Why do I read? It is a question I get ever so often and one I tend to answer in the simplest way possible. I truly enjoy reading. However, some people just can’t wrap their heads around that. They just cannot fathom the appeal of reading because they are yet to have found the right kind of novel for their own personal taste. The right kind of novel can turn anyone into an avid reader and I am lucky enough to have found it, for me it was Harry Potter. However, my reasons for being completely obsessed with reading goes far beyond waiting for my Hogwarts letter. If I were to truly explore the reasons why I read it I would have to go way back into my childhood and tell you what reading truly means to me. For me, reading is more than just fun, it is an escape, it is a comfortable space in which I can live the lives I’ll never be able to live in reality and most importantly it is symbolic of defiance, fueled by the need to prove that I could do it regardless of other people’s opinion.
So you’re probably thinking what the hell I am on about? How is reading defying or going against anything? What have you been smoking Abdeah?
Well, I will have start at the very beginning for you to understand my journey as a reader. All the way back to seven year old bespectacled me – yeah, I totes wore them Harry Potter glasses – moving to a new home and starting at a new school, all giddy and excited. My mom had made the new school sound like a dream come true. I would be making new friends, go to swimming lessons and I’d get to play netball. I’d have art and music class and an awesome playground to play in, what more could I possibly want? Looking back I was super stoked to start school and so unprepared for the culture shock that awaited me.
Let put this into context, it was six years into democracy, the new South Africa was still young. I was a seven year old Muslim girl, brought up to be strong willed and not to bend under the pressure of fitting in and I was starting my schooling at a former private school. Sounds like the perfect upper-middle-class dream right?
While the other kids of colour, young and impressionable as they were, found it easier to avoid rolling their Rs so that they were not picked on, I on the other hand could give a shit about adjusting my accent for anyone. Given we were all seven years old and completely ignorant to the underlying political discourse that was being imposed on us and shoved down our throats, somehow I still managed to stand out like a sore thumb. I was a socially awkward Muslim coloured girl with a wild mane of curly hair and an accent that was evidently from the “other side of the railway line”. I was an oddity and that was obvious from the get go, plus I was stubborn as hell.
I remember coming home that first day of school and my mom asking me how my first day had gone. I will never forget how uncomfortable and confused I felt after that first day and that was evident in my reply. “They all have blue eyes and straight hair and talk differently. I am not like them…” I said.
I think it must have surprised my parents that I had immediately picked up those differences. I cannot say exactly what had happened that particular day to make me feel so anxious and isolated from the rest of my classmates but whatever it was, it made me extremely self conscious.
Throughout the next two years there was a lot of discrimination, teasing and isolation and it affected my academics greatly. I could not adjust to this world where I had to change my accent and discredit my culture to fit in. Being a “Cape Malay coloured” was already ingrained so deeply into my identity as a child, but I would have never have guessed that it would affect my academic progress so greatly.
I was told I could not read because I stuttered and spoke softly when I had to speak in front of the class. This was due to social anxiety and shyness, but no one saw that. According to them I just couldn’t read. I pronounced words the way a kid brought up in Strandfontein typically would and it was difficult to readjust. I couldn’t read, that is what they told my parents, I needed to go to remedial classes a few times a week or I would fail. My parents, being teachers themselves, who had read to me every single day of my life didn’t understand how it was possible for my teacher to think that I could not read. At home I was reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on my own without their help late into the night.
They saw how greatly all of this was affecting me. I became an extremely troubled l child. I was the first kid the class blamed when anything went wrong in class, it was easy to blame the weird coloured kid. Initially I didn’t do anything but soon I became frustrated and I would lie for the sake of lying, simply because I was going to be blamed anyway regardless of whether or not I had actually misbehaved. I started thinking I was stupid and that nobody loved me and all the things little kids think when they are made to feel like there is something wrong with them. I lied a lot in those few years, seeking attention. I also cried a lot, I never wanted to go to school. Eventually my parents decided to send me to a different school, a public school in fact. And there I gained confidence and flourished.
As an adult, looking back at those few years and I come to realise just how difficult it can be to be both female and a person of colour in this country, even at a young age. I may not have understood it then but I do now and I can’t help but think that it was racial and class prejudice. But at the same time I have to say thank you to those teachers and students for making me feel inadequate. Thank you and fuck you very much. It has made me a greater person because I was forced to raise above that discrimination.
So why do I read? Because I why the hell not?