We are all illiterate

In my novel Dual Memory, which comes out in May, the main character is illiterate (he had a rough childhood), but he lives in a society much like ours: everybody reads, and he’s surrounded by writing. Some beta readers of the manuscript thought he couldn’t survive if he couldn’t read. I ignored that advice.

I knew better. A long time ago, I taught reading to adults at Literacy Services of Wisconsin, where I learned a few things about reading and about people who can’t read.

People can’t read for many reasons. Some never get much education. I remember an elderly Black man who grew up in the South when people who looked like him were barred from quality schools. Some people fall through other cracks in the educational system. Many, though, can read, but not English.

These are people just like you in that sense. Can you read Chinese, Russian, and Arabic? I can’t even read German, and it uses a familiar alphabet. Drop me in Japan, and I will be utterly illiterate. Of course, your phone and computer have AI programs that can help by translating and reading aloud, but first you have to figure out the software.

So, how do non-readers survive? Often they face frustration, but they find work-arounds. A friend or family member can read for them. They might memorize facts and procedures, like recipes, that readers would look up. In addition, the world offers subtle help.

The photo with this post shows some packages of food with the words describing the content erased. Can you guess what’s in them? Yes, because the artwork, photos, and clear panels tell you. Manufacturers know that not every customer can read, but they want every customer’s money.

I once worked in an ice cream store, and at first I got annoyed at some old ladies who would come in, point, and say, “What’s that? And that?” Then I realized they couldn’t read the labels on the tubs of ice cream. They spoke with an accent, so maybe they came from somewhere with limited education, at least for girls. Maybe they just never learned to read English. But they enjoyed ice cream, and my job was to get them what they wanted.

That elderly Black man had made his living as a professional tap dancer, and he was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met. He was hard to teach because rather than get to the reading lesson, I would have rather listened to his stories about his career and all the fun he’d had. He’d made it through life with his extraordinary people skills.

You meet illiterate people all the time, and they manage to survive.

5 thoughts on “We are all illiterate

  1. “Illtireacy” is a great topic, Sue!

    This past summer, I read “Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs” (1943), Jean Genet’s first novel, about a tranvestite prostitute named “Divine”, the inspiration for a John Waters’ movie character. I had heard of Genet but had never read him or about him.

    Given up by his prostitute mother as an infant, he never knew his father. Placed in foster care, he was in and out jail and, thus, had little formal education. As young man, he served in the French Foreign Legion and was a prostitute and petty thief in Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany, before landing in prison in France in1943, where he wrote his first work: “Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs” (Our Lady of the Flowers) is the street name of a friend of Divine’s who is a murderer.

    The novel was confiscated and destroyed, but he managed to rewrite it and smuggle it out (probably on toilet paper, I am imaginting). Faced with a life sentence as a career offender (all petty offenses), French intellectuals demanded that the government commute his sentence…and it was commuted. Genet then wrote several novels and then turned to theatre. The movie “Poison” by Todd Haines is based on one of his stories.

    As established writer and who no one liked as a person, he read a novel by a young Moroccan, liked it, and made the Moroccan his confidant (Genet never had any friends or lovers, just several sex partners; this young Moroccan was not one of them).

    However, Tahar Ben Jelloun went on to become the most widely-read author in French today, writing mainly about the plight of women in Morocco (his mother was illiterate and never read his work). And his biography, “Jean Genet, Sulbime Liar”, is fabulous

    Ambrose Bierce: “Truth is stranger than fiction.”


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