My accent, Calculating Stars, and identity

A friend of mine was listening to the audiobook of Calculating Stars and said that usually when he listens to audiobooks narrated by friends, he’s like, “Oh good, my friend is going to tell me a story.” Listening to Calculating Stars, he said, “There’s this other woman, Elma, and I’m totally invested in her and there was nothing of my friend Mary in there.”

I have a complicated reaction to this.

Professionally, I’m delighted. This means that the character is working as are my voicing choices.

And then this knife stab… “nothing of my friend Mary in there.” See, I narrated that audiobook with a Southern accent. With my Southern accent. Or rather, with what is the closest we’ll likely come to my natural accent.

I don’t know. It was trained out of me. trained it out of me. I was complicit in erasing that part of my identity from my voice.

I was raised in Raleigh, North Carolina — in the Piedmont of the state. The Piedmont North Carolina accent is one of the softer Southern accents to outside ears. We have the diphthong on our vowels, but it’s not a nasal accent and doesn’t twang as much as other parts of the South. We have the soft “r” which sounds more British than the rest of America.

Raleigh is part of the Research Triangle Park, so growing up, I was surrounded by transplants. My parents are from East Tennessee, so have a totally different Southern accent and my mom code-switches like her accent is on a rheostat remote controlled by circumstance. I wasn’t exposed to a great deal of the local Southern accent.

That said, I can’t hear the Piedmont N.C. accent because it just sounds right to me. I still pronounce pin and pen as if they are the same word. But otherwise…

Most of the rest of it is gone. It began as a child. I had a speech impediment, so did speech therapy, which erased one of my accent markers. The soft R. My diction became very precise, with crisp final Ts and final Gs. Sometimes people would ask where I was from in my hometown. 

I remember being proud of that.

I remember being in college at East Carolina and hearing myself begin to pick up the local twang. I remember the horror. I remember reading street signs as I drove to make sure everything was crisp and that there was no Southern in my voice.

Now. As an adult, I know what was happening. I know the role that policing “correct” speech has in reinforcing hierarchies. In the South, each region has at least four distinct accents. Educated white, educated Black, country white, country black. Only one of those is acceptable in a business environment. I’ll let you guess which one.

If you want to leave the South, you’d better have no accent at all.

To do Elma’s voice in Calculating Stars, I basically let my mouth relax. I’ll do it for interviews or on panels and there’s always a laugh. People don’t mean to be laughing at me, I know that. I know it’s the juxtaposition. But the comedy of that juxtaposition is based on this media representation of Southerners as stupid, yokel, rubes… So people laugh. And then I switch back to my “neutral” American accent because some part of me is still embarrased to sound like that. Oh, and just so we’re clear– “neutral” is really a white Midland American accent.

Elma? Elma is what I might have sounded like, if I hadn’t learned to be ashamed of my voice.

So when my friend says, “there’s nothing of my friend Mary in there…” a part of me wants to weep.  Because I’m there. I’m right there. It’s just in the rest of my life that there’s a part of me missing.

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8 Responses

  1. Melissa Robinson

    This really resonates with me. I’m from WV, but in 1980 I spent a much of a year at university in northern England. And I’ve lived in the Philadelphia/NJ area since 1981 and in 1980. Growing up I had the WV accent, not especially strong – the educated one, if you will.. It’s mostly gone now except for the en/in homonym when I’m not concentrating. When I go home, I sound like an outsider. I guess I’m just saying I feel you.

  2. Chris Ogilvie

    I can relate to this.

    On my mother’s side, I’m Acadian – French Canadian from the Maritime Provinces of Canada. My mother and her siblings speak Acadian French (a distinct dialect). My sister and I do not speak French at all, except what Standard Canadian French we picked up in high school. Not enough to be fluent. In one generation, we lost our language and culture.

    There are a number of reasons for this (Mom and Dad moved out of the Maritimes, my sister and I were enrolled in English-language schools), but the one that hurts the most is that Acadian French, and being Acadian, has been looked down on for centuries.

    See, the Acadians were the victims of a program of ethnic cleansing by the British in the mid-1700s (the Expulsion or Le Grand Dérangement). Those who remained in the Maritimes were marginalized. Acadians were poor and rural – my aunt (still living) has memories of growing up without electricity, running water, or flush toilets.

    And that extended to the language, a situation made worse by the fact that Acadian French is not a written language. It’s an oral dialect, or series of dialects.

    This same aunt also remembers being taught French in school. By a teacher who the province had brought in from Quebec. This teacher objected to how my aunt spoke. She told her that her Acadian French was wrong, and that to speak “correctly,” she had to speak Standard Canadian French. This teacher actively tried to obliterate the language in her students.

    And it worked. My aunt, who’s as contrary as I am, said “Fine. You don’t like how I speak French? I’ll speak English from now on.” And she did. She even worked to eliminate her Acadian accent. Today you’d never know she wasn’t born and raised in Toronto.

    I’ve run into this attitude in my own life, too. Just a couple years ago, I took some French classes to try to reconnect with my culture. When I told the teacher I was interested in learning Acadian French, the response I got was “That’s just dialect. I teach French.” Disheartening.

    Sorry to go on, but your story touched a nerve. I imagine this sort of thing is more common, even in the present day, than we realize.

  3. Stephanie

    Accents are such weird creatures. I tend to be an accent sponge – if I spend time speaking with someone with a distinct accent, I start mimicking it unconsciously. As for my “natural” accent, I have no idea. I moved around a bunch (Air Force brat), Mom’s Minnesota/Spanglish accent is hard to hear unless she’s talking to her family, and Dad’s Texas/Colorado mishmash was, well, odd to anyone not used to it. I also had/have a speech impediment that led to speech therapy (I still lisp on occasion unless I’m thinking about it really hard), so some bits of that training are still there.

  4. William Tracy

    Thanks for posting about this, Mary. I’ve been enjoying your accent greatly while listening to the audiobook. Being from Charlotte, NC, I occasionally get asked why I don’t have a NC accent, especially now I live in Raleigh. Having someone else with the same situation helps!
    Oh, and I love your Charleston accent too! My Mom’s family is from Charleston so I’m very familiar with it.

  5. David Hogg

    That’s fascinating, because when I was reading the book, I realized I was “hearing” Elma with your southern accent. You’ve always been one of the people where I hear their text – even tweets – in their voice, but it has always been your “Chicago” voice. This time, it was the accent I’ve heard you do several times.

    OK, except the sex scenes. Those were in your “Heart of Gold door” voice.

  6. Bryan Sims

    Like Melissa, I too am from WV and have essentially lost all of my accent (not that it was strong to begin with). Though, I will admit that I have the same problem as Mary with the whole pen/pin thing. No matter how hard I try, those words sound the same.

    Anyway, you aren’t the only one in this position and I empathize with you.

  7. Lauren Lilla

    I was going to read this book in ebook format, but I will definitely go for the audiobook now instead.

    I am from small town middle Georgia, but I teach abroad in an international school. Without really trying, I completely lost my accent within a year. Many people hear where I’m from and remark on it as if I should be proud. It always makes me feel sad, especially since my coworkers from New Zealand, England, Canada, etc. have delightfully strong accents that never seem to change. Southern accents need to be heard more often without negative connotations! So thanks- can’t wait to give it a listen!

  8. Belinda Sikes

    Mary,
    I feel that loss too.
    I trained myself out of my London accent because I was a shy immigrant teenager who couldn’t bear all the “Say something” requests from my American classmates.
    Now that I’m older and not so shy, I miss my native accent.
    B

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