Ntozake Shange, Black feminist poet, novelist, essayist and author of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” turned 65 last fall. She’s still writing, but she has a hard time with spell-check. Hey, we’ve all been done in by spell-check and auto-correct at some point, right? Happens to me all the time.
Except, that’s a gross exaggeration. It happens to me now and then. And my fingers, though arthritic, can easily go back and fix. I rule, spell-check, this is my writing, my computer, and the words are going to come out the way I want them to.
It’s vastly different for Ntozake. She writes in Black vernacular, sometimes flavored with Nuyorican accents. And auto-correct just doesn’t come in flavors other than vanilla.
So, why doesn’t she do what I do? Just fix it, Ntozake, go through the manuscript and discorrect the auto-correct. To hell with spell-check; just disable the damn thing.
The thing is, neurological disorders have disabled Ntozake, severely. First a series of strokes, then Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP), which keep her hands and feet in constant tremor. She can no longer type or write by hand.
Like many disabled people she uses voice recognition software. And that’s her battleground.
Is this a Disease of the Month movie about a famous person? Not for me.
I know the territory of strokes, epilepsy. I’d never heard of CIDP before I read about her choreo-essay “Lost In Language and Space.” In it she says, “I can’t count the times I viscerally wanted to attack, deform and main the language I was taught to hate myself in, the language that perpetuates the notion that causes pain to every black child.” Before CIDP struck her a few years ago Ntozake already had bi-polar disorder, but that’s not so uncommon among the artists of the world, and who says disabilities get doled out one per customer? Like Ntozake, I had a season in hell when I could not read, approximately the same time she did, 2010/2011.
I speak standard English. Which is to say: standard, middle to upper-middle class white mid-Atlantic inflected American English. I know it’s rules of grammar. Ntozake does too; she graduated cum laude from Barnard, has a Masters in American Studies from UCLA.
Most of the characters living in my head speak the same kind of English as I do. But a sizable minority do not. I have written characters of many shades and generations in a novel set in New Orleans in the fifties and sixties. I am now working on a book where many of the characters’ first language is Tagalog. I only know a few words of Tagalog, and the characters speak in English, as did the Filipinas they’re based on, when they were talking to me. There are also Somalis, Latinos, and Tongans in this particular story. A lot to train my ear to. One major character is French-Algerian, another, a native English speaker from South Africa. They’re based on an ex-lover and an ex-attendant; I’ve got those accents down.
My social network is not as broad as this may sound. Most of the Filipinos, Somalis and Tongans I met while I was in the hospital. To my shame, I asked some to “straighten out their accents.” I have a whole knapsack of excuses I could produce about why I did that, but in the end, they’re just excuses, based upon some deep-seated idea, ready to pop out with I am in extremis, that I own the language. When I complained to my lover about all the accents, there in the hospital, she said, “But you love accents. Remember?” I am forever grateful to her for reminding me who I am, who I commit to being.
I am enriched by the spoken music of the people my characters are based on, as a writer, as a human being. The world changed with the production of For Colored Girls, from the first performances at the Bacchanal, a dyke bar in Albany, California, to its long run on Broadway.
[Here is a photo of Shange speaking at “Ntozake Shange on Stage & Screen” sponsored by Africana Studies at Barnard. She is with Professor Soyica Diggs Colbert, also African American, who listens and looks on respectfully as Shange addresses the unseen audience. The left handle-grip of Shange's purple wheelchair can be seen, as can her fabulous gold earrings that look like life-size scallop shells.]
|Barbara Ruth at two years old: Oppositional defiance - before it was a disorder|
[Image description: a sepia-toned vintage '40s photo of the author of this piece, in which a young child, arm raised up in what might be a fist, appears to be saying something important...it is easy, somehow, to imagine that this child is saying "Freedom!" with vigor and gusto.]
the bio:Barbara Ruth is a 67 year old Ashkenazi Jewish/Potowatomee dyke with multiple disabilities. She lives in San Jose, California and delights in IDing as neuroqueer.