I love to read. Books, mostly. So I love books. But my love for books did not come from some cue-the-violin swoon-worthy tale. Books were not a transcendent spiritual encounter for, nor were they a means of escape like they were for the likes of author Malaika waAzania. None of that. They were certainly nothing close to how storyteller, author, poet, freedom fighter Gcina Mhlophe came to love books – the story of uNozincwadi, her grandma… Because no one tells a story like Gcina Mhlophe, the tale of Nozincwadi has stayed with me since I experienced her share it at Adrian Steirn’s 21 Icons book launch in October Gcina Mhlophe Nozincwadi2014; to the point that I decided to share my love story with the written word.

We have established that my love for books was not a romantic one. I simply read so I could stay in the loop with gossip from my folks’ inner circle. I was seven years old. Then I continued to read because I decided that since I was not pretty, I would be smart. I was ten years old. Since then, I have not stopped reading.

I grew up around my extended family, with all my cousins and siblings under the roof of both our parents’ houses and my grandparents’ house. All of us kids were kind of the same age group, give or take 4 – 5 years. At any given time, there was an average of 6 – 10 of us between our parents’ houses and our grandparents’ house. Being in the same age group, we were all more or less in  the same grades and when we were younger, spoke little to no English. As such, my folks: grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts; all of them used English whenever they wanted to talk about us in our presence, and that was a peeve of mine.

Information such as who did what, who was doing well at school or not, sometimes even for whom an ass whooping was imminent (check here what an ass whooping is) – this information was freely shared in the safety of Queen’s language and we, the kids, understood none of it.

I hated that. So I made it a point to learn English so I would have the inside scoop and be in the know. Knowledge is power after all. When I was second grade, knowing only the alphabet, basic phonetics and a handful of English words, I ventured into reading, focusing on the words I knew and asking around where I had no clue on pronunciation. Books became my way of fast tracking learning English and so I could understand the dealings [read: gossip] of that inner circle. I read all the ‘grown-up books’ that were around – Thomas Hardy’s poetry, Albert Nyathi, Chinua Achebe, the two Charles Dickens titles we had in the house, Ngugi wa Thiong’o – because as far as I was concerned, children’s books didn’t take kids [read: me] seriously, with what I considered ridiculously huge fonts that had no sophistication at all. But in truth, I had no idea what the hell I was reading. I simply made sense of some familiar English words and that was enough to pick up stompies from my folks’ tittle-tattle-about-the-kids sessions.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o A Grain of Wheat

I was sorted. Thanks to books. I was empowered. I knew before the rest of the kids who was getting an ass whooping, who was in trouble at school, who was dumb and who was pretty – all of it. In the years that followed I learnt, from the adults’ tittle-tattle sessions – because when you snoop you find what you are looking for – I learnt that my looks were nothing to go by, at least not in comparison to my sisters’. This was/ is not totally untrue. And as we grew up, my sisters were regular recipients of compliments for their beauty while fewer if any remarks of that sort came my way. Instead, I was the butt of jokes from other kids for
being utterly skinny with jokes like “you’re so skinny you look like you swallowed a red hot piece of wire” – it’s funnier in Ndebele – fired at me. It was there that my voyage to the stout began, but that’s a story for another day. So because I wasn’t beautiful and was awkwardly gangly, I decided to be the smart one – surely I would have my place in the world. And if this smartness was not a natural endowment, I was going to cultivate whatever little I had and become truly smart. At age ten, reading became my way to intelligence.

In the years that followed, right into high school, I read religiously, mostly texts I (still) did not understand, and a few that I was able to comprehend. In that process, I appreciated and treasured the art of juggling words. I fell in love with reading. Books, mostly. Then reading stopped being my way into the world, and became a part of me. My life-long whirlwind affair with reading, books – mostly,  had begun.

Black child reading a book

At age 8, I was on this tip… Looking back now, I was too cute for words!

Images from GcinaMhlophe.co.za, imgkid.com & 40.media.tumblr.com