The Language of Identity - Novelist A.J. Verdelle's Struggle to Discover Her Inner Voice

By Rendelstein, Jill | The World and I, July 2001 | Go to article overview

The Language of Identity - Novelist A.J. Verdelle's Struggle to Discover Her Inner Voice


Rendelstein, Jill, The World and I


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Language of Identity - Novelist A.J. Verdelle's Struggle to Discover Her Inner Voice
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.