As we move into the new year, we don’t always leave all of the old one behind us…
I am very pleased to be taking with me a job that I began working on this December: I am voicing an audiobook for Lebanese artist and writer Nohad Nassif. She currently lives in America and had come across my reading of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman At Point Zero (https://amzn.to/2Q7w4zU) Something in it had resonated with her and she got in touch to ask if I would work with her on her own first book.
It was an immediate yes from me; the story comes from a neighbouring country to my own Egyptian heritage and from a culture I always wanted to hear more about. Furthermore, it is a woman’s story from such a culture - it became apparent what a great act of bravery it is to share such a story - openly autobiographical and unashamedly practical and political in its purpose. I would happily play my small part in supporting it.
Yet not such a small part it seems…
We frequently underestimate our voices.
We take them for granted, so familiar with their volume, tone, texture, accent, filled with only our life experience. We overlook their impact when heard by another, someone with their own set of unique characteristics, inevitably different from ours. Even as an actor, someone who uses their voice every day in a variety of circumstances, I am a culprit of complacency. Working on this particular book woke me up.
I confess that I came to voice acting with both curiosity and reluctance. I have always felt how deeply personal one’s voice is (and it is…but that’s for another blog post!) and consequently how very powerful it can be. But in an area that puts the spotlight on voice alone, I have often been frustrated by what I have seen as my limitations. I envy those who seem to effortlessly pick up accents without hours of study, or who seemingly transform themselves (vocally!) from 7-year-old boy to 70-year-old Jamaican grandmother at the drop of a hat! This, alas, is not me.
I also know that this is a common bugbear amongst my clients - a judgement of their own voice and a frustration with its character: too monotone, too loud, too quiet, too broad an accent, too low pitched, too high pitched, too much like me and not enough like him/her/you! More often than not, we want to be able to put on another's clothes and transform entirely, beyond recognition, so that not even Poirot could discover a trace of us left in our presentation. What an achievement that would be! And how safe we would feel, shielded by that armour, that costume. It would certainly feel safer than being recognised, than being seen for what we are.
Being ourselves is the most vulnerable thing we can do.
Nohad contacted me in haste a few weeks ago. Knowing I was already on board with the project for 2019, she now needed a speedy home recording of the entire book to send to an important editor, whose notes would have a significant impact on the final drafts of the text.
Could I get it to her in a week? Well yes, sure, I’d do my best!
I sat down to read it again from the top, a notepad next to me to list all the characters, chapters, Lebanese names and words (requiring extra attention!) and line edits. The story is set in Lebanon and the US, peopled with inhabitants of those countries, characters such as children, teenagers, mothers, fathers, grandparents, boyfriends, policemen, hostel owners, doctors, nurses and professors, 13 of which are significant characters in the story.
And all I had was my voice. And the listener. Both with so much more than I had given them credit for.
How we use our voices is always more important than what our voice is. It is a very sensitive tool, one we carry with us throughout our lives to express the subtlest snide comment to the fruitiest laughter to the hardest grief. It adapts with us to communicate our needs and wants, finding variety and flexibility within its reach. Which is all I could attempt to do with Nohad’s story.
By the end of the week, I had sent off my very patchy homemade recording (performed within a fortress of duvet covers and pillows!) Apprehensively, I waited for a reply, which came only a few hours after I had sent it.
‘I couldn’t sleep tonight. I was too excited. I just finished listening to it a second time.’
The relief was immense.
The recording was far from perfect - we emailed back and forth regarding changes that needed to be made to the voices and more details about the individual characters etc - but what I couldn’t have anticipated was how important it was for Nohad to simple hear her story told back to her with sensitivity and investment. Her story was not my story and her voice was not my voice, but perhaps the value was precisely in that difference - the representation of herself, reflected back in my own way, felt equally truthful.
Most importantly, her story was being told. I was struck by the privileged position I am in to give a voice to such a story, hers but being one of thousands across the Middle East but also throughout the world which are never voiced and never heard. As an actor, this is a professional privilege but for many of my clients, or anyone with a voice, we mustn’t forget its power to speak, to express, to confess, to encourage. To neglect to use it is to let down many who can’t.
So heading into 2019, commit to using your voice. Use it frequently and freely, and you might be surprised who hears you...
ARAB Humanist is now available on Audible: https://amzn.to/2Yh5gTt