Magic & Morphemes: A Conversation with Donna Jo Napoli

By Emma Louise Backe

Donna Jo Napoli is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and the acclaimed author of numerous young adult and children’s books. I grew up on her stories, including Sirena (1998), Spinners (2001), Breath (2003) and Beast (2004), enraptured by her fantastical and historical settings, many of which are set in foreign countries or have folkloric elements. Last week, I had the pleasure to sit down for an interview with Professor Napoli in her Swarthmore office, to discuss her linguistic research, mythology, violence in storytelling and imaginatively inhabiting other cultural worlds.



Emma: So first, just for the people that read our blog, can you tell us a little bit about your research in linguistics and maybe give a little bit of background?

Donna: For many years I did what’s called syntax, which is the analysis of sentence structure and phrase structure and I looked at it very theoretically. You need to present a coherent description of the entire way all the sentences of a language work together, so you need to stick to one language, but I would bounce off talking about other languages, and I used English because here that’s our lingua franca. And I did that for years. Most of my research was on Italian, not on English, in fact I did very little research on English. And then I discovered American Sign Language. I had a student who did her senior thesis on teaching deaf children to read. I knew nothing about it before I agreed to be her mentor, and during that period, since I knew nothing, I had to read everything she read to make sure that she was handling it in a way that was defensible. By the end of the semester a fire was lit under me. I was so interested—it’s an enormous problem. Imagine going to China, having somebody plug your ears so you can’t hear, having somebody talking to you in Chinese but you don’t know Chinese, and you’re expected to learn how to read Chinese. It’s even harder than that, because many deaf children don’t have a firm first language. You have a first language, your first language is really strong and you know what reading is all about. They have no idea what reading is all about, they don’t have a firm first language. To me it’s insanely difficult and I have great admiration and respect for the work that deaf people go through to become literate.

I now do theory work on the structure of sign languages. I do a little bit of syntax, but I also do issues of articulation and more and more of the biomechanics of it, the physics of it, as well as word formation. But I also have gotten a lot into the whole thing of reading and deaf literature, so I work on deaf humor. I’ve co-authored a book on deaf humor and I work on metaphor in sign language literature and I write materials, I create materials, they’re e-books that have videos in them. I create materials with a partner at Gallaudet University—which is the only university in the world for deaf people—and we’re trying to make these materials to help deaf people learn how to read.

Emma: And I know from reading your scholarship you’re very interested in social justice and in linguistic rights.

Donna: Yes, I do a lot of advocacy work for the language rights of deaf children. We have a lot of incredibly wonderful parents out there who adore their children, but who are told when their child is born, “Don’t give them sign language, because then they’ll never learn how to speak.” That’s completely false. They need sign language, they need a visual language, that’s a natural thing for them. That gets them on their feet as to what language is all about. They want to know what the hearing world is doing, so if they understand what language is all about, they have a better chance of connecting to spoken language. Deaf children’s ability to read is positively correlated with their ability to sign. Children who have no signing typically have very poor literacy skills and in general they’re people who have very poor language skills. So I do a lot of advocacy work. I have a team. We write mainly addressing doctors, trying to get them to change the way they advise parents of deaf children. But we’ve also written in a legal journal about establishing the right to language. We are now trying to write something for a medical education journal, trying to get medical education from med school through residencies in pediatrics and otolaryngology to know that speech does not equal language. Speech is just one kind of language and that the child needs language first, and then you hope that you can get them to develop some speech skills so they can manipulate comfortably in a hearing world. So we’re trying to get information and continuing medical education all across the board in the institution of teaching medicine to add information that helps deaf kids.

If you didn’t have language, if you didn’t understand language, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that you are excluded from humanity. It’s what makes us human beings. So it’s important that doctors should know this.x9655

Emma: One of my favorite articles of yours that I’ve read was on linguistics as a tool for teaching fiction writing. You have this great quote where you say, “Language in a story should not call attention to itself; it should serve the vicissitudes and necessities of the story line; it should be the skeleton that allows the body of the story to walk around” (2005:211). I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how your study of linguistics has complemented your fiction.

