Anyone who’s taught English to non-native speakers knows the game of telephone. You whisper a sentence to one student and that student whispers it to the next who whispers it to the next, and so on. The last student in line says the sentence out loud (or writes it on the board) and everyone laughs at how “Jack waited for the bus in the pouring rain” turned into “Jack ate at four on the most boring plane” or some other nonsense.
As I was playing a variation of this game in class this morning, my mind drifted (bad teacher!) to the book I’m currently reading, Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips. It’s a sweeping story of twentieth century China and the tragedies which befall a particular family in the Northeast’s Gaomi County. The first chapter describes, alternately, the birth of a mule, the birth of twins, and the Japanese invasion of a small village. Reading through these 46 pages, an incredibly vivid portrait was painted in my head. I could see the dirty, dingy room where Shangguan Lu was writhing in agony on a dirty kang, laboring to deliver two dying babies. The small, arched bridge which the town crier had covered in alcohol-soaked hay and set afire to ward off the Japanese was as clear as a photograph. Every image, every character was immediately recognizable.
While I live in a relatively modern city in 21st century China, it’s undeniable that my travels and experiences living in this country have informed my perception of Mo Yan’s words. True, I haven’t lived through an invasion nor do I know what it’s like to live in such abject poverty that there isn’t even water or clean towels to assist with the delivery of a baby. Yet, being immersed in this culture does provide me with a unique lens through which I can perceive this story. This is not to say that my perceptions are any better or worse than someone who knows nothing about China, just different.
As all this ran through my head and I cruised on auto-pilot with my students, it really hit home how different every book truly is for every reader. Readers all like to make the point about how reading is such an active process, that we all fall into and construct our own worlds every time we pick up a book. That’s a given. My mental construction of Mo Yan’s Gaomi County will be completely different from yours and both of ours might be near unrecognizable to the author, should he be able to root through our respective neurons.
In short, it’s a game of telephone. The author’s ideal story is filtered through his intellect, further distorted by the rigid parameters of language until it is printed on the page. The readers replicate this process in reverse: they read the words, interpret the language into intellectual nuggets of knowledge they can process, and then use those nuggets to construct their own unique world. The odds that the final product will be identical to the author’s original vision are infinitesimal – non-existent, really.
What struck me the most, however, is the idea that it’s an impossibility to ever really see someone else’s vision, the author included. Sure, we all follow the same plot, visit the same places, meet the same people. Yet, our impressions will not – cannot – be identical. The world I construct in my head as I am reading is influenced by every single thing I’ve ever done or experienced and that can’t be replicated, nor truly understood and comprehended, by anyone else.
I’ll admit, I was struck by a pang of sadness at this thought. I want to see the world that Mo Yan envisioned, I want to know if my perception of Gaomi County is at all similar. I want to know what a person who has never lived in China sees when they read this book. At the same, this is one of the supreme joys of reading. When I’m lost somewhere in a thick novel, I know that no one else in the history of humanity, not even the author, has ever traveled the same roads or met the same people.
At some point in class today, a student wrote on the blackboard “The red duck pulled off her dress in the temple.” If she (and the rest of her classmates) gotten it right – “There are a couple of oranges on the table.” – wouldn’t the game of telephone be an incredible bore?