Michèle Petit, France

Reading in Crisis Areas


God morgen, good morning, buenos dias, kαλημέρα σας !

I would like to thank Vagn Plenge and the organizers of this meeting for inviting me to be with you today. I am also grateful to Nathalie Beau and Jacqueline Kergueno, from IBBY-France, and to Mireille Vachaumard who translated the text of this talk. For a long time, I wondered whether I should give it in English or in Spanish as a tribute to the people in Latin America whose stories enabled me to study the topic which I will speak about. But English being our lingua franca, I decided to use it even though I don't feel as comfortable with it as with Latin languages. Please excuse me if I happen to stumble along the way…

Looking back through history, we notice that reading has helped resist adversity, even in the most horrible circumstances. Let's think of the part that reading or literary memories played for so many deportees. However, most of these people had already been immersed in written culture from an early age.

Today, programs in which reading plays a key role are implemented in various parts of the world that have to face up to countless adversities, and some of them were initiated or supported by IBBY. It was in Latin America that I discovered amazing literary experiments shared and developed in areas struck by armed conflicts or violence, economic crises, more or less forced population displacements or great poverty. These experiments are conducted by teachers, librarians, people promoting reading or psychologists, and are proposed to young ex-guerilla and paramilitary fighters, refugees, drug addicts who live on the streets, detained teenagers, abused children etc. In brief, to children, teenagers or adults coming from poor, marginalized backgrounds with dominated cultures and who grew up far away from books.

Most of the time, such experiments remain ignored or unknown in Europe. But they are likewise unknown even a few kilometers away from where they are conducted. This is why I tried to study about fifteen of them in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico: ”best practices”, as they say today, and those who initiate these programs are very talented.

I listened to them, visited some of the places they run, read texts they wrote, and examined documents in which they had recorded their observations. As a counterpoint, I gathered data on a number of other experiments and accounts within different cultural environments.

Most of the people I met claim they do not use ”bibliotherapy”, a concept that is rarely used in Latin countries. Although they know that their activity has healing effects, they seek to achieve something that goes beyond care, something related to culture, education and, in some respects, politics. For them, access to written culture, knowledge, information too often turns out to be a spurned right. So does the appropriation of literature. In many respects, they consider it desirable to have access to literature as it would enable people to use a language in a more skillful way, develop a more subtle, critical intelligence and permit them to explore human experience and give it a meaning and a poetic value.

The art of mediation …
The mechanism lying at the heart of the mediators’ action is apparently very simple: written material is proposed to those who are usually deprived of it, and someone reads aloud to them. Then stories, discussions or silence crop up among the participants. Obviously, there are countless variations. Some of the mediators dedicate the whole length of their meetings to reading and oral exchanges deriving from them, while others mix reading with writing. Others alternate or combine reading, writing and other practices such as visiting museums, theatre, music, dance, making graphic or audiovisual works, etc.

However, apart from their distinctive features, several common characteristics are to be found in a number of these experiments that reveal the real art of reading, but first and foremost the art of welcome and hospitality. Indeed, mediators are highly accessible and confident in everyone’s capabilities and creativity. In these meeting places, each person’s rhythm, culture or background is respected and everyone is considered as a person worthy of being listened to in a specific way. Children's and teenagers' statements are received as something valuable in contrast to many ordinary schools, where teachers often tend to identify what is wrong in the pupils' oral or written production. These young people are often asked to become book facilitators themselves, and are trained as such.

The art of mediation is also the quality of being present, the ability to be there with one's body and energy. Mediators prefer to resort to oral expression, to the voice which enlivens the texts, and to the look which goes from one participant to the other. They combine literary knowledge with intuition, flexibility, particularly when they have to select the proposed works. But I shall come back to that later on.

The art of mediation is also the ability to question oneself: people involved in these programs thought out their own routes and their relationship with books. During the sessions, they watch what is going on in a subtle way and elaborate their reflection through writing or by comparing their work with others who practice the same art.  
Lastly, the art of mediation is the ability to move heaven and earth in order to obtain grants to pursue the programs and fight endlessly, without losing heart, despite the hazards due to political changes, possible whims of regulatory authorities, etc.

When mechanisms similar to those I mentioned earlier occur on an ongoing basis, children, teenagers – and adults too – manage to seize some fragments of the works that have been read to help them construct or reconstruct themselves, even though they grew up far away from books.

... and the art of reading
Reading involves a specific appropriation, otherwise books go unheeded, even though we learn how to decipher them. Now, such a talent is characteristic of readers: texts do not construct readers, but readers construct something by appropriating stories and words that they read or heard and by transforming them.

If children are lucky enough to have access to books at an early age, they try to question them and steal what they consider to be secretly related to their own questions and what will provide them with a personal version of their intimate dramas. And the way they achieve this is often disconcerting.

