Yes, I hold a BA in English but haven’t read much of “the canon”.
One of the things about not coming from a very literate family, culture or class is that I wasn’t read to much growing up, and most of what was read to me was written in short form (published in the newspaper or magazines).
For me, this used to be a huge source of shame. Especially at Oxford where people threw words like, “Foucauldian”, “Dickensian”, “Dantean” or “Dantesque”, and (this one really threw me for a loop in the moment) “Pinteresque” around in everyday conversation. There, when people would “drop” names of authors that “everyone” has read or tomes that “everyone’s” parents read to them growing up, I would shrivel up a little inside. My eyes would glaze over a bit in those moments while I battled the guilt and shame of “how on earth did I get here when I haven’t read The Odyssey or The Inferno?” – or, more directly still, “I surely can’t belong here if I don’t know what Pinteresque means! How on earth do I reckon I could get a PhD from here?! God help me!” (As an aside, I’m glad God did ;)
I was so thankful for my friend, Rachel, with whom I could test these doubts and be reminded that I speak five languages and can understand almost ten more because of their mutual intelligibility. I was also reminded that I possess all manner of other knowledge that, though perhaps not recognised or valued in “this place”, is valuable. I would walk away from those hilarious, lengthy encounters with my friend with the tender conviction that I am eminently capable of securing an Oxford PhD if one redefines what knowledge and skills are necessary to qualify one for it. Still, the doubts lingered as some of the personal insecurities with which I would fill the silences in many conversations, relationships and experiences.
Of course, I have since read more of the canon. But, I regret to say it has not been with the voracious appetite of a young mind first encountering a big, wide world through words that leap off of pages, both musty and old, and crisp and new.
One thing has begun to change that: having kids. Reading to my kids is one of the most delightful experiences of parenting thus far. Yes, my toddler son’s favourite book is Moo, Baa, La La La!, and I’ve read it to him too many times to count. I only barely mind this, though, because I can’t help but consider the sly smirk on his face as his buttery soft hands pass me the book I’ve just closed to signal, “Again, Mama – read it again!” And my one year old daughter loves to sit on her own, quietly going through The First 100 Words or sit on her dad’s lap intently looking at the pages as he flips them to continue whatever German narrative he’s chosen (perhaps among the Grimm’s Fairytales) that day, her big eyes periodically looking up at his face to read his expression and share in his reaction to the tale.
Despite their very basic appetites at this age, I have not delayed in introducing them to some of the books I’ve been dying to read to them, as a way of reading these books myself. When I told someone recently (a teacher and daughter of a father who was a professor, no less) that I had just finished reading Alice in Wonderland to my babies she remarked, seemingly disapprovingly, that that was very grown up. To be honest, a part of me was tempted to react the way I had in Oxford to quiet judgments of my failure to live up to “white” standards – that is, with guilt and shame. Evidently, again, I had broken an unwritten rule of a culture that I was not raised in but whose standards I am always measured against.
But the excitement within me could not be quelled; after all, there was something truly magical happening in my reading to my children… You see, I had read the book to them in the first language I had learned to speak as a child: isiZulu!
I had almost died from shock when I stumbled upon the translation on Amazon. Starting long before my children were even conceived, I had spent hours scouring bookshops in person and online, putting together my isiZulu children’s library. I wanted to pass on my home language, if only as a gift to my parents because then my children would be able to show them respect and affection in terms that were most near and dear to my parents who had given me so much. (Not even mentioning the fact that multilingualism bestows all sorts of cognitive benefits, there are plenty more reasons that my geeky sociolinguistics grad mind would love to share with you but I’ll have to save those for another post.)
The point is I had struggled to find good long form writing in isiZulu. (Again, I do not originally come from a literate culture; isiZulu is an oral language written phonetically in Latin script.) And, let’s be honest, some translations were suspect, and that evidently so even to someone with basic to intermediate language skills like myself.
But, when I picked up U-Alice Ezweni Lezimanga and read the foreword (a note from the interpreter on the challenging task he had been invited to undertake in honour of the text’s centenary and what editorial decisions he had made along the way), I settled into a feeling of home I had not experienced in a long time. For the same reason reading this foreword in isiZulu made me feel at home – that is, my having not spoken Zulu with that degree of commitment (eschewing code switching) since I was doing fieldwork for my book or (further back still) before I started at an English medium school in PreSchool (US: Kindergarten) – I was also duly challenged by the text. It contained enough familiar words that I understood but enough new words that I had to re-read sentences or whole paragraphs, and download the link to the Zulu Oxford dictionary and the Google Translate app to my home screen. I couldn’t put the foreword down; but its four pages were all I could get through before wearing myself out for the night. This was perfect! What a gift!
What are we reading now that we finished U-Alice Ezweni Lezimanga, you might ask? Uhambo Olude Oluya Enkululekweni (or, Long Walk To Freedom), by Nelson Mandela. It’s an abridged version, which is a bit disappointing, but also probably appropriate for the level of my isiZulu literary skills.
While Alice in Wonderland was a joy to read and I am utterly grateful for the foray it offered me into the Western canon, the added bonus of Long Walk to Freedom being available in my vernacular language is that it is my own culture, country, and class’s canon. Sure, it may not be the most soothing thing I could read to my children when I put them down for naps – that, I admit. But, it’s an important part of their story and I’m grateful that I can share it with them in my home language. Besides, what could possibly be more soothing than Mama’s voice rhythmically lulling you to sleep with sounds of home?!