another kind of literary storm with his debut, Pigeon English (Bloomsbury, £12.99), which incorporates teen slang with Ghanaian patois, scripted dialogue and a child's stream of consciousness.

This time around there was no literary consternation as an excited scrum of publishers vied for the title, which already features among Waterstones' best debut reads for 2011 and the 12 best new British novelists chosen by a panel chaired by Professor John Mullan for the BBC, which will be revealed tomorrow on the The Culture Show.

Its critical success aside, slang narratives continue to raise debate over what is seen, and sometimes claimed, as a more authentic mode of storytelling, delivered from the apparently unfiltered subjectivities of children and working-class or immigrant margins, and whose speech patterns suggest a closer verisimilitude to the "true" cadences of the street. Yet writers have also, paradoxically, referred to the high levels of artifice inherent in this medium.

Stephen Kelman sought to give his child voice authentic grounding by borrowing from the social reality around him; the geography of his fictional housing estate is the same as the one on which he grew up in Luton (where he continues to live). Some of the peripheral characters are hybrid creations from his own childhood (including an aggressive dog named Asbo) and he recorded the colourful vocabulary of the local teenagers in his neighbourhood to capture the voice of his central character, Harrison Opoku, an 11-year -old immigrant from Ghana.

"I felt from the beginning his voice was authentic. He arrived on my shoulder whispering in my ear," says Stephen Kelman. "There are Ghanaian people around me on the estate. I kept an open ears policy to the words being used around me. Ghanaian slang is very exuberant and cheerful. I'd be on the bus and I'd listen to how the children talked and I'd put it in the book."

The novel distils five months of Harrison's life on the estate, which is tyrannised by the Dell Farm Crew, and it bears another "true life" dimension in its passing similarity to the Damilola Taylor murder: the 11-year-old Nigerian schoolboy was stabbed to death in Peckham, south London.

"I remember being very moved by Damilola Taylor's story at the time. Ten years later, it has still not been tackled in fiction, which seemed surprising to me."

The story unravels both through Harrison's inner voice and also through long, scripted interventions of direct speech and dialogue. This latter aspect was a narrative "experiment" at first, perhaps informed by Stephen Kelman's literary background (he has written five unpublished screenplays). The form fitted because it channelled the characters' experiences more directly, he suggests.

"If you are going with the conceit that this is the story of an 11-year-old, it had to be told with his voice, and it seemed more authentic to let the kids speak in this way. There was less artifice there and it allowed me to get to the heart of things. There was a certain degree of anxiety to get this part right – the slang in which the children speak. The authenticity of the piece rests on getting this dialogue right."

Stephen Kelman's choice of an immigrant voice was made partly as a way to detach from his over-familiar urban landscape: "The child perspective, and immigrant perspective, allowed me to look at the community through fresh eyes. It all had to be new to him (Harrison) so he could analyse and process it innocently."

Yet in this, he appears to differ radically from James Kelman, whose stated intention has been to capture the reality of his own community, whose raw dialects and unreconstructed inner voices had arguably not been captured by a narrator from "within" before.

James Kelman has said that he sought to write fiction that "would derive from my own background, my own socio-cultural experience. I wanted to write as one of my own people, I wanted to write and remain a member of my own community."

Similarly, Noel Clarke's films, Kidulthood and Adulthood, which dramatise the lives of urban youths in their own vernacular, have been credited with extra potency, given Clarke's cultural background. He has himself suggested that the "reason Kidulthood has been so popular is the authenticity... If it's written by people that know or people that actually care, I think the audience can tell."

Stephen Kelman balks at the "mildly offensive" suggestion that his own cultural difference from his young protagonist undercuts his narrative authenticity: "It took me a long time to start feeling entitled to write this book, to feel Harrison's story is one I'm allowed to write. I find the idea that I shouldn't write a black character mildly offensive. As a writer you have the imagination and the ability to empathise."

There are writers who go much further in challenge the assumed connections between slang, children's narratives and authenticity. The writer, Michel Faber, wrote in a 2008 review that while Roddy Doyle's Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha "was praised for the unembellished authenticity of its child adult vocab, no "literary" imagery, no artfulness, just the unmediated voice of a naive young boy. Of course that was bullshit. Doyle honed his dialogue with the skill of a sitcom scriptwriter. The dramas, emotional cliff-hangers and comic punch-lines were set up according to age-old rules of storytelling."

