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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Full Transcript From Q&A with Donna Jo Napoli

Below is the full transcript of Carrie Compton’s interview with the versatile linguistics professor/author.


Professor Donna Jo Napoli discusses her two passions: linguistics and fiction writing. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

Talk about your time at Trinity over the summer—what you were able to do over there?

Trinity College–Dublin opened up a new building called the Long Room Hub just a few years ago. The Long Room is the gigantic old library room upstairs from [where] the Book of Kells [is housed]. The Long Room Hub is meant to be a humanities center, bringing together people from all areas of the humanities. They run conferences, special events, special demonstrations, workshops, and they now have research fellows come—but you’ve got to be invited by at least two units. The whole idea is integration—that the people who go there will be bringing together the different areas of the humanities—for people to blend different approaches to the same issue.

I was invited [as a Long Room Hub Fellow] by linguistics, which actually isn’t in humanities; it’s in social sciences at Trinity … but the Center for Deaf Studies does a lot on culture, so it is considered humanities enough to make a proposal; They invited me and the Oscar Wilde Centre for Creative Writing in the School of English invited me.

It’s the first time I’ve ever gone anywhere where I’ve been treated like a whole person. Because when I’m here at Swarthmore, I am a linguist—that’s who I am. When I’m elsewhere in the world, I’m either a linguist or a writer. At Trinity, I worked closely with people on deaf studies, on issues of literacy and language rights for deaf children, and I visited the school for the deaf and worked with parent organizations, parents of deaf newborns or newly deafened small children. I also worked with three professors on a theoretical linguistics paper that involves Irish Sign Language—a semantics paper, so it’s theoretical linguistics, but it’s connected with sign language. And I wrote a novel. I was very busy, and it was fantastic.

Is there a way outside of this unique fellowship where you can marry the two disciplines? Do you ever find a synthesis between the two?

I have been offered twice to teach in MFA programs in writing, and I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about trying to see if I can work out something with Swarthmore where I taught less here and divided my time that way, but you know … I really love linguistics, and I think that a divided life in terms of two masters is complicated, so I am just sticking with what I have.

Do you ever consider yourself one more than the other? Do you find it to be perfectly divided?

Oh, it’s not perfectly divided; I go through different periods. I went through a period of many years when my writing mattered to me much more than my linguistics. But then I became involved in Deaf issues and for the past decade I’ve spent far more time on linguistics than on writing. When I do research on Deaf issues, there are potentially many people who might be affected—and that’s very gratifying. Linguistics is a wonderful field. I’m completely fascinated by it, but it’s a very theoretical field. When you write a paper, maybe there are 100 other people in the world who care about what you wrote. And sometimes you can write something that appeals to more people en masse, so maybe 5,000 people will read it. It’s a tiny little thing that you’re doing, and that’s how academia is often. You’re all these little cogs in the wheel, and every cog is needed, and I understand that, but when you write a novel you get lots of mail from kids like, “When my parents got divorced, I thought I couldn’t make it without your book.” It sounds ridiculous, but it makes you feel like you matter. You’re touching lives, lots of lives. You sell 100,000 books—that’s a lot of people. And if it’s in a library, you don’t know how many people are checking it out.

It’s a lot of people to potentially be talking to. And that is very attractive, very seductive, and I have enjoyed that a lot.

But then I got involved in Deaf issues. The thing about working on sign language, or working on the language of any people who are highly oppressed, and deaf people historically are highly oppressed people, is that you cannot work in a totally academic way. You have to give back to the community—get involved. Because I work on literature for children, I’ve gotten involved in advocacy work for the language rights of deaf children, bringing me into a whole new area of linguistics.

I do a lot of publishing now that is really, really important to me. I publish in medical journals, trying to convince doctors that the way they advise parents of deaf newborns and newly deaf small children needs to be revised. And as you become friends with the people in the community, you watch them saying more interesting things and it leads to more linguistics papers. So, at the moment, I’m deeply, deeply involved in linguistics. I’m still doing creative writing and I always hope to be doing creative writing, but at the moment its a little bit more linguistics. It ebbs and flows, but they feed each other. When I’m writing fiction, for example, the little novel I worked on this summer—the main character is Irish, so she’s speaking Old Irish, which is a Celtic language. She’s stuck in Jutland in 900 A.D., the natives are speaking Old Norse, a clergyman goes through speaking Latin, and of course the story’s written in English. I bring in sentences and words from all three of the languages, because I think it’s really important for kids to feel like the world is not just English. English has become the linguistic bully of the world, and I try to do my linguistic thing there—bring the reality of other languages to children. I guess my fiction writing doesn’t feed my linguistics, but my linguistics certainly feeds my fiction writing.

