The irony is not lost on me. What irony? That one of my books considers how two dogs understand humans, birds, maybe mice even, and not each other. The irony follows me. I selected an award winning audiobook, Anna and the Swallow Man, in which the Swallow Man has a gift for languages: Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish and Bird. The main character in this book, Anna, is unbound by language, and so in her mind also unbound by an imposed identity.
Ana, the librarian I trained, paid and who I called “friend”, broke my heart (my own phrasing) shortly before my departure from Guatemala.
“I didn’t lie to you,” she had said.
“I think we define ‘lie’ differently” I confided to close friends and family, in my own attempt to mitigate my ‘failure’ and ‘broken heart’.
Over the past almost two years, Ana had tagged me in pictures of the community library in Santa Catarina Palopó on Facebook.
“We are friends. I was your friend. We can still be friends,” she offered? She stated? She pleaded? I’m not sure which it was.
“Only if we never talk about the library again,” I replied, again in an attempt to keep my definition, my understanding of ‘friend’ intact.
But “friend”? Were we “friends”? Had we been “friends”? The question lingered sweetly and sometimes intruded rudely upon my thoughts as birdsong can and does.
"Amigo" was definitely wrong. That word looked like the greasy hands of the boat drivers who always wanted to overcharge me to ride across Lake Atitlan. It smelled like the rotting melon and honey fruit salad that I always had to pay twice the price to taste. "Amigo" was enough removed from the kind of relationship I believed Ana wanted with me that it had been easily corrupted by other, more immediate needs. The question was, "What did I need now that our immediate proximity in the one room community library didn't make us require each other?"
I confronted Ana on Facebook a month ago and asked her to stop. I reminded her in a Facebook message that we were “friends” but no longer library colleagues. She apologized and asked what I had been doing. I described my job frustration and that I had been doing a lot of writing. That I had written three books actually.
“What genre?” she inquired without pause.
Genre is an identity, just not for a human being. Genre is an analytical choice not inherent to the book. It is a way of classifying to maximize a particular resource and a means to have models upon which to base content and format decisions. Fantasy? Realistic Fiction? Non-fiction? All along our relationship, Ana’s with me as a resource and mine with Ana for the same reason depended on point of view. And especially in a library or on a shelf in a book store, the text’s classification is a matter of accessibility, the easiest point of entry to start a relationship with the reader.
"Amigo" prior to our miscommunication had been a fantasy. I saw things that weren't there. I wove what I wanted in our story, most definitely because I needed Ana and the other villagers to see me as accessible. I decided not only who I was, but who she was, and she did the same in reverse. Realistic Fiction allowed me to retell the story of my experience in development work in a small, Mayan village in a way that wasn’t fantasy but made more sense considering the circumstances. Non-Fiction was the library manual I wrote, our story, in technical terms.
“What am I writing?” I felt like crying. I paused to respond to her question. Why? The answer I think, must allow for gaps, for the reader to pick out interpretation without a completeness of description on the page, and where multiple languages may float without using a dictionary to look up every word. In a phrase, that intent won’t translate anyway. Much the same as receiving meaning from birdsong. I felt like crying. Why? Because from here maybe we could eventually speak the same language after all.
For more wonderful videos related to teacher training or literacy program development in rural Guatemala, please visit www.child-aid.org. I have no v...