Upon reading the memoirs Black Boy, by Richard Wright and Talk Thai, by Ira Sukrungruang, I became interested in their methods of documenting childhood experiences. An initial comparison of Wright and Sukrungruang reveals a rather poetic aspect to their descriptions of their younger selves, allowing their histories to read more as novels than memoirs. I believe there are connections between the use of this language and child development, which leads me to compare the authors’ language choices to Piaget’s stages of cognitive development as well as a few other researched patterns of childhood development. Through a closer reading of the language choices, I have determined that each memoir has a specific narrative which relates to that language. While Talk Thai is primarily a “coming of age” story, I am able to draw from most of the memoir. Examples from Black Boy will be taken from the Part One.
Before delving into each comparison, I will briefly explain the stages of development from which I will be referencing. According to
the International Centre for Educators’ Learning Styles. Piaget’s Four Stages of Childhood development are: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete-operational, and formal-operational. The reader does not meet Wright or Sukrungruang until they reach the pre-operational stage, so I will begin with an explanation of this second stage. From the ages of about 2-7, children learn to think symbolically about their world. They are also very egocentric, in the sense that only their point of view is comprehensible to them. In other words, they are not consciously disregarding what others say. While their creativity is expanding, they are also struggling to think beyond concrete terms. For example, the concept of “cause and effect” is still unclear (Mazo).
Wright paints an interesting picture of his younger self within this pre-operational stage of development. On page 19, he describes of a memory from when he was only four years old. In this excerpt, the reader is able to visualize a child’s thought process:
I wandered listlessly around the room, trying to think of something to do, dreading the return of my mother, resentful of being neglected. The room held nothing of interest except the fire and finally I stood before the shimmering embers, fascinated by the quivering coals. Why not throw something into the fire and watch it burn?”… My idea was growing, blooming. Now I was wondering just how the fluffy white curtains would look if I lit a bunch of straws and held it under them.
The curiosity of young Wright is depicted through phrases such as “shimmering embers” and the “fascination” of “quivering coals.” An adult would understand the fireplace as a tool for warmth rather than something which holds any sense of mystery. However, Wright is four years old at this point, and doesn’t comprehend the “cause and effect” relationship of lighting things on fire. In fact, because he doesn’t understand, he is driven to find out on his own: “Why not throw something into the fire and watch it burn?” This disconnect also leads to Wright’s impulsive action to light the curtains on fire as his idea was “growing, blooming.” The reader should also take into account the argument with his brother, where he asks “how come” he shouldn’t burn more straws on the broom Although his brother gives a valid reason as to why, Wright refuses to listen. This is classic egocentric and defiant behavior, where curiosity of the child outweighs his or her logical reasoning.
Another instance in which Wright uses poetic language to describe the cognitive processes of his childhood self occurs on pages 22-23. This inner monologue is written as a list of observations that are saturated in metaphor and symbolism. The reader is led to understand that the following musings take place not long after the fire incident:
Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue…There was the teasing and impossible desire to imitate the petty pride of sparrows wallowing and flouncing in the red dust of country roads…There was the liquid alarm I saw in the blood-red glare of the sun’s afterglow mirrored in the squared panes of whitewashed frame houses…There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass.
This is a very condensed version of Wright’s list, which carries disheartening message from the perspective of a young child. The curiosity and observational skills are intact for the pre-operational stage. For example, he takes notice of colors, sounds and how they relate to his senses. However, the language Wright employs in this and the previous passage is very advanced for a four or five year old. This can be expected, as Wright is retelling his experiences as an adult, therefore removed from original childhood experience. However, his languages choices seem to be deliberately advanced for the descriptions of a child’s cognitive process. For example, he could have chosen to write “the smell of fresh cut grass made me feel oddly hungry” but instead he writes, “There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass” At a first glance, the reader is taken aback by the child’s profoundness and pain, but when deconstructed, the reader can see that Wright made conscious language choices in order to create that narrative. This construction of the list on pages 22-23 establishes Wright’s character for the remainder of the memoir, urging the reader to judge his cognition as unusually advanced, and that his actions come from his desire to improve upon his oppressive experiences as he grows into adulthood.
Because Talk Thai is also a memoir, the narrative is also written from a perspective that has been removed from childhood. However, there are noticeable differences in the language of Sukrungruang, which present the reader with a narrative that echoes a more “child-like” voice than Wright’s suggestive text. An early metaphor initiates Ira’s childhood complications with religion, “I felt the cold of the Buddha my mother gave me against my chest, felt the way it pressed into my like a sharp pebble in a shoe” (Sukrungruang, 14-15). Not only does this language produce a more simplistic metaphor for a 5-6 year old child, the tone of this language is brighter and more concrete. This concrete image of a pebble in the bottom of a shoe is easier to see and feel. At the same time, this constructed metaphor is clearly the work of an adult, because his child self would be too egocentric to be able to directly compare his experience to another.
In the same memory, Sukrungruang recalls his uncomfortable experiences attending a non-Thai school:
“I didn’t want to lose face in front of my first grade teacher like my mother had warned, but I could not make myself say yesibsong, twenty-two, even though it had been drummed over and over into my head, even though this is what my mother had been waiting for, an opportunity to show how brilliant her only son was”
The recollection of this interaction on page 15 seems very developmentally appropriate. While Ira knows the answer to his mother’s question, he is also defiant. He is acting under egocentrism; therefore, he isn’t able to process what his mother wants as well as the nervousness he is feeling. At the same time, Sukrungruang uses phrases that a kindergartener wouldn’t understand, such as “save face” and “drummed…into my head,” even if he could have consciously noticed the feelings those phrases describe.
Through a brief analysis of the text, I am able to conclude that both authors are creating a particular narrative with their language choices. I compared the characters simply at their pre-operational stages, because their cognitive process are crucial for the basis of the rest of the memoirs. While Wright uses his colorful language to create a profound image of his childhood self, Sukrungruang seems to create a more developmentally appropriate narrative that the reader can relate to.