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Talking with Soneela Nankani
In June 2021, Soneela Nankani was inducted as a Golden Voice, AudioFile's lifetime achievement honor for audiobook narrators.
What has surprised you the most about your work in audiobooks?
I guess I’ve been the most surprised by the number of genres in which I’ve been able to work. I used to think of myself as having the type of voice that was really best for young adult books. And while I still narrate those, it’s been amazing, as my skill has improved and my experience deepened and as producers have become familiar with my work, to be able to work in many other genres as well. One of my favorite genres to work in, nonfiction, was one which I never thought would be open to me.
The other thing I would mention is how I’ve developed some wonderful relationships with authors. There are quite a few authors for whom I’ve narrated multiple books, to the extent that their characters now feel like old friends. The writing community, I have found (much like the audiobook community), is incredibly kind, supportive. That’s been lovely to discover and engage with.
How do you approach issues of cultural authenticity when you’re narrating?
I really think you can glean most of what you need to know from the text. I’m always looking for clues about relationships, speech patterns, and areas of origin and staying 100% faithful to that. If I still have questions, I’ll contact the author. It’s the author’s words I’ve been entrusted to bring to life, so it’s important to me that I stay as faithful to that as possible. After that, I’ll do some of my own research, sometimes reach out to friends about pronunciations or cultural references and then add in a dollop of my own intuition and experience. Cultural authenticity is really important to me, which means my prep is usually quite involved!
What’s your favorite genre to narrate?
Any genre in which I can learn something. Which, let’s face it, is pretty much every genre. I’m an incredibly curious person and a collector of random facts, so there are not many books I don’t get excited about. When I started narrating, I’d never read a sci-fi book in my life. At some point, I got cast in a few of them and now, I’m a big fan.
Have you ever done anything outrageous to get into character for an audiobook?
I wouldn’t call it outrageous, but sometimes it helps me to get in character physically when voicing characters. I have no idea what I look like when I’m voicing, say, an imposing 60-year-old male politician. I imagine it’s pretty silly, but it really works! And when I’m working on fantasy or sci-fi books, it can really get wild.
Interview, 2018--Classically trained actor and narrator Soneela Nankani, who has earned multiple Earphones Awards and an Audie nomination, agrees with the perception that demand for her work has taken off in the last two years. “It really seems to me there’s been an explosion of books around the South Asian experience--Young Adult and also fiction more broadly. And I’ve really benefited from that.”
Before her narrating debut in 2009, Nankani had never listened to an audiobook: “I didn’t even know it was a thing!” she laughs. That year, an acting friend who was involved in audiobooks recommended her to narrate a book. Nankani recalls preparing for the audition and feeling overwhelmed. “I was lucky to have help from narrator Cary Hite. He helped me prepare that first script, showed me how to mark it up, how to consider what characters might sound like. Back then, it was a paper script, and I had seven colored highlighters!” A week later, she was asked to record her first book, ONE AMAZING THING, by Chitra Divakaruni. Nankani, who describes herself as an avid reader, quickly realized that narration offered her a way to combine her passions for reading and acting into something else she really loves to do.
Of Indian and Ghanaian descent, Nankani says being born into a family of storytellers helps with her work in many� ways. “In both my families’ cultures, things are passed down through storytelling. So I’ve always been connected to that, through my parents and grandparents. Storytelling has always been a strong part of who I am culturally.” Her background as a world traveler also helps. “I tend to work on audiobooks that either are fantasy or involve travel or other cultures. It’s no coincidence! In addition to being from those two cultures, I have family from all over the world whose knowledge I can draw from. All of that helps.”
Now that she’s recorded more than a hundred audiobooks, does she have advice for those just beginning? After taking a moment to reflect, Nankani recommends something she’s begun doing recently: not using headphones in the booth. “I think the listening to yourself can take you out of it, in a way. When I’m not listening to myself, I can be 100% focused on the text and what’s going on with the character and letting that filter through me without worrying about how I sound. I’d recommend trusting yourself to tell the story without constantly double-checking how you sound.”
Nankani appreciates the accolades her work has garnered, but for her, the best compliment comes from authors whose work she reads. She was recently delighted to hear from Leah Franqui, author of AMERICA FOR BEGINNERS. “I loved that book. It’s so beautiful. I loved working on it and was so glad to hear how happy she was with the production. When an author emails me to say ‘That’s just the way I wanted the story to be told’--that’s everything to me! If the author’s happy, I’m happy.”--Jessie C. Grearson
©AudioFile 2021, Portland, Maine
Photo by Jody Christopherson
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