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Knowing a Young Brown Person Might Listen and Feel Less Alone: The Narrative Life of Priya Ayyar [in The Booklist Reader]

Although audiobooks are just part of Priya Ayyar’s acting career, demand for her narrative talents shows no signs of slowing down. Recent highlights from Ayyar’s audio career are the focus of the “Now Hear This” column in the November 1 issue of Booklist, but Ayyar most definitely has plenty more to say.

“Bringing these diverse books to life” is why Ayyar does what she does. She narrates the books she didn’t have when she was growing up, books that resonate with her experiences as a California-born Indian American. “To think that someone who’s Muslim American or Hindu American or Buddhist American can find a whole genre of YA literature – and YA and adult authors who are writing for them – is wonderful,” she enthuses. In the last couple years alone, the youthful, chimerical Ayyar has undoubtedly become the go-to voice of young South Asian American and Arab American protagonists.

I went on your IMDB page, and clearly you’ve been acting for much longer than what your perennially youthful voice suggests. So how did you get into audiobook narration?
It happened quite accidentally. I had finished undergrad and was in grad school at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. I auditioned and got a job traveling with a theater project called The Road Home: Stories of Children of War, involving refugees from all over the world. Getting my equity card gave me a bit of leverage … and I was able to sign with an agency pretty quickly. And they had a commercials department and loved my voice and sent me out for voice-overs.

Also, as a college student, I had booked a couple of radio spots and commercials. I had this ongoing job with this guy, who was so generous at the time that I got $75 an hour as a college student, to record ESL workbooks. So, I was aware that my voice was going to make a little money from the time I was younger.

And how did you jump from language workbooks and land on audiobooks?
It took a while, as audiobooks were not even on my radar. The most interesting job I got back then was for a museum installation that featured the stories of early New York immigrants; for example, I had to do an Irish brogue for these domestic servants who lived upstate and worked at a carpet mill. Short of being a musician – and I do sing – and recording something that you know will stand the test of time, this was another way to record things for posterity.

I always wanted to do animation, since I am able to do a bunch of voices. I like writing and creating, so I made a short film, and I wrote and starred in a web series called I Love Charisma. I just kept working and creating. Then I got a network television job and flew to L.A. to film a pilot and six episodes, and I thought, “Oh geez, this is a lot of money and a lot more money than theater.” New York theater actors are sort of always pooh-poohing L.A., but I love it because I was born in California, and after a long time in New York, I was really happy to be back by the beach. The day I left, it was -10° with the windchill in Brooklyn, and I landed in L.A., and it was 83°. So I said bye-bye to New York for television work. I’ve done a lot of network pilots that haven’t been picked up and a few adaptations of British shows. They’ve been very funny and very edgy, but I guess that didn’t translate to what the American networks wanted. Now things are changing with streaming and the incredible amount of content ordered and available, one is no longer dependent on the old broadcast network system … so a ton of opportunity is out there!

Then a friend of mine, Vikas Adam – another narrator who’s been narrating audiobooks for a very long time – got a book that had both male and female main characters, and he called to ask, “Would you like to audition for this?” And I thought, “Sure!” I have nothing to lose. I could even record the audition on my phone. I sent it in – and got the job. Vikas and I recorded The City of Devi by Manil Suri. That was about seven or eight years ago.

I reviewed that book way back when. And I love love love Vikas Adam’s audiobooks!
Yeah, Vikas. He’s great. And he does such a variety of voices. He sometimes texts me the reviews we have received because we’ve since done a couple of other things together. Last year, for Macmillan, we did Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy. Vikas did the portions of the grandfather in recollections, and I did the main narration of all the short stories.

I believe Vikas narrates full-time. I was just doing it here and there, but then one thing led to a ton of other things. I haven’t pursued this full-time in the way that other narrators have. I want to, but I’ve had a very full plate. My friends are always saying, “You should go and publicize yourself and go to that annual convention and meet more people.” But I sort of like the underground way people and publishers find me. Up until now, it’s been a side hustle, which worked great with having a family. Now I record mainly in the evenings when my husband can watch our son.

It’s just been a great job. And I’ve enjoyed so much being able to read so many books. It’s just kept me, you know – woke, aware, and on the pulse of what’s going on in the world.

Diversity – and equitable representation – has always been important to you, yes?
I became aware of these issues at NYU. I had come out of the Stella Adler Studio and at that time, in the 1990s, they had only gone as far up the dramatic canon as A Raisin in the Sun, which had debuted in 1959! Being Indian, and knowing other actors of color at Tisch, we were just like, “This is unacceptable. You know, we’re not going to graduate from a performing arts school and audition for Hedda Gabler or Miss Julie. We need to know the playwrights who are writing for us.” And so, together with a couple of other students, we petitioned to have the department chair changed and subsequently, a woman of color took over. We also petitioned for course changes, and came up with the idea for a course called “Dramatics of Diversity.”

That was an important calling for me, because suddenly I was able to read Asian American plays, Latino American plays, African American plays. And I thought, Geez, some of these old-school acting teachers really stopped teaching their students in the ’40s and ’50s, and consequently, their disciples, their students, and their training also stopped with those older plays. They all just seemed so limited and stuck.

So yes, diversity has been a real point my entire life. And getting to do my own thing, and write and create my own works – that’s especially important as a person of color who’s interested in the performing arts.

