“Inhabiting the Other’s Voice”
Jaimie Baron (University of Alberta)
What does it mean to read another person’s words, to say the word “I” when referring to someone else? When we read a text written by someone other than ourselves in the first person, we linguistically inhabit that human being’s perspective. When the text is fiction, we may imagine ourselves inside the diegesis of the text, but when the text is nonfiction, we must recognize the existential parity between ourselves and the writer; we share the same world if not the same time and space.
What does it mean to read out loud? Except for parents and teachers of small children or those engaged in public performance, perhaps, we seem to do far less of it these days than in eras past. Reading now is mostly a silent, solitary activity. Hearing someone read aloud is rare. When we read another’s nonfictional first-person text silently in our heads, we may experience an intellectual and possibly emotional inhabitation of that other’s perspective, but when we read out loud, this inhabitation becomes vocalized, embodied. To inhabit does not necessarily mean to identify with the writer whose words we speak, but we are put in their place. Through this acoustic alignment, our sounded voices become echoes of other, real voices.
Irene Lusztig’s Yours in Sisterhood is structured around the reading of letters to the editor sent to Ms. magazine in the 1970s that were never published and have lain silent in an archive ever since. After sifting through this archive, Lusztig traveled across the United States to some of the places from which the letters had been sent; in each place, she asked a woman living there now to read aloud from a teleprompter the text of the letter that originated there. In the finished film, we see women of various ages, races, classes, sexual orientations, and abilities reading aloud, sonically conveying either the words of another woman from their own hometown or their own words written to Ms. magazine long ago. In either case, the words come from decades past, and yet most seem to be shockingly relevant to the present moment. Like Samuel L. Jackson reading the letters of James Baldwin in Raoul Peck’s 2016 essay film I Am Not Your Negro, these women who read the words of the unpublished letters written in the 1970s to Ms. often speak words that feel dishearteningly timely. The gendered struggles they describe feel like commonplace experiences today, suggesting how little has improved for women since the 1970s.
After each reading within the film, Lusztig asks the reader to reflect on the letter she has read, and on whether it speaks to her own experience in any way. Frequently, the reader says it does. At other times, she distances herself from the words she has just spoken. Even the women who are reading out loud their own letters, sent and forgotten long ago, smile at the words they wrote decades before, as if acknowledging the gap between their present and past selves. Yet, each woman reads and speaks with commitment, as if determined to let the forgotten, buried voice be heard.
Indeed, what struck me most about Yours in Sisterhood was the confidence of the women reading the letters, their lack of embarrassment or hesitation, their willingness to stand in front of the camera and speak in the place of the missing writer. There is a ghost in every letter, briefly given embodied and vocalized form. Reciprocally, these ghosts open a conduit, empowering the readers to speak frankly and openly about their own lived experiences as women.
There is power in recitation, an embodied link between past and present that conjures something more than words mentally enunciated. To read another’s words aloud is to give them renewed substance and authority. By asking the onscreen women to speak the words of the women who wrote to Ms. so long ago, Lusztig asks them to share the power of the now with the voices of the past and to incorporate the power of the past into their voices now. The body of the reader becomes the medium through which the feminist spirits of the past remind us of their struggles, challenges, hopes, and frustrations – even as we may also recognize the limitations of their past perspectives.
My own recent work on media and ventriloquism seems useful in understanding how these visible women’s bodies become media. Structurally, Lusztig serves as the ventriloquist, animating the visible, audible bodies of the women who initially act as “dummies,” conduits for Lusztig’s project and by extension (although mostly unbeknownst to them) for the women who wrote the letters. Yet, the readers are then released from this position, their voices and bodies returning to their normal function as media for their own thoughts and feelings as they reflect on the words they have conveyed. A dialectic is set up between past and present, writer and speaker, ventriloquist and dummy, self and other. All are given voice; no one is privileged.
Yours in Sisterhood suggests an ethics of reading aloud, of physically inhabiting the other’s voice, if only for a moment or two, and then reflecting on that inhabitation. We should read each other’s words aloud more often.