Donna: I think they have. When I write, I speak out loud. Maybe that’s just my habit. I tend to think that I do it because I’m writing largely for people for whom reading might not necessarily be easy—it could be a chore, even for high school people it can be a chore. And given that, I want my language to ring as true to my own ear as possible. So when I read out loud, if I am reading a sentence and I realize, “Oh, I need a different intonation on that sentence in order to make sense out of it, I need to start over,” I call that a garden path sentence. I’ll just cut it and rewrite it in a way so that you never have to read a sentence twice in order to know what it means. When I have people talking with each other, I try to make it ring true to my ear again. But the way people actually talk to each other, if you were to map that into a novel, it would be very boring. We start over a lot, we repeat a lot, we have a lot of fillers. These things are boring. So you have to kind of pull those things out. But you do need to write questions and answers in fragment style, and you need to know how to speed things up and slow things down and you need to understand the rhythm of a dialogue that has an argument in the middle of it, as opposed to the rhythm of a dialogue where somebody is trying to cajole someone. Different dialogues have different kinds of rhythms and I am very aware of that from my linguistics. So I think those things help me.

The most connection, I think, is just that as Americans, we live here in this gigantic and fabulous country where, if we want to go as a tourist somewhere, we can still go very far away and be within our own country speaking English. But basically we don’t have to have a lot of contact with other languages if we don’t want to. But our society is changing. More and more people in our society, when they move here, are holding onto their heritage language. We used to get rid of it fast—be American, it’s the melting pot! But now we’re recognizing that it’s very useful, it’s very wonderful, it’s cognitively exciting, and I mean that in a biological way. You’re just smarter if you’re using more than one language. You see different things in a more complex way than someone who is monolingual. Not everything are you smarter in, but a number of things you are literally smarter in. So it’s exciting cognitively and it’s beautiful culturally. I know not all my readers are going to have a chance to be in a community with other people speaking other languages all the time, so I try to bring them that in my books. When my book is set in Italy, there will be a lot of Italian words scattered through it. If it’s set in China, there will be a lot of Chinese words—well depends where in China. I just want to remind my reader all the time that even though it’s written in English, these people are speaking in German or Greek or Swahili or whatever. And that’s part of my kind of proselytizing for linguistics, for multilingualism.

Emma: That’s a great segue for another question of mine. A lot of your work is set in other countries: The Magic Circle (1993), Beast (2004), Bound (2006). This is a two-part question. How does imagining the language of another culture shape the syntax? And the second question is what kind of research do you do when placing a book in a different setting? Because there are so many debates within anthropology and within the study of other cultures of appropriation vs. appreciation, so how do you manage that when you imagine yourself into the shoes of someone who lives a completely different life than you?

Donna: So let me handle them separately. With respect to the language, I never try to mimic anything about the syntax that they’re really speaking, because I’m writing in English. However, I try to let the language reflect, as much as I can, the particular culture of the particular person. So if my person is a very simple, uneducated person whose work is perhaps with their hands, I’m going to keep their language very direct. I’m not going to have fancy words in there that would suggest an education that is foreign to them. On the other hand, if they are a very well educated person who probably reads poetry every day, I’m going to have very intricate language and very highfalutin words. So the language of Beast for example is very different from the language of Bound. The two main characters are really different from one another. One is a peasant girl and the other is prince. One is a peasant girl in a place where almost no one had any education. And the other one is a prince in a place where the elite had a very fabulous education. He spoke at least six languages. He spoke Farsi because it was the language of his people; he spoke Arabic because it was the language of his religion; he spoke Latin because without it you couldn’t do business with Europeans; he spoke French because without it you couldn’t make friends with Europeans; he spoke Turkish because that was his enemy’s language; he spoke some languages of India because he had to do work with people from India. So he spoke a lot of languages and if you just look at the miniatures, the artwork from the early periods in Persia, it’s so intricate and so I made my language very intricate. So no, my language in no way approximates the language that they’re speaking, but I hope to use style as part of character and culture.

7929923With respect to learning about the other place, there are two issues here. One kind of issue arises when you’re talking about a contemporary story. And a different issue arises when you’re telling a story in history. So if I set a story in the 1380s in the XianXi province in the North of China and I am not Chinese, what does that mean? I went and I taught in China in the summer of 1997 and I read books about China for six years before I started writing that story [Bound]. But a person who lives in China, you ask them, “Here in China, in the 1380s, what was their life like?” Well they don’t more about that than I know about here, this part of Pennsylvania, who was living here in 1380, what was their life like, unless I studied it. So I have as much a chance of understanding that culture as they do if there are materials available to me in English or in a language that I can read. I lose out on anything that’s in the culture that has persisted through hundreds of years, through the centuries. There will always be things I’m wrong about. But I think anyone doing historical fiction will always be wrong about certain things—it’s just built into working on historical fiction.

People will say, “You’re not a twelve-year-old black boy, you’ve never been a twelve-year-old black boy. How on earth can you have the right to a story where the main character is a twelve-year-old black boy?” But I’ve also written stories about a middle-aged frog and I write stories about a newborn swan. I do my research, I try as hard as I can to understand something. I interview people. I get people who are from the group that I’m writing about to read it and get some feedback. But, you know, somebody writes about the Italian-American experience. Well it may not be my experience, and I’m an Italian-American. It may not be my experience at all. We’re individuals. Yes we’re part of our community but our community is very varied. And there are many of our communities around the country.

