A Moment in Retrospect to Push Me Forward

Recently, both Jen and Michee touched upon authorial intent and reader interpretation in their incredibly thoughtful blog posts. In “Whose Story is it Anyway?,” Michee brought up a debate I have been struggling with.

I’ve been battling with the idea of who has power over a story’s interpretation once it is written (and why) and how consensual this process is.I too, am still figuring out what to make of Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild.” Upon first reading, I came to several different interpretations, all of which Butler included in her Afterword, including precisely what Butler said “it isn’t.” “A story of slavery.” (30) As I read these words, I became frustrated. But not for the same reasons Michee addresses. I was frustrated with myself. Even after Butler insisted that her story had nothing to do with slavery, why did I still see it there? What right do I have to go against the author’s wishes?  

Though a bit of a stretch, “Bloodchild” made me think back to last semester. I was hit head-on with a similar battle in a class I took with Dr. Kertz last semester called The Global Middle Ages. Much of the literature we read in the class was either attributed to an anonymous author or written through a third person narrative of a first person account. One of the works, The Book of Margery Kempe, was supposedly written by an anonymous bishop who Kempe asked to follow her and write out, essentially, her biography. To briefly summarize, Kempe is a 15th century female Christian mystic who embarks on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The book, edited by Lynn Staley, focuses on Kempe’s public manifestations of faith, and the social exile she faces by the communities she comes into contact with because of those manifestations. Kempe’s character is overwhelmingly defined to both figures in the book and readers as a sort of mad-woman. Her “feminine” dramatic sobbing is what establishes her connection with God.

Oh, and did I mention we’re not quite sure if Kempe was even a real person?

Since my initial reading, I’ve written several papers on The Book of Margery Kempe, and have more or less interpreted it, and Kempe, in a way I feel is appropriate. However, I often feel confused, annoyed, and regretful over my interpretations. What gives me the right to understand Kempe the way that I do? I came back to Dr. Kertz with this question just a few weeks ago. I wondered, since Kempe did not write her own biography, how are we to know how much of it is true and/or exaggerated? Why did the bishop, why did Lynn Staley, the editor, depict Kempe the way that they did? Would Kempe have consented to this portrayal of her? What about our reading of her? Part of me knew that walking into office hours with all of these questions was senseless simply because we do not have many definite answers to a figure from so many centuries ago. We never will. Nevertheless, I was frustrated. Dr. Kertz was tremendously patient as I talked around in circles. “Does it matter?,” she said to me. “Would it change your reading of Margery?”  “Of course it does, and yes… I think? I don’t know,” I responded. Part of our discussion mostly applied to medieval literature, as scholars and readers generally have very little historical documentation surrounding the literature. In this case, I guess the answer to “does it matter” is no. Our interpretations hold more power primarily because they may be all we have access to.

I talked to Dr. Kertz about how I’ve been facing this issue in many of my English classes. Whose interpretation is more important? Why am I reading characters the way that I do? Is my understanding of a piece of literature more important than what the author might have wanted? Why do editors approach their work the way they do? Here, I was reminded of Dr. McCoy’s class and my frustrations with both Call & Response (and why the editors omitted what they did) and Butler’s “Bloodchild.” Essentially, she told me it was my job to decide what it is that I value more. I have the right to decide whose opinion I wish to have a bearing on my reading, but I should also be open-minded to debate, discussion, and research. Dr. Kertz also spoke about how we, as readers, always approach literature with our own experiences in hand. “We bring a little piece of our knowledge and what we’ve experienced to the books we read.”

I’m deeply appreciative of the discussions I’ve had with Dr. Kertz, and I have since been focusing hard on what it is that I value. I value what the writer’s intentions are (given we have access to this). I value what the writer says about their work. As a writer myself, I understand that the author is writing for a specific audience and purpose, always placing meaning into their writing, and this should be respected. If the writer does not share their work, then they hold the power, because they are the only ones with access to it. But I also understand that when written work is put out into the hands of the public, it is open to creative interpretation. Both the writer and the reader have a mutual understanding that this process is inevitable, because, like Dr. Kertz explained, “experience” plays a part.

Coming back to “Bloodchild,” Butler’s intentions must certainly be heard and respected because she is the creator. However, at the same time, this should not discount our interpretations, as readers. We matter. Perhaps, like Michee says, both ends must “meet in the middle.” Perhaps it is a balance.

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