In honour of International stuttering awareness day I would like to recommend one of my favourite books; Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of 13 months in the life of 13-year old Jason Taylor. Like David Mitchell, Jason is a stammerer, a fact which he wants to hide at all cost. What this book made me realize is how an apparent defect, like stammering, can have the future benefit of bestowing upon the stammerer the gift of an extensive and varied vocabulary. How this happens becomes clear in a passage where Jason explains that to avoid falling into the trap of stammering you have to
“think one sentence ahead, and if you see a stammer-word coming up, alter your sentence so you won’t need to use it. Of course, you have to this without the person you’re talking to catching on. Reading dictionaries like I do helps you do these ducks and dives, but you have to remember who you’re talking to. (If I was speaking to another thirteen-year-old and said the word ‘melancholy’ to avoid stammering on ‘sad’ for example, I’d be a laughing stock, ’cause kids aren’t s’posed to use adult words like ‘melancholy’…)”.
It is suddenly clear how David Mitchell became a master of many voices. Constantly having to use synonyms and altering one’s vocabulary to suit the audience is a perfect recipe for learning how to write in any voice one wishes to employ. And this is something David Mitchell has a particular talent for (so much so that he has been criticized for not having a style of his own).
Mitchell’s talent for adopting several styles, which is the most obvious in the Booker Prize shortlisted Cloud Atlas, is also clear in Black Swan Green. The story is told in the language of a 13-year-old boy in the 80’s. “Moron is my height and he’s ok but Jesus he pongs of gravy” writes Jason about his best friend. Interspersed with the language of a typical boy of that age is the voice of the secret Jason, the one who dreams of being a writer. “Run across a field of daisies at warp speed but keep your eyes on the ground. It’s ace. Petalled stars and dandelion comets streak the green universe.” Blending poetic language and the thoughts of a 13-year old is no mean feat but Mitchell manages it superbly. In addition to being beautifully written this is an incredibly touching and funny coming-of-age story and I recommend it highly.
I will end this post with an anecdote about a friend of my mother’s who was not a stammerer but who could not pronounce the letter ‘r’ (the rolling ‘r’ of Finnish). He became an expert at hiding his defect and hid it successfully, even from his wife, until one day she asked him why he had never told her he loved her. He had to confess that he had avoided the word ‘rakastan’ (I love) because of his defect.
For more information about David Mitchell’s relationship with stammering I recommend his article Let me speak on the website of the British Stammering Association and the interview on the same website. He has also written an essay about the movie The King’s Speech which deals with the issue.