The inspiration for Modena Pipe (last name pronounced "Peep") is my mother, who had all her teeth pulled in her late thirties and donned a set of false teeth, and a Vietnamese student I had in my college writing class in the 80s, who biggest desire was to read and write American. My mother suffered dearly for a couple of weeks, but she loved her new teeth. My student passed my developmental writing class and during summer break, sent me a post card of a beautiful woman in a bikini standing on Pensacola Beach, Florida. On the back of the card, he wrote, "Am taking in sun and sights and reading book you told me about, Madame Bovary. It is hard to read, and many words I do not understand, but I am looking them up in dictionary. Thank you for teaching me American."
Me: Tell us a little about yourself, Modena.
Modena: When I was a little girl, my daddy didn't want me to go to school because he said the teachers would corrupt me, so I never learned américain. We didn't have a television, and I was sixteen when I saw my first one. I could not figure out how those small people could live out their lives in a box like that. My mother tried to explain to me what a television was, but I didn't understand much of what she told me. For me, the little people in the box were special, and the language they spoke was some sort of secret tongue that only very special people could understand. When I met my husband, Jonel, he spoke the same language as the box people, and I thought he had to be special too. But it didn't turn out that way. He used it to keep me in the dark.
My teeth started rotting when I was a young girl, around fifteen or sixteen. My daddy would not take me to the dentist because neither he or my momma had their real teeth, so he didn't figure it was important enough to spend money fixing them. By the time I married Jonel, they were pretty much all rotted. Whenever I had a quiet moment to myself, I dreamed of speaking américain, and having new teeth. When Alain Babineaux got killed, and Jonel had to be gone most days to help solve the case, I asked my mother if she would help me realize my dreams.
Me: What was so important about speaking American?
Modina: At first, I wanted to be special like the people in the box. I wanted to understand what they were saying. Later, I wanted to show Jonel that I was just as good as he was. The more I learned, though, the more I realized that it was not just about learning to speak américain. It was learning more about how the world looks different when you see it through a new language.
Me: How about teeth? Did your old teeth hurt?
Modina: No. All they did was rot without pain. Jonel was like my father. He didn't want to spend the money since they didn't hurt me, but every time I looked in the mirror, I saw an old lady, and I was not. The first time I put the false teeth in my mouth, I was young again. I could laugh again and smile again. Like the new language, the new teeth were life-changing.
Me: Do you have other dreams or aspirations?
Modina: No. (Pause). Maybe. Sometimes, I would watch how men treated the women on the television, and I dreamed of being treated like that. You know, like you're special. Jonel never treated me like that. In fact, he treated that old cow of his better than he did me.
Me: Is there anything else you'd like to say?Modina: When Peter gave me Madame Bovary to practice reading, it felt as heavy as an anvil, but the more I read—the more I learned—the lighter it became. Peter told me I was breaking it down, but I didn't see it that way. The way I saw it was that my brain was doing all the lifting as I learned to read it.