What should science fiction sound like?
Or fantasy. A short story of mine, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters”, was published in the UK anthology Postscripts a few months back. I’ve sold the audio rights to Podcastle, which is going to run the story sometime soon — and I’m glad for this, because it’s one of my favorites. See, this story is set in New Orleans, in the days immediately preceding and following Hurricane Katrina. In some ways, it’s my love letter to the city that I know what it means to miss — the only city I love as much as New York. My heart broke with those levees, and it hasn’t fully healed yet. I tried to put some of that into the tale, which is basically just a fun buddy/adventure story with monsters — on the surface, at least.
Tookie shouted. Suddenly his head was clear, the hate shattered by horror. He raised the gun, and something else rose in him: a great, huge feeling, as big as the monster and just as overwhelming, but cleaner. Familiar. It was the city beneath his feet, below the water, still patiently holding its breath. He felt the tension in his own lungs. He had played no music, faked no voodoo, paid no taxes and no court to the chattering throngs who came and spent themselves and left the city bruised and weary in their wake. But the city was his, low creature that he was, and it was his duty to defend it. It had spent years training him, honing him, making him ready to serve for its hour of need. He was a foot soldier too, and in that breath of forever he heard the battle-call of his home.
So Tookie planted his feet on the rotting wood, and aimed for one bulbous eye with his dirty gun, and screamed with the pent breath of ten thousand waterlogged streets as he fired.
Tookie talks like a young, poorly-educated black man from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. He conjugates the verb “to be” in ways that will send any composition teacher into conniptions; he says the n-word; he curses like a sailor; and he’s not stupid by any stretch. I’m not usually a fan of writing “in the vernacular”, but this story is one of my attempts to do so, and I don’t know that I did it right. I only lived in NOLA for 4 years — grew up in a completely different part of the South, with a different accent — and I didn’t spend a lot of time in the Ninth Ward. But that was long enough for me to notice that Ninth Ward-dwellers have their own unique accent among the multiple accents of New Orleans — and yeah, I said multiple. Folks who’ve never lived in the South tend to think there’s only one Southern accent, but I’ve heard dozens. Anyway, any defects in the rendering of the accent are my fault, thanks to the failure of my ear and memory.
But there’s another problem with rendering this story into audio: Podcastle apparently has no black male readers.
Now, I’m generally of the opinion that voices are less racially unique than faces. I’m not a fan of whitewashing on book covers or in films or other visual media, but with voices I’m more flexible. A good voice actor can work verbal miracles; I’ve been a huge admirer of Mark Hamill’s post-Star Wars career in this respect. (Betcha there’s at least one character on that list who you’re surprised to find was actually “Luke Skywalker”.) But that said, I can usually tell — maybe 80% of the time — if a person I’m listening to on the phone is black or not. Accent has nothing to do with it; there’s some quality of pitch or timbre that my ear picks up. I can’t explain it, but I respect it — and if my “blackdar” is at 80% despite the number of places I’ve lived in and the sheer diverse complexity of my friends and family, I know there are other people out there who can hear it too.
And knowing that, we come back to the issue of realistic representation, and why it’s important, and how it helps to combat segregation in this industry and the greater world. We need realistic representation at all levels — we need to see it, sure, but we also need to hear it. And I’m not talking just about my story here, or just stories featuring black male characters. Where the race of the character isn’t specified, we should be hearing non-white voices as often as we do white ones. If it really doesn’t matter, why not? We should be hearing English speakers with non-English accents, and Southerners whether the story demands “Southernese” or not, and Midwesterners, and Alaskans. We need to hear more people who talk like members of the lower class of whichever culture they come from, and people who talk in all the various creole mishmashes that exist. Because that’s what society is like, dammit. We don’t all speak BBC English and we don’t all sound like actors in a Hollywood blockbuster.* SFF needs to reflect who we are, as well as who we want to be.
So. The folks at Podcastle are on this. They were trying to solve the problem before I even knew it was a problem, which is one of the reasons why I keep sending them stories. They put out a call for readers of color a few months back, specifically because of my story. (!) But the results have been… well, not good. To put it bluntly, they got a number of white men offering to read for Tookie, which is awkward to say the least.
So I’ve decided to help them out by adding to the call. I care less about the accuracy of the accent than I do about the accuracy of the identity; black and male and Southern foremost among the other facets of who Tookie is. Now, I’ve actually read this story myself, at NYRSF last year, and did a passable-enough rendering that I think I can endure hearing a woman’s voice instead of a man’s, if it’s done right. I know a few good black female VAs (and the latter is a kickass audio producer). But there has to be a black man out there somewhere who can do this.
And even if it’s too late to solve this problem for my story — cf the rest of this post. There’s still a need — for my story, for all stories. The folks at Podcastle don’t pay, alas, but they can loan you the microphone and walk you through the basics of using audio recording software. They helped me do it, and they can help you. So please — help them.
* I mean, seriously. I was all excited about this movie — a smart, funny alien-invasion story by the guys who made Shaun of the Dead, which recently got voted Best Film at South by Southwest — until I realized its US release was in jeopardy because a bunch of Hollywood idiots don’t think the American audience can handle hearing a multiracial group of lower-class British teenagers talk. How screwed-up is that? I don’t agree with the assertion of this article that the film needs subtitles — if you can understand the trailer, you can understand the film — but I’m linking it because it captures the essence of the debate, which goes across linguistic, cultural, racial, and class lines.