3rd ENG webevent: exploring conventional storytelling and interpretation

sara.gladwin's picture

“In many ways, literary conventions, as well as the conventions of literacy, militate against an understanding of traditional tribal materials. Western technological-industrialized minds cannot adequately interpret tribal materials because they are generally trained to perceive their entire world in ways that are alien to tribal understandings” (Allen 31). This quote is from a reading from another class outside the 360 but I could not help but feel it captured some of my difficultly in reading “I, Rigoberta Menchu.” Paula Gunn Allen (who I extracted the above quote from) wrote an essay asserting that the way white colonial understanding and retelling of Indigenous people’s culture and stories distorts their reality. Allen specifically believes that one of the most important aspects of this distortion is through the particular “plotting” of a retelling. In the English language, we are taught that a story should follow a predictable and linear trajectory. First there is the introduction of characters and a “reader-capturing” conflict that those characters will have to continually work towards absolving. The characters then go through a series of experiences that shape their identity and lead into the final climax of the story; the pivotal moment in which the characters are forced to reconcile with their conflict in an explosive way. After the climax the story winds downward into a satisfying, neat conclusion in which the reader can ultimately extract from a piece of meaning or theme that ties each event together. In some ways, the orderliness of our language seems to represent the more implicit values we have in speaking clearly and directly. Furthermore, a large component of our stories seem to revolve around the concept of “soul-searching,” where a character embarks on a journey of self-discovery and is ultimately successful in articulating their person and identity once the journey is complete. Allen suggests that this method of story telling is not at all identical to the themes of tribal stories. The “neatness” of the conventional English language-based narrative serves to undermine our ability in seeing value in tribal material because we cannot recognize our own plot trajectory within tribal narratives. We are taught to believe in the universality of this trajectory and thematic implications of it. However, it is impossible to completely “plot” a native persons story on the same sequence of events because it does not exist. I began to worry that my reading of  “I, Rigoberta Menchu” was based on my own assumption of how a story should work. I was consistently frustrated with the way her narrative refused to directly reveal all of its “secrets” and follow a chronological order.

After reading Paula Gunn Allen, I began to think differently; I tried harder to listen to Rigoberta’s words within the context of her own cultural understandings. I realized as I was “listening” instead of reading that perhaps another reason why her narrative does not follow “the guidelines” for written memoir is that it is not meant to be written. It is meant to spoken and heard. The Indian culture in Guatemala seemed to rely heavily on oral tradition and the importance of their dialogue is paramount to the story. In speaking, there is less formality, less inclination to pre- edit and reorder events in a way that “makes sense.” The editing is done visibly and auditorily; often she begins a new chapter with a modification of a previous assertion or event. Chapter Twenty begins with “There is something I didn’t say before… I think I should mention it now” (Menchu 176). She writes as she speaks, without feeling the need to explain in a more “conventional” order. While those who speak chronologically find this fragmented and confusing, it is her reality. Because her narrative appears “sloppy” it can then be used as a measure of her competence and ability to make sense of the events surrounding her; but in many ways I find her retelling much more “true” to the reality, which is not neat or easily categorized at all. It many things all at once; both confusing and illuminating; both intricate and simple.  This may also imply that clarity in the form of chronological ordering is not particularly important to the Indian people. To impose order on the events that happen would take away from the unity created in sharing their forefather’s suffering. They do not separate themselves through time to allow their culture to live on into the future.

I worry by attempting to interpret or comment on her narrative I am inscribing my own values, believes and bias upon her culture. I worry that by relying on my own cultural understandings to perceive her way of life, I have reinforced the same oppression that initiated her desire to speak. I also worry that I have obscured fully understanding the dynamics of Rigoberta’s culture and the relationship of people in the community. Rituals that appear to me as very restricting to my sense of the world do not carry the same restrictions for her; the represent unity, identity and community. They represent strength in the face of oppression, and assurance that the essential core of their people refuses to submit to the dominating culture. I also think in order to really talk “I, Rigoberta Menchu” we have to redefine the words we use to describe the narrative. “Ritual” “Culture” and “Secrets” are just a few of the words that are much more complex in meaning and should really be unraveled further in order to proceed. My struggle to navigate “I Rigoberta, Menchu” is really found in the dynamic between insisting upon a more culturally aware, complex understanding of her identity and the necessity for respecting the boundaries she constructs to surround her cultural identity. While there are ways that these two kinds of reader reactions to the text overlap, they appear more often as contradictory; the desire for increased knowledge seems more consistently in opposition with a particularistic understanding that not all things are translatable.

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Anne Dalke's picture

Lost in translation

Sara--
It just delights me to see you weaving so adroitly back and forth between our course on Ecological Imaginings and this 360--such rich portage! Here I am reading the same paired materials, but I hadn't recognized, until you brought them together, how very well Paula Gunn Allen names our difficulty in accessing the story of Rigoberta Menchu--thank you for this!

What this awareness brings you to, by the end of your essay, though, seems to be a sort of paralysis: "desire for increased knowledge," you say, "seems consistently in opposition with a particularistic understanding that not all things are translatable." So where does that leave the reader who (like yourself, like me) wants to know? Lamenting all that is lost in translation? What/where else?

In your first webpaper, you wrote about silence as self-imposition--"I am my own silencer." In the second, you dug more deeply into your fear of silence, your need to always fill the void (and you set yourself the task of getting more comfortable not doing that). So how does this third paper, which effectively "silences" the reader, tells her not to overreach, not to think she knows, not to impose her own values on a text that arises out of a culture not her own--fit into the trajectory you are tracing? Is it another form of self-imposed silence, one that refuses to fear not knowing, not accessing all there is to know, all that is not knowable?

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