The Lion Speaks: On the Potency of the Epistolary Form
Daniel Black Considers Letters and Linguistic Freedom
Black people in rural Arkansas, my people, didn’t talk like the books I had read and loved when I was growing up. Their language was musical and rhythmic in ways I had never seen in print. I wanted to hear that music when I read books, but I was taught that our black speech, our idiomatic slave vernacular, was literarily “improper” and non-standard. So I learned to praise and write someone else’s narrative tradition while hoping that, one day, mine would come into literary vogue.
Then, around 1984, I read The Color Purple and heard the voices of my people. It was Celie’s letters—raw and unedited—that jarred my consciousness. There was nothing “standard” about them, but their poignant sentiment, their angelically musical nature, made me weep as I read. I was a high school senior, on my way to being a college English major, and, for the first time, I encountered my people’s language on the page. I think I remember touching the words, literally, wondering how they felt in that space, thankful to them for their boldness in representation.
At one point, I closed my eyes and imagined writing a book about my people, complete with nothing but their unrestrained tongues, and I laughed at myself for believing that any publishing house would print it. I wasn’t as liberated then as I am now, but the idea of a black novel without standard English is still laughable.
The beauty of the epistolary form in The Color Purple is that Celie gets to speak to God on her own terms. She doesn’t have to modify herself to believe in her divinity. This means, in fact, that she sees God as herself. Or at least like herself, for she never wonders whether God comprehends what Dunbar calls her “jingle in a broken tongue”. Said another way, the epistolary form allows characters to take shape in their natural environment without narrative judgement. I didn’t care that Celie’s subjects and verbs didn’t agree. I didn’t want them to agree. I wanted God to hear her, to deliver her, to honor her desperate plea. Only in a letter could she have been given space to be so free, so unconcerned about other’s assessment of her “literariness.”
And it’s her unencumbered tongue that garners sympathy from readers and causes them to hear her heart. Even the audacity to write God, to employ the epistolary as a means of reaching Heaven, demonstrates the pliability of the form and the ways in which it services under-represented tongues in the American literary tradition. Celie sounds like any other, every other, black girl I knew. This was possible, in my mind, only because she was writing a letter—something that wouldn’t be scrutinized by editorial eyes. Her pain, her need, her anguish was clearest to me because it resounded in the music of the people I knew.I love how the epistolary holds memory—how it allows characters to move seamlessly through time as they tell their complicated, sometimes glorious, sometimes regrettable past.
At the beginning of the book is the line, in italics, “You better not never tell nobody but God.” I remember reading this aloud and murmuring, “Oh wow.” The not never was very familiar to me—not as an error, but as a linguistic device that meant something different from never. When black elders in the country said not never, they didn’t simply mean not to do a thing; they meant that punishment would be severe if you did. I recall my grandmother telling me not to never talk back to her, and from her enraged expression I knew that a repeat of that behavior would be deadly for me. Never, by itself, was a warning; not never was a promise of your destruction if you didn’t comply.
I instinctively knew the difference, but I’d never seen this language employed in literature, so I sat and read as if a literary feast had been prepared before me. Celie’s short, cacophonous, simple sentences revealed the limitations of her education but not her imagination. I loved that she sounded real without sounding stupid. Only the epistolary allows for this—the true nature of a character’s being without altering the range of a character’s possibilities. This happens because the letter form beckons the full expanse of a character, as they speak for themselves, without erasing their depth, their complexity. It also frees language to do what language is supposed to do—strip characters naked, in their own cultural milieu, without shame and narrative distortion.
Marilynne Robinson also employs the epistolary form in her quietly magnificent novel, Gilead. The first line takes my breath away: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old and you said, I don’t think you’re old.” The polyrhythmic nature of this discourse reminds me of conversations I had with my grandmother. She spoke a slow, deliberate cadence while I shouted quick whole-note responses. The juxtaposition of generational voices in Robinson’s narration is made possible only because the epistolary form allows for the coexistence of memory and history—truth and imagination, as it were. One gets the sense, throughout the novel, that old man John Ames is both telling his seven-year-old son his history as well as shaping the boy’s future. In these letters, John Ames dissects his faith in order to construct for his son an inheritance of Christian belief that will sustain him when his father is gone.
I love how the epistolary holds memory—how it allows characters to move seamlessly through time as they tell their complicated, sometimes glorious, sometimes regrettable past. It also invites characters to remake themselves, since they alone speak the voice of the text, and thus shape how readers see them and understand their behavior. Of course the tricky thing about a letter is that all information is from one perspective. Yet, depending on the strength of the writer, that can be an asset. It often makes readers know one character so deeply that they cannot withhold sympathy, regardless of how terrible he or she is or once was.
As the African proverb goes, “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the victor.” In the epistolary form, the lion gets to speak and often tells a different tale of his hunt and eventual capture. Indeed, when the lion writes the narrative, readers understand the beauty of evasion and subterfuge and stealth and know that the lion got away ten times before he got caught. Said simply, the epistolary allows for even the most damaged soul to become a hero. It gives space for the rejected to be legitimized by the truth of their own story.
I am the descendant of slaves who weren’t allowed to write. My grandfather never wrote anything. My father could write his name but not much else. A letter from either of them would’ve been a treasure—and a priceless glimpse into their hearts. They didn’t know anything about literary conventions, so had they assumed the pen, they would’ve written exactly what they felt. And they would’ve written it precisely as they conceived it. It’s that straightforward freeness, that candid outpouring of the heart, that the epistolary invites. It’s the marriage of memory and the melody of regional speech that makes the form so transformative, so literarily explosive. I’ll never get a letter from my father, but, as a gift to the world, I hope to write one he might’ve written.
Daniel Black’s novel, Don’t Cry for Me, is available now via Hanover Square Press.