The value of anthologies over single author books is interesting to consider. The obvious consequence of creating an anthology is that a wider cross-section of insights are represented, whether they be present in poems, short stories or essays. Of course the editor will have curated the pieces present in an anthology, so the over-riding theme is moulded by one person in this way. Nevertheless the anthology can be a very effective way of exhibiting the works, and therefore lived experiences, of a wide range of people.
In the past few months we have found ourselves working on several anthologies which have the objectives of providing a platform for those from underrepresented groups – Life, Honestly, It’s Not About the Burqa and Safe: On British Men Reclaiming Space. The notion of voice and representation were particularly central to It’s Not About the Burqa and Safe. This necessitated contrasting approaches to casting, in order to best convey the wide variety of stories and experiences present in all these pieces.
Life, Honestly (published by Macmillan, produced by Zoë Taylor) is a collection of essays which have been taken directly from The Pool, a website featuring articles by women about women from all areas of life – from beauty to current affairs and everything in between. The collection describes itself as a guide to modern life, and explores the modern experience of womanhood as told by women from an extremely wide range of backgrounds with even wider ranging experiences. The variety of themes and voices present in the collection led to the decision to use one voice, in order for it to act as a common thread between the assorted stories. This was excellently achieved by Zawe Ashton, who communicated the themes of the Life, Honestly essays really fluently while expressing the emotion of each piece. When personal stories and experiences are spoken about in audiobooks, there is much value in a trained professional such as Zawe being used to convey and perform the emotional depths of such pieces in an authentic way.
In contrast, It’s Not About The Burqa (published by Macmillan, edited by Mariam Khan and produced by Lydia Thomson) is an anthology where almost every essay is read by its author. This alternative approach is fitting with the ethos of the anthology, which is aimed at reporting and giving textual representation to the under-reported experiences of Muslim women. It also rails against the media’s frequent, reductive misrepresentation of Muslim women which rarely goes beyond reportage of the Burqa – hence the collection’s title. By having each author read their own essay, the audiobook contributes to the dismantling of the idea that Muslim women form a monolithic community, and acts as a platform for the strengths of their feelings. As the synopsis describes, “these essays are funny, warm, sometimes sad, and often angry, and each of them is a passionate declaration calling time on the oppression, the lazy stereotyping, the misogyny and the Islamophobia.”
In a collection about giving a voice and platform to Muslim women, having one reader speaking for all contributors may not have been appropriate in the way it was for Life, Honestly. The unification that a single voice would have provided may have worked against the objective that this anthology is attempting to achieve. The choice to have each woman read her own piece gives an unfiltered insight into the experience of Muslim women in today’s society, something they are so often denied by the national media.
The casting choices for Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space (published by Orion, edited by Derek Owusu, produced by Ben Carpenter) have many parallels with those of It’s Not About The Burqa. Safe explores the experience of black men within British society. As the synopsis describes, “this timely and accessible book brings together a selection of powerful reflections exploring the black British male experience and what it really means to reclaim and hold space in the landscape of our society.” In the same way as It’s Not About The Burqa is about representing the experiences of Muslim women, conveying the authentic voices of Black British Men is central to this collection – one which we think has been achieved to great effect. The voice of Owusu (and of contributor Alex Reads) will be familiar to readers and listeners of Safe due to their successful podcast Mostly Lit. Many may have come to the anthology via Mostly Lit, and therefore would expect to hear their voices in the audiobook. This represents another aspect of casting choices when recording audiobooks written by those with an existing following.
Whereas Zawe Ashton’s excellent voice work in Life, Honestly provides a consistency to the wide ranging topics covered in the book, Safe and It’s Not About The Burqa both aim to admonish the notions of uniformity that are so often imposed on their respective communities from the outside. Allowing authors to read their own pieces contributes to this mission. The starting point of casting choices for these anthologies, and for every audiobook we create here at Strathmore, is to judge each book individually as opposed to making assumptions about casting simply because it has a similar format to another.