Monday, 13 September 2010

Making up stories about real people - John Dougherty

This summer, we had visitors. Two girls from Belarus came to stay with us, courtesy of the Chernobyl Children’s Project.

It’s a strange experience, being unable to communicate verbally with children who are, for a fortnight, almost entirely dependent on you, but neither of our visitors spoke any English and my Russian is non-existent, so we had to make do; and by and large we did very well. Our guests learned to ask “Mehgeddown” before leaving the table, and to say “pleeeeease” in the proper way beloved of generations of British children (stretching the vowels out to improbable lengths, with a beseeching rise and fall in pitch in the middle). We learned the Russian for “orange”, “video” and “prawns”. And we got very good at miming and drawing explanatory stick-people pictures.

What was strangest about the language barrier, though - and I say this as someone to whom smalltalk doesn’t come naturally - was the consequent inability to find out anything significant about these children who were, for two weeks, part of our family. We learned - we think - that one lives at home with mother, two grandmothers, and another adult female whom we assume to be an aunt; the other lives with mother, father, and one grandmother. And that was it.

Perhaps it was because I felt I ought to have learned more that, when I took them to the airport and bid them a genuinely tearful goodbye, I found myself making up the next bit. One of the girls, I reckoned, was going home to a family who had missed her desperately and who would, as far as they were able, spoil her over the next couple of days. They would listen to everything she had to tell them about her holiday, pore over the photos we had given her, and create in their own imaginations details about us and our life in Gloucestershire.

The other, I thought, would probably be welcomed warmly enough, but without the same level of fuss and attention. By the time she got home, talk would have turned to other things, and she would be expected to be quiet - would perhaps even be almost forgotten, except as a series of tasks to be attended to. She was, I imagined, returning to a life comprising a certain level of neglect. Having watched her open up over her stay, turning from a child who stood quietly on the edge of things to one who threw herself loudly towards the centre, I felt, at the airport, that in a matter of minutes I saw precisely the reverse happen. I worried about her; and, if I'm honest, I'm still worrying.

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this is true. Effectively, I’ve made it up, and for all I know, I’ve got it completely wrong. But it does occur to me that, to a greater or lesser extent, we all fictionalise other people. We make assumptions about them and about their lives based on very little evidence. Sometimes we’re aware that we’re doing it; sometimes we’re not.

It’s a useful attribute for a writer, of course. When a new character suddenly appears on the page before us, we have to make their acquaintance immediately; we have to know who they are so that we can tell what they’re going to do next. Is this character good, bad, morally ambiguous? Brave or cowardly? We need to make assumptions about their background, take shortcuts in getting to know them. The difference, of course, is that whatever we decide about our own characters, we know we’re right. When we make up stories about real people, we're only guessing.

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com

7 comments:

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Thought-provoking, on many levels. It's that behind closed doors thing, isn't it. Do we believe everything we're told or do we at least question it? How much do we decide to show and does it tally with the reality? As a child, it took me a long time to realise that grown-ups told more fibs than children, sometimes small ones and sometimes really big ones! If I was the child's voice behind a novel, would I be an ingenue, as I was, or would I be knowing? And which would make for a better story? There are many really interesting literary adult novels that feature an unreliable narrator, and there will also be children's ones too, only right now I can't think of one. Can you, and what effect does that voice have on the story?

catdownunder said...

No communication boards? What were people thinking of?

The rest? Yes, I know what you mean but I have also had characters tell me that I am wrong!

John Dougherty said...

We did have a sheaf of papers with useful phrases translated into Russian, Cat. It's just that the children didn't seem to understand our pronunciation when we tried to use them...

catdownunder said...

What they should have done is given you a written board with English and Russsian words in a grid - so that you could 'read' each other instead.

John Dougherty said...

Once or twice, we used the translation sheets like that; and I used Google translate as well; but it's difficult communicating with children like that because they move around so much...

Miriam Halahmy said...

This post made me think again about that automatic process of fictionalising other people, almost as a knee jerk reaction, especially for writers. Amos Oz has based one of his latest books around this concept, Rhyming Life and Death and I used it in my workshops last year as an inspiration to writers. Great post John and well done for hosting the children from Chernobyl. I am sure they will remember you and your family for life.

Rebecca said...

What a lovely story - and I'm so glad that the second girl you spoke about has had her time with you and experienced the family life and love you would have given her.

Thanks for sharing your experience and reflections.

Rebecca