When creating a narrator’s voice, either for a story or our own voice in an essay, we often struggle to find the right voice. Writers talk about this all the time—they struggled with their work until that moment when they finally discovered their voice. It’s tempting to believe that this voice is a single vein of consciousness and diction and that we’re just hacking away at the rock of our exteriors until we uncover it. But sometimes there is no single consciousness. Sometimes the best or most authentic voice contains different kinds of diction and syntax. If that’s the case, what do you do?
Janet Stickmon demonstrates how to handle multiple voices in her essay, “Blackapina,” about her multiethnic background as an African-American Filipina. The first part of the essay was published as ““Barack Obama: Embracing Multiplicity—Being a Catalyst for Change” in Race, Gender, and the Obama Phenomenon: Toward a More Perfect Union?, co-edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie Williams. It was later incorporated into a larger essay, “Blackapina,” in Stickmon’s book Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience. You can read it here.
How the Essay Works
In her famous essay, “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan writes about a lecture that she had given many times but never in front of her mother. Only then, with her immigrant mother in the audience, did she realize that it was “a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother.”
That is the kind of English that Stickmon uses for this essay. An excerpt was published in a scholarly book. As anyone who’s written an academic, scholarly essay knows, there are expectations for the kind of language that will be used. Here is Stickmon’s first sentence:
People of multiethnic backgrounds are accustomed to existing at the intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities, holding and juggling those spaces in tension.
This is Stickmon’s academic voice, and it would seem that it leaves no room for the diction and syntax that Stickmon might use outside the classroom or lecture hall—just as the voices we create for any piece of writing often seem narrow (purely serious with no room for humor or too smart or too naive or too whatever to leave room for sentences that contradict the dominant voice). Yet Stickmon manages to include other voices.
She starts by inserting other languages. The first is Filipino:
Momma was from the barangay of Labangon in Cebu and left a clerical job to come to the United States—the country she considered the “land of milk and honey.”
The second is a form of English:
Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA and hopped freight trains to California—one of approximately six million African-Americans who fled the oppression of the South during what came to be known as the Great Migration.
With those proper names (barangay of Labangon in Cebu) and (Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA) comes an entire dictionary of words that are rarely found in academic texts:
My biracial experience began with the very basic influences of food and language, eating Momma’s biko and bijon and Da’y’s hoe cakes and hot cakes, hearing Da’y sound “country” and Momma speak Cebuano.
The presence of these new voices has a marked impact on the dominant academic voice. Here’s the next paragraph:
It was 1989 when Momma died and Da’y was put in a convalescent hospital; I was 15 years old. Three years later, Da’y died, and I officially became an orphan, continuing to juggle my dual heritage along with the meaning of life in the absence of parental love. I was tossed around from one social worker to the next, telling my story over and over again, becoming attached to no one. Though the most immediate lifelines to my history were gone, my sense of self was informed by the memories my parents left behind, the Filipino relatives I moved in with, the holidays spent with my African-American relatives, and close high school and college friends.
The language is still addressing the “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities” from the essay’s first sentence, but it’s now doing so in language that isn’t necessarily more colloquial but certainly more understandable to non-academic readers (“tossed around from one social worker to the next”).
The essay even begins to gain a sense of humor (something that scholarly writing is not at all known for). Here is an example:
I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant) and leave behind or downplay my Filipino side; when I was in an all Filipino environment I felt that I had to “turn on” my Filipino-ness (whatever that meant) and downplay my Black side.
Those parenthetical asides—”(whatever that meant)”—almost seem like the commentary of another voice on a sentence that puts turn on in quotation marks. In short, because Stickmon has introduced these different voices in the essay, they begin to form a kind of dialogue with each other—that dialogue, as Chimamanda Adichie has explained in her popular TED talk, is far better than listening to a single, dominant voice.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s introduce and use different voices, using “Blackapina” by Janet Stickmon as a model:
- Choose a piece of writing whose voice feels too homogenized. It can be a story or essay sitting in a drawer or in a folder on your computer. Sometimes when we get stuck in a draft, the problem is that we haven’t given ourselves enough to work with. We had an idea that made us begin the story/essay in the first place, and we took it as far as we could. Introducing more voices can provide more grist for our imaginations.
- Introduce a piece of information that can’t be told in the dominant voice. This might be something from another culture or language, like the Filipino places and foods referenced by Stickmon. But that other culture/language doesn’t need to from some foreign land. In America, there are particular Englishes for different regions and professions, and with those Englishes come different vocabularies. You can’t talk about tort law or raising hogs or heart surgery or road construction without using the dictions of those fields.
- Expand the reference. Stickmon references her parents’ origins in the Phillipines and Louisiana and then builds on those references by talking about everyday experiences (like food) that are associated with them. In your writing, every reference to something outside the frame of the narration is an opportunity to let in other voices—if you’ll let them speak. So, stay with a reference for a paragraph. Give more details about it.
- Mesh the reference with the primary voice. We usually reference something because it carries some weight or importance. Use that importance to make the reference a crucial part of the primary narrative. For example, once Stickmon introduces Da’y, she’s able to tell a story about him that connects to the very academic idea of “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities.” Because Da’y is from a difference linguistic world that intersections, the language of that story and its analysis becomes a different language that previously existed—not less academic, as some people sometimes argue, but a hybrid of pure academic language (whatever that means) and something non-academic that is essential to the narrative. Another way of looking at this is as a lens. Very often we start a piece of writing by looking through a particular lens. If you change the lens slightly (by adding characters or changing setting), you also change the story and voice.
This can be a fun exercise. Like Amy Tan, you might realize that you’re speaking different languages or forms of a language without knowing it.