Yesterday I got an email from Stuart Delves, my fellow Dark Angel. It said: ‘In the library at The Royal Blind School on Monday and the first book I saw on the shelf was yours – in Braille!’
The book in question was The Reckoning, the second of my (still uncompleted) series of young adult novels. Stuart had taken a photo of it, looking unlike any edition I’d ever seen before. Although the cover design bore a vague resemblance to that of the original, it was A4-sized, ring-bound and slim enough to declare itself Volume 4 of 5. It also featured a panel of Braille lettering.
I didn’t even know I had a book in Braille. The publishers must have exercised some right I had signed away in the contract, and never bothered to tell me. Another photo followed, this one of an inside page, an indecipherable throng of raised white dots and shadowed indentations.
How strange to see one’s own words, one’s own story, rendered incomprehensible. When my adult novel, The Mapmaker, was translated into German (and the number of pages went up by 25% in the process), I could at least recognise words here and there and even read some of the simpler passages of dialogue. But Braille is the language of a different universe. I thought of the story of The Reckoning – a young man of mixed race discovers that the green energy organisation on the remote island where he lives is actually something far more sinister – and wondered what images it would summon for a blind reader.
Of course people who have become blind will have the memory of sight, and perhaps the experience of reading a book that describes fictitious people and places is no different for them than for those of us lucky enough to see. But for someone who has been blind since birth, where do the words take them? I can see a scene clearly in my mind’s eye when I am creating it. But what would they see when they receive that description through the tips of their fingers? Without asking a blind person, or straying into the realms of neuroscience, I can’t say, but it must in its own way be equally vivid and have equal meaning, or else the blind wouldn’t read.
We do an exercise on our courses that illustrates the very fine line between memory and imagination, while making the point that both are valuable resources for a writer. The exercise highlights the way we use imagination to fill the gaps left by our memories, and how it takes over completely when memory eventually fails us – as, for example, in the case of a past we have only heard about but not lived through. Yet for those born blind, there is no memory when it comes to imagery, just imagination. What a powerful faculty it must be to bring thoughts alive in the minds of those who can never have seen what they refer to.
There is, I think, a link here with poetry. Although I read poetry when I was younger and particularly loved the language and imagery of poets such as Ted Hughes, I didn’t really understand a lot of it. There seemed to me to be a code surrounding poetry, a code that I hadn’t cracked. I used to feel that I would never get at the author’s intention, the real meaning, the ‘point’ of a poem until I could decode it. Once I had, the scales would fall from my eyes and I would be able to see. It was, in effect, a kind of Braille, I thought, offering sight to the unsighted.
It was only much later when I learned to surrender myself to poetry, to be carried wherever the language, the mood of the words, might take me, and not to feel that I had to ‘tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it’, as the American laureate Billy Collins so memorably put it, that I began to find real pleasure in reading poems. If there was a code, it was simply that each reader experiences a poem in a different way and very often there will be no single meaning to it.
Similarly for the blind person, Braille is simply the route to their own experience of the language and mood of the words they are reading. Perhaps the images it summons for them are of a completely different order to those in the imagination of the author or the sighted reader, and of a completely different character to those of another blind person, yet they work equally well.
More and more I realise how trapped we can become by the quest for single truths, for a single meaning, a single version of things. It is in its own way a kind of blindness.