What's the Word Writing to Preserve My Family on the Page
Family has blessed my life and trusted me to tell our stories for true. To render us on the page in recognizable ways. From the first word to the last.
The party’s ended at our place, and the moon promises that it’s past time to clean up. But this fire’s still high, and near-midnight is holding us tight inside her plum embrace. We’re all full, some of us still a little buzzed, and all of us high on remembrance, so this late October chill won’t raise these blood relations, closest kin by skin, and a small few of their guests, from their chairs. Especially now that Major just fixed his mouth to ask for the story of how I came to New Jessup, and about my first few years here.
“Don’t nobody wanna hear all that again,” I say, though that gleam in his eye says he’s waiting to be tickled by his favorite parts of this same old tale. Everybody else is leaning in to hear better, too, and tired eyes have all suddenly perked up. “Y’all need to stop acting like this mess from the party’s finna clean itself.”
But we all know this mess ain’t going nowhere, and that they ain’t going nowhere until the last dish is washed, and the last table put away. So here comes Raymond, leaning close to peck my cheek with that smile on his face. He’s still the handsomest man in all of Alabama, and look at him now—ready to change the world with the fellas behind him and me by his side. Me. By his side. But he’s putting on tonight, with that molasses voice fake-whispering into my ear about my phony protestations:
“Now, Alice, you know ain’t nobody moving until you give them a story. So why don’t you go on ahead and tell them what they wanna hear.”
These woods are nosy, but discreet. They hold plenty of secrets, including some of my own, which are revealed only if you understand the language of blazing sweetgum or magnolias when they flower. The moon is full and low tonight, and creamy-bright against that plum-black sky. Wanting herself to be known, included in the conversation, too. She may change shape, color, come out earlier or stay later as the days go by. But she always, always shows up.
“Which part do y’all wanna hear, then?”
“All of it!” they holler. Or some version of that answer. And there’s Dot’s voice squeaking above the fray. “Start from the beginning, Alice!” Bless her heart. Dot. My sister. My sister . My sisters and the moon.
“Well, the moon rises and sets, stitching eternity together, night by night . . .”
And so begins the story of Alice Young, though this last line of dialogue is the only one actually found in my debut novel, Moonrise Over New Jessup . At least, “found” in the traditional literary sense. The rest of the scene has been unwritten until now, and there is no allusion to it inside the book. But before I wrote a single word, the end of a party was cemented in my mind as the event where Alice opened up to her family. This scene lived with me during the entirety of the writing and revision process, influencing how I rendered Alice, and everyone in New Jessup, honestly from the first word to the last.
Alice says what she says, where, and to whom, she says it. She’s a storyteller doing what storytellers do without a script or written word in sight. As her stories mature over time, she may take liberties. Embellish and enrich to provide details once forgotten, intentionally omitted, or suddenly necessary based on her surroundings, for stories that pass over lips are living, breathing things. But the crowd asks how she came to love New Jessup, and stays in rapt attention, because of the way she speaks life into her oral history. They are engaged because of the tale and because of the teller.
The tradition of storytelling is as old as the first moonrise, yet nobody in the crowd records or transcribes Alice’s words. Perhaps because they wish to catch every single sentence and gesture, or perhaps because they fear doing injustice by the attempted rendering of her words onto the page. Rendering requires the ability to capture a spoken breath that is rarely the same twice, yet is as familiar as the scent of my mama’s collards simmering on the stove. We not only hear these histories; we are steeped in experiences as the stories unfold. Careful revision and editing make the rendering shine, while careless revision and editing ensure that much gets lost in translation.
Translation certainly means making a language accessible to those who are otherwise unfamiliar with it. Translators, apps, and context clues help us communicate or understand materials written in a language that is not our native tongue. But allowances for linguistic differences based on geographic diversity often result in the adoption of words into the common parlance . For example, the always romantic je t’aime translates directly from French to English as “I you like.” Yet our cheeks turn rosy, and our heads float away, because we acknowledge French grammar and structure, and understand this as a profession of love despite the inconsistency in the order, and literal meaning, of which the words relate to their English cousins. Unfamiliar words and phrases untangle in our minds when we embrace exposure. “I love you” is a beautiful and heartwarming sentiment. But “je t’aime,” from the lips of my beloved, makes my pulse race.
Careful revision and editing make the rendering shine, while careless revision and editing ensure that much gets lost in translation.
