Author N.K. Jemisin asks what should science fiction sound like?
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
. . .
Tookie [the story’s hero] 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.
. . .
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.