Odyssey Podcast #127: Nisi Shawl on Dialect & Representation (Part 1)

mp3 Odyssey Podcast #127

Nisi Shawl was the Jeff Pert Memorial Guest Lecturer at Odyssey 2019 and spoke about dialect and representation. In this excerpt, the first of two parts, Nisi discusses dialogue, what dialogue can reveal, and the special concerns and challenges that arise when using dialect. Nisi explains that dialogue is idealized and compressed speech. Dialogue can “tell,” as with “as you know, Bob” dialogue, when one character tells another something they both know. This can feel more natural when characters talk at cross purposes or argue. When dialogue “shows,” it can reveal setting, action, and character. Dialogue can reveal a character’s ethnicity, class, country of origin, gender, ability and more. All this can be done without attempting to write in dialect. Nisi leads the class in an exercise to explore these concepts. Then she discusses some concerns surrounding dialect. If you’re only depicting certain speech patterns phonetically, you’re privileging all the rest. You also run the risk that your audience will misunderstand your intent and imbue the passage with qualities you didn’t intend to be present. Nisi relates a problem she had with one of her own stories. Phoneticized dialect may distract readers from your story because they are puzzling out the speech. Many writers recommend limiting this to a word or two or a line at the beginning of a passage. But whole novels written in dialect can be successful.


Nisi Shawl wrote the 2016 Nebula finalist and Tiptree Honor novel Everfair (Tor), an alternate history in which the Congo overthrows King Leopold II’s genocidal regime; and the 2008 Tiptree Award-winning story collection Filter House (Aqueduct). In 2005 she co-wrote Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct), now the standard text on diverse character representation in the imaginative genres, and the basis of her years of online and in-person classes of the same name. She is a founder of the inclusivity-focused Carl Brandon Society and has served on the Clarion West Writers Workshop’s board of directors for twenty years.

Shawl’s dozens of acclaimed stories have appeared in Analog and Asimov’s Magazines and other publications; her “Everfair-adjacent” story “Vulcanization” was selected as one of twenty offered in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2017. Two recent collections highlight her writing: A Primer on Nisi Shawl (Dark Moon) and Talk Like a Man (PM Press). In 2019 she edited New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color (Solaris), shortlisted for the New Words Award. Her Middle Grade historical fantasy Speculation is forthcoming from Lee and Low in Spring 2021. Currently she is writing Kinning, an Everfair sequel.

The text of this recording is copyright © 2019 by Nisi Shawl. The sound recording is copyright ℗ 2020 by Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust.

For more Odyssey podcasts, visit: odysseyworkshop.org/podcasts.html



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