Inconsistent Voices

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I am seven years old. My mother teaches me how to answer our phone. “Good afternoon, Major’s residence. Who may I say is calling? Please hold.” Callers say I sound polite. I am going places because I am not like other Bahamian children who suck their teeth and use the word “ain’t.” Every time the phone rings, I rush to answer. I am proud of the way I speak. I feel smart and special. I am learning what I think to be a good lifelong lesson that to gain respect in this world you have to speak a certain way.

*

The Super Value grocery bagger asks me, “Are you her daughter?” I am with my best friend and her mother in the City Value parking lot. It’s after five, and post-work shoppers are buying last minute groceries while their sullen children wait in cars with the windows rolled down. Anna is white. Her mother is white and British. Anna and I are still wearing our private school uniforms—navy blue skirts, starched white blouses, polished black shoes. We are fourteen, and we walk around like the day is promised to us.

Our grocery bagger attends a government school. I know because of his uniform; his shirt is lemon yellow, and his pants dark green. Even though I’m black, he wonders earnestly if I am Mrs. Bancroft’s daughter because I don’t sound like a Bahamian. To him, my voice sounds foreign. Anna and her mother laugh. I say, “Ha ha. No. No.”

*

I slip sometimes in and out of voices. I notice my sister does as well. She lives in the States. When I talk to her on the phone she sounds American, but when she visits home she uses “ain’t” and “bey.” She wears her Bahamianness with a familiarity I don’t. I get teased my “bey” doesn’t sound right. Someone tells me my “yinna” sounds forced, but…BUT…I’m not trying to push the words out of my throat.

*

I am walking through the airport, returning home, and a Bahamian man who does not know me, says “Government should start taxing the ones who come back and talk like American.” The Bahamian man has over hundred pounds of American goods packed into suitcases piled by his feet. He is light-skinned, and his eyes are small raisins on a fat face. I am so surprised I don’t know how to say I’ve always talked this way. I’m not sure if saying this would make a helpful difference. Instead I smile, and the man keeps talking to the Customs officer as if I am not there. “How wrong is that? Bahamians go off to school and come back talking this way.”

This is not how I want to be welcomed home.

*

In sophomore year of college, I tell my writing mentor I don’t know if I can write stories from the Bahamian perspective. I tell him, “I don’t trust myself to get the voices right.” He asks me what a Bahamian voice sounds like? A black voice? Aren’t you Bahamian? “I am,” I stutter. “I am Bahamian.”

*

I give myself permission to write what I know and what I don’t.

*

Sometimes, I get feedback from well-meaning editors and writers. They say my characters’ voices are not believable. “The voice was inconsistent.” Most times, I am the only Bahamian they’ve met. I don’t understand how the voice sounds inconsistent to them. I don’t understand “inconsistent voice” as a valid critique. They don’t know what a Bahamian voice sounds like. When someone says a voice is inconsistent or unbelievable, they mean this person is using a word I wouldn’t expect of them. This character isn’t talking the way I think they should, but outside of literature our voices are shaky. Our voices are malleable. One minute we can speak this way to one group and talk another way to someone else.

*

Before a reading I rehearse. I time and record myself so I can make sure certain words have the right inflection and that I pause at the most narratively compelling moments. I play the recording back. My voice is different from what I expect: deeper, fuller, wobblier.I think, “Is that me?” Nobody can say what any voice sounds like really.

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