It was in July of 2003 that I fell in love with novels. Contrary to my mother’s present-day boasts, I was not always the happy member of “Readaholic Anonymous”, and it was watching T.V at breathing distance from the screen rather than “reading too much” that led to my shortsightedness.
I remember that vacation well. It was the end of my second year back in Cameroon. I had sufficiently adjusted and was no longer the pampered newcomer in the house. I now got up automatically by 6am as though hearing the school gong in my dream, my American slang had properly married boarding school lingua and everyday pidgin such that I could carry on a conversation with the others without someone looking at me with a mixture of amusement and amazement. I had failed the final exams. Picking me up from school, Jude, my god-mother‘s nephew joked that a cow was slaughtered for all the red needed on my report card.
When I got home I discovered Grandma, my god-mother‘s mother, liked red everywhere but on report cards. “You failed even Religion! How does one fail God’s subject? God is not with you! And if God is not with you, how can you pass anything?” My punishment was set; I would take the reading of every morning devotion to make up with God for failing his subject. There would be no visiting friends, nor watching T.V for more than two hours a day and a home-teacher would come three times a week and give me assignments to re-learn what I failed. Vacation suddenly sounded like “back to school”.
Then Stella came back from Buea. She had just completed her first year at the university, was the coolest of my cousins by virtue of being the only one who could sing all R.Kelly’s songs, and my roommate for the holidays. With nothing to do but pretend to be studying in the room I looked through her stuff. Amongst the make-up, Spice Girl shoes and Westlife CDs were 100% Jeune magazines, an old Ebonymagazine and four novels. I quickly distracted myself with the magazines and after them, the Harlequin Presents novels seemed more appealing than returning to ANUCAM’s An Introduction to Secondary School Physics.
Sadly I cannot remember that first author who welcomed me into the world of reading for fun, and not just for school, but God bless her whoever she was. It was my first romance novel and though I cannot recall the exact title, the story, or at least the gist of it will never leave my memory. A girl never forgets her first as they say- that applies to her first fictional hero too.
The book cover was typical; a picture of a slim brunette in the arms of a tall blonde haired guy, his arms muscled and bared by rolled up sleeves of an office shirt. I don’t know when I got to chapter four but there I was huddled on the bed in the room smiling coyly, reading every line and seeing it like a movie on HBO. One I was not supposed to watch.
I missed lunch and did not notice. It alarmed Grandma and she asked for me. I hid the book under my pillow thinking about it all the way to dining room where I told Grandma I was reading and would eat later. Her look reflected amazement at my not only refusing food but refusing food because I was reading. I heard her asserting the wonderfulness of God as returned to the room.
I completed the twelfth and final chapter by eight o’clock lingering over the last pages not wanting it to end. But it finally did, and as though the last eight to ten hours had been metamorphosis I emerged a changed person, I knew things. I knew what a kiss felt like- tingly and velvety or wet and teasing, and could explain the pain of heart-break, the hollow feeling of loss and the sting of disappointment. I know about adult things like taxes and have experienced adult longings and wants. I have lived life as a 26 year old woman in a small town in Mississippi.
That night when Stella returned, between complimenting her on her hairdo and the then fashionable dirty-green skirt, I pleaded for more novels. She didn’t buy the flattery. She still scolded me for going through her things, but she agreed; one at a time she said, and if only I took care of them. That was the beginning of a life affair with reading. I stumbled and fell into the warmth and giving nature of books. They were my friends, at a time when I understood nothing, no one, including myself. Novels taught me to see others, and pieces of me in them.
My love for books would only grow more as school resumed. There they would provide me sweet escape from fake friends and bullies alike, distraction from boring school texts and midterm starvation. I could leave it all behind and go to New York, the Louisiana Bayou or 18th Century England, play the tourist on a taxi-boat in Venice or live the high life with the pampered mistress of some Arabian sheikh. I had gone with Stella to Old Treasury Street where all the booksellers were, with books stacked in old iron trunks overflowing organized by genre; romance to suspense, historical, regency, futuristic, and law thrillers. At that time I had a singular preference for all things romance. I saw only two novels with black characters and I knew I had to buy both to learn something more, the black way of loving even if they are African American and not Black African. I returned to school with my box half full of novels; Julia Quinn, Jane Feather, Julie Garwood, Johanna Lindsay, Amanda Quick; it felt like I carried my real friends in my trunk.
Two years later I can be found in possession of a novel at any point in time. Novels are to me as rosaries to Catholics. I read during breaks, during Sunday mass, in the refectory, in the dormitory, standing in line or walking squinting under the scorching sun, I read. My addiction is considered a good one; teachers seize books but give them back to me. My grades are steady now, surprisingly because of novels. Of course the punishment helped too, I never failed religion again. I like learning now, not everything, but I aspire to be the clever girl whom the hero always prefers. Novels make learning more interesting. I understood Jane Eyrebetter only after reading characters debate about it in a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel. And I’m spurred to research World War II only after reading Danielle Steele’s Crossing. I read more Shakespeare and Byron on my own because of numerous mentions made in regency novels. Reading historicals make the Glorious and French revolutions more interesting than Mr. Takors teaching ever could. Some classmates say I am possessed because I read novels even in church. I tell them off in Victorian, aristocratic English: “They would do well not to concoct and repeat such ill-conceived and unfathomable tales about my person. Freedom is after all a right!” They looked at me in bafflement; in my mind I high-five Julia Quinn.
