Sunday, April 21, 2013

Local Color

Writing coaches recommend that writers use local color in their stories to make them come alive. Every location, real or fictional, has unique sounds, sights and flavors. The characters in a story don't live in a generic town; they live in a town in a particular place where the stench of the swamp permeates when the wind blows south,
where little blue buses called "Conchita" bustle along the main street, where a paraplegic veteran sits in a cart in front the courthouse and curses the gov'mint every Saturday morning.

I'm from the Caribbean so a reader might expect to find a certain island flavor in my storiesinfusions of hot sunshine, white beaches, clear turquoise waters, lush vegetation, and market stalls heaped with mangoes and pineapples forming the perfect pictorial background to my scenes. They might expect colorful characters from the postcolonial melange of cultures, the syncopation of soca, calypso and reggaeand they would very likely find these. But local color extends far past the touristic image of a tropical paradise. Those elements are not the whole picture.

Particularly exciting to me are the languages, myths and legends of the region. There are many versions of English, English Creole and French Creole spoken in the Anglophone Caribbean, varying from island to island and even within territories.  Then there are the mythsthe tales of jumbies in Trinidad (duppies in Jamaica, ghosts elsewhere), the lagahoo (loup-garou or werewolf elsewhere), douens and La Diablesse... Penetrate deeper and a kaleidoscope of fantastical human, animal and supernatural characters emerge.

Some myths blur the lines between reality and fiction. When I was a child one of the tales with which my father held us in thrall was the story of the giant snake. It lived in forest pools, he said, and every so often it would come out and raid nearby villages, swallowing livestock and children whole. This horrifying creature was called a wheel, and years later, whenever I swam in deep forest pools after a long hike, the image of the wheel lurking below never failed to send shivers down my spine even as I laughed and splashed with my fellow adventurers. Suppose the thing was real? Why was it called a wheel anyway? Did it put its tail in its mouth and roll through the forest like a hoop? Suppose one lived down there? Would it emerge from the green, shadowy depths and pull me under where it would proceed to swallow me whole as I thrashed in vain, while my companions ran (or swam) for cover?

I subsequently discovered that the snake is not a wheel but a huile, French lexicon creole for oil, and the name is derived from its fluid movements in the water. The huile is also known locally as macajuel, a Spanish creole form, I think. It is a type of boa constrictor and is related to that famous South American giant... the anaconda. My father did not invent the huile; the darned monster is real.

The more I write, the more I feel the urgency to capture the colors of this place. The old spaces are being razed; the old words are dying out, replaced with the Americanisms of cable television. I remember standing in front of a literature class a few years agowe were reading a novel by local novelist Michael Anthonyand not one of those teenage suburbanites knew what laglee was. (It's the sticky white sap of the chataigne or breadfruit tree that's spread on twigs to trap birds.) When I was a child no boy worthy of the name would be ignorant of the existence and applications of laglee. The colors are fading fast, including those of the old characters, the lagahous, douens and that man-eating she-devil, La Diablesse, who are retreating further and further into what's left of the tropical forests.

There's only one way to keep them alive: on the pages of our books. Keeping them alive has become an important part of my mission. Do you feel a compulsion to conserve the colors of your patch of earth?

Liane Spicer

12 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Absolutley! well said. There is a lot of that local color here too, although it is not as prevalent as it once was. I definitely want to capture it.

Julie Luek said...

I love when writers can bring me into their world with vivid descriptions so that I see and smell and hear their world. Well said.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane, a post after my own heart. I definitely feel the compulsion to preserve the colors of my island and to hand them down to the next generation..my children.

I try to write the stories my parents told and try to capture the essence and rhythm of it in the local dialect. I read them to my kids but I have to translate it into English for them to understand and then it loses its flavor. It feels like an uphill battle.

Even worst is going back to my island and realizing people know more about the ghettos of NYC than the old time stories, characters and colors.

William Doonan said...

This is a beautiful post! I've spent years living and working on Costa RIca, and I can still smell it and see it. But part of the flavor of Costa RIca is its corpus of legends. Among my favorites, La Segua, a beautiful woman who was heartbroken by a Spanish officer. She still roams the back roads tempting men. Those who succumb to her temptations are never pleased when she turns into a frightening demon.

G. B. Miller said...

I try to work in my home state of Connecticut as much as possible. Not so much of the cities, but more of the suburbs and semi-suburbs that I've experience throughout the decades while growing up/living in my home state.

Liane Spicer said...

Charles, those unique colors are all fading into some kind of generic 'world' culture.

Liane Spicer said...

Julie, thank you. I too love to be transported to other vivid worlds when I read.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, that's why I started really listening when my mother speaks of the old days. So much of what she remembers is foreign even to me. When her generation goes a lot will be lost.

Liane Spicer said...

Thank you, William! The legends fascinate me. La Segua sounds a lot like our La Diablesse.

Liane Spicer said...

GB, that's writing what you know. The colors are so much brighter away from the glare of impersonal cities.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

A very interesting piece, Liane. I had hear of duens before but had forgotten them and when I followed the link I learned about Papa Bois. Fascinating! He sounds like something of him is owed to Europe's Green Man.

I also think the ongoing Christianization is also contributing to the loss of our myths and legends.

Liane Spicer said...

Eugenia, I must look up the Green Man-he's not familiar to me. Interesting the way all the major myths have their counterparts in discrete cultures. Some say it's all one myth, and I tend to agree, but the localized tweaks are fascinating nonetheless.