We sit down to have a chat It’s F-word this and F-word that I can’t control how you young people talk with one another . . . —Lou & Peter Berryman, “A Chat With Your Mom”
Occasionally I sob so hard I have to gasp for air.
Occasionally, I sob so hard, I have to gasp for air.
How to respond to an editor who inserted two commas into a sentence I liked fine just as it was? I took a breath, decided I should be thoughtful and non-defensive, and had a conversation with myself:
PETULANT SELF: ( Feeling victimized ) Why does she have to be so picky? I don’t like being micro-edited. Now I either have to argue with her about commas, which seems petty, or let it go when I really don’t want to.
MATURE SELF: ( Above the fray ) I think some of her other edits strengthen the piece.
MS: So we can come across as gracious if we’re appreciating the strong edits.
PS: I suppose, but we’d still be fighting over commas.
MS: Okay, let’s take a step back. What don’t you like about the commas?
PS: It’s not just me, is it? Do you like the commas?
PS: All right, then. Why don’t you like them?
MS: ( Reflecting ) They’re not my style. They make the sentence staccato when it should
flow . . . And you?
PS: It doesn’t sound like me. I don’t recognize myself in that sentence.
MS: ( An aha moment ) Shit. This isn’t about style. It’s about voice.
As a matter of style, I use commas strategically, choosing whether or not to follow rules of grammar, aiming to achieve desired effects. But as a matter of voice, the cadence of a sentence is like a fingerprint, and punctuation becomes a method of self-expression. Flannery O’Connor famously said that she wrote to discover what she knew; I do too, but I also write to find out who I am.
2. Arablish / Engbic
Edward Said, professor of English and Humanities at Columbia University until his death in 2003, was a Palestinian refugee. Born in Jerusalem in 1935, educated until age sixteen in Palestine and Egypt at what he described as “elite colonial schools,” then a New England prep school and Ivy League universities, Said grew up straddling cultures, languages, nationalities, the rankings of class, and imperial power.
The last school he attended before being sent to the States, Victoria College in Cairo, was “a school in effect created to educate those ruling-class Arabs and Levantines who were going to take over after the British left.” The school’s “first rule” was that only English could be spoken, enforced with punishments for those caught speaking other languages. But even before arriving at Victoria College, Said didn’t know what his own language was. “Arabic, my native language, and English, my school language, were inextricably mixed,” he wrote. “I have never known which was my first language, and have felt fully at home in neither, although I dream in both. Every time I speak an English sentence, I find myself echoing it in Arabic, and vice versa.”
Said’s essay “Between Worlds” is a reflection on his “uncentered” life, his place as a cultural and political outsider, an unresolved search for voice. He published the essay in 1998, seven years after being diagnosed with a chronic form of leukemia, which he referred to as an “ugly medical diagnosis” that led to “a belated attempt to impose a narrative on a life that I had left more or less to itself.” He compared himself to Joseph Conrad, the subject of his first book twenty-five years before, a Polish émigré writing in his third language whose work is “constituted by the experience of exile or alienation that cannot ever be rectified. No matter how perfectly he is able to express something, the result always seems to him an approximation to what he had wanted to say . . . ”
What must it be like, to live without a native tongue. I think of the contrast to first generation immigrants who remain rooted in their languages of origin; my Russian Jewish grandparents, for example, who spoke Yiddish at home. However clumsy their English, they held onto the fluency of their childhood, an elemental way of being themselves in the world. Or the interweaving of languages and cultures, stereotyped in terms like Spanglish, which embody complex efforts at integrating voices and lived experience, or perhaps an expropriation of English into the language of origin. In the case of Edward Said, “Arablish” and “Engbic” become terms of irony, because integration of the two languages is exactly what he could not achieve; because he lived immersed in a culture which so intractably regarded Arab as Other.
I took a course with Said at Columbia in 1969. To my ears he spoke with rare eloquence, with power and grace and extraordinary acuity. But to his own ear he could never say it right; could not even think it right.
Reading “Between Worlds,” I was reminded of an old friend who was born in Cuba and moved to the US with his family when he was seven. Growing up in Queens, he threw himself into assimilating. As an adult he began to understand how much he had lost by having been uprooted from his culture of origin, began to yearn for that foundational place in his history that was now out of reach. By then he had completely lost his Spanish. On the surface my friend’s experience seems the opposite of Said’s—the loss of native tongue as opposed to a jumble of two tongues. But the deeper commonality is the absence of a voice they could recognize as home. Both could pass as native English speakers, but internally, and often invisibly to others, these are lives lived in exile, not only geographically and culturally, but also in their estrangement from their own capacities for self-expression. Lack of an authentic voice itself becomes the expression of the truth of these lives.
