Writers of Color: Your voice matters
Dr. Miranda Bailey, a black, genius general surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy speaks in a loose language that sounds like home—“I can’t be…” and “gonna.” She’s fierce, will read you in a heartbeat and always has the best intentions. She’s hardcore and reminds me of me in many ways. She’s the chief resident, dubbed the chief surgeon’s “work husband,” she plays a prominent position in the hospital, and yes, I know this is a drama and not real life and just a show, but it’s important to have these models in pop culture. Why? Because such characters demonstrate that you can be your full self and succeed; you don’t have to adopt the voice and language of white America to make it.
If you know me and have worked with me, you know that I stress that a writer work on finding his or her voice. Why? Voice is perhaps one of writer’s most important traits and also one of the hardest to discover. Because you already have a unique voice, you just have to nail it down on the page. Record yourself telling a story. There are details you use, the way you move your body (or don’t), your facial expressions, the way you move your hands (or don’t), all of that is specific to you. It’s part of your voice and getting that down on the page is so very important to you as a writer.
The only way to uncover your voice is to write and read a lot, then write and read some more. Record yourself telling your stories and transcribe them. Consider the stories that matter to you and why and how that shapes how you tell them. Consider what’s more powerful, the way you tell a story to your friends or when you write it down? Why? Who told you that there was only one way to write and real writers, established writers, writers who mean anything, write this way?
As a woman of color who grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, left at 13 to attend boarding school in rich, white, Wellesley, Massachusetts, then went on to Columbia University, I’ve been told countless times, both directly and subliminally that my voice is less than and that my stories don’t matter. I was told that when everything I read was largely white and male, and even the few women that were sprinkled in were white women. The history I learned was western and white, even Egypt was presented as not really being black though it’s part of Africa and clearly a black nation. I did not learn that there are pyramids throughout the Americas, that my indigenous ancestors had written language and intricate civilizations. In school I was told to enunciate my words, say want to not wanna, never pepper my language with Spanish or slang, calm my over-emotive ways of carrying myself and communicating with the world. They tried to strip me of everything that makes me Vanessa, what makes me me, how I dance when I tell stories and show my heart in everything I do—from how I talk to how I write to how I greet you.
“You’re just too much.”
“Why are you so loud?”
“Can’t you quiet yourself down a little bit?”
They tried to strip me of my voice.
What is voice? Whenever I start this conversation with my Writing Our Lives students, I tell them to consider Whitney Houston’s famed rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in Super Bowl XXV in 1991. Heads nod and a few uh-huhs fill the air. There’s even been a few amens and finger snaps. Even those students who haven’t seen it, can only imagine how Whitney killed it. Then I tell them to think about how Jimi Hendrix did it at Woodstock in 69 or how Marvin Gay sang the US national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, or they can imagine any rendition they’ve heard in the past, famous or not. I ask: What did these artists all bring to the song? Their unique voices, that’s what.
Voice on the page is this—the way you say things, the way you tell stories, the details you consider important. Writer’s Digest says:
A writer’s voice is something uniquely their own. It makes their work pop, plus readers recognize the familiarity. You would be able to identify the difference between Tolkien and Hemingway, wouldn’t you? It’s the way they write; their voice, in writing, is as natural as everyone’s speaking voice…
“I am looking for authors with a distinctive voice.” I hear that from editors over lunch almost as often as I hear, “I am looking for big, well-written thrillers.”
What the heck is “voice”? By this, do editors mean “style”? I do not think so. By voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.
Think about your favorite author’s voice. Can’t you recognize their writing immediately? Why? Because of how it sounds to you when you read it. Because you know they’re going to speak of certain things and do something that is trademark theirs.
I’m currently reading a Dorothy Allison essay collection entitled “Skin” because I fell in love with her voice when I came across “Deciding to Live” (Preface to Trash) in Writing Women’s Lives: An Anthology of Anthropological Narratives by Twentieth Century American Women Writers. (If you know me, you know this tome is a bible to me.) A while back I read her memoir Two or Three Things I know for Sure. I know that no matter what I read of hers, Allison will connect me to her childhood growing up poor and queer in Greenville, South Carolina. She will tell you stories of incest and prison and the devastating effects of poverty that will twist your insides and make you want to hold yourself. I see myself in her work because I too do the same—look at larger issues and go to my life for the connection, to how I can relate and how I’ve experienced that issue. I love Allison’s conversational, intelligent style of writing. I love it that she doesn’t wax poetic or go into that academese, brainy nonsense that’s more about ego and look-at-me-I’m-smart-I’m-smart than anything.
I know Junot’s voice as soon as I read it. It is as unapologetically Dominican and smart and street and as in your face as he is.
I know Roxane Gay’s voice too. It’s smart and funny and feminist and so very to the bone honest, I can’t help but love how vulnerable she is and how she makes no excuses for it. She is who she is, like it or not, she’s gonna keep doing her and, shit, if that isn’t admirable, what is?
