What Reading Stories Reveals About Our Identities
More than Just Words
I habitually encounter in myself my own lack of understanding when it comes to other people. Even people that are supposedly like me completely baffle me at times. For that matter, there are always those moments where an event happens and I find myself reacting in a way completely unlike what I thought I would be. Sitting in a class studying African American literature, we were discussing the story Drenched in Light by Zora Neale Hurston. At one point in the story, near the end, if I recall, a white woman stands on and watches admiringly as a black girl dances, showering the world with her still innocent, child’s joy. The way the story portrayed her, I couldn’t escape the impression that here was a woman who struggled with depression and was looking into a living reminder that joy could still be found in the world. Being someone who finds living easier to do in the pages of a story, this story spelled out to me the very human desire to find joy amid suffering.
Making some statement of this kind, I remember the bitter laugh that came from a man. He was black, but it was the bitterness of his laugh that defined him to me. A human story? This wasn’t a human story. Not to him. I don’t recall his counter on what the story truly was. I think, having been overly sensitive (and a little annoyed) at the time, I can only recall the frustration in his voice as he explained that this wasn’t a story about humanity. This was a story about race. About a women of privilege taking advantage of someone who will grow up to struggle in ways that the depressed woman will never understand. That was my impression of his sentiments.
I don’t remember much else about that class besides the information. No other incident from that class really stood out. Yet I think that day has helped shape the thought that the way we read literature can tell us more about who we are and the experiences we’ve had. Although I’ve never been able to talk to that man, I’ve often pondered over his response, wondering what experiences he had that made him respond in that way. I know my own experience with depression and longing for peace to exist between all kinds of people regardless of denomination played some part in the way I read the text. In the woman, I saw myself and my longing to see joy again. I saw a human story.
But what about his experience? Society can be especially good at making people feel as though they are less than human. In the romantic novels by Charlaine Harris, one reading of the vampires struggling for legitimacy in society is that it’s really about the LGBT community and their struggle to be treated as human. Through experiencing inhumane treatment, becoming human in society becomes a chief goal to be obtained. For this man, was his denial of my reading of it as a human story the result of years of being treated inhuman by the society he grew up in? Just what kind of experiences did he have that made him see that story in the way that he did? I don’t know.
In a class on world literature I took a few years later, I saw again how literature reveals experiences and shapes a person’s reading of a text. We were reading Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. At some point, the instructor told us how the author felt as though she wanted people to be moved by her literature, yet thus far had not obtained her objective. After having finished this very intense, depressing (yet geniously written) book, I remember the response of a girl who sat in the back, body tilted forward, voice mournful. “I know that she wants me to be moved,” she said and her hand gestured up helplessly. “But where I’m from, my community experiences a lot of these same problems too.”
Later, I tried to explain her reaction to some friends. Unfortunately, I tend to be a bit out of my element in the speaking realm. The written word is slower and you have more time to craft the nuances of a moment. I still remember my frustration at being unable to communicate what I had learned from her. Simply, that she was suffering too. That while she might be white and miss some of the negative treatment society attaches to skin color, her life still didn’t resonate with the kind of “white privilege” discussed by middle class Peggy McIntosh. If reading the Bluest Eye was intended as a call to action, the way it was read by her made her see her own helplessness with her own community, her own lack of control. How could she reach out when her own world wasn’t fixed?
For some people, books are a waste of time, but I’m convinced reading literature can tell us about who we are and make us see the commonplace, invisible ways we have become defined from others. I remember my frustration with preparing for the AP English test over a certain question about a story. The question dealt with which sign showed the character’s true remorse or sorrow. Crying was listed as one of the options, but I marked down some other answer that seemed more indicative of her sorrow. When I learned it was wrong, I remember saying that crying seemed fake to me. No real sorrow came from tears. Several other students in the class agreed with me. That was when my teacher, a very smart man, announced that he thought they would have to change the tests around soon because this was how my generation read what sorrow meant. That was the moment that made me wonder about the validity of being told what a text is meant to say.
In a philosophy of literature course, I one school of thought says that when you read a text, no other reading matters but your own. It’s just you and the text. In whichever way the author intended the text to be read, no matter how teachers have said it should be read, whatever other extemporaneous detail that comes outside the text and isn’t you, it is ultimately your reading of the text that matters. This kind of reading is known as reader response theory. Other theories exist about how literature is meant to be read. Yet it is this one theory, I think, that helps to understand these kinds of moments when pages are opened and stories are read.
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