3. Life and Death
“[I]n a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights,” wrote Albert Camus, “man [sic] feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.” In The Myth of Sisyphus , written in 1940 against the backdrop of fascism and war in Europe, Camus explored the “relationship between the absurd and suicide,” asking whether the fact of mortality for someone who does not believe in God legitimizes suicide, concluding that it does not.
I understand the central theme of the essay—it helps that Camus states it plainly in the preface to the American edition—and I think I get what he meant by the absurd, though I’m not sure how clearly I could explain it. But line by line there’s a lot I don’t understand. Camus discussed philosophers I haven’t read, philosophies on which I’m rusty at best, figures from literature with whom I have varying familiarity. Even when I’m pretty sure I know what he’s talking about, I often find his prose elusive—his references to the “denseness” of the world, negations of “total unity” (unity of what?), use of “deserts” as a metaphor for something I only partly grasp; his sweeping pronouncements that “[a]ll great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning,” that “there are truths but no truth.”
Elusive in the meaning of words, but the voice of this essay is electric, and conveys its own meaning. It’s a brash, pulsating, passionate voice; a voice in complete command of itself; the voice of a young man, bursting with intellectual powers, aware of the urgency of his insights, who questions everything, looks critically at all accepted knowledge, brings an attitude of freshness and vitality to issues that go to the heart of human existence. Listen:
A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults?
So long as the mind keeps silent in the motionless world of its hopes, everything is reflected and arranged in the unity of its nostalgia. But with its first move this world cracks and tumbles: an infinite number of shimmering fragments is offered to the understanding.
The prose goes on like this for almost 140 pages. Reading it I’m reminded of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” not the content but the sustaining of an impossible level of verbal beauty page after page. Camus notes that “deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying,” and whether or not he intended this to be a commentary on his own writing, it captures the way in which so much of his meaning is conveyed by the emotional depth of his language. I’m also reminded of a single line in Barbara Kingsolver’s essay “A Fist in the Eye of God” when she writes, “[S]it down, have a cup of tea, and bear with me. This is important.” Camus invites with a voice that constantly says pay attention , what’s happening here is a matter of life and death.
He chooses life. “The important thing,” he says, “is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments.” The story of Sisyphus, “the absurd hero,” condemned by the gods to eternally push a boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down to where he must repeat his futile task, became for Camus a parable of how to affirm life in the face of absurdity. It was Camus’s genius to wonder what happens as Sisyphus walks back down the hill, to recognize his descent as the terrain of freedom. “That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is his hour of consciousness. At each of those moments . . . he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.” And if he feels sorrow coming down the hill, he also experiences joy.
Camus speaks of consciousness, but it seems to me that the same can be said of voice; in particular, Camus’s voice in this essay. His prose embodies the message that joy and rebellion are possible in an absurd world. Like Roxane Coss, the soprano in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto who sings to the terrorists holding her captive; like Dylan Thomas, singing in his chains like the sea: Camus, insisting on the anguish of absurdity, the finality of death, offers us the beauty of his voice.
4. For Willie Jordan
“You better not never tell nobody but God.” So begins Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple . Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the National Book Award, one of the most famous books of the late twentieth century, Walker’s tour de force introduced many White Americans to Black English as a literary voice.
When June Jordan, herself an acclaimed writer, was teaching a course at SUNY called “In Search of the Invisible Black Woman” and had her class read The Color Purple , she was astounded by the response of her African-American students. “Why she have them talk so funny,” one said. “It don’t sound right.” Another complained, “It don’t look right, neither. I couldn’t hardly read it.” Walker mirrored the students’ own spoken English but contradicted long years of cultural indoctrination leading them to expect good literature to be written in “Standard” White English. Like most Whites, they had never encountered Black English on the printed page; but unlike Whites, this meant that they had never before experienced the reflection—and by extension the affirmation—of their own voices in literature.
Jordan’s exploration of these issues with her students led to the creation of a new course, “The Art of Black English,” which she first offered in the fall of 1984. The class conducted an inquiry into the internal cohesion, syntax, and integrity of Black English. They compiled a list of rules and guidelines, of which my favorite is that it is a language with no passive voice. Jordan, in her brilliant 1985 essay “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You And the Future Life of Willie Jordan,” explained that “our culture has been constantly threatened by annihilation . . . Therefore, our language is a system constructed by people constantly needing to insist that we exist, that we are present.”
