Of the several noteworthy gatherings hosted this year by New York Public Library’s Live from the NYPL series, the last one I attended was Zadie Smith’s lecture on “Speaking in Tongues”. Poking right away into the nature of lectures and how a novelist is faced with “tonal challenges” when attempting to deliver one, she rolled her premise out: whereas a speech demands a singular true voice, a novelist–whose area of expertise is the imagined, after all–speaks his truth in a diffused voice filled with multiple personalities. But is this ability to be many-voiced, moving from one register to another, also useful for citizens and Presidents, and not just novelists?
The lecture she had prepared was itself going to be an “orchestra of voices”, featuring a wide cast of characters–from Elisa Doolittle to Zadie Smith’s brothers, Barack Obama to Joyce “the tragic mulatto”, Father Garnet the Jesuit to Macbeth, Steven Greenblatt to Lord McCauley, and Viscount Halifax to Frank O’Hara; all of it colored with Zadie’s lively impersonations of a few of these voices within voices: a passage read in the tongue of a 17-year-old Barack Obama, a few illustrations of the black British dialect used by Zadie’s brothers–which she herself largely lost after acquiring a more “lettered” tongue in college–and of the voice Elisa Doolittle arrived with, the one she left with, and so on.
Central to her premise was the question of whether a voice is meant to be singular, or a synthesis of disparate things; and despite the many characters and stories she alluded to, this speech, given exactly a month and a day after America’s new President Elect had been announced, relied on Obama as its central figure; he being a “genuinely many-voiced man” who “doesn’t just speak for you, he can speak you“. He, of the Dream City:
It’s a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion–naturally, Obama was born there, so was I. When your personal multiplicity is printed on your face, in almost too obviously thematic manner, in your DNA, in your hair, and in the neither this nor that beige of your skin, well anyone can see that you come from Dream City. In Dream City everything is doubled, everything is various. You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues. That’s how you get from your mother to your father. From talking to one set of folks who think you’re not black enough to another who figure you’re insufficiently white. It’s the kind of town where the wise man says “I” cautiously. Because “I” feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experiences. Instead, citizens of the Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun, “we”. Throughout his campaign, Obama was always careful to say “we”. He was noticeably wary of “I.” I think by speaking so he wasn’t simply avoiding a singularity he didn’t feel. He was also drawing us in with him. He had the audacity to suggest that even if you can’t see it stamped on their faces, most people come from Dream City, too. Most of us have complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives. It was a high-wire strategy. His enemy latched on to his imprecision, emphasizing the exotic, un-American nature of Dream City. This ill-defined place where you can be from Hawaii and Kenya, Kansas and Indonesia all at the same time.
Typical of the self-created man (like Cary Grant from the Dream City, like Barack Obama from that same town) is his reflective quality: “We see in them whatever we want to see”, she said, and imagined the President Elect backstage at the Grant Park, thinking, Everyone wants to be Barack Obama, even I want to be Barack Obama. It was clear, though, that through Obama, Zadie was telling not only her own personal story, but the personal story of entire centuries; and that with the open-ended questions the blood-and-flesh version of Obama currently leaves us with, we of the “self conscious” 21-st century are, in a way, all waiting for answers to our own personal narratives:
I believe that flexibility of voice leads to flexibility in all things. My audacious hope in Obama is based on, I’m afraid, on precisely such flimsy premises. It’s my audacious hope that a man born and raised between opposing dogmas, between cultures, between voices, could not help but be aware of the extreme contingency of culture. I further audaciously hope that such a man will not mistake the happy accident of his own cultural sensibilities for a set of natural laws suitable for general application. I even hope that he’ll find himself in agreement with the lecturing writer George Bernard Shaw who declared, “Patriotism is fundamentally a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it”. But that may be an audacious hope too far. We’ll see if Obama’s lifelong vocal flexibility will enable him to say proudly with one voice, “I love my country”, while saying with another voice, “It is a country like other countries.” I hope so. He seems just the man to demonstrate that between those two voices there exists no contradiction and no equivocation, but rather proper and decent human harmony.
Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, was also there.
New York Public Library
December 5, 2008