I think a lot of people would like to be writers, would like to write more, and are interested in the general writing process. What do you struggle with the most as a writer?

Two things: One is finding the time to write all of the things I want to write. Kids will say to me, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ And I understand it when a kid asks me, because kids sit in a classroom, and the teacher says, ‘OK, tonight go home and write a poem about whatever,’ or ‘You have to write a short story this week.’ They’re told they have to do it. But whenever adults ask me, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I want to say, ‘What do you think this is all about?’ It’s not like somebody’s told me I have to write. I desperately have things I want to tell people, and so I’m never at a loss for what to write a story about. The question is just which story am I going to write now? And when do I find the time?

The other hard thing is second drafts. I love first drafts. First drafts go very quickly for me. I do a lot of research, because I’m usually setting my story in some other time and place, so I have to learn a lot—that’s a lot of fun. I write my first draft kind of quickly, and I just let things happen, follow it wherever it goes. I’ll have a terrible first draft, but there it is, and I can always make it better.

The second draft is where a lot of that hard work comes in. There’s a difference between being a writer writing for yourself and being a writer writing for yourself and strangers. If you want to write for strangers, then you have to edit as well as write, and second drafts require very intellectual forming, shaping. You have a character that you love, but that character doesn’t make the story go forward—in a children’s book, you have to get rid of that character. In an adult book, maybe you can indulge yourself, because adult readers are not learning about the aesthetics of a book. But for a child, you’re teaching about the aesthetics of a book, and you have no right putting in anything extraneous. Your story should be very, very tight.

Second drafts are hard. It’s a different kind of creativity, and I enjoy it less. But after that, third drafts, however many drafts, I always have fun with them.

Lots of writers talk about the difficulty involved in making bad things happen to their protagonists or the characters that they love. Is that a struggle for you as well?

No, it’s not. I love misery and I love writing about misery; lots of times misery will be the foundation for a character’s growth in one of my stories. I have very dreadful things happen to my characters, and it’s not a problem for me at all. Sometimes people feel that that’s inappropriate in children’s books, but I don’t.

There’s a scholar of fairy tales at Harvard, Maria Tatar—she’s just a lovely, terrific woman. She and I have been on many panels together, and she’s still angry with me for having the main character in one of my books die. The character dies in the last line of the book. She feels that in a children’s book that’s not kosher, and I think it is.

One of my personal pet peeves is when people say, ‘Oh, you liked that book? I hated it. It was so depressing.’ Or, ‘Oh, what’s the premise? That sounds depressing. I’m not interested.’ What do you say when people say that to you?

Well, I think that’s fine—we all have different things that we enjoy. An awful lot of the things that other people love, I don’t like.

There’s a children’s book—I will say this only because the author’s dead, and the author was famous, and was a brilliant writer, and so there’s no way that I’m hurting anyone to say it—but there’s a book by Shel Silverstein called The Giving Tree. Teachers love it, parents love it, some children love it. I think it’s an awful, terrible book. It’s about abusing your mother. It’s one of the most misogynistic books I’ve ever seen.

So, that notion of just taking and taking and taking …

Yes … and doing a lot of hideous things while you’re doing it. What a hideous thing to teach a child to do, you know?


But, anyway, people love it and if they love it, that’s fine.

You recently gave a TEDx speech at the conference and you talked about the value of children being exposed to terrible things through literature. Could you recap your argument for me?

My argument was: When you read about something dreadful and the character is coping with it—you learn some things. You learn that lots of people are coping with things, and you learn some coping strategies. So, if you’re a person who has a lot of difficulties in your life, even if the character in that book doesn’t have the same difficulties that you have, just seeing that character deal with it can keep you from feeling sorry for yourself—can make you understand that there might be lots of other people around you who are having problems, but they’re keeping it silent. It can show you one way that this character has dealt with it, and maybe it will help you to find a way to deal with your world. And if you’re not having problems in your life, if your biggest problem is that you can’t get your mom to put out the money for a pair of shoes you want, if you’re a relatively pampered person, it’s really good for you to see that not everybody is and to develop empathy for other people. Besides, the chances are that you’re not going to be pampered always. Most of us don’t lead charmed lives; most of us have to cope at different points. So, that’s my argument. It’s good for you to read about terrible things.

Do you try to have something terrible happen in every single book?

No, no. I write lots of funny books too. And I write mystery books. I write all kinds of things. For some reason it’s my books about terrible things that tend to get more praise and awards.