Similarly, language invented, or re-invented, inside the Black community has transformed common parlance worldwide. Like jazz remade music, words and phrases emerge from our culture to innovate the possibilities of conversation. The structures of this speech share grammar and syntax rules not only with the African languages our foremothers and fathers spoke, but with the old English with which Chaucer and Shakespeare made their art, as well as Spanish, Greek, French, and Italian. Through the span of time, Black inventiveness has uniquely transformed everything from the peanut to the practice of medicine to TikTok to all things touched by the blue sky. Our ancestral tongues emerge from this intersection of languages having shaped, and elevated, communication around the globe.
Around the fire, Alice unfolds her life to the people she loves most in the world. She tells her story according to the grammar, syntax, and soul of her language, and the words on her tongue deserve celebration, not contortion. If she is to expose her deepest secrets and vulnerabilities, she should be allowed to do so in her own way. The goal of translation is not to amend or alter comprehension, but to enhance it—to give the listener or reader, to the extent possible, access to the beauty and richness of expression. In this context, rendering oral storytelling to the page requires a careful and honest pen—one with the goal of doing harm neither to the words, nor the experience. Alice is talking to her folks. She wants to be understood by her family. And remembered.
So, to me, translation also meant rendering Alice’s story on the page as she intended it to be understood. In other words? Letting her speak for herself. Who am I to paraphrase or alter her history? Who am I to jumble and rearrange? While Moonrise Over New Jessup is entirely fiction of my creation, it is inspired by a lifetime of cadences and phrases uttered by family who know our stories and the language required to tell them. And as I was once told as a young girl when I tried to insert myself into grown folks’ business, “Jamila, ain’t nobody asked you to stick your bill in.” It is not for me to interrupt or interpret for the uninitiated. Instead, as one invited to sit around that fire, my duty, and honor, is to translate oral storytelling to the page in a manner that preserves its fullest truth.
This is a question of audience and voice, yes—Alice’s voice is intimately accessible to her folks around the fire, for they are her audience in the truest sense. But it is also a question of history. What gets lost in translation, as they say, by the stroke of a careless pen? Characterization? Setting? Tension? Foreshadowing? Pieces of our past. Our language tells us who we are, what we are, and where we come from. Those responsible for the transatlantic slave trade stole millions of Africans from their homeland, forcing people from different kingdoms and tribes into the bowels of slave ships. And one of the tactics that slavers employed to suppress the enslaved from plotting for freedom was to intentionally separate people from those with whom they shared a common tongue or history. Among the many tragic results of this barbarism was the forced extinction of how many languages? How many descriptions for the color blue, names for heartbreak, or ways to describe love, did we lose because of the erasure of our words?
While this was only one of our ancestral connections severed by brutality, we chip away at our history when we continue to contort our language. Our stories are what tether our ancestors to their time here on earth, so it is my responsibility to lift up and protect the words on our tongues; to keep telling our stories with the utmost skill and care. Because as Chinua Achebe relayed through the West African proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Rendering carries with it the responsibility of ensuring that language remains true. Oral storytelling is an art form unique from writing—with the storyteller literally breathing life into words as they pass her lips. Her voice and expression unlock so many clues about the tale and the teller, all of which a renderer must capture in written work. There is so much in the communication that gives you cues as to who people really are. Rendering Alice meant putting her life on the page. She is our grandmamas, our big mamas, our ma’dears, and great-grandmamas—wives, mamas, homemakers, career women who lived and deserve to be remembered the way they told their stories. And my folks will invent endless ways to describe the blue sky, a heartache, a true love.
As one invited to sit around that fire, my duty, and honor, is to translate oral storytelling to the page in a manner that preserves its fullest truth.
Inside this conversation about rendering language lives the discussion about relatability (with its second cousin, “likeability,” right next door). At fireside, behind the pines, Alice tells this story to her family—blood relations and kin by skin. She relates to them just fine, and they like (even love) her. This is her home, where she will determine which secrets to tell, and which to keep; where she will disappoint and surprise the ones she loves most. These pages welcome readers into this sacred space. Her safe space. Her piece of Alabama, where Alice navigates how much of her life to lay bare to her closest heartbeats. Moonrise Over New Jessup commits an act of trust by inviting readers around the fire, and into this community, through the use of language. So expecting alteration of her words is to take the story out of the yard, out of New Jessup, and out of Alabama; to ask Alice to substitute her brand of credibility for general relatability. But it is only when Alice speaks for herself that we truly see her life through her eyes. Moonrise Over New Jessup relays personality, love, opinions, vulnerability, heartbreak, and joy as only Alice Young knows how.
For me, nowhere is the sky as blue, nowhere is the sun as bright, and nowhere do I know love like when I’m in Alabama. From Demopolis to Montgomery, from Birmingham to Hobson City, in places I know and have yet to know, family has blessed my life and trusted me to tell our stories for true. To render us on the page in recognizable ways. From the first word to the last.