Sunday, December 7, 2008

Interpretation Hurts

When I was a white kid in Vietnam during the war, the women at the market would argue with Chị Năm about who my mama was. "Mỹ lai không?" they'd ask rhetorically (which, between spits of saliva-mixed betelnut, is the impolite equivalent of "Isn't this infant an Amerasian whose foreign-daddy paid a careless-lucky whore in Xã Chín?") They'd pinch my cheeks until my face wore rouge and pulled on my fair hair until my head hurt. That's not the whole story, of course, nor the only one, but it is the start.

When I teach in the university in America now, why would I want to suppress the ambiguities? I'll often start an ESL course with the "old woman / young woman" optical illusion. Except I'll print it on a piece of paper, cut off the corners of the picture to make a perfect circle, wad it up, and toss it to a volunteer who opens the thing and works with the entire class to describe, in English, what they see. Usually, they have no trouble orienting the drawing so that the top is the top. Eventually, they begin to see the artist's intended contrast between "old and young." Invariably, with luck, they see more: "These are females." "They are white." "Maybe American women." "They have a rich husband, a father with money." "They are educated." "They speak English." "They have nice clothes." That's not the whole story, of course.

When I checked out Toni Morrison's Beloved from the library and listened to her narrating her novel on audiotape, Sethe had a different voice from the one I'd heard when I read the book before. She still said, "I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms. . . . A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves. Tiny little chokecherry leaves. Them boys found out I told on em. and when it closed it made a tree. It still grows there still." [They used a cowhide on you?] "And they took my milk." That's not the whole story, of course.

The start is invariably your own subjective perspective, your perspectives. Of course, "not anything goes" in your interpretation, or in mine. Of course, the story continues. Of course. But why ever . . . how really . . . do we prefer cold objectivity to life, to living, even if it's painful?

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