Behind the Curve – One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012)
Language is one of those things that gets weird once you step back and see it from a different angle. We tend to link our words directly to the thoughts we think. If you’re a fluent English speaker, and that’s the only language you know, its easy to believe you are thinking in English. That English is just a natural human brain function. Why shouldn’t it be? It comes as easily as breathing.
But every language is actually human invention. Each is descendant from the series of noises that our caveman ancestors made up to crudely indicate where a tiger might be lurking. Granted it’s gotten more complex, but language is still nowhere near a perfect transcription of our thoughts. You may occasionally be forming complete sentences in your head, but more often our thoughts are abstract and free-flowing things. Unbound by the rules of grammar and syntax.
My point is that language is not the language of our brains. It’s more like an encryption tool. It translates our nebulous brainwaves into something that can travel across the air. Then it decrypts whatever was said back into the language of the mind so it can be truly understood.
Usually this good enough for our day-to-day communications. But there are some feelings and ideas that are simply too complex for our language. That is where literary writers come in. We try and trigger these fuzzier, nameless feelings in our reader using language as our medium. It’s more difficult than it sounds. Typically individual words are not strong enough to evoke strong feelings. You have to understand the flavor and connotation of different words and mix them together. Like a chef mixing different ingredients to create something entirely unique.
Am I making any sense? Let me give you an example from the first chapter of One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir. Wainaina’s poetic prose can tap more directly into these kind of emotional veins than any writer I’ve ever read. The narrator is outside playing soccer with his siblings.
A few moments ago the sun was a single white beam. Now it has fallen into the trees. All over the garden there are a thousand tine suns, poking through gaps, all of them spherical, all of them shooting thousands of beams. The beams fall onto branches and leaves and splinter into thousands of smaller perfect suns.
To me this perfectly conveys the kind of wild, day dreamy thoughts I had constantly as a child. I hope it does that for you as well, but it might not. The tragedy of literary fiction is that all our minds work in different ways. Sometimes the encryption process is imperfect.
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- Documentary: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) – Monday, April 18
- Book: The Thin Man (Dashiell Hammett, 1934) – Monday, April 25
- Wild Card! – Monday, May 30