On Interpretations

I had been told by several friends that the humanities campus of the University of Kenitra has quite a few religiously conservative students, but I had not thought much about this until I gave a reading there last week. I did my usual introduction about the process of writing Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, and then I read for about 10 minutes. During the Q&A, a student raised his hand and asked why the father character in “The Fanatic” tries to stop his daughter from covering her hair. “This is strange, ” he said, “because most of the time the fathers do want their daughters to cover.” In my response, I pointed out that, in the amphitheater where we sat, there were many women who covered, and many who did not. I said that no one, least of all my father, had ever asked me to cover. It’s a woman’s choice, I said. A bearded young man behind the questioner interrupted me, “Actually, it’s not a choice.” A few people laughed at his temerity, and then I explained that, above and beyond the debate over the veil, the story dealt with a very specific father, a very specific daughter, certainly not people who represent every gamut of experience in Moroccan society.

A young woman asked me, “Your book deals with illegal immigration, fundamentalism, judicial corruption, and so on. Do you think that writing about negative things in Morocco makes your work more attractive to the Western reader?” I must say I was taken aback because I had never thought of my work as being about “negative things.” I explained that the book describes complex characters, who are put in complex situations. Some of the things in their lives are positive, others are negative. One could just as easily say that, in addition to illegal immigration, for example, the book deals with filial love and romantic love and platonic love, so why not mention those things, too?

I thought that I had laid those concerns about outsider/insider writing to rest. How wrong I was. A smiling young man in the front row asked, “I found your story “The Fanatic” to be insulting, in the same way that Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was insulting to Nigeria.” This, of course, wasn’t so much a question, as a comment, more specifically a challenge to me to say something for myself. The problem was that I had already forgotten about my book by then because I was trying to get my head wrapped around the idea that Things Fall Apart was insulting to Nigeria.
“Have you ever been to Nigeria?” I asked.
“No.”
“How do you know that it’s insulting? In what way is it insulting?”
“Because Okonkwo is polygamous and he beats his wives.”
I was mystified as to how this young student could have possibly reduced Achebe’s work to this one-liner. The gentleman who had introduced me, a professor in the English department, squirmed in his seat in embarrassment. I spoke about Achebe’s work, explained that the book is set in a very specific time and place in Nigerian history, that there is much more to Okonkwo than the polygamy, that the book deals with many issues, most importantly the appearance of British colonialism and how it changes Okonkwo’s world.

As I talked, I realized that this young man (and indeed several of the people who were so eager to ask questions that put literature on trial) was not a regular reader of books. It seems impossible to me that anyone who reads novels on a usual basis could come up with such a reductive interpretation, and I felt an overwhelming sadness, for him, and for what he was missing. After the reading, he came up to the podium to have his picture taken with me. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know if he had asked that question because he truly felt the way he said he did, or because he thought it would be funny, or if he was just being a punk. I think what upset me most was this expectation that my work, or literature in general, should be a stage in which good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. In other words, what this student wanted was a fairytale. Life is not like that, and neither is literature.

The strangest interpretation, however, came when a student asked me: “In your book, a young woman goes from being a religious conservative who covers her hair to being a prostitute in Spain. Do you think that this is a metaphor for Morocco, which prostitutes itself to the West through the Free Trade Agreement?” I think I heaved a very audible sigh. Sometimes, a scarf is just a scarf, it’s not a symbol for a country. I used as an example the anecdote that Sydney Lumet tells about asking filmmaker Akira Kurosawa why he framed a particular shot in Ran the way he did. Kurosawa’s answer was that if the shot had been an inch to the left, a factory would have been exposed, and if it was one inch to the right, the airport would be in the frame, and neither of these buildings belonged in a period movie. The students all had a good laugh.

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