Thursday, December 10, 2009

Do the loco-motion

I think I'm moving Dion Graham into the category of if-he-narrates-it-I-will-listen. In that interview that I linked to, he says: "I try to approach every book I read with integrity, humor when appropriate, and faithfulness to the words. Most books attempt to tell us something about being human, about being alive—I hope my work reflects that." I think that just about sums up his performance in Jacqueline Woodson's Peace, Locomotion -- humor, faithfulness to the text, and being alive. Graham's taken an already wonderful book and added layers that make it even better. Stop reading my blatherings! Go listen!

Peace, Locomotion continues the story of Lonnie Collins Motion (aka Locomotion) an orphaned 6th grader whose greatest tragedy is being separated from his beloved little sister, Lili. In Woodson's first book about Lonnie, Locomotion, Lili's foster mother refused to take boys so Lonnie is placed with Miss Edna -- a loving, older woman with two grown sons. Through one of those great teachers, Ms. Marcus, Lonnie begins writing poetry and Locomotion is told entirely by Lonnie through verse. As Peace, Locomotion begins, Lonnie feels secure as a member of Miss Edna's family, but he still misses Lili. He decides to write her a series of letters about his life, letters that he will share with her once he is old enough to live independently and look after her. The book is those letters -- funny, sad, brave, observant, affectionate, thoughtful and loving. When I read it in March, I wrote: "I feel so hopeful." And nine months later, I just feel more hopeful.

Dion Graham is amazing here (evidently, I used "terrific" about him earlier this year). He is an adult, speaking in an adult's voice, yet he captures Lonnie's youthful optimism perfectly. How does he do this? It's his inflections, his pacing, and -- most importantly, I think -- a sense of enthusiasm and yes, middle school humor that infuses his reading. You can hear the undercurrent of laughter or sadness every time Lonnie signs off his letters. In a format that can easily become stultifying to a listener ["Dear Lili"], Graham reads each and every one of the letters differently -- he finds the nugget of the letter and expertly portrays that in his reading. He is, as he stated, "[faithful] to the words." Quite simply, this book is over too soon.

I think it is so important in audiobooks to have culturally appropriate readers (someone has said this better than I ... see the term "racial drag" used here), but does that mean that books predominantly about white people should only be read by white people? A narrator like Graham shouldn't just be reading books with African American characters. He can -- and should -- read anything. (Like many a black actor, I suspect that he can read white, just the way an American like Katherine Kellgren can read British.) His skills transcend race -- he has mastered the art of suffusing his reading with the emotional intent of the text; in the so-overused phrase, he brings books alive. (Sherman Alexie successfully does this in reading his own work.) Ultimately, to a listener, that is more important than any accent.

While I enjoyed the (presumably) white narrator of the book I listened to just before this one (Days of Little Texas), that narrator was called upon to portray a black character. That character was the weakest link in Luke Daniels' fine narration (although it wasn't egregiously bad, 'cause I've heard egregiously bad). So, if a white guy can read a black guy, why not a black guy (or Asian, Native American, etc.) with the chops to pull it off (and not all of them can, I'm sure) reading a white guy?

While I'm waiting for that semi-perfect world, what Dion Graham should I listen to?

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