“Female Archival Voices”
Jennifer O’Meara (Trinity College Dublin)
In Irene Lusztig’s Yours in Sisterhood (2018), cinema’s use of epistolary forms of female narration comes into focus as women from across the United States read aloud mostly unpublished letters sent to the editor of Ms. magazine, the first mainstream American feminist magazine in the 1970s. The letter, and particularly its relationship to female narration, was a focal point for early scholars of the film voice like Kaja Silverman. Writing on women’s voice-over in classical Hollywood in The Acoustic Mirror, Silverman stresses the rarity of disembodied female voice-overs and demonstrates how the typical female narrator is tied to her body much more than the typical male narrator is tied to his. She identifies various strategies for keeping the female voice “overheard,” and therefore less authoritative, including constraining it to a letter. Yet in Yours in Sisterhood, the voicing of letters becomes an act of empowerment and a delayed form of articulation for the many authors who submitted letters to the editors of Ms. that were never published. One contributor to the documentary initially comments on the importance of the letter she reads aloud, and why she is glad the editors published it – before she is told that they didn’t. The woman’s reaction on learning this is profound, as she explains how she is moved and honored to finally “give life” to these words in a public forum.
In this way, Yours in Sisterhood recalls other recent documentaries made by women and focused on female subjects whose experiences are conveyed by revisiting archive-based records of their voices, either written or sound recordings. For example, Sini Anderson’s The Punk Singer (2013) on “riot grrrl” musician Kathleen Hanna, also underscores links between the voice as written and the voice as spoken or sung. In testament to her sustained investment in prioritizing women’s voices (through punk music and activist zines), Hanna insisted that almost no men be featured as “talking heads” in the film, leading to an uncommonly female-focused bio-doc.
Similar to the way that Lusztig employs written voices from the Ms. magazine archives in Yours In Sisterhood, reworking actual vocal recordings in a contemporary moment can equally unsettle the context for interpreting a given voice, highlighting how our understanding of voices shifts over time depending on the social and political circumstances in which we experience them. In this regard, Yours In Sisterhood brings to mind another experimental documentary, Jane Gillooly’s The Suitcase of Love and Shame(2013), which highlights the complex ethics of archive-based documentaries, and the way they can place historical voices, including private vocal recordings, in a contemporary public forum. In 2009, Gillooly bought a suitcase containing cassette tapes on eBay for $100. The tapes feature the intimate exchanges of a couple, Jeannie and Tom, who were carrying out an affair largely through vocal correspondence in the 1960s. Four years later, Gillooly released her experimental documentary compiled of excerpts of Jeannie and Tom’s tapes accompanied by abstract video footage. Watching the film, or rather, listening to the film while watching Gillooly’s evocative imagery, is an uncomfortable experience because of the sheer authenticity of the archival voices. Unlike the authors of the letters articulated in Yours in Sisterhood, however, these vocal records were never intended for a public forum.
The way that Lusztig recontextualizes a body of mostly unpublished letters also reminds me of a fan letter to Katharine Hepburn that I discovered at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles in 2018; one which bridges Yours in Sisterhood’s use of the voice as written with The Suitcase of Love and Shame’s archival vocal recordings by providing written discourse on the material voice. Back in 1939, a poem entitled “The Apocryphal Story of Katharine Hepburn’s Metallic Voice,” was sent to Hepburn by a fan. Surprisingly, Hepburn makes no reference to this evocative poem in her memoir Me: Stories From My Life (1991), which was also recorded by Hepburn as an audiobook. And yet the book has a chapter entitled “Voice.” Instead, in Hepburn’s opening reflections on her voice she explains the deep hurt and disappointment that can come from never receiving the kind of compliment one wants to hear – including compliments on her voice. Reading this chapter after discovering the fan poem I was somewhat taken aback: had Hepburn somehow never read the poem, one so filled with lyrical adoration for the “alchemy” of her voice that it surpassed Hepburn’s desire to hear she had a “pretty” voice? Or, perhaps writing her memoirs decades later, she had simply forgotten? Either way, comparing Hepburn’s published commentary on her voice with archival materials confirmed to me the need to re-examine existing histories of women’s voices, supplementing “official” discourse with those archival materials less likely to come to the surface.
Yours in Sisterhood brings many such hidden voices to the surface. Similarly, the diverse examples I consider here all point to the complex intersections of gender, voice and archives, including the ways that documentary film can deploy the authenticity of real-world voices to shape our understanding of the past and, as the Hepburn example suggests, to correct for omissions in public records and forums.