I have been so since I was six—the first time I read a book. I still remember the first copy of Treasure Island I spotted—it was love at first sight. Long John Silver on the cover smiled, rakish and irresistible: the book beckoned. The richly illustrated manuscript still graces my library. But alas, I strayed, tempted first by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and later by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These dalliances continued while my beloved Treasure Island languished amongst many other texts.
As my reading evolved, biographies and historical works took their place beside fantasy and whodunits, yet nothing has captivated me quite like fiction. While I read extensively to learn about the world, it was the romance of the ‘story’, the leitmotif of the fictional narrative, that engrossed me; it still does. The story is everything. Life itself leaps out at me from the pages of these novels. More so, I am enticed by that which sanitised modern life denies me—I have learnt to march in triumph after sports victories from Caesar’s legions in Conn Iggulden’s The Field of Swords and discovered my love for mythology upon inhaling the smoke from blazing Troy in Homer’s Iliad.
When I joined boarding school at eleven, I’d already lived in India, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia (South Africa, the UAE, and the UK were added to the list soon enough). Finding, forgetting, and again forging friendships was tiresome. So, to my books I retreated and in the space of my mind I lived. Rather than seek company to roam malls, I roamed wine-stained Parisian streets with Dickens one summer and the hostile tundra with Jack London’s wolf pack that same winter. Perhaps I’m amongst the very few who have manoeuvred through shopping malls and sat in cricket stadia absorbed in a novel; onlookers would never know I was manoeuvring through life’s vicissitudes as well. I swirled in confusion about how to brazen it out in strange countries in the midst of strange people. Yet, looking back into my books again, I often felt this unfamiliarity dissipate as fantastical lands like Middle-Earth came to life in the pages before me.
In boarding school, I finally realised that people too are fascinating and funny. Even as I devoted more time to blossoming friendships, Holden Caulfield glared at me each time I bought into the “phoniness” of people around me. And Pierre Bezukhov, introduced to me by my grandfather, beamed approbation as I awkwardly entered social gatherings.
And so it was that characters from across the literary spectrum randomly came and went, each imparting a soupçon of wisdom. Macbeth showed me the allure of ambition and his rise coincided with my own attainment of leadership positions in school. While he boasted invincibility against any man “of woman born”, I was discovering accountability and discipline. I saw the postcolonial scars of my own country mirrored in the embers of the old Africa giving birth to the new in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Identity, culture and belonging, all seemed mangled around me as they were in conflict-torn Umuofia.
While Irish novelist John McGahern would famously “wake out of a book” through a violent happening, I wake out readily given an opportunity to write. My literary aspirations stem from my brimming, untidy bookshelf. I was able to author my first book at eleven and my second at fourteen, both serving to make sense of the mythologies that engrossed me. Indeed, words guide me as I chart my new odyssey at the University of Edinburgh.
Stories have guided me through friendship struggles; extinguished self-doubt in moments of dejection. Looking back at the boy who first cheated on Treasure Island, I cannot help but smile at how unrecognisable he is. And looking forward, I see each infidelity take me closer to the unbounded reaches of human knowledge, spurred by the words from Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, “And shall I die, and this unconquered?”
Writer and Poet
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