Why do you think that is?

Did you ever read the book Holes?

No … They made a Disney movie of it, didn’t they?

Yes, and it’s a fantastic book. It has a lot of misery in it, but it’s also a funny book in a lot of ways. It’s a lot of different things. Louis Sachar, the writer of that book, wrote the Wayside School stories. They are hilarious. They are just wonderful, wonderful books. And he never won awards for them, but then he writes a book with some misery in it, and he wins an award. We tend to think of humor as not being that important, whereas I think humor is fantastically important—it’s one of our big ways of coping, particularly with things that are unpleasant like bullies, like humiliation. Not too many books that are funny win awards. It’s a pity.

Talk a little bit about how Swarthmore and the general culture here has informed your career:

Swarthmore changed my life a lot. I didn’t start here. I taught at Smith College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then Georgetown University, and eventually at the University of Michigan, where I went through the ranks—where I went from assistant to associate to full professor. I was a full professor when I came here, but everywhere else I had been I worked as a syntactician working on Italian. The first year I was here, I had to teach phonetics and phonology, syntax—which is my field—semantics, and morphology. I taught across the board. It was a very interesting experience. It was like being back in graduate school, because I had to get myself up to date in all those other fields that I hadn’t been reading about for years.

It was fantastic because many of those fields had had advances in them that made them so much more wonderful. In fact, if I had started graduate school in the late ’80s instead of in 1970, I would have been a phonologist, because what was going on in phonology when I had to teach it and get informed about it again was so much more beautiful than what had been going on when I was a graduate student. It really changed me a lot as a linguist. I had to become a general linguist, and now, of course, we’ve built [the department] up. We have so many people here now. We still need a sociolinguist very badly, but we really have a lot of people. We don’t have to teach things that we’re not specialists in anymore. But it’s been good for me, because I had to teach across the board for quite awhile when I first got here, so I became informed across the board.

And now when I work on sign language, sign language is not as clearly or cleanly divisible into components as spoken language. Spoken language is only somewhat divisible into components—the sounds of language are different from the meaningful parts of words, which is different from how you throw words together to make sentences, which is different from meaning, from the individual word to the sentences—and all those different things, you can talk about them separately. But in sign languages, you’re constantly dealing with all the different components of the grammar, and I don’t know if I could have done that if I had stayed working in the universities, where I would have been a syntactician for my whole life.

Swarthmore has changed me, and because I love what I’m doing, I’m really glad that Swarthmore changed me in that way. I’m very lucky.

Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you would like to touch on?

I loved Ireland. I really loved it. It’s a place where someone will say to you, ‘Take this trail through the woods, along that cliff, it’s magical.’ And they’ll say things like that because they believe it, and it’s just wonderful. It is a very magical place. It’s a place where just about anybody you talk to may have written a poem that week, or is writing a short story, or is a painter, or is a musician. Lots of people are musicians. It’s a place where the arts are really respected and not at all considered the realm of the elite. You don’t have to be brilliant or inspired to be in the arts. You just have to enjoy it. You go into a pub and people will be singing, and playing music. And if you enjoy it you can bring your instrument next time. And people do! I loved it. I feel like America … you were saying so many people would like to write, I think a lot of people in America are closet writers. You don’t admit you write, because—it’s like when you’re in kindergarten and you paint a picture, and you’ll put it on the wall, or on the refrigerator or wherever and everybody who comes to your house has to tell you, ‘Oh! What a beautiful painting.’ When you’re in fourth grade and you do a poem, your parent might send it to everybody she knows on the Internet, but when you’re 40 and you write a poem, people think you’re deluded. And it’s just a terrible thing that we do. Why are we not allowed to write poems our whole lives long? Why are we not allowed to paint, or do ceramics, or dance? I’m a dancer, and I’m 64 years old. I dance. I take classes here—Modern 1, well, Modern 2 and 3. I don’t do it well, but so what? It’s the pleasure of it. And that’s what I love about Ireland. People in Ireland dance; everybody dances. Irish dancing is very welcoming, participatory.

Did you forge any new long-term professional contacts while you were there?

Yes. I’m very close to [Noam] Chomsky. I really love him. When he heard I was going to Dublin, he put me in touch with Maria Baghramian, a philosopher and teacher at University College–Dublin, and we became tight friends. That was marvelous. I also became very good friends with the director of the Center for Deaf Studies, and who is going to come here next academic year, as our Visiting Cornell Professor—so that’s lovely. I became really good friends with poet Catherine Cullen. She’s just a lovely poet. Three good friends in three months? That’s pretty nice.

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