Let's talk about the use of dialect in the book. May I quote from the Author's Note?
Be my guest. You're me, after all.
Although it has traditionally been considered condescending to write in dialect, the climate seems to be changing — and for good reason. In his recent book about India, The Elephanta Suite, Paul Theroux uses such locutions as "wicious" for vicious, "moddom" for madam, and "wee-icle" for vehicle in an effort to transmit more shades of emotional truth than a sanitized transcript can. Nor is the practice limited to native English writers. By writing, "My bawss was sacked, so we got laid all together" in his recent novel, A Free Life, the Chinese-American author Ha Jin suggests how cross-cultural communication is a creative process for both native and visitor, with results that are sometimes as revealing as Freudian slips. Tracking both how foreigners use the English language, and how an American visitor scrambles to make sense of foreign sounds, is here meant to transmit the spirit of modern travel — equal parts charming and alarming.
I stand by those words.
Most readers seem to get a kick out of the use of dialect, but you're taking heat from a few.
There's one guy in particular who keeps getting his friends to write hate mail to Amazon. I think it may actually be one of my sons, trying to get my goat. (Hey, wise guy, stop tying up the line.) But if it's a real person, I have to say, with respect, that he seems to be a newbie traveler who's just discovered the greater world and is aghast that someone would let the secret out: that there ARE language screw-ups for everyone involved. People who've traveled the world a little more, like Paul Theroux, know that these screw-ups are something the traveler never gets used to. The brain scrambles helplessly to make sense of them more and more, not less and less.
But those people are correct that it IS anti-PC, yes?
Most definitely. But to ignore the dialect, to scrub the language clean of all the miscommunications, back and forth, is to give a bleached-out version of events and a false impression of what it's like to visit a foreign country. The fact is, it's in the nature of transcultural communication for people to misspeak and mishear all the time, and if you pretend it isn't happening, you're going to miss out on a lot of the linguistic zest that goes with the territory.
If you stop pretending it isn't happening and instead pay attention, you'll hear that people's misspeakings and mishearings are quite wonderfully revealing. When my guide tearfully refers to "earthquakes" as "earthquicks," for instance, she is offering an inadvertently poetic addition to the language. Doesn't the word "earthquick" get across the all-encompassing suddenness of such a geologic event in a way that the correct word fails to do?
It's not meant to put down the Chinese people?
Never. The Chinese were wonderfully generous and compassionate with Larry and me. They saved my cousin's life! And they were verbally adept to boot. Illiterate that I am, I struggle through the whole book just to recall one toast in Chinese, and here these people are talking up a storm in my own language, often in ways that are fancifully creative.
And then there's Larry's language, too. He says he's dying of "kiddie" disease.
Which he is, if you read between the lines. What's really killing him, what may even be behind his kidney disease in some metaphysical sense, is his childhood: all the indignities he suffered at the hands of his unfortunate father and so forth. His language slip-ups give it away.
You really get into all his life stories in those hair-raising cab rides, don't you?
It becomes almost like a psychoanalysis in the back of those cabs. I learn things about my cousin I'd never imagined before. It was a real eye-opener into someone I thought I knew all my life. That he had been man-handled, for instance, by a respected great-uncle. I had no idea.
That's when the book widens and deepens.
The reader stops laughing after a while and starts attending to all his pain, is that the idea?
Hopefully the reader continues to do both: laugh AND attend to his pain. Larry IS dying, after all, for all his gallows humor. But the humor is used to get us there, deep inside a situation the reader might have resisted otherwise.
Technical question: There's a lot of dialogue. How can you be sure you heard him right?
For better or worse, Larry's a communicator. I was with him virtually round the clock for two months, and got to hear all his life stories at least three times. Plus which, as Larry would say, I was taking notes the whole time. I was able to check and cross-check the details of his life as well as the unique language he employed.
The Chinese start sounding like Larry after a while, and you like your cousin and your native hosts.
The melding that takes place, on all sides, is one of my favorite parts of the book.
So you're saying it's playful, not disrespectful.
You got it, bub.
Sort of in keeping, then, with the general tone of Larry's Kidney, which you would describe as..?
I guess, for better or worse, it's one of pizzazz. A risky undertaking, given the gravity of the topics at hand. More about that tomorrow.