Listening to audiobooks serves two purposes for me. One is pure pleasure. I have loved books all my life. If I can’t be reading one, I am listening. I always have a book and an audiobook in progress.

The other purpose is educational. From the perspective of a voice talent, there is a lot that can be learned from book narrators who are truly great at what they do.

Time for a gut-check

Like a lot of people, I have a few genres of books that I like to read and listen to. Every once in a while I want to crawl out of that rut just to take a break. It is a good change of pace and it can be a fun little adventure.

In this time in US history there has been a lot of talk, accusations, incriminations and altercations around the topic of race, bigotry and privilege. Until recently my awareness of the topic was defined by what I knew from history. Slavery. The Civil War. The Civil Rights movement.

With all that is being said about race lately, I have been challenged to check myself. You see, I’m a middle aged white guy. I grew up in a largely white area. In my high school you could count the number of African American people on one hand. So, in the last year or two I have given a good deal of thought to where I may have been privileged because of my skin color, and how that might have influenced the way I think.

So what does this have to do with voice-over and audiobooks?

Switching things up

When I have taken my breaks from the usual reading and listening fare and thrown darts at new titles to listen to, I have decided to purposefully take my shots in the direction of authors who speak from a different racial or cultural perspective than myself. I’m not patting myself on the back here. I know a few books doesn’t amount to much. It is just a small step I am taking and I believe my heart is in the right place.

The first time I took a chance on a title totally outside my cultural norm, I ended up listening to Xe Sands and Angelo Di Loreto narrate The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia, (translated by Simon Bruni). What a great choice that was! This story of a Mexican family and their very special visitor prior to and through the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 was more than enchanting. I can’t recommend it enough.

When I started listening to The Murmur of Bees, I wasn’t sure I would be able to relate to the characters, their environment or cultural context enough to be able to enjoy the story. I was thrilled to find my concerns were unfounded. The story was magical and the voice acting was beyond superb. Xe Sands was particularly enchanting as she brought the women in the story to life, inhabiting their personalities with reverence and tenderness. I fell in love with the characters, and felt a real part of their unfamiliar world as they endured and triumphed over life.

My risk at trying something new had paid off in a big way. However, I know it isn’t reasonable to expect a randomly thrown dart to hit the bullseye every time.

Let’s try this again

This week, I finished listening to Deacon King Kong by James McBride, narrated by actor Dominic Hoffman.

I’m not sure why I chose Deacon King Kong. Before listening, I hadn’t heard anything about the book, and I had no awareness of having heard of the author or narrator’s names (Sorry guys!). The name of the book didn’t mean anything to me and the cover told me nothing. The ratings were good, and the synopsis sounded unusual enough to be interesting, so I took a chance and clicked the purchase button. I had finished my previous book, needed a new one and couldn’t find anything else that caught my eye. It was basically a whim.

Remember what I said about not hitting the bullseye twice in a row? Well, I was happy to be wrong again. I will even go so far as to say this was the most entertaining and memorable experience I have had listening to an audiobook.

The characters are alive. The community is breathing. The personalities are raw, flawed, richly drawn and infinitely human. The prose feels simultaneously complicated, immersive and effortless. Right from the beginning the author surprised me with his uninhibited frankness, beguiled me with the humanity of his characters and much to my surprise made me laugh out loud many times – no mean feat.

You had me at…

Here is a small example. Remember in Jerry Maguire where Renee Zellweger’s character tells Tom Cruise’s character “You had me at hello”? In Deacon King Kong, James McBride had me at Jesus’s Cheese. Any book whose first chapter is titled Jesus’s Cheese has me hooked.

This is a simple, yet complicated story about simple and complicated people. It is very human, very engaging and totally captivating. It is unexpectedly funny and still finds a way to never let you off the hook as a participant. The story drew me in and made me feel more than an observer, leading me to experience these people in a way that left no room for unemotional detachment.

This is very nearly a perfect book. The narration isn’t far behind. Dominic Hoffman handles the characters with care, giving them a reality that is a great match for the source material. A very character-driven story like this requires each individual to have more than their own voice. They need to have their own life. Hoffman delivers with every major character, allowing the individuals to shine through with all of their quirks without overdoing it or becoming distracting. The corroboration here between author and narrator is a beautiful thing.

There is a lot more I could say, but I will leave it at that. I loved it, obviously.

I’m not alone

In 2016, before Deacon King Kong, President Barack Obama awarded James McBride the National Humanities Medal for “humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America” and I can see why. This book immersed me in a African American community with African American people whose backgrounds and experiences are different than mine and who in many ways they speak and behave in ways foreign to me. All of these differences provided context for all of the things that make us similar. As I finished listening, I found myself thinking about the arts and how they emotionally move us and how, being moved, we can be changed.

I am on the outside of the current race and cultural tensions looking in, hoping to make sense of what I see and hear. I am aware that my life experience limits my perspective. Nevertheless, I am representative of a lot of people who have curiosity and care enough to try to look deeper. In a time when divisions between us seem to be the theme of the day, I believe great art can help. No matter the media, art makes communication accessible and can be a tool that opens us up to new people, cultures and experiences in a way that bridges the gap between us.

I highly recommend you try listening to audiobooks with the intent of learning how the narrators portray characters, emotions and context. This is an entertaining way to add to your education!

I also recommend you give a listen to The Murmur of Bees, Deacon King Kong or other similar works outside your cultural norm. Not just for the performances, but for the way stories speak to the humanity that connects all of us.

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