By Alex Estes.
Let Me Clear My Throat, Elena Passarello, Sarabande Books 2012
What do readers mean when they say “This book changed my life”? I have said this phrase a few times, and each time, more often than not, I meant it as hyperbole, as another way of saying this book gave me a profound emotional and intellectual experience unlike any book had before. I say it as an advertisement, as if to give those I am pushing the book onto an incentive to read it. But if I focus, strip away the hyperbolic, and think truthfully about the concept of a book changing my life, I have a problem of running into one of my stubborn beliefs. I am a person with little interest in intentions; I believe my life is composed of a series of actions, each one shaping me into who I am constantly becoming. Therefore, every book I read changes my life, or creates my life, if you will, whether it be a masterpiece by one of the greats or an airport mass-market I pick up to take my mind off the threat of future turbulence. There is the life where I do not read Madame Bovary, and the life (the one I am living) where I do read Madame Bovary (the latter being the better life, in my opinion, though having read it, I know not what the other life would be like). There is also the life where I do not read Tami Hoag’s Dark Paradise and the life where I do read Tami Hoag’s Dark Paradise (again, I am living the life of the latter, but, in this case, I am unsure whether the changes Hoag’s novel affected are what one would call important, though it did offer me a place to escape into as the plane I was flying in shook and rumbled in the sky).
I say all that to say this, in a way that I have never quite meant it before: Recently, I read a book that changed my life. The book that accomplished this rather amazing feat is titled Let Me Clear My Throat, a collection of essays by Elena Passarello, a young actress and writer from Charleston, South Carolina, who, until now, was probably best known for her ability to scream. Each essay in the book concerns an aspect of our ability to make sounds with our mouths and vocal chords that would not necessarily be considered talking. The ground she deftly covers sweeps from the Confederate soldier’s rebel yell to Marlon Brando’s heartbreaking Stelllllaaaaa! to Howard Dean’s campaign-crushingly loud BYAH! to our suspicious reception of the telephone’s invention to the choice of the first records sent into outer-space to Judy Garland’s famous performance at Carnegie Hall to the plight of those rare singers who could reach the incredibly high note of C6 to the crow of the crow to the idiosyncratic language of sports announcer Myron Cope to the author’s own attempts at convincingly mimicking the involuntary vocal reaction brought on by grotesque stimuli (also known as the Ewwww!), and, as if to circle back around, to the story of the author’s participation in the Stella Shouting Contest held annually in New Orleans, where, in 2011, she became the first woman to ever win said contest (incidentally, the cover of Let Me Clear My Throat bears a photograph of the author in mid-Stella scream, and it looks fierce).
Halfway through the book, as much as I had enjoyed reading each essay, and each one truly is a joy to read, I had no idea the book would go on to make the impact it did. For what does Howard Dean’s moment of intense emotion over-taking his good sense and leading him to cry out in a way that the public was not quite ready to hear have anything to do with me? The answer, at least on the surface, is nothing. But the way Passarello approaches each of her subjects, the skill she demonstrates at not allowing her personal judgments to cloud her vision of cultural moments that some of us know by heart, moments that have had their own moments, moments that the media has successfully piled so much opinion upon rendering them almost unrecognisable, allows the reader a chance to see everything anew. And in this newness we find a heightened ability to listen, for this is the change that occurs upon finishing Passarello’s book. It was as if scales could fall from my ears as well.
In her essay ‘Teach Me Tonight’, Passarello takes us through the beginning, middle, and end of Frank Sinatra’s singing career using, as a framing device, a small pamphlet published in 1941 by the Embassy Music Corporation that Sinatra cowrote with his voice coach John Quinlan and sold to aspiring vocalists for seventy-five cents, titled “Tips on Popular Singing by Frank Sinatra”. Passarello’s essay is divided into small sections, each devoted to a chapter from the pamphlet. The most interesting of these is titled “Mouth Positions, page 31” where the pamphlet describes to the amateur vocalist how to manage their vowels, AYE, EE, UH, OH, and OO, whilst singing.
To discuss Sinatra’s vowel-handling abilities, Passarello pulls in contrasting examples from the history of popular song. She begins with Bing Crosby, Sinatra’s idol, using him to explain what Sinatra did with his UH that Crosby, the more family-friendly of the two, didn’t. She writes that “while Bing and his wannabes would open up for a tall and bright AH sound, Sinatra sang it UH, adding a pinch of guttural thrust.” This thrusting UH caused his audience, many of whom were “female listeners too young for nylons”, to release “a sigh so big that the Draft Board briefly classified Sinatra’s body 2-A , as his singing was ‘Necessary to the national health, safety, and self interest.’” When she discusses Sinatra’s AYE, she brings in Little Richard’s ‘Rip It Up’, Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’, and Jerry Lewis’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’’, for EE she uses Jimmie Rodgers’s ‘Blue Yodel’, and for OO she writes about Smokey Robinson’s ‘Ooo Baby Baby’ that, she says, “chained Smokey to a persona he hadn’t even written yet – a lover begging OO for forgiveness and getting turned on as he grovels.” For those of us who know these songs well, we can hear what Passarello is saying without having to put the book down to seek them out.