For instance, I remember this little boy who, after hearing an extract of The Odyssey when Ulysses spends years with the nymph Calypso, noticed that his father, like Ulysses, had abandoned his mother to go and live with another woman. At this point, the children started a spontaneous discussion and went through the different family forms in which they could grow up: recomposed, polygamous, one-parent, homoparental etc. What about this adopted little girl who, day after day, was asking to be read about Tarzan. Especially when baby Tarzan finds himself in the arms of Kala, the female gorilla. The characters and sceneries described in Tarzan's adventures, mixed with those she had borrowed from other albums, could be found in the games she invented and in which she staged her own story in an active, creative way.

Children write their stories between the lines they have read, just like us. By filling their games and thoughts with stories, pictures and sentences, they build a shelter where they will not depend on anyone. Hence, reading boils down to constructing a space for oneself, provided this can be done without too much fear or too many constraints. Take Christine, whose life was punctuated by exile periods from an early age: ”Reading is my country. I do not miss anything when I read. Time disappears. And I do not depend on anyone.”

Or Martin: ”My family was torn away from their homeland and moved to many different places. At least, books and serials made me feel at home.”

Books are so many borrowed homes and a means to re-create one's lost land. This is why they are so precious during exile periods and for those whose living environment was destroyed or altered, as in Colombia. In Medellin's suburbs, librarians developed a program entitled ”Shelter of tales” when part of the population was chased away following fighting by armed groups. Consuelo Marín recalls one morning as she was reading aloud in a high school in which the population had taken refuge and young listeners had insisted on hearing the end of the story while shots were coming closer: ”Those children who spent their nights crying in the high school hallways, fearing the dark, did not want to miss the end of the tale, like a second skin, the skin of the soul that cannot be removed .”

A book is a kind of shelter that we can take with us, in which we can hear the distant echo of the voice that soothed us and the body in which we stayed. Such a space, though intimate and secret, has many links leading to many others: the author, those who read or will read the book, those who produced or submitted it and the characters that are to be found through the pages. At this point, we are very close to what psychoanalysts have been calling, since Winnicott, the ”transitional space” , a playing area which opens up between the infant and the mother – provided the child feels confident – in which he can start to liberate himself and construct himself as a subject. From the very first years through to advanced age, such a space is crucial as it helps live in a somewhat creative way and in relatively good psychic health. Especially in crisis situations, when life has been punctuated by break-ups, abandonments, separations or exile periods.

Books are a means to make room for a new or renewed margin of freedom and suggest another possible future. As Rosalie says, “Books made me happy and allowed me to discover another distant world where I could live. If it were not for the library, I would have gone mad, what with my father who kept shouting and making my mother suffer. The library allowed me to breathe. It saved my life.”

The space to which reading introduces us is regulated by a specific time-period when daily activities are interrupted and daydreaming is given free rein. For thinking and creativity cannot exist without daydreaming.

When reading or listening to a story, a child discovers another language that differs from that used for designating living beings and things; i.e. the story language where contingent events take a meaning inside a narrative with a beginning, a development and an end. It is as if the chaos of the inner world could take shape through the book's secret order. Let’s remember that what human beings fear the most is to be nothing but chaos, a divided body, a discontinued series of fragments; to lose the feeling of continuity, of unity, which is not given at birth but has to be achieved through a very complicated process that consists in linking together different life events as and when they arise. Each encountered book comes to the rescue of children or teenagers who endeavour to establish a link between their life events held together not only by a story, but also by the page format and the book as an object, made of bound pages.

Whilst the need for stories may be at the heart of our human specificity, it becomes particularly intense in times of crisis, when the feeling of continuity is given a rough time. Vladimir Propp said that stories represented an attempt to face up to unexpected or unfor¬tunate events. As for Pascal Quignard: “Our species is enslaved by stories. […] The need for stories is particularly intense at certain times during individual or collective lives, e.g. during a depression or a crisis. This is when stories provide an almost unique remedy .”

However old we are, the stories that we listened to, read in the secret of our loneliness, or even glanced through, help put some unspoken parts of ourselves into words, shape them in a symbolic way that can be shared, and transform them. They revive each person’s narrative, sustain the development of stories about their own lives which always need to be recon¬structed. The people I met in Colombia, Argentina and Brazil make the same comment: reading prompts children, teenagers, or the elderly to talk. There may be moments of silence, but this is when everybody is deeply absorbed in their thoughts and inner stories.

Thus, reading is useful also for developing links between the people who – as they feel emotions when being read a text together and exchanging words and stories – become closer to each other. Women who were entirely taken up by their struggle for survival and who were no longer capable of telling their babies nursery rhymes, nor singing songs to them, rediscover how to use words in a free, poetic way. Sometimes, they remember legends or forgotten songs from their childhood, and the emotional and symbolic exchanges with their babies get more intense. In a broader sense, shared reading turns out to be a useful structure for facilitating the free circulation of ideas inside a group. Beyond friendship, those who take part in readers’ circles say they learn tolerance and democracy. They find new ways of living together, where everyone has a say in the matter while being respected.

