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Textual Journeys and Transformations: Why We Turn to Books and Reading

07/18/2013 12:13 EDT | Updated 09/17/2013 05:12 EDT
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Is it enough to strive to be a nation that knows how to read? Or must we strive to be a nation of readers?

In this four-part series on behalf of the National Reading Campaign, five readers with backgrounds in journalism, broadcasting, writing, and education frame their personal experiences of reading enjoyment within the context of a burgeoning national conversation. Today, Najwa Ali reflects on being a new Canadian and the complex situations in which we turn to books.

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In writing this, I found myself abandoning the careful notes I'd made. A sudden memory interrupted the writing and some old questions began to surface -- about borders, interlocutors and the complex histories of violence, resistance, and desire within which we turn to books.

Arrival (a long time ago)

I am 17, new to Toronto, new to Canada, having moved back and forth across the Indian Ocean several times before my arrival here. I have missed two years of schooling and am obliged to return to high school. A teacher shakes her head and refuses to let me enter her advanced English class, insisting that I be placed in an English as a Second Language class. It is my second day in this country and I have come out alone, papers in hand, to join this school. I argue vehemently, succeed in joining the disgruntled teacher's class and learn some bitter but ordinary lessons on how my body and my words are read by those in power.

Later that term, a kindly librarian, a Scotswoman, noticing my love of books, encourages me to read Canadian literature. She presses some volumes into my hand, Hugh McLennan's Two Solitudes and Margaret Atwood's Surfacing. I open the books as I wait for the bus and find myself curious but disengaged, as if the words bring news from some alien landscape. The Canada these books describe bears no resemblance to the world I have entered and I cannot, as yet, imagine the lives or problems they, so artfully, explore. I slide the novels under my arm as I arrive at my stop at the corner of Jane and Finch and scrunch my body against the strong wind that blows across the intersection.

That night, I curl up in a borrowed bed in my aunt's apartment and pull out the books I have brought with me in my suitcase - Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Weep Not Child and a Penguin anthology of modern African poetry. In the room outside, my aunt argues with her children about the amount of television they watch and calls me to set out their nightly snack of milk and cookies. She is tired, having worked long hours, riding the bus to Wilson Station, taking the subway down to Spadina, then another bus to the corner of Adelaide where she disembarks each day to draft patterns at a lingerie factory. Her voice, clear in the evening air, cuts through a line I am reading from a poem by Arthur Nortje. I put my books away and attend to my chores.

In my 17-year-old mind, nothing I am living through or reading in this moment connects. Disjointed words, phrases, and images of the places I have left and entered surface in my mind as I pour milk for the children, take notes in class, or wait, endlessly, for the bus to arrive.

It will take years of living, working, writing and a wild and eclectic reading practice to understand how powerful these textual and lived journeys have been and how deeply they have rooted my imagination.

Postscript: Only in the writing of this post did I discover that Arthur Nortje, the South African poet I had turned to as a teenager, had, himself, once lived in Canada as an immigrant (1967-70). He lived in Toronto and Hope, B.C., before returning to Oxford where he died, at the age of 28, of a drug overdose. By some strange coincidence, I currently live off the same street in Toronto where he once lived and struggled to write.

TOMORROW: Waubgeshig Rice on Aboriginal reading

PREVIOUSLY: Maureen Dockendorf and Faye Brownlie on spreading the joy of reading one child at a time and Julie Wilson on reading and community

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