Monday, November 30, 2009

Cultural Literacy

I spent Saturday afternoon in a coffeehouse, where I went back and forth between bloodying one of my current manuscripts and regaining some sanity by reading a real [read as, published and without my red pencil marks all over its pages] novel. Folks were coming in for a coffee or brunch after hitting the shops on Market Street for some holiday purchases. Seldom are there better opportunities for writers—who, if you haven’t figured this out yet, are just naughty little voyeurs with a penchant for making their eavesdropping sound pretty—to listen to the maddening crowds and pick up a few bits of gossip, a few new turns of phrase, or a good character concept.

My tea had gone tepid and lukewarm when a group of girls wearing leggings and sweater dresses sat at the table cattycorner to mine, effectively blocking me in my seat for the next fortyish minutes. Teen Girl Squad chatted in a register that only dogs could hear, but—after a few minutes of their squabbling—I finally deciphered a few words. One of the girls said, “I just don’t read books.” Her friends asked her why, and she gave a fantastic [I’m using that adjective facetiously] reply: “I dunno, I mean, there are just so many words in there. Why do we even have words?”

There’s a power in words, a power in narrative, and I should have corrected Cheerleader, should have advised her to protect her ability to read and to process words, thoughts, feelings. The novel I happened to be reading between bits of editing was Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, which is the story of the handmaid Offred, basically a woman meant only for breeding purposes in Atwood’s futuristic, über-religious dystopia. Early on in the novel, the reader joins Offred and her companion Ofglen on a shopping trip, where we discover that store signs have only images—and not words. Atwood writes, “[T]hey decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us. Now places are known by their signs alone.”

Names show ownership, and words provide power in a hierarchical system. These handmaids have names attaching them to their Commanders, the men for whom they work. Offred, then, is figuratively “of Fred,” and as she narrates the novel she is careful to never reveal her actual name to her listener. In this dystopia, where women are enslaved and erased, where reading has become dangerous for its ability to empower women, keeping her name hidden is her final show of power.

As the minutes passed, Teen Girl Squad moved from books to other conversations, largely boys and television shows, though with a few mentions of the People magazine’s “Sexiest Man of the Year” featuring Johnny Depp. (Well, I guess I’ll have my chance next year, right?) But what they didn’t realize is that all of this is closely tied to their ability to read. All of this talk, girls? That’s right. It’s words. It’s your culture, so learn how to read it, and make sure nobody stops you.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Paperback. Anchor-Random House. 311 p., $14.95.