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Michelle Ryan-Sautour, Benaouda Lebdaï et Laurent Lepaludier

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1On the 25th and 26th of November 2005, an international conference on orality in short fiction was organized at the University of Angers, France, bringing together participants from many different countries. Throughout the two days of workshops, the conference members were pleased to be “speaking the same language” as they were able to focus on the theme of oral effects in written literature. Some were pleased to be able to evoke names such as that of Walter Ong, and enter directly into their argumentation without having to set up the theoretical groundwork. Other participants joked about the link between the theme of the conference and the loquaciousness of the group, as the sound level at coffee breaks often reached considerable levels.

2We were also graced by the presence of jazz singer and author, Sandi Russell, who was kind enough to read part of her upcoming novel, Tidewater. In an interview at the end of the conference, she answered questions about the oral and musical dimension of her fiction, and commented on her critical writing about African-American women authors. The transcription of this interview appears at the end of this collection. Sandi Russell also added a musical note to our discussions on orality with her jazz singing performance on the Friday evening of the conference.

3It was a fruitful conference, and the following series of articles is a selection of the papers presented.

4Laurent Lepaludier, in his article, “What is this Voice I Read?: Problematics of Orality in the Short Story” sets up a conceptual framework as a starting point for the study of orality, exploring the dynamics of the relationship between orality and literacy, and examining the forms and effects orality produces in literature. Ultimately, he suggests such research questions could lead to studies of the function of orality, and the issue of orality and the literary canon.

5John Ford, in “In Romance as We Read and as We Hear in Geste : Written Orality in the Medieval Short Story, The Verse Romance’s of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries” studies the transition from an oral to a written tradition, examining in detail the English verse romances. He focuses primarily on the characteristic use of oral formulae such as parataxis, the retention of exhortative direct address and phatic discourse between the narrative voice and the audience, and explores their relationship with the written culture evident in their mise-en-page and numerous literary references. Ford also studies the historical dimension of this tension between literacy and orality and reflects upon its potential effect in contemporary literature.

6Anthony Cordingley, in his article, “The Reading Eye from Scriptura Continua to Modernism: Orality and Punctuation between Beckett's L'image and Comment c'est/ How it is,” proceeds to study the absence of punctuation in Samuel Beckett’s French prose piece, L’image, and explores the oral implications, suggesting that Beckett’s text displays its desire to be heard as sound. Cordingley also studies the implications of the integration of this piece into Beckett’s novel, Commet c’est/ How it Is, in which the rhythmical arrangement organizes sense, and compels the reader to listen in order to understand. Cordingley places a special emphasis on the manner in which the production of an “oral” text within a graphic culture not only requires a departure from graphic conventions of the page, but also from the prosodic rhythms which organize speech within the culture itself.

7Laurence Cossu-Beaumontaddresses the cultural and political dimension of orality in her article on Richard Wright, “Orality in Richard Wright's Short Stories: Playing and Surviving.” Cossu-Beaumont suggests that in Uncle Tom's Children (1938) and Eight Men (1961), orality is not only a means to create verisimilitude for Wright’s portraits of black men and women, but also has the function of a narrative. In reference to Henry Louis Gates Jr., she examines the potential for the vernacular tradition of signifyin(g) to subvert traditional black representations and to alter prejudice in Wright’s fiction. She identifies orality as being not only a central theme of African American life as represented in Uncle Tom’s Children and Eight Men, but also a primary tenet of Wright’s aesthetics and a means of survival.

8Trinna Frever also concentrates her attention on orality in American literature with her study of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing, “ ‘Mah Story Ends, or Does It?’ Orality in Zora Neale Hurston's ‘The Eatonville Anthology’.” Her article analyzes the intersection of oral, musical, dance, and print forms within a short work by the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. Frever argues that “The Eatonville Anthology,” though receiving little critical attention compared to Hurston’s more famous Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a representation of oral-print narrative aesthetics in its own right. She places particular emphasis on Hurston’s creation of a “community narrative” through her use of the oral voice, and on her composition of individually focused texts as a narrative whole.