I could continue to list writers but I think you get the point. Voice is unique to the writer and as soon as you read it, you know.
Adair Lara in says in Naked, Drunk and Writing:
Your voice is your personality on the page. ‘Finding your voice’ means sounding like yourself on the page. It means discarding the unnatural pitches you experiment with along the way, or that you were taught in school, and letting your natural voice out, that low, thrilling voice you were born with.
It’s sounding so much like you, and so unlike anybody else, that we don’t need to see the byline to know you wrote the piece.
For me, finding my voice was very much a process of unlearning—unlearning what I’d been taught that said that my voice was wrong or inferior or inappropriate. To find that voice that I’m most comfortable with, that voice I use when I’m telling stories to my friends in my kitchen, over a cold glass of whiskey and ginger, and a delicious meal, I had to sit down with my stories and remind myself that I’ve always been enough no matter what or who said I wasn’t. And that is why now, when you read something of mine, you know it’s me that wrote it. Because I know my voice. Still, it took me some time and a whole lot of work to get there.
It is through language that we find and make meaning of the world. So, what happens when that language we use is negated or deemed less than? How does that shape the way we see the world and our place in it?
In his work, famed psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon studied the importance of language to the human spirit, and explored how language has been used as a “weapon for colonization.” Colonizers understood (and still understand) the essential role of language in the process of “re-naming” colonized lands—consider Antonio de Nebrija, who in 1492 wrote the first Grammar Book of the Castilian Language–later known as Spanish–to the ‘Ebonics’ controversy of December 1996 when the Oakland, California School Board recognized it as the ‘primary’ language of its majority African American students and resolved to take it into account in teaching them standard or academic English. Fanon wrote in his work Black Skin, White Masks that this “linguistic dispossession” caused feelings of dependency and inadequacy.
We already know that language plays a fundamental role in the development of one’s identity. The truth of that has been widely documented. We know that human beings cannot exist without communicating. To eliminate communication would be to eliminate humanity. Fanon recognized that being able to name the world around us in our own words provides people with a sense of belonging. To name is to own. In Fanon’s words:
To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization […] A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language. Black Skin, White Masks
So what happens to people who have been told that how they communicate is wrong or unacceptable or inferior? What happens to their sense of identity and belonging? How does this manifest when we writers of color write our stories? How does this influence our voices on the page?
How did this shape me when I was growing up and was told that I could not speak in Spanglish and had to enunciate my words? That the only way for me to be a writer, ever, was to write like them and talk like them and be like them. How did that shape this girl who didn’t fully see herself in literature until she read How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents when she was 16.
I read in a recent FB thread that years ago Lucille Clifton told the English teachers she was working with at a Cave Canem retreat: “If you tell a child the way he speaks is wrong, you tell him that the way his mother speaks is wrong.” There’s so much truth and complexity in these lines.
I think back to my VONA/Voices residency with Mat Johnson.
On the last day of class, he said, “Okay, so you have your stories. You have everything you need to finish this book. Let’s talk about your voice.”
“What you mean my voice?” I said with every ounce of Brooklyn in me—sass and what the fuck written all over my pursed lips and tight forehead.
“I want to see the Vanessa in front of me on that page.” He grabbed my laptop and said, “Talk to me about Millie.” He was referring to my second mom Millie who I write so much about because of what she taught me about love and the world.
I laughed. “Millie was a butch. You always wore a black Kangol. She’d grab the brim of it and say, ‘Yo soy butch’ but the way she said it, it was like she was dancing salsa but just with her shoulders.”
Mat passed me my computer. “You wrote that,” he said. “I just typed it.”
I have never been the same.
I went outside and sat in the sun and reflected on what I’d just discovered. I wrote about that Columbia University professor who told me “this isn’t writing” when he handed back a piece, and the kids in boarding school that said “you sound like Rosie Perez” because the only context they had of a Latina in 1989 was Rosie as Tina in Do the Right Thing. I wrote about how I learned to write like them and how it wasn’t until that day in June of 2012 that I realized I was still writing like them. I had to take my voice back.
I worked on voice relentlessly for the rest of the summer. I blogged. I recorded myself. I journaled. I read voraciously. I did the work, but it wasn’t until that fall when I went back to edit “Millie’s Girl” for the VONA/Voices anthology Dismantle that I knew without a doubt that I’d found my voice on the page.
Consider the introduction of the essay before voice work:
I was raised in a gay relationship in the 70s and 80s, before Heather has Two Mommies (Alyson Books) hit the mainstream in the 90s, just a few years after the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. There isn’t enough room here to discuss how that shaped me (that will be covered at length in my first memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings) and that isn’t the purpose of this essay, anyway.
This narrative was prompted by years of being told that my family was living in sin, that my mothers were immoral and headed, with no detours, to el infierno, that homosexuality is taught and not innate, that homosexuality is unnatural and an abomination, and gay marriage will be the downfall of our great society, and, yes, by the recent overturning of California’s Proposition 8 by a federal appeals court.
