By Paige Anderson, Emily De Vogele and Cameron Phillips
It seems universally agreed upon that a narrator is just as important as the author when it comes to audiobooks. The two must go hand in hand, the voice reflecting the story it is telling. This is especially true when it comes to Black authors and characters. In a New York Times article, Dan Zitt, the Senior Vice President of Content Production at Penguin Random House Audio said, “it’s our job as producers to be respectful and sensitive to those voices and characters.” In recent years there’s been a rise in Black narrators, resulting in beyond brilliant audiobooks, some of which we want to share with you today.
An audiobook that I particularly enjoyed was Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. It’s narrated by the author, who is a Black woman, and the most appropriate person to narrate the book. It’s an extremely important and educational read, and it being narrated by a white person just would not get the right message across. This book focuses on race from the perspective of Black people and so the narrator needed to be someone who understands the frustrations of discussing anti-Blackness with white people. As Eddo-Lodge herself says, “I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us.” From just this small paragraph, it is abundantly clear that a white narrator would be the completely wrong narrator for this book that so obviously needs a Black voice to represent the issues Black people face when talking about something as significant as race.
Audiobooks with Black characters and books that represent how Black people are feeling need to be narrated by individuals who understand. Representation in all areas is extremely important, and this extends to audiobooks. Black children should be able to see themselves in the stories that they read, and all Black people should feel like their societal issues are being voiced by the appropriate person. In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, it is Eddo-Lodge’s thoughts and feelings that are being articulated to us. In the blog post she made in 2014, she wrote “I don’t have a huge amount of power to change the way the world works, but I can set boundaries,” a quote of which sums up this informative read.
For those wanting a fiction recommendation, I have to go with the one audiobook that shook me to my core when I read it: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo. Narrated by both the author Elizabeth Acevedo herself and poet and speaker Melania-Luisa Marte, this audiobook perfectly conveys the dual narrative style of the book. We follow Camino Rios and Yahaira Rios, whose lives couldn’t be more different. After tragedy strikes and their father is killed in a plane crash, they are thrown into each other’s worlds, unaware that either of them existed before the crash. Bound by secrets, grief and tragedy, Acevedo carefully explores the devastation of loss and the power of love. All of this is done while shining a spotlight on both girls’ identities, focusing on what they can learn from each other rather than the differences between them. Acevedo is a Dominican-American poet and Marte a Black writer with Caribbean roots, making them the perfect voices for Camino and Yaharia. These are characters of colour, being read by women of colour. Written in verse and carried beautifully by the rhythm of both women, it is one of those stories that will strike you to the very core.
My choice of audiobook for this week’s special issue is a pillar of Western literature. Dante’s Alighieri’s Inferno is a revered epic that has influenced the way that Christianity has been represented in the 700-year history of media.
It is no secret that the humanities has a diversity problem, one that was clear to see whilst I was studying Classics and History at University. According to a 2020 equality report by the Royal Historical Society, people of a BAME background make up 1% of the UK’s humanities teaching faculty. When it comes to students, BAME students make up just 11.5% of postgrads in the humanities, dropping to 8.6% for History and 9.2% for Philosophy. With its myth of whiteness and hellenomaniacal valorisation of the Greco-Roman period as the standard-bearer for our idea of ancient history, Classics is particularly unappealing to Black students who have been implicitly and explicitly told, time and time again, that they have no history.
Why are these figures important and where does Dominic Hoffman’s reading of a white-authored text come into play? Well, having a work such as Dante’s Inferno narrated by a Black man chips away at that myth, acting as an important reminder that ancient history has been grievously white-washed. While the diverse classics scandal taught us an unforgettable lesson in literary blackface and the vital importance of prioritising Black-authored stories, it’s time for white spaces, like the arts and humanities, to become more diversified.
Hoffman’s narration does much to make the field seem less unattainable and unrepresentative. It matches the poetic excellence of the work, especially the delivery of several cantos which, due to Dante’s writing style, are difficult to verbally comprehend. His theatrical background only serves to bolster this impression too, adding another dimension to a superb narration.