9A focus on orality and community reappears in Fabienne Garcier’s article, “A Modern Seanachie: Oral Storytelling Structures in Frank O’Connor’s Short Stories.” Garcier explores the implications of orality in relation to the Gaelic-speaking communities of the West of Ireland as represented in Frank O’Connor’s Bones of Contention (1936). In this text, Frank O’Connor observes the issues of conflict and discord in post-independence Ireland from the point of view of the people. Through a study of the public scene and the role of the narrator as traditional storyteller, or seanachie, Garcier studies how the text recreates in writing the empathetic relations between teller and audience, and transforms some specific features of orally based expression such as “double-speak” or discursive structures of oral storytelling such as digressive, alliterative “runs” into written forms of multivocality and dialogism. Garcier also raises the question of O’Connor’s position as mediator between two cultures, oral and written, Gaelic and English.

10Teresa Gibert’s paper, “Written Orality in Thomas King's Short Fiction,” studies the presence of oral patterns of narration characteristic of Native Canadian storytelling in Thomas King’s short fiction. King’s short stories, according to Gibert, establish a constant dialogue between oral and textual traditions that parodies master-narratives and subverts the conventions created by the dominant discourse. Gibert observes Thomas King’s adoption of a style of presentation intended to render the specific nuances of the typical storytellers’ rhythms of speech (e.g. intentional digressions, lists and repetitions, frequent pauses, elision of verbs, extremely brief sentences, punctuation and line breaks that echo storytelling cadences, together with parataxis). She also notes how King’s written orality has become an effective tool of communication in portraying members of today’s thriving Native communities and contributing to the renewal of their identity in contemporary Canada.

11Laurie Kruk links the idea of community to that of family and orality in her article, “Storykeepers: Circling Family Voice in Stories by Thomas King, Alistar MacLeod, Olive Senior and Guy Vanderhaeghe”. According to Kruk, the first-person narrative voices of these writers all reflect notions of family: the idea of “relations” in Thomas King’s tale “A Columbus Coyote Story,” the concept of community of neighbors and bystanders in Olive Senior’s “You Think I Mad, Miss?”, Alistair Macleod’s idea of ancestry in his “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun,” and Guy Vanderhaeghe’s portrait of the contemporary nuclear family in “Cages.” Kruk places special emphasis on how these texts highlight the hybrid nature of communication and reveal different underlying levels of authority/authorization in disrupting the monological voice and testing the boundaries of canonized fiction. Kruk’s work on author interviews as “stories of voice” is also drawn upon to study the rhetorical performance of voice – the construction of a “family of voices” for the author/performer in interview as well as their “voices of family” in fiction.

12The focus on voice is indeed recurrent, as is evident in Denise Ginfray’s article, “Voicing and Voices in Two Australian Short Stories : ‘The Hairy Man’ (Henry Lawson, 1907) and ‘The Curse’ (Katharine Susannah Prichard, 1932).” Ginfray’s article examines two types of fictional narrative and explores their discursive strategies in relation to various aspects of “written orality.” According to Ginfray, the “bush yarn” tradition appears in “The Hairy Man” and its rhetoric aims to voice a sense of national identity. She also studies how Lawson’s story revisits the oral past through a poetics grounded on the presence of vernacular language, on the manipulation of the plot, on the story-teller’s know-how and on his audience’s enjoyment. She also addresses the plastic and acoustic dimension of words in “The Curse” as an innovative piece of poetic prose, and underlines its modernist aesthetics based on the discrepancy between wording and voicing as well as on the vacuity and sense of loss that appears in the interplay of silences and voices.