I have flipped out on people when confronted with their intolerance. As a kid, I once pummeled a girl who, in her anger over losing a boy’s affections to me, told me, “You’re dirty like your lesbian mothers.” As an adult, I’ve had heated, near-foaming-at-the-mouth arguments both on-line and face to face with people who have hurled bible scripture at me to defend their disgust of the homosexual lifestyle. Just the other day, I avoided a sure to be heart-seizing exchange with a self-described fundamentalist by refusing to entertain his insistence that both science and the Word prove that homosexuality is profane and sacrilegious. Shortly after dodging that bullet, I was harangued by another gentleman (and I use the term loosely) who went on a tirade about homosexuality being abnormal and socially incorrect. At this point I lost the battle to control myself and went off. I’m full force enmeshed in the first draft of my first memoir about my formative years, and as the seventh anniversary of the death of my second Mom Millie nears, I am very sensitive to anything that I feel dishonors her memory. All this is to say that I lost my cool on this dude, only to feel shortly thereafter that I could have handled the situation better.
Consider the intro after voice work:
I once punched a girl in the face for saying, “You’re dirty like your lesbian moms.” All because a boy she liked, liked me. I didn’t think about it, I just swung. Then I dared her to say it again. She didn’t. She knew better.
I was raised in a gay relationship in the 70s and 80s. Long before Heather has Two Mommies hit the mainstream in the 90s. And just a few years after the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off the list of mental disorders in 1973.
For years I was told that my family was living in sin. That my two mothers were immoral and disgusting and going to hell. That no one’s born gay.
Still, when I went to boarding school at 13, I didn’t tell anybody about my family. I convinced myself that I just didn’t want to deal with it. What would people say? How would they treat me? I was carrying my own shame.
Which one is stronger? You don’t have to answer because I know. Nowadays, when you read my writing, you know it’s me without having to look at the by-line. That right there is voice.
Voice. It matters, no matter what people say.
At a reading somewhere in the middle America, a young white student asked Junot Diaz if he thought he was alienating people by writing so much in Spanish. His response: “I didn’t write it for you. Next question.”
Who are you writing for when you write your stories, your essays and your poems? Imagine that group in front of you when you’re writing and write directly to them. If you get stuck, record yourself telling the story then transcribe it. That right there is your voice.
Part of what I needed to do when working on my voice was decide who I was writing for. Figuring out who my Loba pack is and who I am writing for helped me in finding my voice. I imagine myself telling my tribe my stories in my kitchen. With them I can be my full self, all sass and fuck-that and let’s-do-this; quick to break out in dance and tears; full of fire and sometimes sad, I can write to and for them without fear of being judged or scorned.
You can always tell a writer who doesn’t read by the cliché language he or she uses. They write the cookie cutter poems and may even have rewritten the same poem a few dozen times. I don’t say this to be pretentious or diminish their efforts. I was once that writer. We’ve all been that writer. I say this to explain why it’s necessary to read as much as possible, to read both as a reader and as a writer. (Reading as a writer requires a reflection with the work, a responding and reacting to the work, a dissection of the work that readers don’t do.) Baldwin wrote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
Reading gives you connection and adds language and color to the language you already have. It’s necessary to the writing life, to insist otherwise or to tell me “I don’t read, I want my voice to stay original” as I’ve been told more than once, is all ego and that doesn’t serve your writing or your voice. You want to grow as a writer. You want to err as a writer and succeed as a writer, and to do so, you must read a lot and write a lot and then read and write some more. The hope is to always keep growing.
I am proud of the work I’ve created thus far but I hope to look back in twenty years and see my growth in my work. In order for that to really happen, I have to read tons and write tons. There’s just no other way.
I read an essay in The Atlantic “’Voice’ Isn’t the Point of Writing” where the author insists that trying to find your voice isn’t necessarily a useful quest for an artist. I think that’s privileged thinking. I think this writer doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your voice judged and maligned.
If it’s true that language was and is still used to colonize us and keep us thinking ourselves inferior, then finding your voice on the page is a form of resistance. It’s how we take our identities back as writers of color. It’s taking ownership of our languages and insisting, “No, my mother’s language is not wrong.”
Finding your voice is especially important for writers who know what it’s like to be marginalized, to not see ourselves in the books we had to read throughout our years in school, from grade school on up. We don’t see ourselves in the canon or in those “best of” book lists. And when we do, we’re shocked and happy and wonder, “Am I good enough to do that?”
Language isn’t just how we communicate, it’s how we identify ourselves, it’s how we tell the world, “I am here and I matter.” I write with my Boricua-Honduran by way of Bushwick roots combined with all the other places I’ve been and studied, from boarding school to Columbia University to all the reading I’ve done since and in between, because all these things have shaped me into the woman and writer I am today. And I won’t apologize for that. Neither should you.
Get to writing. Find your voice. Thank me later.