In an earlier post on the ‘I’ characters found in memoir I mentioned that the narrating ‘I’ could be polyvocal – that they could have multiple voices.
Firstly, what is a voice. There are two meanings and one always occurs in memoir whilst the other works in some. Firstly it is the distinctive tone or style of an author or memoir (indeed all literary works will have a voice). In memoir the reader consumes the work hearing the narrator’s voice– perhaps persuading, confiding, grieving or confessing — and will assign what they hear to being the author’s own voice. It often feels as though the author is talking directly to you. In fact, I felt this was one of the biggest compliments I had received when a friend who had read my first memoir said to me that she felt as though I was in the room telling my story. This relationship between the voice and the reader differs from fiction where seldom is the voice read in the novel ascribed to the author.
It is this voice that gives us the essence of the person the narrator is. It gives us a view into their inner thoughts and expresses the relationships the narrator has between others and the world in which he/she lives. This is the voice that often makes it seem as though a memoir is full of ‘I’ and therefore mono vocal. This is far from the reality as the narrating ‘I’ also gives us numerous other voices. In a bildungsroman (coming of age narrative) the narrating ‘I’ will give the voice of the remembered child and this will change as the child goes from one state to another. The same may occur in an illness memoir where we might be given the remembered voice of the sick ‘I’ with this changing as they recover or survive. There may also be the voices of the parents, doctors, teachers, siblings and many others.
Time will also have an effect on the voices depending on the time span of the narrative where one ‘I’ can change into another, the time between the events and the writing of them can change the voice due to ideological changes or that distance from the events has led to a change in the author’s relationship to the event. For example, a marriage separation written the day after it occurred would probably have a caustic, condemning, ironic or bitter voice as opposed to one written twenty years later where both parties were now both happily remarried. If the time it has taken for the narrative to be written is also a long time period it is possible to see a change of voice within th e narrative itself.
Voice can also be shown by dialogue and this can involve numerous people as individuals, giving the reader a relationship with these others as well and showing the relationship of the narrated ‘I’ to them. Dialogue is a good tool by which to develop character. However voice is not necessarily confined to the individual but can be the voice of a community or group. Voice will show the effect of culture, ethnic background and other facets of a communal group such as gender and social standing.
The second meaning of voice in memoir is where the narrative is written to tell the story of a disadvantaged group that is giving voice to a group that had been previously silent. These included feminist memoirs, aids memoirs and many other politically sensitive groups.
When looking at my own voice I believe that it has a conversational tone, as though I am sitting with a glass of red wine in hand telling a story to friends at a dinner party. One memoir that I read I felt the tone of voice was gossipy and conspiratorial. The author Susan McCorkindale also used second person and this annoyed me immensely as I didn’t agree with everything she said and became angry that she presumed she knew what I was thinking. Elizabeth Gilbert in her sequel to Eat Pray Love used an academic voice for large parts of it as did Jill Kerr-Conway in her sequel True North. What kind of voice does your narrator use? Can you recognise the other voices in the narrative?
This is part of Memoir Monday. If you write about memoir, technique, your own experiences and process please feel free to link up.