The spelling bee who couldn’t e-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-e

My family didn’t have a TV till I lobbied for one successfully at the age of 6. @andywarhola could write tales about that, too. The distinct and utter lack of a TV. Or, going to the neighbour’s house to watch one. On the sly. That house, for me, was my friend Subira’s (her name means patience, goes to show) and that of a boy called Dan (who had three brothers-the beginning of my love affair with friendships with male people). That makes two houses… Yay me.

I taught myself to read at the age of 2. I read the same book -‘Kaka Sungura na Ndugu Mbweha’-over and over again till I could read effortlessly. If you are a Kenyan and you read that book; high five. My parents were the epitome of student poverty. Maybe I exaggerate but as I have grown older I have realised our charmed counter-cultural life (no help, no TV) was a response to the general absence of money. That and the accompanying surfeit of love. The egalitarian environment-father bathes child as mother labours over stove before father reads child book and mother tucks in child as father washes dinner dishes-was indicative of the fact that their reality did not allow my parents the privilege of traditional gender roles.

Did I just say ‘traditional gender roles’?

Fights with the being that has usurped her body & wrests control of her blog from it.

Phew! That was close! This post was inspired by @French_Freddy who urged me write a little something (is this little enough, Fred? May I stop now?) about why I read as my contribution to Kenya’s Reading Revolution (@readkenya on Twitter). Plus the encouragement of Juliet Maruru (@sheblossoms on Twitter) Aleya Jamel (@aleyajamel on Twitter) and tweeps such as @twezlie and @EdwinAbuga

“Quit stalling, lady!” a voice shouts from the gallery. All right my good people, these are my confessions:

I read because it’s an escape. At just about the point when the world has thrown all manner of things my way, it throws a book that rights my upside-down existence and evens the valleys. Then I walk through; barely looking up but safe in the knowledge that I shall survive and live to read another day. It’s an escape from the misery, the uncertainties of life. @veelangat and @kemikali can testify to that far-away, did-you-say-something, effect books have on me. And they know me well enough to be agents of the universe when I need a book thrown my way. The book cover as trapdoor. Escape.

I read because it’s what we do in my family. Reading as tradition. My brother T, now 11, used to read the paper upside down as a toddler. Read, in a manner of speaking. More like observe the text with a keen, intent look. Trying to piece together what it was that kept his pre-teen sister and parents so absorbed. And when he started to read, his enthusiasm couldn’t be curbed. Now that I’ve written that, I’ve remembered how I used to ask the butcher to wrap the meat in particular pages of the newspaper so that I could read the article on the paper when I got home. My mother knew I did this-I requested those very sheets of paper even when she was the one buying meat with me by her side-and she approved of it. That’s just, as the young would say, how we roll.

I read to be informed. The written word as teacher. My parents are of that in-between generation that had never talked about sex(uality) with their parents but was faced with the scourge that is AIDS at the time when their children were growing up. To talk or not to talk? Or in my parents case, to foist books on said child or not? Foist not, converse not; my parents decided. And being lovers of the spoken word, they would not choose to deny themselves the chance to have The Conversation. Many times. I read a plethora of Sex-Ed books. Christian ones, secular ones, NGO-funded ones….with some Kama Sutra thrown in at 11 or 12; for good measure. I couldn’t be bothered in those days; I actually thought they were being nags. These days, when I am with my age-mates and I am treated like an oversexed female person for all the knowledge I have, I see what motivated my parents. Knowledge is power. I am powerful. It’s not just about the birds and the bees that I read to be informed. The world, money, power, war and peace. Love, pain, pleasure; one knows so much more when one reads.

This will sound ridiculous but I read to learn to write. By which I mean spell. @kemikali (the man usually referred to as X) has made a comedy out of my inability to pronounce words. My constant rebuttal? I can spell them. I know, it’s lame, I should go for Toastmasters or something similar. But why, when I can spell, spell, spell? My brother, rearing himself on a steady diet of TV (how time flies! How things change!) can spell a word by the hearing; I can explain a word by the reading. I’m the spelling bee who can’t pronounce words, he is the champion born too many miles from the Big Apple. And so I continue to read. I may never get to say myriad words as they should be said (on what side of the Atlantic, ask I?) but at least I can write them. From the gallery, “Write on, sister! Write on!”. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

I read to experience the full gamut of human expression and feeling. The happy, the sad, the flights of fancy, the ideas that transform, heal, change. The Bible, the Qur’an, the inspired writings of Kahlil Gibran. Frost, Garcia Marquez, Soyinka, Ngugi, Mahfouz, Gordimer, Adichie, Arundhati Roy….Emily Dickinson (or My high school crush). Those ‘trashy’ romance novels (my dad encouraged me to read those as a teenager; so I could wrap up the fantasy bit of my life that much sooner, I guess), those bits of classic literature (I used to drive my mum to church and sit at the park outside reading ‘War and Peace’, heathen that I was; ha ha), contemporary literature. I may never be left on bridge by a lover, or have a lesbian one; but I can read the experiences of one who has. I have never been to Kathmandu and shall never go to apartheid South Africa though I have a sense of what it’s like to be in those places.

A story: Once I was at a supermarket and an autistic child (thank you, Reader’s Digest) walked up to me and held my hand as he looked into my eyes with a piercing look. I was, quite honestly, enchanted (I was 19 and sans lover; not a lot of people were lining up to look at me like that) and held his hand as I greeted him and asked him his name (he told me) before his mum came and took him away. Greetings, transfer of child, best wishes. Then we met again at a the pharmacy in the very mall. A repeat of what had happened earlier and a fresh round ofgoodbyes.

I may never have a child, let alone an autistic one, but I felt like I had met that child before. In a book. Not this specific one but the different, the unusual, the outcast, the misunderstood. I had met him in his world and in those of others and I felt like I was meeting an old friend when I met that lad. My empathy was informed by my knowledge of that child from the wealth of books read. The world is full of experiences, situations, feelings, that we may never chance upon. Yet, in a book, we get to experience all these. And so much more.

I read because it’s a cheap means to wealth. No, I’m not talking about all those motivational books. I am talking about a wealth of knowledge, of expressions, of feeling, of twists and turns; and of money, too. The book that costs one less than 50 US cents that transports you to a whole new world (cue Aladdin on the magic carpet), the fantasy worlds explored. I realised, as an adult, that bar ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Snow White’, I read all the other fairy tales in their unabridged form. That is to say, as The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen first presented them (thank you, Penguin Popular Classics). The student poverty mentioned earlier was the chief cause but looking back, I can honestly say I grew up rich. I got a slice of history and it was a gift that kept giving. I went to 19th century England, and walked with Mowgli through the jungle. I learnt why things fell apart and pieced together the reason behind all the strange animals in those Australian cartoons (Australia was a bit of an obsession at age 5) as I ran away from the Amazonian creatures on my way to the ruins of ancient civilisations. All this while I admired the Sphinx and cried over the beloved country. All this knowledge, all this history for the girl who was rich because she read.

So much for my ‘few words about why I read’, huh? But these and so many more are the reasons why I read. I could go on and on but as I conclude I would like to say that nothing opens the mind more than books read, nothing whets the appetite for knowledge better than the written word, nothing quenches the thirst for answers more than that which comes to you through reading.

I am a Kenyan who reads and I support the Reading Revolution. Why do you read?

Tagged: All the tweeps mentioned herein who love to read and haven’t written about why they read