Words Matter (London 2010)
She cannot read. This is her own private truth. Because of it, she must lead a double life: the fact of it saturates every molecule of her being, defines her to herself, always and forever, but nobody else knows. Not her friends, not her colleagues, not her family – certainly not her family. She has kept it from all of them, felt herself brimming with the secret of it her whole life. (p.76)
She cannot read. She cannot do that thing that other people find so artlessly easy: to see the arrangements of inked shapes on a page and alchemize them into meaning. She can create letters, she can form them with the nib of a pen or the lead of a pencil, but she cannot get them to line up in the right order, in a sequence that anyone else could understand. She can hold words in her head – she hoards them there – she can spin sentences, paragraphs, whole books in her mind; she can stack up words inside herself but she cannot get these words down her arm, through her fingers and out onto a page. She suspects that, as a baby, she crossed paths with a sorcerer who was in a bad mood that day and, on seeing her, on passing her pram, decided to suck this magical ability from her, to leave her cast out, washed up on the shores of illiteracy and ignorance, cursed forever. (p. 80)
The passages above are from a book called Instructions for a Heatwave, and refer to a character named Aoife who never learnt to read at school. Letters jump at her when she looks at a page, and after years of frustration, she leaves school without completing any of her subjects, and unable to read simple texts. When we meet her, she is working as a photographer’s assistant in America. While at work, whenever she receives a contract or any other document she must process, she puts the pieces of paper in a blue file folder. By now, the file is overflowing with things that need attending.
Because she cannot read the labels on the boxes of equipment in the studio, she memorises the location of every tiny item in the studio so that nobody guesses her secret. I don’t know what happens to Aoife as I’m not done the book, but I can sympathize with her. I have (like many other readers I’m sure) had the experience of travelling and being unable to read the local language. Such moments can leave you feeling diminished, unintelligent, and embarrassed. They can impact how you feel about yourself. You can become reluctant to speak for fear of making grammatical mistakes, and overwhelmed figuring out key things such as where you are, and how the transit system operates. Struggling with basics means it is harder to tackle more complicated topics such as learning about current events and debates with different levels of government.
If the experience of being unable to understand your local environment is frustrating even in short term doses, it is difficult to imagine how frustrating that must be if that is your long term reality. And in fact, even at home, there are so many people who struggle with low literacy every day.
In Canada, “four of ten adult Canadians, age 16 to 65 – representing 9 million Canadians – struggle with low literacy. They fall below level 3 (high school completion) on the prose literacy scale.” 27% of those 9 million Canadians struggle with simple reading tasks. (ABC Life Literacy Canada). This has multiple social impacts, from employment prospects to health impacts to civic engagement.
I currently work with a nonprofit that supports social programs in the city, and seeks to (among other goals) target the root causes of poverty in order to create systemic sustainable change. Thinking about illiteracy this evening though, I can’t help thinking that while there are important contributions to make on a systemic level, we cannot lose sight of the contributions that are needed on an individual basis as well. There are organisations that need tutors, there are libraries that need books, there are people who need someone to help them gain the confidence to read out loud and to practice their writing.
There is so much to do! My last post was about loving words, today, I am realising that each love, each gift that one is given necessitates sharing, and serving others in a way that is of benefit.