Saturday, 17 November 2018

On not being: A real reader

I still often feel guilty that I'm not what in my family growing up, we called 'a real reader'. I can read, sure. I do read. But I do not 'get through' books in the way that my sisters did as children or as they have done as adults. I can't say I have that need. It still saddens me a little since it was afforded so, so much importance and status as I grew up, an accolade to obtain and behold. This was perhaps exacerbated by the childhood my siblings and I had, growing up in a small village just outside of the city of Accra, Ghana, West Africa. It was vibrant and simple and bereft of the many norms of childhood of that time (at least of the British childhood of friends and family that we had left behind and heard murmurs of) - television, parks, ice cream vans, Sindy dolls, Bagpuss and the Bay City Rollers (favourites of my sisters'), The Brady Bunch, Abba, red phone boxes and chopper bikes. We had none of these. Our exposure to this world came in small doses as relatives sent birthday gifts or when my cool Uncle would visit, my dad's younger brother. He was the one who introduced us to VHS and episode after episode of Dallas which he would bring over in his huge suitcases once a year, if we were lucky. He brought us Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, Musical Youth, Barbara Streisand on vinyl, The Godfather, Jaws, The Sound of Music. This was all so far from our world of 'reading books', 'going to market', 'fetching water', 'power cuts' and we savoured it like a last sweet. We escaped the heat of the African sun with tales by Enid Blyton of five children adventuring together, drinking ginger beer and eating neatly cut sandwiches. We saw and climbed mountains and saw wild animals when we entered the world of 'Look n Learn' magazines. We took on mystery diseases and attempted to find cures as we delved into my father's medical books that littered our home. We encountered love, of the strangest kind when we entered the world of the romance novel, my mother's books -  since she, at that time was 'a real reader'. All of this is to say, our world was full of imagined places that we longed one day to visit. It provided a feast of longing, of adventure, of nostalgia, of wanting to travel and explore other places, a desire to experience the world, to look, to see, to taste, to touch, to feel, to smell, to take in all the 'otherness' that reading allowed us to bare witness to.

When people ask, as they frequently do, why I don't let my kids have videogames or consoles, why I don't transmit television channels and simply watch bought dvds, this is what I think of. This. This childhood of mine. One of the earliest conversations that I had with my now husband, on one of the early dates during our courtship was about our similar experiences of childhood. It came with such relief that I didn't have to explain away the differences or justify the less usual, he too had experienced the same but different childhood. He too, naturally hovered between two worlds - the real and the imagined. The kind of worlds that are frequently explored by those that spend hours basking in literary travel, those whose parents had chosen the 'otherness' experience too. 

I have been reminded of these things very much so this week. My youngest son is not a 'real reader' by my family's definition since his dyslexia makes reading stamina a big challenge. He is however ' a real listener'. I believe I am too and always was even as a very young child (although my family did not bestow this act an accolade of its own.) A real listener, listens and takes it in. Allows it all to seep. A real listener doesn't need to be at the helm, it isn't about quantity or direction or pace or even acquisition but purely about being transported. About reflecting, about stopping and asking the reader questions, about thinking out loud. Reading aloud so frequently with my ten year old as I do, has transformed my relationship with books and with reading. I have made peace with identifying confessionally as a non- real reader. Reading with the eye is such a different sensory experience to reading with the ear. I can connect the dots now when I look at my hobbies and my creative journey: journaling using cassette recordings, preferring listening to audio books, making sound art as my major, singing and songwriting and being a vocalist, telling oral histories, performing oral narratives. 

I often wonder where my youngest son and fellow 'real listener' will journey to, which roads he will choose to take. I hope along the way he happens upon many 'real listeners' and is able to utter words of encouragement and the example of hope and adventure. I feel blessed to be amongst many 'real listeners' and many like minded 'non real readers' in the work that I do and it gives me such joy that I am able to say to others - 'There is more than one way to read a book. You can read with with every part of you and you can definitely read just with your ears, just like 'real listeners' do.'

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