He suggested that James Kelman did manage to better conjure an unembellished authenticity, though, he later hinted, this might not have made for the most scintillating reading experience: "Kelman disdains such finessed ventriloquism. Kieron Smith, Boy is the monologue of an unexceptional, inarticulate lad growing up in Glasgow's poorer neighbourhoods. The boy's voice is utterly, mercilessly authentic. Reading the book, you realise how artificial other purportedly "childlike" narratives are."

Anthony Burgess, meanwhile, appeared to explore the relationship between slang and authenticity, and sever it completely in his seminal book about violent teen subculture, Clockwork Orange, narrated in an invented street argot called Nadsat, and suggesting that all slang was an exclusively coded invention.

Gautam Malkani, author of Londonstani, which reflects in its grammar and spelling the hybrid Punjabi, British and Americanised speech patterns of young Asian "rude boys" on the fringes of West London, believes sub-cultural street slang is the polar opposite of ordinary speech.

"When I first read slang in fiction I thought, 'wow'. The thing I found fascinating was that on the one hand, it is authentic, but it is an invented authenticity. One of the main lessons about language was one I drew from Clockwork Orange, in which slang is part of the performance of a youth sub-culture.

"Clockwork Orange exemplified the idea that slang is purely invented, which is a paradox that I liked - kids trying to attain authenticity and staying 'true to themselves' through artifice. There are so many paradoxes within slang; it sounds aggressive but it is actually defensive – the characters I wrote about knew they were never going to speak English as well as public school kids, so they used their own code to speak something else."

From another perspective, literary fiction written in street slang is a highly politicised endeavour, at pains to distance itself from the universal – or arguably bourgeois - language of fiction. James Kelman's fiction is written in the context of class and regional divisions, and his conviction that "standard English" is a tool of anti-working-class repression seldom enters literary discourse.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger, who served as a Booker judge in 1994 and vociferously objected to James Kelman's winning book, feels, on reflection, it was not his vernacular language but his obscene language that she found offensive.

"It wasn't because of the argot but the number of times the book said 'fuck'. In the end, I found it unnecessary. The idea that people should write in street language is great. It expresses a particular experience and it's very valuable. I think Roddy Doyle is a fine writer, and someone like Anne Enright can slip from vernacular to literary fiction and back again very cleverly. Emma Donoghue does the same in her latest book, Room, adopting a child's language but which is meant for adult readers. It's very hard to do and she does it brilliantly."

Ion Trewin, the current administrator of the Man Booker prize, rehearses the view that street slang, when used abundantly and without humour, might appear esoteric, impenetrable and ultimately alienate the reader.

"I think universality is important in language otherwise you are failing in what you are setting out to do. Class does have something to do with it but I don't think class and vernacular always go together. With a novel like Monica Ali's Brick Lane you wouldn't say it is written in vernacular language but its subject matter deals with ordinary people."

Malkani inverts Trewin's concerns over accessibility by pointing out that novels written in 'proper English' are impenetrable to many readers. "I wanted my book to be as accessible as possible to the people I was writing about. There are lots of people, who live their lives in slang, who are alienated by books written in proper English."

Tony White, whose 2003 novel, Foxy-T, which dramatises East End life using the hybrid, and ever evolving language that surrounded him, defends vernacular fiction from charges of inaccessibility. Literary fiction has always experimented with language, he says, although he hints that it might be a safer publishing bet to write in standard English.

His novel, published a year before Ali's Brick Lane and focusing on the same demographic terrain, was buried beneath the critical acclaim of her book. By contrast, his was deemed "a bit difficult", he says, while some of the reviewers seemed "angered by it."

"The dominant class have used the language of social exclusion to describe their relationship with literature, when you think back to the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson and the response that it was too difficult to understand.

"When Foxy-T was published, I was interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme on the same day they were reporting exam results. It seemed as if I was there to personify failing results. I read a passage on the radio and the interviewer said, ever so archly, 'aren't you excluding us?'"

