# of pages written on new project: 9.5
# of literary mags submitted to: 4
“Does Tima like stuffed animals?” I asked Natalia the other day. Natalia is one of my Ukrainian students who I tutor in English, and Tima is her four-year-old son.
Natalia got a disgusted look on her pretty, porcelain-white face.
“Oh no, no,” she said. “He doesn’t like it.”
“But does he have any stuffed animals? Have people given him any as presents?”
“Oh no,” she said. “He doesn’t have any.”
I was confused by this, because I could have sworn that I’d seen Tima in the background of one of our Skype sessions with his chubby arms around a red Angry Bird stuffed animal.
“I cannot understand why American children like to play wis such things” Natalia said.
“Oh, you know,” I said. “Because they are soft and nice to hug. You can snuggle up with them.” I wrapped my arms around an imaginary teddy bear and snuggled its imaginary soft head against my chin.
Natalia made a face. “I don’t like it.”
It wasn’t until later, when I was reading her homework assignment, that I understood the problem. I had given her a list of vocabulary words with which to write sentences, and for stuffed animal she had written:
Sometimes stuffed animal looks more frightfully than alive.
I realized that this whole time she had thought we were talking about taxidermy animals.
* * *
This sort of thing happens with Natalia on a somewhat regular basis. This morning I was talking to her on Skype, and I introduced her to my mom’s cat, Zoe.
“Oh, she has three claws!” Natalia said.
“Yes, she has claws,” I agreed. She has more than three, but I wasn’t going to be picky.
“It is not so usual.”
“Oh really? Well, she goes outside, so we didn’t de-claw her.”
Natalia frowned at me slightly.
“Do people de-claw cats in the Ukraine?”
“Oh…no…I don’t sink so,” Natalia said. When she’s confused she has a habit of turning her head and looking at me sideways from her large, almond-shaped eyes. “We don’t do such thing.”
“People do that sometimes here,” I explained.
“She is a happy cat,” Natalia told me after a moment. “Here we say, if cat have three claws, they are a happy cat.”
“That’s interesting. And she is a happy cat. Maybe she’s happy because her claws help her to catch mice.”
Actually, Zoe catches voles, which she gorges herself on (my mom said she once watched Zoe eat an entire vole – bones and all), but I doubted that Natalia would know what a vole was.
“Oh really?” Natalia laughed.
“Have you ever had a cat?” I asked.
“We have happy cat once as a child,” she said. “It had three claws, too: white and gray and brown.”
And that was when I realized she was saying colors. Zoe has three colors.
Amazing that we’d had an entire conversation, and yet neither one of us had really being understanding the other. I think this must happen all the time, in subtle ways, even with two people who speak the same native language. There’s only so much that words can convey. They are the bridge between one brain and another, and it can be a rickety bridge sometimes.
I’ve been getting a lot of rejection letters lately. Rejections from agents. Rejections from literary magazines. Some of them are really nice, encouraging rejections, but still the message is the same: your writing didn’t do it for us. Your words aren’t what we want to hear. It can get frustrating sometimes, and I wonder what I can do differently. If I should do anything differently. Or if I should just keep trying.
* * *
Today I helped Natalia to pronounce the word “color,” and I explained what we meant by the phrase “stuffed animal,” and she laughed at her previous confusion. She had been imagining American children snuggling into bed with mounted deer heads and dead foxes stuffed with sawdust. “Now I understand,” she said. “Like toys. Soft animal toys.”
“Yes.” I nodded.
“I had stuffed animal as child,” she said. “It was a… uhh…one moment please.” She typed furiously into her hand-held translator.
“Behemoth,” she said after a moment.
“What kind of animal was it?” I asked. “Behemoth just means big.”
“Yes. Very big.”
“But what kind of animal was it?” I persisted. “Behemoth isn’t an animal.”
“It is animal that swim in dirty water and is very ugly,” she said.
“Hippopotamus?” I guessed.
“Yes. Hippopotamus,” Natalia agreed. But who knows if that’s really what it was or not. Often times Natalia and I are not on the same wavelength when it comes to words.
I guess that’s the thing you have to remember as a writer. You can control the words that come out of your brain. But you can’t control how they’ll be interpreted when they enter someone else’s. You have to keep trying to explain yourself as best you can and keep looking for someone who receives words in the same way that you give them.