Do I Sound Asian? Do I Sound Gay? Curtis Chin on Finding His Voice While Narrating His Memoir
The Challenge and Freedom of Speaking Your Story Aloud
As my debut memoir plowed towards print publication, I suddenly remembered that my agents had negotiated the audio book rights with my publisher.
Although I had the option to try out for the role of narrator (essentially to audition to be myself) my agents suggested that I should consider letting the publisher hire a trained actor. I accepted their wise advice, and while it was a tough decision, a part of me was also relieved. Writing for television, I had attended some additional dialogue recording sessions before, but I was always on the outside of the booth, behind the acoustic glass window, looking in. I had never taken any voice lessons.
Sensing my disappointment, my agents suggested that I come up with a list of actors that I could recommend. Who did I picture to play me? My immediate response was Harry Shum, Jr. Swoon! My friends clarified that I was casting someone to play me, and not my future husband. They said I should be looking for the person who would best embody my essence.
I started to panic. Who could that be?
I live in Los Angeles, so I have quite a few friends who are actors. They offered their own suggestions, sending me links to a dozen or so audiobooks on Amazon, each title voiced by an Asian male voice over artist. They asked me who I liked best.
As I reviewed the clips, I closed my eyes and started to think about how I saw myself, what image did I want to project. I mean, I’ve heard myself speak before on video clips, but did I really want that version. Could this be my opportunity to portray myself as I wanted to be seen? And if so, what was that image?
Though the gender and race of all the candidates were the same, it was amazing how different they were. I took into account each man’s tone, pitch, and accent. I could see myself in each of the voices, but at the same time, none of them.
As I continued to ponder options, Little, Brown called to offer me the role. When I asked my editor if they were sure, she said that audiobook listeners preferred memoirs to be read by the actual writers. It makes them feel like they really know the person’s story. Despite my nerves, I accepted the challenge.
Soon, I was in New York City at Little, Brown’s fancy headquarters with big headphones around my head and a fluffy microphone in my face. As I sat alone in the narrow rectangular sound booth, I started to get nervous. Back home in California, I had decided not to rehearse, or even practice at all. I thought it would be better to be genuine and authentic, to be spontaneous and fresh. Now, I realized that may have been a mistake.
As I uttered those first lines from my book, the ones I had worked over and over for the past few years, all the criticisms I had faced in my life about my voice and the way I sounded flashed before me.
First grade. Even though I spoke English at home with my parents and siblings, the teacher assigned me to a remedial speech class where I was forced to repeat basic words to a therapist’s satisfaction. Did my teacher really think I spoke with a foreign accent? Though this only lasted a week—after she realized she was wrong—it left a lasting impact on me, as I’ve always made sure to enunciate my words.
Middle school. The other kids in music class would tease our teacher, behind his back, about “sounding gay.” My voice hadn’t really broken yet, so I wondered if that applied to me, too? I had a slight lisp. For weeks, I would practice and practice in the bathroom of my family’s Chinese restaurant by puffing up my chest and standing straight.
In college, in addition to my concentration in poetry, I took a few playwriting courses. It was highly suggested that the playwrights also take an acting class, just to be able to empathize with the actors who would be projecting our words. This time, the criticism was about the tension in my jaw and how that clipped the sounds coming from my mouth. The teacher said I was draining the color from my voice. I didn’t even know that voice could have color.
All the imperfections I had heard in my voice in the past started to flood my head. To compensate in the booth, I spoke quickly, to get past painful memories and distract from any “imperfections.” I hoped the director and engineer wouldn’t notice. I hoped they would pretend that everything was fine.
As I started to stumble over my words, the director ordered me to relax and just slow down. I did a few vocal exercises, the ones I had learned in college, like stretching my jaw and repeatedly puckering my lips. I took a few deep breathes and let the air flow through me. My mind went Zen, as I started to read and think about the stories, it all started to flow naturally. I found my own voice. Good and bad. That’s who I was.
In the end, there was no need to be perfect or to put pressure on myself to try to not be this or that. Being myself, including all the sounds and cultural influences that had shaped me—was what mattered. Just like when I’d written the book in the first place, I had to tell my own story, in my own voice.
Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant by Curtis Chin is available now via Little, Brown.