I just think that my job as a writer is to imagine the other position, to try to climb inside the other body.

Emma: In a lot of your books, you take the perspective of the villain of a folktale or a fairy tale. You make them not only sympathetic, but the reader completely empathizes with them and you get to see the way that their characterization in these fairy tales was perhaps unfair. I was wondering why you think these fairy tales are important. There’s been a lot of theory by people like Bettelheim and other theorists about the importance of fairy tales and your emphasis on re-telling these stories. Why do you think they’re so evocative and what draws readers to them?

Donna: I don’t read Bettelheim. I don’t read anybody’s analysis of fairy tales because I want to write non-analytically, non-intellectually. I want to follow the emotional core of my story. It’s not that I’m being anti-intellectual—it’s just that when I write, I’m a different person than when I’m a linguist, and I try to keep those different parts of my brain as separate as I can. So for me writing fairy tales is a very simple answer, actually—fairy tales, folk tales, myths, religious stories, I put them all in the same basket. I feel like all those stories, they have stood the test of time. I think the reason why is that they deal with the questions that we all deal with. Fairy tales deal so much with evil. They deal with evil from within—you just turn into a witch because you did something—or evil from without—the giant that’s coming after you. And they always make you have to face, “What would I do? How much would I be willing to give up in order to be a decent person?” That question’s always going to be with us. And, in fact, I think that question is going to become more important for future generations where your ability to do so many more things is going to be robust. Your decisions about what kind of genetic changes you’re willing to consider in yourself and your children and your unborn children. I really think the ethical issues we’re going to be faced with would be baffling to the most involved ethicists around and ordinary people are going to be making these decisions all the time about their own lives. And how do we do it? How do we do these things? So part of my job, the reason I don’t just let villains be the bad guys—most of the time, particularly if the evil rises within us, if we are turned into a witch—the reason I don’t do that is that I think that often when we do reprehensible things, we feel like we didn’t have a choice. How does a person get to that place?

I hope to develop some empathy in my readers for how hard it is to make the right decisions.

Emma: One thing that I’ve always loved about your books and that I love about fairy tales and the folktales is that they’re very dark. There’s always a very violent, dangerous undercurrent, and your stories don’t shy away from that. They confront these dark elements that are very much a part of the stories. But a lot of people have cleansed or sanitized fairy tales, especially the Brothers Grimm. You read the original Perrault, and in the original story, the stepsisters cut off their heels and their toes to fit into the shoe, and the shoe becomes very bloody. There’s a very gory element to that.1182815

Donna: I think that, as you say, readers respond to it. The things that you fear, it’s so wonderful to see someone confronting them in a story. Even if they’re not your fears, they’re just as bad, maybe even worse. Which is wonderful when they confront it and they survive. I don’t know what kind of favor we’re doing to children to sanitize everything. But I have been very severely criticized for not sanitizing. There are people who feel like my stories are not appropriate for children. I think they are.

Emma: Can you elaborate more on why that confrontation with the violence and the darkness is appropriate for kids?

Donna: I don’t know if you ever remember having nightmares as a kid, but a lot of kids do. I don’t really know what dreams are about, but if dreams are working through fears, a lot of kids have fears. And kids develop all kinds of little habits to have power. It’s like the old thing of don’t step on a crack on the sidewalk. You develop these rituals because you feel safer if you can control things and they can be predictable. Which I think all adds up to the scary stuff that you’re trying to fight against, to try to pretend that the scary stuff isn’t there. I think kids are not stupid. I think kids know the scary stuff is there. I think kids hear their parents cry, they may hear them fight, they may get a glimpse of a headline of a war where 124 people died in Palestine in the last 24 hours, many of them children. They may read that. Even if nobody at home wants to talk about it, even if they’re too young to talk about it at school, it’s there. There’s so much information that comes to you incidentally. You overhear people talking, just a flash of something on the television before somebody thinks to turn it off because you’re in the room. All these things add up and there’s this unknown, scary stuff going on. If you can read about scary stuff and the person who’s in the middle of that scary stuff is someone that you can understand to the point where you can imagine being that person, and you manage to get through it, well then that’s not so scary. I think we want so much to protect our children that we forget that children are very vulnerable and they know it. There’s no sense in which they don’t know it.



Napoli is currently working on a collection of Norse mythology for National Geographic and a new young adult mystery set in Italy about poison.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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