Janjay: The Colloquial Language

Why I thought it was important to incorporate local language in the story

One of the most important aspects of ethnicity is the commonality of shared language. In writing Janjay, it was really important for me to include the characters' authentic dialect as a part of the dialogue. The challenge was how to do it in a way that would be understood by all readers but especially children.

Because of its unique history, Liberia formulated a culture of a blended mix of indigenous black people with people of color from the Caribbean, The Americas, and other parts of Africa. There are 16 ethnic groups in Liberia but the common thread of communication is what outsiders might refer to has pidgin, patois, Krio, Kreyol; but Liberians often acknowledge as "Plain Liberian English" or simply Liberian English. The words and accent is a combination of southern American English, native words from some of Liberian indigenous groups, and other forms of English vernacular including British English.

In my first iteration of the book, I introduced a new vocabulary word without providing meaning in hopes the reader would catch on as the story went on. I've seen this style of writing in some of my favorite African, Latino, and Caribbean literature. I think that style works best for longer stories or a textbook style. Unless I was planning to write a book in the likes of "Dora the Explorer" where I introduce the word by saying, 'this word means this', it would not work. After many drafts, I finally settled on the writing style where the first time I introduce a Liberian English word, I would put the meaning in parenthesis after it. An example is seen below

Janjay walked down to a neighborhood chopshop (small restaurant) to pick up a paw-paw (papaya) pie.

I would not include the meaning in parenthesis when used again in the text. Unless the same word has multiple meanings, like in the case of the word "ehn"  which can mean huh, well, don't, or aha when followed by the word "hen" such as "ehn hen" .  I'm sure Liberians can think of other meanings depending on the context.

I then tested this style with my niece who was born and raised in the USA (familiar with Liberian English) and my friend's daughter (non-Liberian) who was born and raised in the USA (no familiarity). Both girls had no problem, so I knew I had succeeded from the kid's perspective. Next, I cross-checked the style with my adult Liberian friends. It was important for them to validate the meanings of words we all could identify with as well as the phonetic spelling. Did I mention--there is no standardized spelling for Liberian English?--adding to the challenge.

I've seen some amazing plays in the past depicting Liberia and the civil wars. One play that I saw in London at The Royal Court that really captured a single war story of Liberia was written by Nigerian-British woman called Liberian Girl. What made this so phenomenal was that the actors captured the essence of Liberian English and none of them were Liberian. The main character, whom I had a pleasure to meet after the show, told me she was from neighboring Sierra Leone; which made it easier for her to deliver the dialect.

Prior to this I had seen another play in Washington, DC which was an adaptation of the documentary Pray the Devil back to Hell. While the performance was amazing, they lacked what I thought was the key component of the story--the inclsion of colloquial language. Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to see the Broadway play Eclipsed starring Lupita Nyong'o. The play had high reviews and was well received however when I asked Liberians of their opinions, although they loved it, their only criticism was the absence of authentic language. As Liberians, we can't complain too much because we don't tell our own stories, but that's another topic for another post.