Voice

Writing as art helps us to recognise the voices, images, worlds and stories we inhabit— and which inhabit us—in other words, our acquired culture. But it usually does this not through explanation or analysis, but by encouraging us to listen and see. In the following passage from her novel The Bluest Eye, the black American writer Toni Morrison paints a picture of weekends in a family household in Ohio. The child narrator remembers the impact of her mother's voice. She recreates her singing, her idioms of speech, the actual words spoken in the house. The picture has been painted for us in sound:

Saturdays were lonesome, fussy, soapy days. Second in misery only to those tight, starchy, cough-drop Sundays, so full of 'don'ts' and 'set'cha self downs'.

If my mother was in a singing mood, it wasn't so bad. She would sing about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me-times. But her voice was so sweet and her singing-eyes so melty I found myself longing for those hard times, yearning to be grown without 'a thin di-i-me to my name'. I looked forward to the delicious time when 'my man' would leave me, when I would 'hate to see that evening sun go down...' ...Misery coloured by the greens and blues in my mother's voice took all the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet.

But without song, those Saturdays sat on my head like a coal scuttle, and if Mama was fussing, as she was now, it was like somebody throwing stones at it

(Morrison, 1994:25-6)

This last image (of the mother fussing at her children), even without mentioning voice directly, represents it to us as something terribly uncomfortable: we see hands going up over ears to block it out. In the passage we also hear the narrator and catch a sense of her own speech-rhythms. Morrison has got right inside this child's voice. The story at this point is being told to us through a distinctly spoken language: 'lonesome.fussy, soapy .starchy, cough-drop Sundays.' This narrator is inclined to speak very much in her own fashion—independent, awkward to handle, yet also sensitive, sympathetic. Other voices come through to us: the first line of a lyric from the black jazz singer Bessie Smith, 'I hate to see that evening sun go down'.

Exploring the voice has uncovered a rich field in contemporary writing. In The Bluest Eye Morrison describes a conversation like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop' (Ibid: 15). Yet a fascination with voices and speech has been present in fiction for over two centuries. The personal letter, a form where writing comes closest to natural speech, made its appearance in one of the earliest examples of fiction. Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740) contains a series of letters written between women on the subject of love. Authentic, spontaneous, as if close to real, unedited experience, it was partly through its use of the letter (we call this an 'epistolary style') that fiction placed its emphasis on speech. In a recent, unusual example of such emphasis, Iris Murdoch begins her novel A Fairly Honourable Defeat, written and set in the 1960s, by inventing a conversation which continues for almost twenty pages, with only one short interjection by the author setting the scene. If one rule of fiction is to discover what most interests the characters, then one such interest could be love, but another might be conversation itself. As she demonstrates, talk, conversation, interests this husband and wife because it is their way of shaping experience. We hear their voices because, for them, voices are important. Talking matters.

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