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. I 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.