By Rendelstein, Jill
The World and I , Vol. 16, No. 7
Jill Rendelstein is a freelance author and teacher of writing based in Washington, D.C. She is currently working on a novel set in Staten Island.
Although the language in her debut novel, The Good Negress, won it four national prizes and was hailed by Toni Morrison as "truly extraordinary," A.J. Verdelle still remembers when liberating words weren't enough to free her from feeling trapped within herself. During a conversation last winter at a cozy, yet noisy, American University student coffeehouse, the 40-year-old author explained why.
Still frozen from the biting wind outside, we settled down with two steaming cups of tea. Verdelle was fatigued after a night of charming her audience at a literary reading and an afternoon guest-teaching a writing workshop. Since the moment she arrived at the university, it had been nonstop insights, liveliness, and humor--especially when she teased her sister for entering the reading ten minutes late. Verdelle focused her intensely dark eyes and sealed her usually broad smile as she prepared for her next challenge, me. She sighed, wearily, but maintained her energetic and sometimes stream-of-consciousness style of speaking throughout our discussion.
The Good Negress was set in the 1960s and examined the coming-of-age of twelve-year-old Denise Palms. Raised in rural Virginia by her grandmother, she is being uprooted to help rear her mother and stepfather's new child in Detroit. But when Denise begins school in Detroit, she discovers that her rural dialect is language deficient. Her pronunciations, vocabulary, and even her schoolgirl knowledge lack the level of sophistication found in her new surroundings. Yet when teacher Gloria Pearson encourages her education, Denise is met with resistance at every angle. The story explores the power of language and the forces that shape the self.
"It's about claiming your own identity," said Verdelle, tossing her thickly braided hair freely over her shoulders. "How you spell your name is sort of a signal, like how a flag represents a country. But it has repercussions for identity. Denise's name was spelled phonetically- -Deneese--which didn't matter when she was living outside Richmond, Virginia, in a rural area. It was really about how it was pronounced. But in Detroit she starts to understand that she's behind linguistically. She's sort of trapped inside her language."
After delving further into her education, Denise only becomes more confused.
"I'm learnin plenty about this line between the South and the North for the whole country. Missus James say this line is named after two men named Mason and Dixon. Used to be a line about Pennsylvania--that's another state--and then it became a line about South and the slaves. I tell Missus James that I wished I could understand this better. She say don't worry about understandin it cause knowin that there is something peculiar, something to understand, is enough."
Like the Mason-Dixon Line she had to cross, Denise realizes "there is something peculiar, something to understand" about herself. She is caught between two conflicting worlds of languages and cultures, neither of which she is prepared to reject. Verdelle explained that Denise, although craving exposure to new experiences, can't abandon certain cultural aspects of her own background, most of them originating from the nurturing by her grandmother. For Verdelle, it was important and exciting that Denise adopt a spelling of her name by choice instead of decree.
In sharing proud moments with Denise, the author also enjoyed her camaraderie. Taking a careful sip of her still-steaming tea, she recalled how Flip Wilson, one of the first comedians to attempt cross- dressing on television, connected author and character beyond words. "For Christmas one year I got a doll that had Flip Wilson on one side and Geraldine on the other. You pulled a string on the doll and it would say ten or twelve different things, but I only remember one because it affected me so strongly. …