The paraphernalia of writing

I sit on the floor, ushered to the privileged position in the corner furthest away from the door, my companion and translator besides me, our hosts opposite. A young boy brings in tea and a dish of small sweets while I lay out my tools: pen and paper. Sometimes several sheaves of paper, as I search for a particular document and scatter others about me.

I’m no longer as self-conscious as I was about the act of transcribing someone else’s words, more amused by it these days. Scribbling along trying to keep up, while thinking of the next pertinent (or impertinent) question to ask and grabbing sips of tea. People have thanked me for taking such copious notes, page after page of them, taking it as a sign of my seriousness it seems.

To a degree the notepad forms a barrier between speaker and listener, either physically as clasped to the chest or more intriguingly and insidiously, as a marker of power and prestige. Between literate and non-literate, giver of words and taker of them, etching them into a permanent existence where who knows what new life and meaning they might take on, outside the original orator’s control.

I ask people about their harvest. What crops they grow on how much land. How much food they have, how long it will last them, how much debt do they owe and how many animals do they own. About the changes in their lives and the problems they face.

I sit there and write it all down. Having words translated gives one time to look as well as write, to at least make eye-contact and smile and frown as one can. It gives one time to try and see oneself from the other side of the paper. This unknown outsider, who has given the briefest of introductions and explanations and expects to be told all that he wishes to know. And he will be, for the power lies not just in the pen he holds but in so much else, and the force of hospitality is strong.

So I sit there and question and listen and write, and wonder and worry about the power of the pen and how I am seen, which at least makes me laugh.

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