Josna Rege

506. The Loudest Voice

In Childhood, Family, Immigration, Music, people, reflections, singing, Stories, women & gender on December 14, 2021 at 3:19 am

After all these years, only now am I listening to this luminous story by the late Grace Paley. In 1998 she read it out aloud on Vermont Public Radio for the holidays, and there it still lives, her voice issuing forth at the press of a button and conjuring up a time, a place, and a child’s innate self-confidence. She was 76 when she read the story, one she had written 40 years before, and her voice was still clear and well-modulated. Oh the sly humor! Chosen for her clear, strong voice, the very voice that parents, teachers, and neighbors are always admonishing her for, the Jewish girl in a Jewish immigrant community attending a Christian school delights in narrating the school’s Christmas pageant. She has no feeling of being an outsider. She simply filters the entire story through her own consciousness, whence it issues utterly–and wonderfully–transformed. And her voice, the loudest voice, comes through with flying colors.

I met Grace Paley several times during the 1990s. She certainly didn’t need to raise her voice to command respect and perhaps she never had. At our first meeting I had no idea who she was. I had gone to a reception for the campus visit of the late Edward Said, and didn’t know anyone there. An elderly couple were in the room and so I struck up a conversation with the husband, who was standing a little apart from the others and wearing faded denim jeans like any old Vermonter straight out of the back woods. His wife wore a bandanna around her messy hair like a Russian grandmother. When I told him I was in the English department he said mildly, “my wife does creative writing, too.” I was curious about this wife. I introduced myself to her as well and listened to her for a while, as she talked about this and that. It must have been when I heard her casually refer to her conversations with women during a trip to Vietnam that I suddenly had a prickling feeling at the back of my neck and asked her whom I was addressing. “Grace Paley,” she replied matter-of-factly, and I wondered why I hadn’t realized this from the start. Her voice was not loud at all, but it was by no means self-effacing either.

The Lamb, Songs of Innocence and Experience

I had a loud voice as a girl, like my father before me. My parents, bless them, never asked me to tone it down or hush it up. My classmates teased me for it but didn’t ask me to change. My teachers did, though, as evidenced by my earliest report cards. By age 8 I already had a reputation to live up to; it never occurred to me that it was something I might have to live down someday. Passing through England on the way back to India at age 9, I was chosen to recite a poem by William Blake—The Lamb, I think it was—in school assembly. It never crossed my mind for one moment that I might have been chosen as a token “Other”; in fact, I was told the reason was that I was the only child in my class “without an accent.” Ironically, this girl who had grown up outside of England spoke unselfconscious Standard English, or R.P. (Received Pronunciation), as it is called nowadays: the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England. A year or two later, my father’s students organized a show in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to raise money for people affected by the drought in Bihar and asked me to be the emcee. What fun it was! I was the only child up on the stage, introducing all the university students’ performances. I was fearless at that age.

Two things happened to my voice as time went on. As a university undergraduate, where I felt like a fish out of water, I lost it for a time. One bad experience of being verbally attacked after having made what I thought was a perfectly innocent remark in class silenced me for years; not at home or among friends, but in the rarefied atmosphere of the classroom. Throughout my twenties I still felt perfectly at ease with public speaking in the outside world, though. And returning for graduate study in my thirties, my girlhood confidence returned and stood me in good stead. I knew who I was and what I wanted to say, and had no hesitation in saying it.

Then came the life of a junior professor, when one is made to learn one’s place. Those years didn’t do any favors to my voice. A decades-long habit of speaking unnecessarily loudly without breathing or hydrating properly made me develop a throat nodule. I had to learn to moderate and modulate my voice in ways that were utterly new to me. It was interesting that the voice class I attended was full of professors, many of them senior faculty, all seeking to recover their authentic voices after years of suppressing, silencing, second-guessing themselves. They–we–had to reach deep inside and learn to trust ourselves again. With these classes and vocal therapy at the UMass Center for Language, Speech, and Hearing, my throat nodule receded, enabling me to lecture and to sing again, but not to speak extemporaneously with the same innocent self-confidence as young Shirley Abramowitz, narrator of the Christmas pageant.

