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The quiet joy of reading as an immigrant child

24 Apr 2018

I remember the very first English book I came across. It was the children’s literature classic, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Six-year-old me had picked it up in the school library and as soon as it was in my hands, I remember my teacher catching my eye. She had given me a quizzical look, almost as if to say, “that’s above you” but at the same time daring me in earnest to read it. She was right of course. There was no way I could have read that book. I could barely string together a sentence in English, let alone read a book. I had quietly slipped it back onto the shelf and replaced it with a different sort of classic, the Magic Key series with its infamous Biff, Chip and Kipper characters.

The teaching assistant had then sat me down to read it together. I recall trying in desperation to follow her words whilst at the same time staring intensely at the illustrations, which spoke to me more than the unknown language I was hearing. Looking around the classroom, I had felt a pang of anger and isolation. Everybody else could somehow manage to read alone. If I was going to make friends, I would have to be able to do the same. I would have to learn to read in English. Even if they didn’t want to be my friend I needed something else to keep me busy until I could go home again. Learning to read would be my saviour in both scenarios.

“I could stare for hours at the words in front of me until my eyes watered and celebrate the small victories when the words finally began to make sense”

Then as if by some weird miracle, my teacher said the magic words that would ignite my love of reading for years to come: “You can borrow that book to practice at home.” Being able to transport that book to the comfort of my bedroom and slowly learning to stutter and stumble over words that were foreign to my mother tongue was a blessing in disguise. I realised I was free to make all the mistakes and nobody would laugh at my attempts. I could stare for hours at the words in front of me until my eyes watered and celebrate the small victories when the words finally began to make sense.

Within a year I was not only speaking and reading English, I was racing through books. Each day I would come home and empty my schoolbag. Out would tumble a small pile of books that would be my companions. I had been right about needing English to either make friends or to have a distraction if the former failed. It turned out that even though I could now hold a decent conversation in English, my classmates still didn’t want anything to do with me. The colour of my skin had already spoken and apparently it had done something serious to offend. Regardless, I now had books to keep me company so I quickly dived in. I was amazed at the strength of words on a page at making my world fade away. The taunting schoolchildren, the constant moving of houses and the lack of money became quiet background noise as I flicked through pages of entire worlds.

The privilege of being able to buy a book is something I have only recently discovered. As a first generation immigrant, I grew up with my family struggling to make ends meet, so the concept of buying books rarely crossed my mind. What was the need to buy them if they were free to borrow from the library? Growing up, my Saturdays consisted of visiting the local library where I would carefully curate my stack of nine books – the maximum you could borrow at a time if you had a children’s library card. I remember waiting in anticipation until I turned 13, when I could finally get my hands on an adult library card, which meant borrowing 12 books with the exciting added bonus of DVDs and CDs!

Whenever I went shopping with my mum I would (much to her dismay) drag her to the library where I pondered over new releases. My frequent trips attracted the attention of relatives, who were confused as to why their children were not doing the same. One of my cousins quickly caught onto the fact that my parents let me go outside by myself for visits to the library. Before long she began to use it as an excuse for going out. I remember once going to her house and she had waved goodbye to her mum saying that we were off to the library and to my shock, she led us straight to the park!

“Hosseini’s book allowed me to talk to my dad of home in a way we rarely did. I asked him stories of his own childhood…the tales of Kabul enchanted me in a way I could never forget”

When I think of growing up and finding my feet, I often think of the books that carried me through. I am reminded of the first time I discovered a book that spoke to me of home. I was 12 years old and had stumbled upon Khaled Hosseini’s first novel The Kite Runner in my local library. As an Afghan, the only stories I heard of home were stories of war and sorrow. Hosseini’s writing temporarily rebuilt my homeland in a way I had never seen. The casual references to familiar names, landmarks and bazaars made it the first book that I sat and explained to my dad. My parents both dropped out of school at a young age so reading as a novelty was not something they understood or encouraged. Hosseini’s book allowed me to talk to my dad of home in a way we rarely did. I asked him stories of his own childhood in Kabul and although I was busy trying to fit into British life, the tales of Kabul enchanted me in a way I could never forget.

Although I didn’t end up reading the first English novel I encountered, holding it in my hands seemed to leave a lasting impression. With over a 100 library closures last year, I hope my story will strengthen our fight to save them. My love of reading was founded on books that were not mine and most importantly, they did not need to be mine for me to love them. The art of borrowing books and the library were my sanctuary growing up. The simple act of reading had the power to nurture me through the angst, heartbreaks and frenzy of my childhood and teenage years. Books have always been my constant and each time I read one, they form a part of my story.