The effects essays like this one have (and there are three others in the book much like it: ‘Hey Big Spender’, ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’, and ‘JUDY!, JUDY!, JUDY!’) have lasted for the month since I have read them and, I’m assuming, will continue to last into the future. Passaerllo’s essays have given my brain something to do that consequently has added a depth to my listening experience that didn’t exist before. Now I can hear those vowels clearly, the way some singers today execute them well, the way some fumble them, the way some barely get them out of their mouths in any recognisable fashion, and I’m grateful to Passarello every time the sound waves of those voices collide with my eardrums and then my brain, in reaction, parses them for nuance. But this isn’t the only change.
The collection begins with an essay on Brando’s famous Stella! scream from Elia Kazan’s film adaptation of Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire. This short piece that delves into one of the most famous onscreen screams in the history of cinema is a great way to start, but it also sets the stage for a later essay, one of the few in the book that would fall under the category of “personal”, about Passarello’s experience of traveling to New Orleans to compete in the annual Stella! Shouting Contest, where at the end of each March, as part of the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, a group of people gather beneath a balcony downtown and watch as contestants belt out their best Stella! to a female stand-in looking down from the wrought-iron railing above. If a woman wants to compete, they keep a male stand-in on hand so they can yell up Stanley! But Passarello, as anyone who understands the dramatic framework of the play would, requests a Stella.
The contest is the essay’s main narrative, but Passarello does an expert job at bringing her personal history as it relates to screaming into the story. She tells us about her mother whose “voice shook the foundations of the houses we shared”, and about the time Passarello found herself lost in the Florida woods and resorted to screaming “as if the sound of [her] voice were a solution”. Like the other essays in the collection, Passarello doesn’t use any gimmicks to grab our attention. Toward the end of this piece she could have built suspense by leaving her win for the last paragraph. Instead she tells us a few pages before that a young lady had filmed her performance and posted it online titling it “Yay! A girl is the winner of the Stella Shouting Contest in New Orleans!” She does this because there is more at stake here than whether or not she has won a contest, and we discover what it is when, at the end, she explains what it means to push the body to point of destruction in order to reach a scream we all have inside us:
I now know that when I rile myself up to the point of damage and think hard about the sounds that scare me most, I can rummage around inside for a second bottom to that map-able place, and I can mine that for sound. It’s a sad discovery, I suppose, this lonely and untapped sonic pocket with trap release, but I do know what is sadder about it: that it lies there, useless, sometimes for an entire quiet life, or that something allows me to trick myself into finding it. Or that it exists in us at all.
Because this means that a space inside all of us waits for something that hurts so much that we require it.
It’s reminders like this one that I realised I needed only after encountering it.
We are losing our voices. True, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is common for many of us to go an entire workday using text-based messages as our primary form of communication (email, Gchat, Twitter, Facebook). A friend of mine who was a bookseller for years, recently took a job in publishing, running the social media arm of one of the finest small presses in America. I asked him how he liked it, if he was happy with the change. After answering in the affirmative, he paused for a moment, thought about something, and then explained to me what he found to be the strangest aspect of the entire enterprise. The quiet. The office is a large open-air space with cubicles linked together in the middle of the room. Everyone’s right there; no closed-doored offices. He told me that even though everyone is only a few feet away the main way employees at the press communicate is through Gchat. Book-selling, at least at an ideal bookstore where employees engage in something known as hand-selling, a practice one rarely encounters, if ever, at any of the larger outlets, requires a considerable amount of verbal communication that he found he missed now that he worked in publishing. But he shrugged it off. In this instance, a mere minor adjustment.
As the days after I read Passarello’s book ticked by, I began to think about what this quiet means for us. It’s not always as innocent as a tranquil office environment. I recalled a story I read early last year in Forbes. A young woman away at school was texting back and forth with her mother. The daughter told her mother she was doing great, everything was wonderful. The daughter used emoticons with big smiles to reinforce the message. The mother was proud of her child away at college, making things work. The daughter ended the conversation and tried to kill herself. Shortly thereafter, the mother learned that her daughter had cut herself off from the world, had holed herself up in her dorm room, and had sunk into a deep depression. Emoticons lie, as, of course, do people, but when we have a voice we can listen to, a voice that carries much more than words, we are given a chance to hear what isn’t there in the letters. The mother was certain she knew her daughter’s voice well enough that had they been talking on the phone she would have known something was wrong. A few moments after remembering this story, I realised what Passarello’s book does for us that makes the book much more than the sum of its parts. By not doomsaying our culture like so many non-fiction books these days, by not telling us all the actions we can take to fix some problem we are now faced with, but instead by championing one aspect of what it means to be human, for even the deaf have a voice, even the tracheotomised, if given the proper means, have a voice, Passarello leaves us with a solution we can all follow: Listen. It’s as if she is saying, Check this out, it’s pretty cool, huh? And yes, having read the collection, I can say it’s pretty damn cool. And I can also say my ears will never be the same again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Estes is a literary critic living in Manhattan, a tiny borough just across the river from Brooklyn. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, and Full Stop. He recently finished work on his second unpublishable novel and is now hard at work on his first publishable one. You can follow him on Twitter @deskofalex or visit his website Deskofalex.com.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 31st, 2013.