Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Power of Words

Yesterday I dusted off my brain and went to an annual writers’ conference at Mt. Holyoke College.
It’s a fairly small local event of only about 100 people, unlike bigger venues such as the East Coast Crime Bake, which boasts speakers like Elizabeth George (remember the Inspector Lynley series?).

          This year’s panels included Dynamics of Dialogue, How Science and Literature Can Play Together Without Killing Each Other, and The Writer as a Voice of Dissent. And no sweaty palms for me this year. I’ve spent past conferences shopping my current novel from agent to agent, but I’m writing at glacier speed lately, so I just sat back and enjoyed the day.

          In the session on historical fiction, Gone With the Wind came up. Apparently it’s regaining notoriety in some circles that believe it glorifies slavery, and is basically a white supremacist tract, an issue that's really picked up speed lately.  

          It seems a shame we can’t appreciate the story while being aware of the cultural time in which it was written. This also reminded me of the perennial controversy in public schools over whether to teach Huckleberry Finn, based on Twain’s handling of the slave Jim.

          At my first conference, the most magical part of it for me was being in a group of people that sat around and talked about words. Yesterday afternoon was no exception.

          Breena Clarke, whose debut novel River, Cross My Heart was an Oprah Book Club selection, was the afternoon’s keynote speaker. Her most recent work is set in an imagined 19th century mixed-race community. She offered for our consideration the word “sassy.”

          For her, as a woman of color, she saw negative connotations – such as a person stepping out of a role assigned to her by society.

          The majority of conference participants were white women, and I think we saw a different connotation, one of a woman with spirit and disregard for conventions.

          And finally, could the word ever be used to describe a man?



  1. I wonder if we'll ever come to terms with our history.I don't use the word "sassy" often or at all. It's not a prime descriptor of any woman, I think. Bold, assertive, yes. Sassy slips to the vernacular, and describes a child who is a long way from being a woman. On the other hand, words are wonderful, and they are powerful.

  2. Words are tricky beasts aren't they? Tricky beasts with flexible meanings,some of which change dramatically over time. Nice, gay and trump are three which leap to mind.
    I love words and no, I don't think sassy is a word I would ever use to describe someone who identified as male.

  3. I think we have gone a little overboard with political correctness. As you said, we must look at the time these books were written. And no, the word "sassy" definitely seems feminine to me. Sounds like it was a good time. :-)

  4. completely stupid to redefine books after they are written especially historical fiction. the fact is this country allowed slavery and books, stories have been written that are set in that time period. Gone With The Wind glorifies slavery, a white supremacist tract? how ridiculous! as for 'sassy' definitely a word used to describe women as are many, like shrill. I've never heard a man being described as shrill.

    1. Think of all the literature that would have to be eliminated because they don't echo today's mores!
      Do I hear someone striking a match for book burning?

  5. Interestingly, "sassy" is a word that is often used to describe gay men. And some gay men don't appreciate it! I know one young guy who greatly objects to being classified as the stereotypical "sassy gay friend," a la Jack on "Will and Grace." (He IS a bit sassy, though, I must say.)

    As for GWTW, I completely agree that it (like many works of literature) should be seen as a product of its time. Margaret Mitchell was a southern writer; how can we expect her perspectives on race (especially given the Civil War setting) to be enlightened? And to what degree does that diminish the work? I had a similar discussion with my boss over the book "Cross Creek," by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which some object to because of Rawlings' depictions of black people. I'd hate to see society abandon the book completely, because there are a lot of good things about it.

    1. As a side note, I used to love Will and Grace, but in my humble opinion, the current version is often shopworn and a little irritating. Jack, originally played absolutely brilliantly by Sean Hayes, now just seems a bit sad.


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