What to read?
These are some of the ways reading can help individuals reconstruct themselves, whatever their social or cultural background. There are other ways that I won't be able to mention as Vagn would like me to focus on the following question: what sort of texts can give people strength, help them get on with their lives, think of a way to position themselves in the world? The answer is obviously complex. Readers are so different and the unexpected so present that what makes someone happy might be boring or worrying for someone else. What readers choose to read is often very surprising, whether they are trying to find words that will reveal themselves, give a meaning to their life or recharge their heart.

What's even more amazing is that human beings use all means available to find words, stories and metaphors. So much so that we could wonder, in the first place, whether all kinds of material could not be suitable to this purpose.

Here are a few examples. As a child, Edward Said kept reading three ill-printed pages about a fakir girl doing feats of strength in a circus… For him, this was a way to “come out of the many cages” in which he felt like a prisoner and to create a space to face up to the environment . One of my colleagues who was assigned domestic chores from her childhood managed to find such a space as she looked greedily at the newspaper pages receiving the vegetable peelings. When he was ten years old, Volodia Tchistokletov found peace between two bombings through animal pictures: “It’s a big book with beautiful pictures... I spent the night reading it and I couldn’t stop... I remember that I didn’t borrow war stories: I didn't want to read them anymore. Animals and birds were something different .” Sacha Kavrous says that the first book he found after the war was a collection of arithmetic problems: “I was reading those problems the way I would have read poems...”

Every single genre has been of help to someone one day, from dictionaries to detective novels, from the One Thousand and One Nights to Dostoyevsky and Mickey Mouse. If we draw up a list of books that caused a rescue shock, the greatest texts of world literature go hand in hand with ordinary adventure novels whose authors can't be remembered by readers. The materials I have gathered do not allow me to ascertain whether the impact of a work and its healing capacity depend on its literary quality. It is particularly difficult to make this analysis because the essentials of the process take place unconsciously ... and what readers see in a text often differs from its contents (or so it seems). It is wonderful to see how our spirit seems to be ready to connect any symbolic material that comes its way, with the substance of our experiences; how it seeks any form of echo, any structure that could represent our unspoken core – particularly if it is painful, give some continuity to our life, make the world more habitable, and add a few sentences or pictures to form the bridge between ourselves and reality.

Obviously, I would readily assume that works with an emphasis on aesthetics are more likely to bring about a psychic activity, provided that their form is no definite obstacle for deciphering them and that they involve some mystery, opacity and secrecy, without which desire cannot possibly exist. But this cannot be proved because powerful encounters with cheap novels do also occur.

However, most mediators whose work I have been following choose to give the best, and in my view, they are right. Everyone has the right to have access to the most beautiful things and many people say they are happy and proud to have been given the keys to something universally recognized. Like this teenager of a stigmatized neighbourhood who told a lady who had proposed a medieval legend to him: “So, this is a real book? Not just a book for us?”

The book facilitators I met aim rather high while trying not to depreciate the initial tastes of their audience. Books are often selected according to the way the participants have been listening and by using associations that come to the mediator’s mind. Intuition plays a part, although it is based on a sound knowledge of literature.

But it is not easy to “pass on” demanding texts to people unfamiliar with written culture, who have difficulties in deciphering them and whose attention is sometimes difficult to hold for a long period. This is why short texts that can be read in one go are often used.

In this respect, there are various favoured genres.

The reading of myths and tales is already widely practiced with children, teenagers and adults. They are partly taken from every place's heritage, thus opening up a link to oral tradition and reviving memories of stories heard during childhood. Through them, hot issues are recalled, but nonetheless it is possible to retain a certain distance. However, those using such genres insist that they can only have a healing value if they are read within an environ¬ment where intersubjectivity plays a prime role, so much so as they can be a source of anxiety. Besides, the way they are appropriated differs according to the context and the people. This is when the book facilitators' art – made of observation, curiosity, intuition and culture – takes its full meaning.

Poetry is also a favourite genre among participants, and there again whatever their age. It is used by mediators to uncover a hinterland of sensations, a movement, a rhythm that lie hidden under the text. Texts produce multi-level effects through their contents, the associations they suggest and the discussions they induce, but also through their melody and their tempo. The rhythm supports us and breathes life into us the way hands hold a young child.

High-quality contemporary literature for young people, particularly picture books and sometimes comic strips are mentioned on a regular basis as, there again, they are not only popular with children, but also with teenagers and adults.

