Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hills Like Black Elephants

I'm taking a short story writing workshop class at UNM Continuing Education. Last week the teacher put us in groups of three and gave each group an assignment. My group's assignment was to write a short story similar to Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." He asked us if we knew the story; two of us did, one of us did not. So the other woman who knew the story started to explain it to the woman who did not know it. She said, "It's about this guy and girl who travel all around together. The guy's about 35 and the girl's about 19. The girl just had an abortion and she's really not particularly happy about having done it, but she accepts that she did, because she wants him to be happy with her and he wanted her to do it; it took a lot of pressuring on his part but she finally did it."

That wasn't at all how I remembered the story, other than it being about a man and a woman traveling, and talking about the landscape and talking about the woman getting an abortion. As I listened to her, I thought, "huh?", as if she had just tried to convince me that the story was called "Hills Like Black Elephants." I just re-read it and it turns out I was "right"-- there's no mention of the couple's respective ages; the woman hasn't had an abortion yet; the man definitely wants her to, and she wants to make him happy, but he repeatedly tells her not to do it if she doesn't want to.

But was I really "right" about what happens in the story? My classmate remembered it one way--not the way it really was, but how it is in her memory and what the story means to her. That was her version of the story, at that moment, and as I read it again, I began to see that it was in fact a very plausible version.

To me, that's what makes a good short story; every reader approaches it and individualizes it in his or her own way. My classmate obviously cared enough about these characters to give them ages; she cared enough about this story to remember what happened in it, even if her memory of the sequence of events was slightly askew. And the funny thing is, she is probably "right" in her interpretation of the story, if only that she read into the story more than what was written, but what was really there. I'd bet you anything this guy's quite a bit older than this girl, who comes across as very inexperienced when she asks what Anis del Toro is and whether he will love her again and will like how she compares white hills to elephants after she has an abortion. And he is pressuring her to get it, even if his words are saying otherwise. (At the very least, he won't stop talking about it when she repeatedly asks him to, which is a form of pressure if I've ever read it.) And she probably does end up getting the abortion and not being happy about it. So my classmate's version could be very accurate; she was just telling about events that weren't mentioned in the story but that are clearly there, at least according to how she sees the story.

And that is why I love literature. From the moment it was published or given to someone else to read, "Hills Like White Elephants" no longer belonged to Hemingway, but to the reader. It doesn't belong only to me, just because I've read it. And my memory of it and feelings about it won't necessarily remain the same. Years from now I may remember it a different way, or I may have adopted my classmate's version as the story I chose to remember. The story belongs to me, and to her, and to everyone who reads it, and to whatever ways we end up personalizing it and remembering it. So if you haven't read "Hills Like White Elephants," or haven't re-read it lately, I encourage you to do so... because until you do, you won't know what the story means to you, or means to you this time, in this moment.

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