This is one of the most extraordinary stories Stone Soup has published in its long history. This activity focuses on how to effectively use non-standard English to define your character. “My Country and the Way to America” is a difficult story to read. It describes awful situations in which people die. The story is best read with an adult. If you are not familiar with the Vietnam War and the so-called “Boat People” who fled the country in the years following it, then please also read this introduction to that war before reading the story.
Project: Using non-standard English to define your character.
Huong had something to say. Despite the fact that she didn’t know English well at the time she wrote this story, she said what was burning in her heart with the words and grammatical skills in her possession.
Huang’s story is written in what we call non-standard English. In other words, it is full of grammatical “errors.” But, in this case, the grammatical errors contribute to the effectiveness of the story. The language in which the story is written lacks many of the small connector words that we usually use when we speak or write English. The verb tenses are also not always correct. But, in this story, these “errors” focus our attention on the actions that are most important, giving the prose an incredible sense of rawness and urgency.
“After three days or four days out the ocean, the boat have a hole and the water coming,” conveys the isolation and fear that overwhelms this boatload of people stuck in a sinking boat in the South China Sea more effectively than a perfectly written sentence would have.
In the case of Huong’s story, her unusual way of writing English makes her story all the more memorable and, as a work of literature, all the more effective. This story was written in 1985. In 2017, as I write this, children and families are once again fleeing in small boats from wars and mistreatment. This time, these frightening, and often fatal, voyages are taking place in the Mediterranean Sea as people flee the wars of Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan and trouble in other countries, such as Eritrea. Huong’s story brings the reality of the boat trip alive to us in a way that news articles do not.
How can you use this idea of non-standard English? For most writers, it is in writing dialogue that non-standard English is most useful as a literary tool. I suggest two projects. In one, create a character whose English is almost normal, but has a few small quirks that makes it unique. Once you have mastered a character with a few eccentric turns of phrase, write a story in which the whole story is told through a character whose language, like that Huong, is different from normal. If you choose a very young child as your character, then that story might explore the difference between what the child can say and what the child can see and understand.
To prepare for these projects, listen carefully to how people talk. Listen to people talking the way you listen to music.
For teachers, you might refer to William Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury ” for a sense of how an adult writer uses non-standard English for expressive intent.