Friday, November 25, 2011

An Evening With David Sedaris

Another recent hearing experience I've been meaning to write about (though it's been several weeks now) is the chance I had to go see David Sedaris read on campus earlier this month. Hey, it's never too late for reflection, right?

As soon as I heard Sedaris was coming, I knew it was something I didn't want to pass up on. But, even as someone who's big on writing, I'm not the biggest fan of going to author readings. The auditory experience (of hearing what a piece of work sounds like, or what interpretation the writer casts on it via his/her style of reading) has never been there for me, and I'd rather read the short story/poem/essay/etc to myself. There are few things more frustrating, both for me and my ASL interpreters, than trying to fully access a piece of work when the writer is reading briskly from the page, complex metaphors and imagery and diction and all. Even the most skilled interpreter, without the chance to rehearse extensively, has to work very hard to deliver an accurate translation/transliteration of a written work. Without relapsing completely into the abstract grammar and conceptual structure of ASL, that is. I hate having crisp verbal concepts from written English get lost in translation that way - after all, isn't it the English version that I'm interested in, that I've come to the reading anticipating to contemplate? My interpreters know this, and I'm always impressed by how well they do in trying to satisfy my literalist, straight-from-the-page tendencies. Still, oftentimes the easiest solution for me (and them!) is to get my hands on a written transcript of what the writer is reading, and just access it that way. Even if this in itself raises complications: if I'm taking the time to attend a reading, only to look straight at the page instead of the verbal performance, is it worth it? Might I just as well read that material at home to myself?

Now, I'm not going to say David Sedaris's reading was a sudden breakthrough in my history with author readings. It wasn't. But it was a big enough event for me to put aside my usual misgivings and go. (I've been trying to do this more often in recent months. Maybe part of it is conceit. If I can't access the full impact of what David Sedaris or another big-name author was saying, and how, then at least I can say I've seen David Sedaris.) And, combined with the fact that Sedaris was my first experience with trying to listen to comedy, I walked away with some interesting insights.

It was a full house in the on-campus auditorium where Sedaris was speaking, and I arrived at my seats in the front row to find my interpreter team cramming over copies of his essays to be read that night. (Apparently one of them had gone up to get his autograph beforehand, and when she let it drop that she was an ASL interpreter, he promptly insisted on letting her read over his material, apologized for not knowing there would be interpreters and providing copies in advance, and promised not to make any cheap sign-related jokes. I've seen too many of those, so props to you, Mr. Sedaris.) Apparently the preparation helped, for both interpreters zipped through Sedaris's essays and off-the-cuff remarks without any problem. It helped that his speaking pace was moderate; never did he rush ahead or get lost in his own flurry. Even when the crowd was roaring with laughter, he'd only give a small grin at most, take a breath, and move on. His material was lively, his essays provocative, and I walked away having had a good time.

But... there was still something I didn't get. There was still a sense of personal distance that hovered over my entire experience of the night. I think most of it had to do with the fact that, regardless of how skilled my interpreters were, I was still the one watching.

"His voice is just funny," one of my interpreters slipped in as Sedaris started talking - one of those side comments that they sometimes give me, to help me access the full context of what is going on. As soon as she told me that, I tried to pay closer attention. I cranked my CI up. I watched the sign language streak by, but at the same time I tried to hang onto Sedaris's voice, to understand exactly what gave it its comic effect. And, although I was able to match what I heard with what I saw, it was still just a voice. What made it funny? "He sounds almost like a woman," my other interpreter said after the event was over.

"Is that what makes him so good?" I asked her. "Is it the way his voice sounds?"

"He has such a unique voice," she told me. "It's really weird. I can't describe it - it's just weird. It's a great radio voice. You hear it and you can't stop listening."

I still didn't get it. I have no conception of how someone's voice can be alluring, mesmerizing, funny, or any of those things. Or if I do, it's on a very superficial level. I've noticed that, in everyday life, there are some voices I like more than others, though I can't say why. I've started recognizing some people's voices, at least once I identify the speaker and confirm my own subconscious expectations. Regardless of whether I like a voice or not, however, that's all the subtext I ever associate with it: like or dislike. I understand the concept of inserting emotion into your voice when speaking. I do that myself - it's something I take some pride in, that even before the CI I understood how to inflect my voice when I asked questions, and how to express surprise and sarcasm and excitement and flatness at will. (Even if I'm just about the worst storyteller because of my inability to achieve them in more complex combination.) To be honest, though, I associate verbal nuances more with facial expression, body language, or other subjective context. They're not something I can discern from listening alone.

So, back to David Sedaris. Throughout the night, I would hear the crowd around me erupting at some remark  he made. Afterwards I had a few friends tell me their sides hurt from laughing. But, other than a chuckle or two, I didn't laugh very much. First I'd hear the laughter - hold on, wait for it, something's funny. Then, after the slight time lag from the interpreter's end, my mind would race, converting the words from sign language to English. Finally, I would review what I'd just seen, and usually grasp what could have been interpreted as humorous in that sentence. But note the passive voice: I reviewed Sedaris's humor as an observer of that humor, not as a participant in it. The timing, for the most part, was lost on me. The words weren't uproariously funny in and of themselves, I wasn't hearing them, and my steps of mental translation seemed to whisk me out of the immediate moment in which comedy occurs.

This detachment doesn't happen to me as often when I watch movies or hold everyday conversations, in which more visual input accompanies the auditory. I left the reading distracted by the questions spinning through my mind. Yet again, what makes listening to someone funny? What's in a voice, anyway?

Only a few days later did one of my best friends give me an answer. "The read-out-loud aspect," she said, "is like being tickled. It strikes you differently when the timing and delivery are out of your control." Her simile made sense to me, at least cognitively. That's what I had been missing.

I still wonder what it would be like to hear it, I really do. Although I guess I'm not ticklish either...

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