Rotten English

Over at Politics and Culture, Amitava Kumar and Micahel Ryan edit a special issue on Rotten English.  Here’s an excerpt from Dohra Ahmad’s book Rotten English, in the issue:

One day as I was compiling material for this anthology, I sat in a train station in Jamaica, Queens reading Paul Keens-Douglas’s poem “Wukhand” when an older man sitting next to me began to chuckle.  “That’s just how we talk back home,” he said, pointing at the page.  “I never saw it written down before.”  This collection consists of two and a half centuries of writing that had never been written down before, of authors codifying previously untranscribed speech patterns. Keens-Douglas’s poem opens boldly in the voice of a Trinidadian day-laborer addressing a potential employer with the plea “Sah, gimme a wuk nah.  Ah lookin ole but ah strong.”  Other selections capture the speech of convicts and child-soldiers, bluesmen and housemaids from Mississippi to Scotland to India.  But more than that, Rotten English consists of literary works of extraordinary originality, power and beauty.  The poem that amused my train-platform neighbor employs a spectacular range of literary techniques, weaving among direct address, personification, Biblical reference, and a good deal of humor.  Like Keens-Douglas, all of the other authors contained here forge vernacular language into poems, short stories and novels that captivate readers with their artistry.

What would once have been pejoratively termed “dialect literature” has recently and decisively come into its own.  Half of the novels that won the Man Booker prize over the past twelve years are in a non-standard English: the British Commonwealth’s most prestigious award honors passages like “It ain’t like your regular sort of day” (the opening line of Graham Swift’s Last Orders) and “What kind of fucken life is this?” (the persistent refrain of DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little).  The reading public has been just as approving, eagerly devouring works like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Junot Díaz’s Drown.  Many vernacular novels, Walker’s own as well as Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, have become acclaimed movies.  This success is by no means limited to fiction; vernacular poetry has flourished in venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café and HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.  The aim of this collection is to represent that literary florescence, along with the earlier works that anticipated and enabled it.  Rotten English celebrates the stunningly unanticipated ways in which English has changed as it grew into a global language.