On October 25, 1984, one of June Jordan’s students, coincidentally named Willie Jordan, learned that his brother Reggie had been shot and killed by police in Brooklyn. The official story was that Reggie had attacked one of the officers and grabbed his gun, despite an autopsy report that stated he was shot in the side of the head and multiple times in the back, clear indicators he was trying to get away. News of Reggie’s murder “broke like a hurricane” across the class. “All of the students had known somebody close to them who had been killed by police, or had known frightening moments of gratuitous confrontations with the cops.”
June Jordan tried to publicize the incident, but in that period before cell phone video recordings, police murdering a young Black man was of scant interest to the media. Her efforts yielded only a single article in the Village Voice . Jordan’s students decided to write individual statements to the police along with a collectively written introduction, and to send copies of their statements to Newsday . They agreed to compose their individual letters in Black English.
Then they had to decide whether to write the collective introduction in White or Black English. It was an impossible choice. They understood that opting for White English offered their only chance to be published. But this would mean “abandoning our language,” a self-inflicted wound which Jordan calls a type of “suicide.” “At the end of one of the longest, most difficult hours of my own life,” says Jordan, the class voted unanimously for Black English. “It was heartbreaking to proceed from that point. Everyone in the room realized that our decision . . . had doomed our writings, even as the distinctive reality of our Black lives always has doomed our efforts to ‘be who we been’ in this country.” The letters were never published; the story of Reggie Jordan’s murder was never taken up by the New York media.
Those of us who are White and want to understand the rage in Black communities need to recognize the essential role of voice in racial oppression. Many Black Americans whose authentic voice is Black English confront daily choices about the language with which they present themselves to the White world: a job interview; interactions with White people at work; social situations; phone calls; making a purchase; ordering a meal; encounters with the police. The stakes vary enormously, but always the same question haunts the decision: to resort to an assumed White voice in order to increase the likelihood of being accepted or tolerated; or to speak in an authentic Black voice at the expense of being derogated as ignorant or stupid, literally substandard. These moments amount to micro-aggressions when the broad patterns of racism are played out, often invisibly to White people, through the unquestioned supremacy of White speech.
To the unquestioning White ear, the statement crafted by June Jordan’s students would sound uneducated, crude, street; in short, Black in the most invidious sense of that racialized word. But what if we were to open ourselves to this authentic Black voice? Listen:
. . . YOU COPS!
WE THE BROTHER AND SISTER OF WILLIE JORDAN, A FELLOW STONY BROOK STUDENT WHO THE BROTHER OF THE DEAD REGGIE JORDAN. REGGIE, LIKE MANY BROTHER AND SISTER, HE A VICTIM OF BRUTAL RACIST POLICE, OCTOBER 25, 1984. US APPALL, FED UP, BECAUSE THAT ANOTHER SENSELESS DEATH WHAT OCCUR IN OUR COMMUNITY. THIS WHAT WE FEEL, THIS FROM OUR HEART, FOR WE AIN’T STAYIN’ SILENT NO MORE.
5. Out My Comfort Zone
I thinking why not try an’ reverse the curse. This what I mean. Black peoples all the time they gots to talk White, while us White peoples don’t never talk Black. Hows about I tries talkin’ Black for a change? How ’bout I tries put my own self in other people shoes, see what it feel like?
It scary, man. This don’t no way sound like me. Who the fuck I is, talk Black? What people gon’ think? Think I makin’ fun. Think I a asshole. Think I puttin’ on blackface.
Jus might be worf it though. I not meaning t’ make no fun. I serious. I be knowin’ I not gettin’ this right. I not stupid. Ain’t never no way I gon’ sound like a real Black person. That the point. Get it wrong. Sound wrong. Sound like someone not me. Know people lookin’ at you like you can’t never fit, like you always the one who wrong. Feel what it like.
6. A Chat With Mom
I spent several months last year writing a novel in the voice of Becky Hoffman. My first task was to make Becky sound not like me. The second, closely related, was to make her sound not like a man. Not me was easier than not male. I intuitively recognize an identity that is not mine. But what does it mean to be “not male”? What is the actual sound of a “woman’s” voice? These questions, which in other contexts can be highly conceptual, became concrete and immediate for me as I tried to string together words that would cohere into a voice.