And that diversity must also apply to how you choose your audiobook narrations.
What has been great about being a narrator is bringing these very diverse books to life, like YA books I certainly didn’t have when I was growing up. I didn’t see my experiences as a first- or second-generation American growing up here in books. Kids of a certain age only had Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary books back then. And now, to think that someone who’s Muslim American or Hindu American or Buddhist American can find a whole genre of YA literature – and YA and adult authors who are writing for them – is wonderful.

How do you prepare for a narration?
Well, it’s funny: I see narrating the way I approach acting – which is to be conscious of how I’m absorbing the material and how it’s affecting me. I like to do it old-school. I really prefer to read in book form. I just write my feelings and thoughts on the page while I’m going through it, and also keep track of the characters and what’s happening, and notice thematic links and the narrative arc.

I used to annotate a lot, to highlight and mark things, although I’m not so type A with that anymore. I find that when I read, if there’s too much on the page in terms of notes, that can trip me up. So I prepare beforehand, have my notes in the booth, then read from a clean copy. If I need to stop and go over something, I can do that. But I usually like to just read it clean. My acting training says you do all the preparation, and then when it comes to the performance, you have to let go and see where the ride takes you.

How do you sustain your voice and stay in character when you read?
Sometimes it’s hard to get through some books. I usually take a break every hour, try to reset, and then get back in there. I can tell when I’m feeling tired or feeling overwhelmed, or if the material is too dry. But I think it’s been good preparation for me, all these different kinds of books, because I’d like to write a book myself someday. I probably will do a humor book, and maybe a memoir of taking care of my parents as they age.

I don’t want to ever feel pressured or desperate to take everything, because I want the work to be high quality. I look at the stuff I’ve done, both in TV and audiobooks, and I’m proud of it. I’ve never felt like I’ve had to sell myself short or dumb myself down.

You’re certainly cast often – and so convincingly – as the most youthful characters.
I know! But sometimes I’m like, “This girl’s how old? 10? Really?” I have to put on this much younger sound. My voice already is kind of low and hoarse. And I’ve never been a smoker. My mom said I’ve had this raspy voice even as a child.

How do you choose your books?
I’ve passed on a lot of books, to be honest. Sometimes I’m asked to do books that don’t hit me, or they could be romance novels or just lighter fare, what I might think is just fluff. Unfortunately so many books are like that. And so many publishers are just churning out material for these niche groups who buy that genre fiction.

What are your narrating preferences?
I have enjoyed the nonfiction titles, and a couple of political ones that I’ve done, and an animal rights book. And then, regarding fiction, I love to read Indian authors and also authors who write about the immigrant experience. I won’t narrow it down to Indian immigrants, because obviously I can narrate a book in standard American, and I don’t always need to do an accent.

If I look at all the books I’ve done, there have been very few for which I’ve narrated in an accent. There might be a character here or there, a grandparent who still lives abroad, so I need to do a hint of something – Farsi, Arabic, Indian, a certain Indian dialect, a British clip, or a thicker village accent. Those kind of nuances mean a lot to me, and I try to get those right.

Do you have favorite titles?
That’s hard to say. One of the nonfiction titles is Project Animal Farm, and that’s because my whole family is vegetarian and we’re South Indian Brahmin. The writer, Sonia Faruqi, is a Muslim American who ate a lot of meat, decided to take a break, and volunteered at farms across the world. She got great exposure to animal agriculture and how animals are treated. So, being a vegetarian and animal rights activist, that was a good book for me … although it was also very difficult to read, especially the parts about the treatment of these gentle herbivores. I recommend it so people can understand what they’re eating and how the meat affects the environment and their minds and bodies. We are globally and collectively talking about climate change and about sustainability now, and most people do not realize their meat-eating diet, first and foremost, is terrible for the environment and more importantly, not sustainable.

I also read a book last year called The Marginalized Majority by Onnesha Roychoudhuri. She’s a journalist who lives in Brooklyn. I just feel like that book has its finger on the pulse, because a lot of us are feeling very marginalized in this age of Trump and very much like our voice doesn’t count when the truth is: we are the majority.

And what about memorable fiction titles?
My very first YA book that I recorded for Penguin Random House a couple years ago was Mitali Perkins’s You Bring the Distant Near, which had multiple narrators, and they asked me to do a character who had an English accent. That was an intergenerational story about an Indian family, and it got nominated for an Audie Award, which was very exciting.

I really enjoyed The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani, too. That meant a lot to me because it’s about India’s Partition. I learned about Partition from my parents; I certainly didn’t learn about it in the American school system. It’s estimated that one to two million people died and 14 to 15 million were displaced – we have family friends who were displaced. When I read that book, I saw it as similar to doing for Partition what The Diary of Anne Frank did for the Holocaust. Partition was India’s own holocaust. It was so meaningful to be able to do a book that so affected my personal family tree.

I’ve also enjoyed other Indian American books that have been more easygoing and light. I just remember thinking, Gosh, if I was 12 or 13 and I heard this book, it would change my whole world to know that there are other people out there like me, who were playing tennis or dating or trying to be good at school to please parents, but also trying to figure out their identity, culturally and ethnically, and how they connect with their heritage. It’s really been a real privilege to read all of those, knowing a young brown person might listen and feel less alone.

Published: “Knowing a Young Brown Person Might Listen and Feel Less Alone: The Narrative Life of Priya Ayyar,” The Booklist Reader, October 23, 2019


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