13The South Pacific appears as well in Heidi van den Heuvel-Disler’s article, “Taking the Performance to the Page: Short Stories from the South Pacific” where she studies the written work of Maori author, Patricia Grace. Heuvel-Disler concentrates on Grace’s use of story-telling techniques and themes that can be traced back to their culture’s oral tradition of pre-contact times. Through a focus on a text fragment as an example of this type of literature, Heuvel-Disler demonstrates how the written word has become instrumental to the storytelling event. She raises the question of who the actors in the event are and how this is reflected in language. Based on Michael Halliday’s framework of social semiotics, Frantz Fanon’s theory on the decolonizing role of the indigenous intellectual, and Walter Benjamin’s description of the storyteller, her paper develops the thesis that in the South Pacific, written texts that contain a substantial amount of traditional storytelling elements can be regarded as markers of cultural continuity.

14Judith Misrahi-Barak examines orality and silence in “‘My mouth is the keeper of both speech and silence…’ , or The Vocalisation of Silence in Caribbean short-stories by Edwige Danticat.” She proposes to go beyond the association of orality in literature with the use of creole, or dialect which is particularly emphasized in the context of the Caribbean, to concentrate on what she calls the interface with the issues of voice and silence. According to Misrahi-Barak, the Haitian English-speaking writer, Edwige Danticat, in her two collections of short-stories, Krik ? Krak ! and The Dew Breaker,brings to the surface of the text the untold history that crushes people, and also uses silence as both a theme and a rhetorical tool. She observes the way Danticat’s written text makes the speaking voice or the silent voice heard, the way it is organized around voice and silence, and how it contributes to turning a narrative of oppression into a narrative of liberation.

15Marie-Annick Montout demonstrates an interest in the Caribbean voice with her article, “The Intrinsic Written Quality of the Spoken Word in Olive Senior's Short Fiction.” Montout explores how Jamaican writer Olive Senior draws upon her daily life in Jamaica to infuse her short stories with the oral Jamaican language. She underlines how the characters and narrators in Senior’s stories, being members of the Jamaican community, are shown to be more apt at transmitting oral traditions and cultural habits inherited from the past. Montout also emphasizes the perfect web created by the author between two different ways of telling stories.

16Timothy Weiss studies the tradition of orality from the perspective of the reader in his article, “Orality and the Reader: Cultural and Transcultural Elements in Achebe's Girls at War.” Weiss points out the rich tradition of orality in Chinua Achebe’s novels and short-story collections, and places particular emphasis on Girls at War (1972). His essay addresses the oral elements of two stories in the collection, “Uncle Ben’s Choice” and “The Sacrificial Egg,” through an approach of reader-oriented and translational theories of interpretation. Weiss observes how fiction with a specific oral dimension is easier to understand, especially for second-language learners, perhaps because of the way in which orality stimulates the readers’ actualization and dramatization of the story. Nevertheless, he notes that orality does not necessarily facilitate reading because of the many kinds of information needed for readers to embody the voice that they hear (or hear it at all). Weiss’s essay attempts to identify the cultural and transcultural aspects of orality in a learner environment where readers do not know very much about the societies and cultures to which the stories refer.

17Despite the different cultures, countries, and historical periods represented in these articles, they all set forth many common themes such as voice, silence, culture, and community, and are therefore suggestive of the far-reaching implications of orality in narrative. Laurent Lepaludier’s article will serve as a conceptual starting point for the reading of these papers which all endeavor to deepen our understanding of how the traditional tension between orality and the written word can take on a variety of forms in the literary text.

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Michelle Ryan-Sautour, Benaouda Lebdaï, Laurent Lepaludier, "Foreword", Journal of the Short Story in English, 47, autumn 2006, 13-18.

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Michelle Ryan-Sautour, Benaouda Lebdaï et Laurent Lepaludier, « Foreword »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 47 | Autumn 2006, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2006, consulté le 05 décembre 2022. URL :

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Michelle Ryan-Sautour

Co-organizers of the conference “Orality in Short Fiction” held in Angers, November 2005.

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Benaouda Lebdaï

Co-organizers of the conference “Orality in Short Fiction” held in Angers, November 2005.

Laurent Lepaludier

Director of the Research Center on the Short Story in English

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