My novels breed me, in one I learn the process of wine making, and from another hero I learn how to run an inn. I learn to look people in the eyes to see the truth therein, to listen and show people love. I’m living adult lives, learning adult stuff, more interesting and useful I think than that awful trigonometry. I know endearments in Gaelic, Italian and curses too. It doesn’t bother me that I do not know how to greet in my own dialect, after all who speaks or writes Bamileke?
But the books changed. No more little Harlequins, they’re Putnam, Random House or Bantam Books now. And I no longer limited myself to romance, anything captivating or just anything available would do. I yearn to feel the joys and pain of a mother Jacqueline Briskin. Nora Roberts makes me aspire to be a mature independent woman, Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins give me a taste of madness and the ability to analyze people with psychiatric skill. Every writer it seems is a therapist or at least a holder of a doctorate in sociology; systematically creating and dissecting characters everyone can relate to or eventually understand. And the reader learns empathy at their knee, able to identify in some way to both heroine and terrorizing serial killer.
There was a call for poetry at school one Environment Awareness Day. I was nominated to write one as one of the best students in literature class My poem is accepted, probably not because of its quality but because in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king. It still feels good though. I begin to write poetry, my first sip from the writer’s cup.
When in form five I am awarded a prize for Best Academic Improvement, I decide at once to use the 300 hundred page ledger as a poetry book. Most of my poem titles come from song titles, songs that make me feel and think, or words I have read that rouse me to try and own them. Add dimensions, broaden their meaning; Loneliness is not to be alone, it is to be without. Make them my own
I survived boarding school and three months into first year at university my books are more eclectic. The Advanced levels gave me a taste for the classics and for the African. I am intrigued by a plurality of worlds and impressed by their exploitation of words, from Oscar Wilde to Richard Wright to Achebe and Ama Ata Aidoo. I am audience to contrasting stages from I will Marry When I Want to A Man for All Seasons. And my ears appreciate a variety of voices from J.P Clark and Okot P’bitek to Blake and Tennyson.
With a university students allowance and freedom from school gates, I can discover more books, more worlds. I tend to like the author with the work, believing the goodness of the hero or heroine is the reflection of the writer’s soul and the happy ending is proof in their belief of good conquering evil. And even when it did not end as happily as it could, I would appreciate the writer for their truth. And so I appreciated Amadi for his The Concubine, believed in Erich Segal for Love Story and Acts of Faith, I would nominate Housseni’s loving soul for a peace prize just based on A Thousand Splendid Suns. I know them enough to respect, love and believe in; they introduced themselves to me through their books.
Then in my second year at university, I experienced a second epiphany. After watchingLove Jones for the first time during yet another campus strike which gave students an unplanned vacation
The movie was one of a collection and by the time Poetic Justice came on next I had shut myself in my room and fallen in love all over again; this time with writing. This was no stumble, more like being tazsr in the spirit.
I had loved books and then writers but writing itself I had only admired. My poetry collection was still my second diary, a device for expression. Yet as I saw actors speak words to life, to touch each other and me in Love Jones, as Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” lifted me up at the final scene of Poetic Justice, I wondered what having that power would be like. The ability to move others, to pause them and make them think, feel like you, all the things my books do. And create worlds for people who, lost like me, could escape to. But all is not fair in reading and writing. Whereas reading whispers to you, a sweet call and you follow believing, not even realizing when you leave reality behind, writing is an army draft daring you “be all that you can be” and more.
And then with every book I read, it no longer sufficed to enjoy the adventure and live another’s life. Wonder would spring up after every few lines and I would pause and think, but how did J.K Rowling make that the surreal so real? How did Lola Shoneyin and Chimamanda Adichie create such complex yet simple characters? Or how did Lauri Kubuitsile bring the humor out in that, or make that smooth transition from happy to sad?How come Zukiswa Wanner’s dialogue flows so well? How did Jhumpa Lahiri make feel akin to what is so foreign? And of course, how can I do that? And reading was no longer passive recreation entertaining me; it was now also mind-teasing trivia, a formula to crack. It was no longer mere beauty and art of sentences building plot,I know recognized the science of language.
This is what writing does to you. While reading lulls you to contentment, writing is bolder. It taunts you, mocking tone and sneer;
“So you’ve got an idea, put it down then! Come’on put it down let’s see if it’s an idea and not just a piece of shit!”
Of course what seems like the perfect story in your head all intricate plots and profound lines, is but murky stagnant sentences when put down. Far from magical, the words once out of your head are prepositions and conjunctions and inadequate adjectives. And if you thought you were gifted, you end up wondering if you’re just “special”.
Still that teasing voice won’t go away. With every book read, idea you think up or inspiring moment you have, a part of you is challenged to recreate for all what only your heart felt and only your eyes saw. Thus you write, failing to reach that perfect reincarnation of the original idea nonetheless unable to stop no matter how frustrated it becomes. Why? Why torture yourself to write though it begets more rough-drafts than master–pieces? Though you still prefer the novels other produce above your own words.
I think it is like the slot machine in a Casino; you play and play and play, spending all your coins just because someone once won. Someone once won our hearts with a tale and stole our tears and made us laugh, so we take the dare to be that someone and win another in turn.