A Love Affair With Words
I recently read Pat Conroy’s “My Reading Life” and Joe Queenan’s brilliant book “One for the Books” on matters bookish. I was especially intrigued by Queenan’s book – full of barbs and bouquets in equal measure. Several times I thought he was describing me in eerie detail, a feeling I quickly overcame. I was guilty of all his don’ts, but my saving grace was that I am also guilty of the good stuff as well.
Describing his reading habits for instance, he says, “I read books – mostly non-fiction – for at least two hours a day, but I also spend two hours a day reading newspapers and magazines, gathering material for my work which largely consists of ridiculing nincompoops and scoundrels.”
Well, that’s me I thought, except my work does not involve reading to ridicule “nincompoops and scoundrels,” although I have soldiered through dreary, very poorly written 100-page technical reports on public health and journal articles on the feeding habits of the Anopheles gambiae ss, that bad-ass insect that is the cause of malaria, death and disability in many parts of Africa.
On his favourite reading places and times, Joe says, “I read anywhere and everywhere, except in the bathroom, as I find this unspeakably vulgar and disrespectful to the person whose work one is reading, unless one is reading something appalling.” Well true again, although I have read some really great stuff in the bathroom!
After thoroughly enjoying both books and telling every person I know and their tennis partner to buy a copy, I couldn’t help reflecting on my own journey to an abiding love for words. Even my choice of words for the subject matter is telling: how does one describe words like a love affair?
Several times have I gone to the Central Business District in Nairobi with some few thousand shillings in my pocket, telling my wife I am off to buy a few items of clothing only to come back with at least three books. My long suffering wife has tired of saying, “Oh no, not another book,” and learnt to live with what I describe as my “rather nice affliction.”
But I think of late she is on to me. My standard “would you rather I had a bad addiction like alcohol and lo and behold serial philandering, at least you know am in the living room in my own world” routine is wearing thin.
So how did I get to this point? My theory all along, and something I told an aspiring writer, was that reading, and by extension writing later on, was at first forced on me, like a goose being fattened to extract foie gras (French for “fat liver”) for a high fashion dinner at the Ritz Carlton.
I explained to my friend that the concept of reading culture was literally forced on me. I went from a school in a small village called Tarbaj in Wajir in Northern Kenya straight to Moi High School-Kabarak, one of the most elite of schools in Kenya, smack in the middle of former president Daniel arap Moi’s farm . The concept of reading for pleasure was alien to me. The Kenyan schooling system was such that you literally had no time to get through the assigned texts, much less read anything extra. And more importantly, I had no money to buy books.
Moi High School came with certain perks. It was where top officials in Moi’s government sent their children for secondary education, along with hundreds of us well-performing commoners who were selected from the far flung areas to reflect Kenya’s diversity. The former lot had plenty of books. I had plenty of time and an eager mind, but had no money to buy books.
In trying to borrow the latest novel from a wealthier friend, mostly thrillers, the typical conversation would end with something like, “I will give you [Robert Ludlum’s] “Bourne Identity” if you promise to give it back in two days,” and of course I had no choice.
At the end of four years, some fat was forming around the liver of this goose and it went on to eat mouthful after mouthful by itself; there was no need to gorge it any more. Long after I left Kabarak and started earning some money either by way of the university stipend from the government or formal employment, buying a book became part of the monthly budget and reading it a must.
Like most theories, the one above explains some things but not everything. The foie gras analogy is a simple but effective narrative, but as I grew older I realize that other things were at play as well. As is common, with age, we realize that life is a lot more complex than black and white. There are several shades of grey in-between. There was no epiphany, no aha moment, but just a series of still-shots in my mind’s eye, that when I play them fast like in time-lapse photography, tell a different and richer story.
I was a curious child born in a largely oral Somali society where people were lampooned or praised in oral verse. My mother was married young to an older man and brought to live with a large, cacophonous polygamous family with lots of extended relatives in the mix as well. She was lonely most of the time as far as I can remember, not in a physical sense, but in a nostalgic sense, away from her brothers and sisters at a young age. But she had a beautiful mellifluous voice, at least to my ears.
Mother had an elephant’s memory and a sharp mind to boot. Her favourite pass-time was sitting by the veranda of the family house overlooking the Wajir-Mandera road, my father’s old Phillips radio sitting precariously on the window-ledge. She’d sit at the veranda deftly weaving traditional mats and household items from sisal dipped in a myriad of natural colors. The little radio was constantly tuned to Radio Mogadishu. Mother knew every song by heart. And, boy, did she sing her heart out.
My older brother and I graduated from singing along with mother to entertaining the neighbours with the same songs to staging mock plays in the neighborhood. By the time I got to Kabarak, I had an ear for words, albeit of the musical variety.
And I suppose from that came a facility with words in general, with new languages, an interest in meeting new people and curiosity about other cultures. I remember trying to imagine “Paris at night” from a French textbook photo with the shimmering bright lights of Paris and a simple caption “Paris a Nuit.”
The shift from reading only to writing as well came slowly but surely, from the innocent coffee-room banter with colleagues at work: “You read a lot Abdi, one of these days we want a book from you” to the more serious “why don’t you join our book club,” to “I liked you letter-to-the editor. Why don’t you send me a fuller article.” It helped that I stopped worrying about a fixed writing schedule, that I write what I like and that I only write when I feel sufficiently moved to do so about something I care about!
Read them, write them, perform them. Do whatever you want with words. If you can “turn-a-phrase”, you have me hooked.
Abdinasir Amin is an editor at Sahan Journal. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow him at twitter.com/nasirowabass