As noted earlier, I have my dear father to thank for my loud voice, my father whose normal speaking voice was a gentle bellow. Saying, “no need to shout” would infuriate him. He’d shout louder: “I’m not shouting; this is my normal voice!” There were only two options when faced with the full-throated power of Dad’s voice: either to lower one’s own, or to raise him one. For better or worse, I must have done the latter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Now I am the one whom people ask to moderate my foghorn. Add to that my increasing deafness, which makes me unaware of the volume at which I’m speaking, and the need to teach wearing a mask, which requires me to project, enunciate, and bellow. After that successful voice therapy 20 years ago, my throat nodule appears to have returned with a vengeance.

Bill Barnacle bellowing in frustration at Henderson Hedgehog, Horticulturer (Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding)

What prompted this reflection was listening to Boston Public Radio last week on my way home from work. Margery Eagan and Jim Braude’s daily news program is an enjoyable mix of serious news and analysis, with comic banter and a call-in component that invites the public to join the fun. On this particular day the subject was men’s loud voices. Apparently men are greater COVID-19 spreaders than women because their loud voices spray more virus farther and wider. Then followed some light-hearted banter with a sharp edge to it, with Margery accusing Jim and men in general of using their loud voices to bully others into submission and Jim, quite uncharacteristically, acknowledging this tendency in himself with some shame. They were inviting public comment when, driving into the reception-free flood-zone of the North Quabbin region, I lost the signal. But I continued to think on the subject, and wondered about how much I had silenced the people around me with my loud voice. How much was the negative perception of loudness gendered? If I were a man, would my unnecessarily loud voice be considered appropriately assertive? But why did I feel the need to assert my opinions, already strong, so forcefully? (In graduate school, much to my eternal shame I had a verbal run-in with a famous writer whom I revered and who shall remain unnamed. He used great restraint in the end-of-semester comment he put on my grade: “Inclined to hold strong opinions.”) These were questions to which the answers only generated more questions.

I have always loved singing and taken pride in bursting into song on the slightest pretext. But I have damaged my voice by singing too loud. A singing voice ought not to be harsh and raspy like a portable loudspeaker; it can be soft and sweet. It is much harder to sing high notes softly than to belt them out. I had always prided myself on my ability to hit the high notes–even singing the descant when there was one. Now my voice was cracking less than an octave above middle C. I would have to learn to harmonize and sing the alto part rather than the tune which I had always sung. My whole identity was going down the tubes. What was I to do?

Instead of answering that question, I listened to the 76-year-old Grace Paley reading “The Loudest Voice.” With a broad tolerance and affectionate humor she affirmed that young girl’s confidence. And she didn’t have to shout to blow me away.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Hari OM
    What an interesting wander through the subject of vocalism. Thought-provoking… I never had a particularly strong voice for speaking, but for singing, it projected well. Taking up amateur dramatics helped with the speaking projection… when it came to speaking from a platform for lectures and such, though, I did struggle and was grateful that microphones became the norm. I hope your throat nodule does not worsen. YAM xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, YAM. I still have to attend to my throat nodule. Most important is remembering to stay hydrated and breathing from the diagphragm. And yes, learning to project helps the voice, both in speech and in song, carry with less strain. I never learnt that properly, but instead substituted volume! And yes, the piece was a bit of a wander, since I was ranging erratically over time and also shifting between talking literally and talking more metaphorically about voice. x J

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  2. Dear Josna,

    A beautiful, moving piece. I don’t think of you as having a loud voice, rather as someone whose voice is clear. Often clever, but not ambiguous. My voice, I think, is sometimes not loud enough. Now, teaching yoga with a mask on reminds me to speak more loudly, clearly, enunciate better. And, for virtual classes, to make sure I have a really good microphone. Still, how great that we’re still here, saying as clearly as we can what we think and who we are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Karen! Thank you for your kind words. I always found your voice clear and articulate. Speaking online presents new and different challenges which you have risen to even before this pandemic. Speaking through a mask is hard but not impossible. Yes–microphones may be necessary to prevent voice strain and to make one’s voice more intelligible. Thank you for being you and for sharing your knowledge and wisdom. x J

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