Some writers spend years crafting a signature narrative voice—a cadence as distinctive as the characters they write about. Then there are the writers who try to sound like other people. Tania James, the author of The Tusk that Did the Damage, is attracted to novelists who method-act their way into strange, unfamiliar modes of expression. James says Peter Carey’s Booker-winning The True History of the Kelly Gang—written as a single long letter composed by a 19th-century Australian outlaw—taught her about how to speak convincingly in an adopted tongue.
The Tusk That Did the Damage is itself a narrative tour de force: James channels three starkly contrasting voices to explore the bleak sphere of South Indian elephant poaching. Two of her speakers are human: James writes in turns as Manu, an impoverished young man tempted by the illegal ivory trade, and an American documentarian making a film on elephants orphaned by poachers. The third, eerie voice channels the perceptions of The Gravedigger, a traumatized bull elephant that survived a brutal poaching raid as a cub. He stalks the forests like a tusked Moby Dick, exacting lethal revenge on the humans who hunt him.
Tania James is the author of a story collection, Aerogrammes, and the novel Atlas of Unknowns. Her short stories have appeared in Granta, A Public Space, and The Boston Review. She spoke to me by email and phone.
Tania James: I remember taking a writing workshop with the brilliant Nathan Englander, who recommended that we read Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang. For some reason, it took me years to pick it up. Luckily, it found me at just the right moment—years later, somewhere in the early phase of writing my most recent book.
I was trying to write from the first-person perspective of a poacher, from a fictitious village in southern India. Maybe it was the weight of the subject matter: The novel concerns a violent wild elephant who keeps raiding the farms around a wildlife park. But this voice—the poacher’s voice—kept sounding to me sort of flat, fraught, humorless.
It’s tough to translate regional humor and idiosyncracy across languages, or even dialects, and onto the page. It’s hard enough to clear the hurdles of culture and language. But, in The Kelly Gang, Peter Carey somehow leaps over those hurdles as he invents a language for the legendary Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. Kelly is writing a record of his life for his unborn daughter; it’ll serve as testimony against his infamous reputation as a murderer and outlaw. We know from the outset he is doomed, and so there’s an insistence and urgency to the writing, a momentum carried forward by wave upon wave of run-on sentences.
Here is young Ned Kelly, describing a hideout:
Then he struck his lucifer upon his shoe and the dreadful looking hole were thus illuminated it were airless with the sour evidence of mice who have found food and blankets and think themselves in a position to begin a family.
I realize I’m plopping you down in the middle of the book, when this is the sort of language that demands a gradual wading-in. That wading process allows the reader to learn how to digest all these run-ons and abbreviations and prudish omissions. (He’s writing to his daughter, so there’s a lot of “adjectival” in place of curse words. But what an invention—adjectival!) And yet after a few pages of this, the run-ons gain a propulsive momentum, a fluidity, and there’s a pleasure to reading these sentences that’s not unlike the pleasures of gaining fluency in a new language.
There’s something thrilling about watching a writer invent a new lexicon before your eyes. Though I appreciate authors who use a consistent voice in their work—it’s one reason you return again and again to their books—I find myself drawn to writers who immerse themselves in unfamiliar worlds and experiment with voices not their own.
I often find myself employing that same strategy in my own fiction. Adopting an unfamiliar perspective helps you observe the world in fresh, revealing ways—helps you see things you might never have glimpsed through your own eyes.
Of course, it’s risky to try to sound like someone so far outside your own context. A lack of authorial confidence can come across in the writing. And then there’s the danger of introducing a clinical distance between yourself and your character. Running every observation or insight through an intellectual filter—what would a person like this one say or do?—can have a deadening effect. This impulse begins as an attempt to legitimize the characters, but ends up dumbing them down.
There’s also a temptation to over-focus on the cultural details: unfamiliar customs, exotic details, the clothes people wear. The things, in other words, that seem interesting to us as outsiders. But part of establishing point of view is knowing what to omit. (One of the hallmarks of bad historical fiction is describing everyday details with the sociologist’s eye.) We have to be willing to present the readers with vocabulary or details they aren’t prepared to understand when the characters themselves would not explain it.