Of course there is not a single, monolithic “female” voice (or a monolithic “male” voice). There are variations among women, among men. There are places where “male” and “female” voices overlap. There is androgyny. There are transgender experiences and identities. Gender itself is a social construction. I believe that all these things are true and important, and none of these sociological truths helped me to construct Becky’s voice.
What helped initially was paying attention to commas. I left them out in some places where I would normally use them, especially before conjunctions.
I was measuring time in weeks since conception and as the first weeks passed, I wasn’t getting any closer to a decision.
This began to create a rhythm to Becky’s voice.
At thirty-eight this wasn’t exactly my last chance but it was a chance, here for the taking.
Where I tend to break thoughts and therefore sentences into their constituent parts and follow a linear path toward a conclusion—a pattern of thinking and speaking that I regard as both mine and male—Becky was more fluid, oriented to the blurring and blending of one thing into another, a kind of wandering that was not random but not precisely charted. In time the question of technique, of commas and cadence, gave way to something more sweeping, and I began to inhabit, or be inhabited by, a distinct self with her own voice.
As I walked around the pond I found myself thinking about my pregnancy for what seemed like the first time in days, or was it weeks? It had been such a driving force, the impossible choice, the torment of it and then it was swallowed up by that quick succession of events, the nightmares and then the reality underneath them, these truths I had been hiding from for so long, and I realized something obvious that I had managed to miss, my pregnancy had led me to face the truth, to begin to understand who I am and what my life has been.
One of Becky’s truths is that she was sexually abused by her older brother when she was a little girl; another is that her parents failed to protect her. Her relationship with her mother, a frail, overwrought woman, has been strained and conflicted for most of Becky’s life, stemming not only from having been left unprotected but also from her mother’s entire character, her aching needs which have always come first and smothered the space in which Becky might have been known and loved for her authentic self. Near the end of the novel, after Becky has recovered memories of being raped by her brother, after she has told her parents and neither of them could acknowledge the magnitude of her suffering or offer emotional nurture at a moment of crisis—after all this her mother rallies. She reaches out to Becky, expresses horror at what happened to her, and this uncovers a yearning in both women for reconciliation. They speak hard truths without bitterness or reproach. Each is able to listen, to find compassion for the other’s pain. Becky touches her mother’s hand, smiles at her, reveals that she is pregnant, and discovers in the telling that she is going to keep the baby.
I can only imagine this conversation being spoken with female voices, happening between a mother and daughter. Becky’s mother is more or less my mother, transposed into a story that is not quite mine. Becky is more or less who I imagine myself to be as a woman. Their relationship is a transposing of my relationship with my mother, told twenty years after her death. Becky and her mother get to a place I never reached with mine, one that I can’t picture happening between a son who is some version of myself and a woman who is some version of my mother. For me the story does not translate back from female to male.
Why is this? The answers I know are particular to my own experience. As a teenager I pulled away from my mother, who looked to me to meet her needs and left me no space to express my full self. I withdrew into a cold hard anger, a protected zone I stayed in for the rest of her life. It was a form of self-protection that left me no room for compassion or recognizing the costs of such severe emotional distance; no room to yearn for reconnection. I was doing what men learn to do under stress: We shut down.
In order to imagine, and through the act of writing to experience, a reconciliation with my mother, I had to step out of my voice and my gender. But stepping out of one psychic space, I entered another. Where did this come from, my capacity to assume a woman’s voice, a woman’s self? I drew on something internal, previously unknown or only partly known—parts of me that don’t conform to the male script; female potentials that were inaccessible when I was navigating my own relationship with my mother, during the long years when it never occurred to me that in addition to being my mother’s son, I might also imagine myself as her daughter.
There is much in the news about transgender people; and as I have been working on this essay, an Oregon judge ruled that a third gender designation, “non-binary,” should be added to the state’s driver’s licenses. I have been questioning and pushing back against the male script for most of my life, and even so I’m still too embedded in a male identity to think of myself as bridging or blurring a gender line. I take pride in being a man who can cry, can feel, is capable of empathy, someone who believes in gender equality and tries to practice it. But these have all been ways of being, or aiming to be, a different kind of man, still spoken and lived in a male voice; my relationship with my mother marked a limit to this project of creating a different male identity. Writing in Becky Hoffman’s voice became a way of transcending that limit, a step toward my own non-binary potential.
I write to find out who I am. But I also write to explore and expand the range of my voice, and in this process, in my best moments, I find out who I might become.