"I actually want to read literature that engages with the way that language is evolving, not one that reinforces a fixed idea of what the English language and writing is, or can be. None of us have a monopoly on that."

The best in 'slang' fiction

how late it was, how late by James Kelman

The 1994 novel, written from the point of view of Sammy, a shoplifting ex-convict in a Glaswegian vernacular stream of conciousness, created a storm when it won the Booker Prize, with one judge calling it a "disgrace." It begins with Sammy awakening in a lane one morning after an immense drink binge, only to get into a fight with plainclothes policemen, who he calls "sodjers" and who beat him so violently that when he regains consciousness he realises he has been blinded. The rest of the novel, after this dramatic start, focuses on the hardship Sammy's blindness brings.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

The Irish novelist won the Booker prize in 1993, a year before James Kelman was contentiously awarded the same prize. The story is filtered through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy. Employing the vocabulary and syntax of a child as well as a local dialectical register, the story gives a vivid impression of a child's consciousness. It is written in small scenes with no chronological order. It may have been saved from charges of esoteric language and inaccessible vernacular by its use of humour which draws a reader in.

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

Written in 2003, this debut shed light on the sub-culture of Asian 'rude boys' in Hownslow, West London, through four main characters, Hardjit, Ravi, Amit, and Jas,and their struggle with their white (or 'gora') counterparts. The book came out of Malkani's university dissertation and its narration consisted in a total absorption of a particular kind of street slang that mixed Punjabi with English and Americanisms from MTV and hip hop. The first chapter was called 'Paki' and began with the words: "Serve him right he got his muthafuckin face fuck'd, shudn't be callin me a Paki, innit."

Foxy-T by Tony White

Set in the East End's Shadwell and written in a hybrid mix of Cockney-Carribean-South Asian patios, the story revolves around the eponymous Foxy-T and her friend, Ruji Babes (called by their graffiti tags) who manage a Telephone and Internet Centre and whose paths cross with the ex-borstal boy, Zafar Iqbal. White says of the novel, published in 2003, that he sought to reconstruct the grammar, rhythm and structure of the language rather than the vocabulary, in order to capture a "snapshot of the most recent layer of the East End."

Brixton Rock by Alex Wheatle

Set in South London of the 1980s, this 1999 debut novel by Wheatle, a South London born writer of Jamaican origin, tells the story of Brenton Brown, a 16-year-old mixed-race youth who lives in a children's home and has never met his mother. When he finally reunited with her and his estranged family, he falls in love with his half-sister, Cynthia. It was met by great critical praise for its dialogue, written in South London vernacular or 'black English'. The story was adapted for the stage and performed at the Young Vic last year.

Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The dystopian novel, published in 1962, and regarded as a seminal 20th-century text, is narrated by a violent young gang leader, Alex, in an invented teenage slang which Burgess called Nadsat, and which Alex's doctor described as "an odd bit of old rhyming slang, a bit of gypsy talk. But most of the root are Slav propaganda." Some words are easy to guess ('in-out, in-out' means sexual intercourse) while others are difficult to decipher and deliberately so. Alex's rhyming slang was intended to be impenetrable to outsiders (especially eavesdropping policemen). In the first edition of the book, no glossary was provided, and the reader was left to interpret the meaning from the context.

Room by Emma Donoghue

This 2010 Man Booker prize shortlisted book, partly inspired by the Josef Fritzl case in Austria, is written from the perspective of a five-year-old boy, who is caught in captivity along with his mother for the first years of his life. The second part of the novel, describes his experience once they have been freed from their abductor. Donoghue has been praised for the child language she employs which, while appearing authentic, has enough insights and maturity for adult readers. She has said that she observed her son and recorded his speech as part ofher research.

Trainspotting by Irving Welsh

Welsh's sensational 1993 novel, written in Edinburgh dialect in short chapters and narrated both by an omniscient narrator and in first-person inner monologues by various heroin users living on the city's inhospitable outer fringes, was a searing portrayal of addiction, with explicit sex, crime and drug use, which alienated some conservative readers with its regional idiom, but has since achieved cult status and global success after Danny Boyle adapted the story for film in 1996. Welsh is now working on a prequel novella, 'Skagboys', written in the same register and expected for publication next year.

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