This is one of many reasons I admire Junot Diaz’s fiction; he never italicizes non-English words. Italicization would make those words doubly foreign or doubly unfamiliar, when actually they’re second nature to the character. To highlight these words would be a betrayal of point of view.
Besides, the reader usually doesn’t need things to be spelled out, highlighted, or explained. I see proof of this in another brilliant Carey moment—here is Kelly, being given the boxing trunks that he’s supposed to wear for his first fight:
Rogers took the silk trunks from my hand and held them against himself but if he were intending to make the garment appear more manly then he failed. He looked a poon.
What is a “poon?” I don’t know for sure, but I do know it’s the perfect word for the occasion. And again, there’s that unexpected sense of recognition, in spite of or maybe because of a colloquialism I don’t completely understand. A moment like this is instantly humanizing; Kelly immediately wins my sympathies.
Moments like these were instructive to me, as I set out to write from the perspective of a poacher (or would-be poacher), the sort of profession that attracts a whole lot of judgment. Reading The Kelly Gang gave me the permission to be looser, more playful with the poacher’s voice, in spite of his grim circumstances. And Carey reminded me that when characters speak with the irreverence that comes naturally to them, they’re brought into sharper relief.
Return for a second to those squatting mice: it almost seems like a throwaway, but this is one of those moments when we can see the narrator’s wit at work. I read a line like this and I think, you may be an Australian outlaw but on the basis of that image alone—of defiant mice with blankets up around their chins—you are my kind of people.
So, in order to move beyond my preconceived notions about a certain character type, I realized I needed to focus on what brought that individual person’s voice to life. I stopped asking the question “What would a poacher be like?” and started thinking about language, especially its capacity for humor and playfulness. I am somewhat fluent in Malayalam, having grown up with that language, but I don’t quite know it well enough to know all the idioms. That was the challenge: trying to write someone who had a facility with the language that went beyond my own. So I thought about my grandmother, and all the strange, wonderful idioms she uses. An example: When something was too salty, she’d exclaim “son of salt!” It seems so strange, but of course American idioms—like “it was raining cats and dogs”—were just as odd to her. So I tried to incorporate the things she used to say to me, and challenged myself to use them in the casual, off-hand way Carey does—“he looked a poon”—without explaining too much. I tried to let idioms grow out of the dialogue and not feel like something I was planting there just to be emphasize regionality. It required a kind of delicacy, like telling a joke without overselling the punch line.
In the process of this, I found myself making up new idioms—some based on American figures of a speech. “I wouldn’t touch her with a ten foot pole,” for instance, became “I wouldn’t touch her with a boatman’s pole.” That’s not something I’ve ever heard someone say, but it emerged organically and seemed plausible for the world I was describing.
It sounds cheesy or maybe a little bit magical—but I think that when a character says something that’s a surprise to you, it’s a sign that things are going well. When a line like “I wouldn’t touch you with a boatman’s pole” comes out of nowhere, I start getting curious. The question for me becomes: What kind of person would say something like that? I love it when—in writing or in reading—a character uses a playful, striking phrase that makes me want to know them better.
For me, the catalyzing moment comes when the character and writer are sort of in sync—when you can imbue them with some aspect of yourself as a writer, as different as they are. From the beginning, my would-be poacher spoke from a place of conviction and passion and anger, but it wasn’t until I accessed these emotions with a bit of irony and sarcasm that he really came alive for me. Once I introduced that wry humor, he started to feel more like an extension of my personality. That’s when I lost the flat feeling I started with. In the beginning, my sentences were less messy, more lyrical, smoother. But until I relaxed and loosened up, the writing didn’t feel inhabited by a real, feeling person.
Maybe what it boils down to is this—there’s the humor that comes from a character’s lack of self-awareness, and then there’s the humor that extends from the character himself. My sense is that the second is harder to pull off than the first, and yet these are the people that walk off the page, and keep on walking long after you’ve finished the book.