Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Open To Interpretation by Mary Smith
One example is from a review of my poetry collection – a very lovely, pleasing review in fact. However, the reviewer commented on a poem which he said was about the gradual decline of ‘her hospitalised father’ which puzzled me as I have not written about my father being in hospital. The poem in question is called Remembering Papa. I think it is possibly a peculiarly Scottish thing to call our maternal grandfather Papa: pronounced with equal emphasis on each syllable – unlike the French for father with its emphasis on the first syllable.
Should I have called it Remembering Grandpa to avoid any confusion? But, he was my Papa and never known as Grandpa. Besides, the reviewer was not confused; sure I was writing about my father. The poem is about not wanting to remember the person I saw in the hospital bed and goes on to remember happy times spent as a child with my Papa. My, and I suspect most people’s, relationships with their father and grandfather are quite different. Does it make a difference to people’s understanding of the poem if they think I am writing about my father rather than my grandfather? Does it matter – as long as the poem is read with enjoyment?
I attended Hidden East, an event in Glasgow organised by conFAB which provided a launch platform for my book Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women and poet Bashabi Fraser’s Ragas and Reels. Three poets, A.C. Clarke, Sheila Templeton and Tracey Patrick were commissioned to write a joint poem for the event. They chose to write their poem based on Al Khatoon, a legendary character from Hazara Jat in Central Afghanistan who features in my book. She’s a sort of siren-figure, very beautiful with long black hair who lures men then smothers them with her enormous breasts – oh, and her feet point backwards.
It is an excellent poem, which I hope they will publish so others can read it. Their portrayal of Al Khatoon was of a powerful feminist figure, which surprised me but I could see how they came to interpret her in this way from what I’d written. When I sent the poem to friends in Afghanistan they were stunned and, although they enjoyed the poem, said this Al Khatoon bore no resemblance to what they knew of her. It seems in some places she has evil intent against women during the time of labour and delivery – not a very sisterly characteristic! Three Scottish poets have interpreted my account, which it seems tells only part of the story, of a legendary figure and bemused my Afghan friends. Does it matter? Will people reading it here change an aspect of Afghan culture? Perhaps if they change the name from Al Khatoon they would have created an entirely new legend.
Finally, while I was doing a reading this week I was heckled by a member of the audience. I have often been asked searching, sometimes difficult to answer questions, but this guy was constantly interrupting with observations. He told me about the fields of poppies grown in Afghanistan, flatly refusing to believe there were none in the area in which I worked. When the predominantly female audience rocked with laughter about the women in my health class in Afghanistan giggling and blowing up condoms as though they were balloons he told me it was wrong to write a book which made fun of people, depicting them as backward and ignorant.
I was cross, though remained calm (though I rather felt like slapping him) and said I took exception to such remarks as nowhere in the book (which he hasn’t read) do I make disparaging comments or say the people about whom I am writing are backward. I wrote the book as much as anything to provide an insight into ordinary every-day life in Afghanistan, to try to dispel some of the myths about women’s lives fed to us by the media. The laughter of the women in the audience was a sign of recognition of shared experiences, not laughter at the women’s expense. They could feel the threads that link us together – perhaps it is a gender thing?
Maybe my heckler didn’t like having his ‘knowledge’ of Afghanistan challenged. For him, it is a lawless country of warlords, Kalashnikovs, opium – and women knowing their place.
Has anyone else experienced their writing being interpreted in a way they didn’t expect?