by Felicity Castagna
A lot of space in literary circles has been given of late to trying to define what is highbrow and what is middlebrow and why those distinctions matter. I think we would be better off having a debate about literature that is ‘technically good’ but boring and literature that is ‘electric.’ That, to me, is a distinction that matters. It is a distinction that makes a text both engaging and enduring.
In my mind, the electricity of literature lies in the voice of the text: it’s the hardest thing to get right and it’s also the hardest thing to define. Voice is a style, it’s the personality of the text, the way that the author converses with their reader. It is something that goes beyond the technical aspects of good writing to get inside your head so that a text that has a firm and original sense of voice becomes like a best friend whose ‘voice’ you would recognise anywhere in a crowd.
H.P Lovecraft in his timeless advice to writers suggested that instead of trying to learn or define techniques in writing we should just read stuff and think about it. So here it goes: This is a passage from ‘Australia’(1981) a prose poem by Ania Walwicz:
You big ugly. You too empty. You desert with your nothing nothing nothing. You scorched suntanned. Old too quickly. Acres of suburbs watching the telly. You bore me. Freckle silly children. You nothing much. With your big sea. Beach beach beach. I’ve seen enough already.
Undoubtedly this writing has its own style, its own voice. It shows its awareness of technique, form and grammar through a purposeful and knowing disregard of them. It is energetic and vivid in a way that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, could never be.
Here’s another example of writing with a strong sense of voice. It’s from the story, ‘They’re Drunk and I’m Stoned’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, which appears in Stories of Sydney (Seizure, 2014):
‘No weed boys. I hate weed.’
‘It’s all good, we’ll get some vodka for this guy,’ Osama says. I don’t like alcohol either but it’s easier to justify to my dad if I get caught.
Osama makes sure we’re all looked after. He has a baby face – light-brown skin and straight long hair. He looks like Che Guevara. He’s tall and skinny and always wears a pair of old jeans and flip-flops. Osama’s Indonesian but when girls ask, he tells them he’s Lebanese. He calls them ‘dumb sluts’…
Osama turns up the music and Tupac shouts, Nigga, we hit ’em up. A grin forms on my mouth. ‘You know what, you’re a fucken good bloke. Hussein, you’re a good bloke. I never noticed before but you’re a good bloke, you’re all laid back and relaxed and hanging out and chilled. I like you bro. I like you more than Osama’s other cousins an’ shit. You’re a good bloke man. Wallah you’re a good bloke.’
It’s easy to get lost in the abrasiveness of both Walwicz and Ahmad’s voice. It would be easy too to argue that their strong sense of voice comes from the breaking of grammatical rules and the sharpness and pungency of their images, from their cursing. There’s also another argument one could make with these two writers and that is that migrant and bicultural writing naturally lends itself to having a stronger original voice because of the unique uses of language that come from thinking and writing in more than one language and the creative mistakes that occur when we write in a language that may not be our first. All of this has some truth in it but to leave it there would deny these authors one of the other more sophisticated devices they are using. That is, they understand that texts don’t have one ‘single’ voice but multiple ones.
I am talking here about the way that writers like Ahmad and Walwicz are able to show that complex characters wear masks: their external voice is not the same as the voice of the text. The characters in the above excerpt are clearly much more self-reflexive and aware of the social and power structures in their community than what their external dialogue conveys. Even though we don’t see this same distinction between the dialogue and the voice of the text itself so explicitly in Walwicz it is still implied. We understand, as readers, that she is putting on a ‘mask’. By doing this she plays on our expectations of what a ‘migrant’ voice is meant to sound like. She is showing that same bristling wit and reflexivity that Ahmad gives by stereotyping Australians into the collective ‘you’, just as the migrant population is often stripped of an individual identity. She takes those beach landscapes and the suburban friendliness we are so proud of and makes us question our sense of generosity.
A great sense of voice is also present in a very different kind of text, An Elegant Young Man (Giramondo, 2013) by Luke Carman:
‘I found someone the other day. It was Walt Whitman. Under a broken cabinet outside the Whitlam Centre. The Whitlam Centre is a place in Liverpool where they have swimming pools and boxing rings. It’s sort of a big deal. Anyway there was the complete works of Walt Whitman just lying there. It was the first time I’d come across him. He was in an Allen Ginsberg poem I read once. It was a poem about finding Walt Whitman in a supermarket. I liked the idea. I still like it. I took Whitman with me around Liverpool for a bit’
Carman shows that writing that has a great sense of voice is also achieved, not by ‘descriptive’ writing but through narratives that manage to contain more information, sentence for sentence, clause for clause, than what be achieved through the addition of more adjectives or using all five senses. The word play here conjoins two powerful figures, one of Australian politics and the other of American poetry. Both these important figures are placed into a suburb, Liverpool, which is shown to be a neglected outpost of Sydney. The pairing of these grandiose figures with such a landscape is a farcical but important one. It both mocks the idea that grand figures can represent local spaces and questions why a place like Liverpool isn’t considered a greater part of the national story. It has all this to say and much more and it does it through a voice which pays attention to the sounds and rhythms of sentences and which employs many of the same devices and techniques inherent in the voices of the authors it references.
In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. That’s what makes electric writing. After all, writing is not mathematics it is art. There are no formulas. Good writers leave their voices inside our heads. How could you live without that?
Photo credit: Tessa Lunney for header; book covers from Giramondo Publishing