Elena Passarello, lyric essayist, Oregon State University assistant professor of English and 2011 winner of the Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest in New Orleans, discussed the inspiration behind her latest book of essays, Let Me Clear My Throat, and the importance of finding one’s own voice at the English Reading Series.
PROVO, Utah (Nov. 7, 2014)—Is there more to A Streetcar Named Desire’s famous “Stella” line than meets the eye? Lyric essayist Elena Passarello discussed the value of the voice and the meaning of individual expression in a reading of her essay “Harpy” at the English Reading Series.
“Her book, Let Me Clear My Throat, is a collection of essays about the human voice,” said student Madison Bowman in an introduction of Passarello’s reading. “Elena’s writing combines elevated thoughtfulness with a voice that is both melodic and percussive in a way that goes beyond how we think of lyrical essays. Hers is like a rock anthem that excites you and pumps you up. Her writing demands to be said aloud and performed.”
Before Passarello began her career as a writer, she was an actress, performing in regional theaters throughout the East and Midwest. She worked as a performer for 10 years before she decided to go back to school and develop her talent as a writer.
“I went back to graduate school and said to myself, ‘You’re never going to tell anyone that you have a history of performance, and you’re not going to write about anything that you know,” said Passarello. “I thought I was going to write this great piece of ethnography on truckers’ wives. I was insufferable the first couple of weeks. I was like, ‘Hi, I’m Elena Passerello. I’m not an actress, and I’m going to write a book about truckers’ wives.’ I’ve never even been near a trucker.”
However, by Passarello’s second year at the University of Iowa, she gradually realized that performance and the voice were her entrance to the world and an inseparable part of her identity as an author.
“Every time I was writing about something, the hook was about the voice of that subject, even if I was writing about a screen door. I decided I should go back to my old life and talk about what it means to perform,” said Passarello.
Her book, Let Me Clear My Throat, deconstructs the idea of sound and the ways the voice expresses and shapes the individual. Passarello explained that as she began compiling ideas for her book, she wanted to write a piece about what it means to be a losing voice at the Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest in New Orleans. The Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest has taken place annually for nearly 20 years to find the best imitator of Stanley Kowalski’s famous “Stella!” shout in the 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire.
“I thought I was going to go down there and lose it and write this heartfelt essay about what it means to have a voice that loses, but I’m a competitive person, and so I ended up winning,” she said. Passarello’s performance earned her the title as the first female winner of the Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest.
The essay, entitled “Harpy,” examines the sounds individuals make and what those sounds communicate. Passarello’s reading questioned the makeup of the voice and the individual, as well as the countless ways a single moment or expression of sound is shaped.
“I realized when I was putting it together that the Stella scream is about masculinity,” remarked Passarello. “A woman had never won this contest in New Orleans. It’s about the masculine voice and what it’s allowed to do and the female voice and what it’s not allowed to do, and how we might navigate that, what might be exciting about that and what might be frustrating.”
She concluded, “I find that when I’m making the essay, I like to figure out the voice after I figure out what the work is about. It’s key that the essay find its own voice.”
For more information on Elena Passarello and her work, visit her university webpage.
To view the video of her winning “Stella” shout, click here.
—Sylvia Cutler BA English ‘17