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June 20, 2012

Alina Simone on Recording YOU MUST GO AND WIN

Alina Simone is a singer and writer based out of Brooklyn, NY. YOU MUST GO AND WIN is her collection of essays about Russia, family and the tragic-comic struggle to make it in indie rock. Here, she discusses the process of recording her book.

“We were thinking maybe you could do Russian accents when you read you parents’ dialog?”

This fine engineer was working so hard to correct my stutters and efface my coughs, I wanted to say Yes. That whenever I reached one of my mother’s pithy bon mots — or better, quoted the Ukrainian whose questions to me included “Are you very beautiful?” and (inscrutably) “Do you have any Zoons?” — I would instantly slip into Yakov Smirnoff mode. Alas, I am not an actor. I can’t do impressions. I can only read things in my flat, despairing voice and hope it somehow comes off as funny. I said No.

But I quickly discovered there were far worse problems lurking within the padded cocoon of my recording booth. For when I wrote my little book of tragic-comic essays I blithely peppered it with words that I couldn’t pronounce out loud. In other languages. Most treacherous was a passage where I describe accidentally accepting a ride from a convicted murderer in a small village in Siberia. I was riding in the back seat, listening to this murderer unleash a long string of invective to the friend of his driving, all the while picturing my parents back home sprinkling my ashes in the small pond behind their house. In the text, these swears were first written out in Russian then translated into English. But since I didn’t grow up within a Russian penal colony, or a cardboard box by the side of a Moscow highway, I had no clue how to actually say these words.  Imagine the worst combination of curses you can. Now multiply that by ten. This is the dialect of Russian obscenity known as “mat.”

Where to turn for help? Not to my parents or grandparents; I blushed to even imagine them saying such things. Nor to the nice online pronunciation guides my engineer used to help me put the right emphasis on “entreaty.” Even my engineer was flummoxed.

A combination of unlimited free coffee and a heavy reliance on speed-reading got me though. But the experience left me with an internal censor. Do I dare write about “Pfiesteria piscicida,” a dangerous microbe unleashed on several North Carolina rivers when a lagoon full of pig excrement burst? What if someday, someone asks me to read this passage aloud? I can’t pronounce “Pfiesteria piscicida” to save my life! My fingers are more nimble than my lips, friends. This is what I’ve learned.

Except when it comes to dark chocolate laced with sea salt, in which case the exact opposite is true.