Whatever genre they choose, many mediators spontaneously propose texts which do not refer directly or explicitly to the situation of the people they work with. Although some of them had first gone for “mirror” texts, they often had to alter their choices.

In Argentina, Gloria Fernández mentions a workshop in which mediators had first tried to stick to the experience of detained teenagers and their alleged tastes . Facilitators were surprised when, at the second meeting, the participants asked if they could leave or else be read something different. Were the characters not close enough to them? Didn't they live the same kind of life? The fact is that the mediators' subsequent attempts to propose this corpus again failed. Listeners felt too close to the protagonists as the books chosen mainly dealt with poverty, misfortune, bad luck and used the same crude words as these young people. They couldn't cope with so much distress and either walked out or interrupted the reading and asked:
“Do you have that of the fairy who transformed a pumpkin into a carriage?” or “Read The Black Cat to me! And the story of the cockroach who was a man”.

The mediators whose work I followed closely never said they used texts that were explicitly “intentional” or tailor-made to help listeners face such and such crisis. Just like therapists who also use reading, they don't trust books written with a specific purpose.

Day after day, they notice that surprise and the unexpected are perfect ingredients for breathing life into a reader's story. By using metaphors, in remote lands or times, tragedies are given a meaning without being mentioned directly, painful events go through a transformation that allows the sufferers to work through their loss, while creating relationships with others, instead of keeping to themselves.

In praise of detours

Looking into these experiments leads to praise the use of detours. Most of the experiments I examined regularly take place in liberty, with no marking systems or assessments involved, and for which productivity or quantifiable results are of no concern.

The people who launched them did not seek to achieve one single goal only. They would rather focus on something undetermined and many-sided. Although this could be considered a weak point, it seems to me that these programs are efficient because they are not definitive and are not limited to just one function or one field such as education, civic training, health, transmission of a specific cultural good, even though each of these also plays a part in the programs. There is a bit of ”play” – in all connotations of the word – fluidity and room for the unexpected to appear. Being many-sided, flexible (even though there is a rule-governed ”framework”), these programs are particularly suited to enriching the participants’ psychic activities and exchanges.

People attending these programs don't only enjoy a warm and respectful welcome, but also cultural assets which radically open up time and space and allow them to make a detour. Such a detour is vital as it leads toward the unknown by enabling people to break away from their daily lives and rediscover desire, find secret emotions and feelings beneath the words they read or hear, remember the first years of their life. It stimulates thinking, makes them forget about pain, fear or humiliation, even for a short period of time. A sort of magic spell.

A refuge that offers protection and enables them to dream about other futures. Under certain circumstances, people who went through painful life experiences can work symbolically through them.

All forms of literature provide an outstanding basis for awakening one’s inner life, breathing life into one’s thoughts, stimulating one’s narrative activity, creating new meanings while people are encouraged to share unexpected things. Literature is not only an educational tool. It is a resource that can be drawn on for creating or maintaining interludes for breathing, for giving a meaning to our life, for dreaming and thinking.

Writers take whatever time is necessary to give a meaning to individual or collective events, to singular or universal experiences. They have a talent for observation and use the subconscious to shape the language and remove its clichés – good writers at least. Many of their works were created out of deprivation, loss and transfigured pain. The act of creation freed the author and even allowed him or her to find joy in the transformation of pain to a work of art. Such words, then, when read, echo through listeners’ and readers’ minds to soothe them, to render their own tragedies intelligible and sometimes to give them a certain feeling of happiness. This process is especially calming when offered with transpositions and metaphors: again the detours.

These days, everything needs to be quantified and everyone is obsessed with getting immediate returns, and we easily tend to forget that making detours is crucial from an anthropological and psychic point of view, particularly in critical times. According to Bernard Chouvier, “it is necessary for our psychic life to find indirect ways and give something a meaning that otherwise could only exist against our own existence. ” Making a detour is vital when we need to be clever to get around pain or fear rather than face them. It is also essential for thinking and creativity. For those who spent their early youth far from written culture, taking shortcuts might be indispensable for truly learning new things, and similarly for reconciling with written materials those who consider books as a hostile, colonizing authority and a means of exclusion. They won’t necessarily become great readers, but books will no longer put them off or frighten them. Sometimes, they will even find it worthwhile and easier to appropriate written culture.

This just shows how precious and difficult the art of mediating is, how this activity would deserve to get some support, be encouraged, taken over from others so that everyone could get a chance to discover new worlds. A woman living in the French countryside used to say: “With books, there is not only us as we watch our life pass by”. Young people and teenagers from Brazil who had been able to appropriate books and hand them over to others thanks to skilled mediators told me the same thing with different words: “Perhaps the most important thing is that I felt part of something larger, something that went beyond myself”.

Thank you for your attention.        

Michèle Petit, 31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark.

September 2008