Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Open To Interpretation by Mary Smith

A few incidents recently have got me thinking about how the words we write are understood (or misunderstood) by others. It has brought home to me that, once our poems, stories or novels are out there in the public domain, we cannot control how our readers interpret what we have written.

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?

10 comments:

  1. I am so, so sorry you were heckled, Mary - but it says more about him than it does you and what he perceived you had written, and why.
    I get quite irritated watching 'arty' programmes when they bang on about this author or that having eating problems or a bad marriage or an illness, which has 'obviously' affected their work. Did it really? I've written through bad times and all the stuff written then has humour in it....:)
    Very good post.

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  2. Thanks, Linda. Being heckled was an interesting experience. He did come up and shake my hand afterwards!
    I wonder how much knowing about a writer's personal life colours our view of his/her writing?

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  3. You're right about having no control over our words once they have left us, Mary. It applies to emails as much as to books or poems. You can't convey tone of voice, so what you might SAY in an ironic way (and people would understand), goes flat and can end up being misinterpreted. Hence the need in Twitter to say *ironic face* or use other such devices. (Though as Sally Bercow found out, it can't protect you from the libel laws).

    A bit of loose wording on my part in a first draft sent my agent down a path I had not intended. It was a direction she liked, however, so I changed things around! It ended up working very well. Phew.

    Very thought-provoking post, thank you.

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    1. I hadn't thought about emails, Jenny, but of course, you are right. They can be misinterpreted very easily. Texts, too. I used to work beside a girl who was constantly texting her partner and becoming incensed at his replies which were not meant to sound as they did to her. I thought at the time conducting a relationship by text was a bit dodgy.
      I like the story about your agent interpreting things differently from how you intended - glad it worked out.

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  4. Your heckler sounds infuriating, Mary! Glad you managed to remain calm. It is quite scary the way what we write is out of our control once the words are out there for others to read. Like Linda, I'm very wary of commentators who feel they can define exactly what a writer meant and why they were saying it. Sometimes I think we don't even know those things ourselves.

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    1. He was infuriating, Gill! And the thing is, I keep wondering and worrying if he did have a valid point or if others feel the same.

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  5. Excellent post, Mary. Gives truth to the saying that the book/ poem isn't finished until the reader gets their hands on it.

    As for your heckler, it's not a gender thing - it's a dick thing. As in he was acting like one.

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    1. Thanks, Michael, glad you enjoyed the post. I didn't know that saying - will remember it now, though.

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  6. Great post, Mary. Sheila Templeton was our guest poetry judge at the writing group on Tuesday and she read lots of that poem to us. Amazing how the three voices blended to make one wonderful poem. Your heckler sounds as though he liked the sound of his own ignorance. I do agree that all written words are open to the reader's interpretation and Sheila made the same valid point as Michael!

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    1. Thanks, Rosemary. I love your expression about my heckler liking the sound of his own ignorance. I shall remember that for future use - along with Michael's saying about a work not being finished until a reader gets hold of it.
      Glad you enjoyed hearing Sheila read part of the group poem.

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