I get a little break from prep for a while while my colleague leads the class in Module C: Representation and Text, so I thought I might use this time to really get inside the use of related texts in this Module and plan to write a series of posts on related material. This is the first post.
I looked up my two favourite sources, just to check how what I think fits with what other reliable sources are saying. First I checked in to Mrs Langford’s Weblog. Her advice, as always, is succinct. Four questions that go to the heart of the matter:
- What is the text’s message about history and memory?
- Identify and explain at least two language (or aural or visual) features that explore this aspect of history and memory.
- What is the tone?
- identify and explain at least one language (or visual or aural) feature that reinforces this tone.
She also explains how the elective concept is related to representation in her post Approaching Module C: Representation and Text. I especially like her comment that:
“There is a difference between what a text is about and its message. The Smithsonian’s September 11 website is about history but its message (intentionally or not) is that history is selective and constructed. Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes portrays some conflicting perspectives but one of its messages is that perspective is shaped through and by language. Similarly, The Justice Game portrays conflict within the formal setting of the court; however, one message is that the dominant perspective tends to be the one that is most effectively represented in the “game”.”
If we apply this rationale to Mark Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, then I would say that while the text is a journey through the writer’s family history surviving the holocaust, one message is that documented events are limited in their ability to develop empathy in the reader without the nuances that personal experience and survivor memories bring to the event, or without the capacity to enter into the experience through our imagination. To do this Baker employs a range of devices we would not normally expect in a fictional text. The imaginative reconstructions of his grandmother Hilda’s last moments is an example. The structure of Baker’s text, the fifty gates that lead us from the metaphorical blackness of forgetfulness in the first line to the illumination of insight in the final gate, forces us, as readers, to engage with the fragments of both history and memory to make sense of the ‘story’.
My second favourite source for confirmation of the essence of this Module comes from Mel Dixon and Deborah Simpson in their Cambridge Checkpoints Study Guides on HSC Advanced English. Their explanation of representation and the construction of ‘reality’ is better than any explanation I could give:
“The ‘reality’ you see in the documentary is a mediated version of reality. For example, because you do not know what has been omitted and what has been changed in the sequence of events, you cannot know how close to actual reality the documentary is. The documentary has been constructed to lead you to a particular view of the ‘facts’. it is a representation of what was originally filmed.”
I have used Shaun Tan’s picture book, Memorial as an example of a related text in the past. If I apply Ms Langford’s four questions, this is what is might look like:
1. What is the text’s message about history and memory?
Memorial is about the chopping down of a fig tree in a rural town, originally planted to commemorate those lost in WWI. A message of the text is that remembering the friends and family who lived through or died in war is more important than the memorials themselves. The memorials commemorate the events, of ‘facts’ but the memories of family and life that individuals associate with the memorials are ‘ever-livin’ things’.
2. Identify and explain at least two language (or aural or visual) features that explore this aspect of history and memory.
Each character is a vignette, a brief description that captures the essence of the person, through a combination of the memory and the language each uses. Old Pa, remembers the tree being planted on the day he returned from WWI and the memories obviously still haunt him, “and he shrugs, and he sniffs and he wipes his watery eyes and his grizzled cheeks.” His son remembers climbing the tree and associates it with pleasant memories as well of his wife, Audrey. ‘There’s a lot of special memories under that tree, Audrey. Like coming home from the pictures, eh?” he says. The boy’s father also links the tree with memories of the boy’s mother and a tree house as well as the memorial service when he returned from Vietnam, ‘some things you don’t want to remember, son”. Each of the women associates the tree with memories of their men coming home.
Shaun Tan’s illustrations try to capture the fragmented nature of memory. Tan says the book ended up “being not about war, memorials or remembrance as ‘grand’ subjects, but about the small, quiet memories that make up ordinary day-to-day lives – really about the nature of memory itself.” His images have a metaphorical quality and he doesn’t represent any of the characters in a literal way. Each page is an artwork in itself, with layers of fragments of materials capturing the texture of memory as something that consist of snippets and pieces, not a linear, resolved image as that found in a film. He also acknowledges that this can reflect the dreamlike nature of memory. He uses other techniques that represent the way memory sometimes has hazy bits, like faded line drawings and other more vivid elements, such as the colours inside the tree house. Each double page, except for a central image of the tree, also consists of only part of an image, never a whole scene, like conversations and memories wandering off at a tangent. The images have a quietness about them implying the things that are left unsaid when memories are recalled.
3. What is the tone?
The tone is reflective and gently questions our ideas and beliefs about war memorials.
4. Identify and explain at least one language (or visual or aural) feature that reinforces this tone.
The dialogue between the members of the family is often fragmented and leaves things unsaid and the reader is invited to ‘fill the gap’ of these silences with our own personal connections to memorials, family who were part of these wars and to empathise with the survivors. Like Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, Tan recognises that history is more than documented events, it is the stories of human existence and that we understand history not by knowing what happened and when but by understanding something of the people who lived through these events. As Tan says, “Perhaps the point of this picture book is to open a passage for its readers to think about the way symbols really work in relation to collective memory, as a container that needs to be continually topped up to have any currency.”