Promotional photo depicting the red cover of the book "Joy Has a Sound" with music sheet paper in the background.

‘Joy Has a Sound: Black Sonic Visions’ — a Book Review of Wa Na Wari’s New Anthology

by Patheresa Wells

If you close your eyes and imagine what joy sounds like, what might you hear? The laughter of a loved one? The crescendo of your favorite piece of music? When I tried to recall the sounds of joy, so many other senses flooded in — they kept trying to drown out the sounds. This made me realize that sound can often be an overpowering experience, making silence a relief. But if we do not explore sound — do not imagine its possibilities or examine how it can shape us — then, we may find ourselves blocked. We may discover that silence becomes a barrier because the ability to make noise is a privilege. 

Joy Has a Sound: Black Sonic Visions, a new anthology created by Wa Na Wari, asks, “How do we reclaim, decolonize, and play in the aural?” In response, they curated a group of Black artists from various disciplines to explore sound. I was immediately struck by the book’s beauty and how the imagery of sound takes shape on the page. We see an expansive collection of each artist’s auditory exploration of joy from musical composition, photography, poems, drawings, journal entries, and more. 

Stuck in my home due to the pandemic and the recent snowstorm, I continually flipped the pages as a means of escape and understanding. Photography from Christina Sharpe examines locations she traveled (Porto, Cartagena, Tobago, and Trinidad) that she says have “the afterlife of slavery — simultaneously present and absent.” A photo of the night sky with barely recognizable palm trees, stars, and clouds competing for recognition amongst the darkness of the night is accompanied by the words “I startle easily. … I need quiet or what Kevin Quashie calls ‘the sovereignty of the interior.’” What struck me most about Sharpe’s photos is that I found myself examining how sound stakes shape within each one. Photographs of a sugar mill in Buccoo where enslaved people were forced to work brought to my ears the sound of rustling trees that stand outside it — of nature that fills a place whose sounds have changed over time. 

The idea that sound changes is central to the play Paratonal by Rachael F. excerpted in the anthology. Rachael shares that the play was developed around sound, emphasizing that “the imagination of the reader will ultimately take control and the possibilities of interpretation will stretch widely.” The author hopes this personal focus on the meaning of sounds allows the reader “to get lost in realms of imagination is pure joy. Sounds and words have the power to transport and transmute.” 

While reading Paratonal, I found myself escaping into the words, my mind creating the sounds accompanying the sound effects I read. My lips pursed as they worked alongside my mind to produce the alliteration and assonance found within. One of my favorite lines that I quote without context for its pure brilliance is, “E.T. is phoning home some heifers!” This brings me past sound to story. The piece includes rich words and rewarding resonances when read aloud but also has radio drama and science fictional aspects that drew me even further into the tale. I will admit that by the end of it, I found myself wishing to know what was next, hoping for another scene, and wondering if my partner would act out the play in our living room, trading speaking parts with me.

A trade-off of sound, a collective experience of it, a chorus of coming together over it is the theme of the choreopoem “Keep it Moving” by Anastacia-Reneé. In it, six voices harmonize as an “unflinching gaze directed toward collective liberation.” Reneé “invite[s] the reader or listener to hear the sounds of women who have so often been silenced, muffled, or repeatedly turned off.” When reading the choreopoem, I was struck by how the repetition was somehow individual and collective. And I found myself invited into the poem in a way that made me wonder if it was not written with me in mind.

Here’s an excerpt:

when alice hears them say the moon
is shrinking she thinks of
black women’s bodies being gentrified
of craters stuck between her teeth
& white men trying to colonize her

how can i build a nation
afraid to walk out into the moonlight

Am I not Alice? Have I not been unable to imagine the moon, the stars, the universe as expansive as it is because of the limiting nature of my experiences in this world? These are the thoughts I found myself asking as I read along, my voice joining those on the page. Our combined refrain mirrored, reflective yet still our own. 

Joy Has a Sound has fifteen contributors listed along with the editors and the Wa Na Wari team. The anthology is a coming-together over sound, silence, and joy. It is a reclamation of our ability to make noise and encounter the power that sound holds. The book allowed me to delve into sound through different mediums and acknowledge how the sonic, like our other senses, helps us to perceive the world around us. And that for Black voices it is important that we find ways to observe a world that has so often kept us quiet.

Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.

📸 Featured image courtesy of The Third Thing.

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