Monday, August 25, 2014

A Novel's Case for Cursing (And What About the “N-word?”)


DVD cover of "The N Word."  See
What kind of cursing is okay versus not okay when writing? I raise this question because when I was joining GoodReads, it asked me to rate my upcoming novel.  Judging by that website’s criteria, my novel is borderline R-rated.

This was not intended, mind you.

Growing up I was told that cursing was for people who lacked a big vocabulary.  I don’t think I ever heard my parents curse, or if I did, by now, I have blacked it out.  Expletives just didn’t figure prominently in my childhood.  Growing up in a family of 6 children, ideas were discussed, thoughts shared; it was better to express ones thoughts in full sentences—to debate, more than berate.  So I’ve never been a good curser.  I’m not averse to cursing; I just can’t really do it in mixed company, except with my closest of friends and family—and, when I do, it’s for dramatic effect. I don't slip it into my conversations normally. If I use a curse word, I’m usually trying to pontificate upon a matter that requires an accent of sorts – in the form of a curse word.

I’m not sure how it happened, but some of my characters seem to want to express themselves using “flowery” language, and I’m not sure why.  Their use of foul language is not gratuitous, but fits in the conversations of the characters using them, even if I can’t say the curse words to good effect out loud.  

Let’s face it:  cursing is also now part of our daily lives.  I hear my friend’s children use it in front of their parents, something I couldn’t fathom doing when I was younger.  When my oldest sister started doing it, I had to make a mental adjustment (“Aha, she’s a grown up now.”) Mainstream bloggers curse in their blogs; even news anchors are prone to use it sometimes in their broadcasts. Of course, there are some words that are verboten, in mixed company—like the “C-word,” one that makes me cringe every time I hear it.  So, there are no words of that salacious sort in there, but the curse words we’ve all used or thought to use as part of our cursing parlance—well, they do have a place in my novel.

It could be my setting: rural Louisiana. But in my real-life travels there in northwest Louisiana, I’m not sure I heard curse words there anymore than I did any other place.  Granted, I didn’t know anyone in Natchitoches (pronounced, "Nagadish"), except my friend’s mother, whom I visited one evening, to get some insights into the rural community upon which my story is based, but I didn’t get one bad-word peep out of her.  Perhaps because I was a tourist there, people likely put on their best behavior. I didn’t sit in the bars by myself, and chat with people, as I was doing lots of traveling, taking a look at the terrain of the place, and interviewing people during the day, mostly.  Another guest of the hotel where I stayed, who, along with me, was invited by the hotelier to dinner, did introduce me to the term “coon-ass,” which he said was reserved for swamp-dwelling rednecks of Southern Louisiana.

So, why the cursing? Not sure.  It just fits, in my opinion. Should I feel guilty about it?  My novel would otherwise be considered a cozy, a procedural-type novel with little sex and violence, per se.  Yet, the elements are there… just not graphically—except that there may be some readers who might find some aspects of the novel gruesome.  But it’s not intended to shock or offend; it is matter-of-fact, and in the proper context of the plot.  I believe the cursing is, too.

One word I do not use is the “N-word,” believing that the less we use the term, the less the world will use it, too. That term, to me, is more derogatory than most other terms, no matter how friendly it is bandied about by people of my racial background.  Of course, not all Black Americans use the term, but just to be sure, I censor them from using the term, mindlessly, so that readers don’t feel justified in thinking about the word, of even having it in their conscience. Only in one chapter do I use the term, for effect, when some kids are debating how to pronounce it properly, using celebrated rap stars as role models for how they use the term.

Kanye West set the nation back decades when he used the term in a popular song that we mentally chanted even when it was bleeped out; the word was rhymed with Gold digger. And the world bopped to the song. Perhaps in Kanye’s twisted epistemological genius, by turning it into a commonplace word, does it somehow take away the sting?

I doubt it.  

Maybe if he associated it with a less derogatory adjective, like “brilliant n*gger,” instead of broke “n*gger.”  Broke ones are the ones who are either unemployed, or who die, shattered, dead and broken in the street, at the hands of a police bullet, or too tight a chokehold.

Well… West is making millions, so, in his estimation, he is doing something right.

Cursing is just cursing, to some. Hopefully, my use of the term is poignant in its context, but even in making my case, it still bothers me a bit. I still might take it out – I have six months to decide.

I at least want to explain myself, something I wish West and Jay-Z would do.

N*ggas in Paris.

New Slaves.

Damn right.

Here are links to blogs that delve much deeper into the question of the N-word, in particular:

Post script: I had an interesting conversation on Twitter with @Malika_Polter regarding the etymology of the N-word; she sent me this link:

It's a quite fascinating take on the history of the word; I still don't condone it's contemporary profligate use, but it's worth the read:

No comments:

Why Reading Other Novelists Helps Improve One's Own Writing

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss My rating: 3 of 5 stars As someone who has written an in-depth novel with lots of characters and int...