Sunday, September 21, 2014

Unreliable Memories

In a previous blog post I talked a little about how memory is a strange thing. A magical ship full of books turns out, after a talk with my mum and a bit of Googling, to be the MV Logos, a missionary ship.

Missionaries.

Sometimes it even sounds made up to me, that I lived in a place of volcanos and cargo cults and earthquakes, a place that missionaries visited, and we had a houseboy…and could I in fact sound any more like the British in India?

Arawa.
Source: my amazing paradise.
Scrolling through the photos on this post was like revisiting my childhood.

My mum loves to tell a story about when my sister Kath was high school geography and they were studying Papua New Guinea. Every day Kath came home and filled her in:

Today we learned that there are over 800 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, but I already knew that because we lived there.

Today we learned the copper and gold are the main exports of Papua New Guinea, but I already knew that because we lived there.

And so on.

Until one day she raced home, aghast: Mum! Did you know that Papua New Guinea is a third world country?

We didn’t, of course, because we’d lived there. We were kids. Kids don’t pick up on stuff like that, necessarily. Kids take things as they come. Some people lived in houses like we did, and some people lived in dirt-floor huts in the bush. To Kath and me that was a fact, and there was nothing remarkable about it at all.

I remember when I jumped off the bed and Dad failed to catch me, and I went face-first into the corner of a trunk, that there was a lot of blood. There was also a trip to the hospital and a heap of medication. I remember that when Nick, our houseboy, slashed his leg open cutting the grass with his machete, Dad drove him to the hospital too. Except Nick wasn’t a four-year-old white kid with parents who were rich by local standards. So Dad had to help the hospital staff hold him down while the gaping wound in his leg was stitched up. No anaesthetic.

So I guess that New Guinea might have been a third world country for most of its population—the sort of place that missionaries still visit—but not for the expats. We were doing okay.

Maybe this is where my love of unreliable narrators comes from. Because we are all unreliable narrators, to some extent. It’s why police can interview four different people who witnessed the exact same event, and get four completely different statements.

Memory is incredibly malleable. It’s not a matter of playing back images. Our minds are not editing rooms where we can play back the footage, freeze it, and zoom in. Everything we take in is subject to so many different layers of interpretation and bias before we even begin to process it into memory, that by the time it comes to relating it, it may bear no resemblance to what actually happened. We don’t just regurgitate memories, we interpret them and reshape them first.  And that’s okay. That’s human nature. It’s an important part of what makes us what we are. We are always trying to make sense of things, not just to experience, but to understand.

And I think, for most of us, it’s a part of why we write as well.


1 comment:

  1. So it really was a huge ship with books. That would definitely be magical.

    And speaking of books and your youth, you know there's a book there to be told, right?

    ReplyDelete

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