Binaries don’t fly with me. I resist them with the full force of my being. Yet I’m finding now, when we are living at a time of clear binaries: life and death, employment and unemployment, essential and inessential, I am too easily giving up my source of resistance, my superpower. I am forgetting to choose to read.
I am reading some things of course. The Government’s 12-hourly WhatsApp messages and a lot of social media. Yet the type of reading I am referring to, deep reading, life changing reading, the type of reading that has always been part of my life from a university degree in literature to summers getting to know my family in India, is gone. The type of reading that elevates the ordinary to something extraordinary has left the building.
Reading books gave me entry to a life I’d missed growing up away from my cousins.
In India, I’d spend more money on books than any other item. Spoiled for choice, in the south of the country where literacy rates are higher than the national average – 94 per cent in Kerala my home state! - I bought the entire back catalogues of writers my Australian teachers considered essential: Orwell, Rushdie, Atwood. I read them diligently and I loved them. And then there were the wildcards I slipped into the growing pile stacked on the counter of Blossom Book House in Bangalore. A store now closed because of the virus. Copies of Malayalam-language writers in translation. Books I’ve still never seen anywhere else. I also bought Indian authors who write in English. These books were more expensive, printed by Penguin India rather than a regional press, like the The God of Small Things. I bought that for my family who couldn’t afford to.
To get lost in a book demands we suspend our disbelief, which is so hard right now.
Reading those books gave me entry to a life I’d missed growing up away from my cousins. While they spent their childhood visiting our shared grandparents in regional Palakkad, learning the language of our ancestors and understanding fully the rules of Malayali matriarchal society according to our my grandmother: long hair, gold earrings and a husband – I was in Melbourne. Fighting my own feminist stereotypes. I still am of course.
The gap between our lives and experiences started to close with those books. Not immediately and not completely but slowly, like the pace the days are moving now. One word, one phrase, one paragraph at a time.
Through those books I started to belong, albeit largely in translation. I belonged despite the definitions that othered me: Australian. Foreign. English-speaking. And that sense of belonging nourished me. It armed me with the ammunition I so desperately needed to face the unknown.
To get lost in a book demands we suspend our disbelief, which is so hard right now. The injustice of what’s happening – to ourselves and to others, to the workers in the creative industries and casuals – is immediate and urgent. It demands our attention. We are all scared of what the future holds and this uncertainty breeds anger. It understandably breeds fear.
But in this time of extremes, when so many of our freedoms are gone, it’s the small choices we make that remain essential. The choice to allow ourselves to be transported, to be nourished: that remains ours to make. The choice to detour ever so slightly and discover something new. Never in our lifetime has it been more necessary for us to arm ourselves against the unknown. For me the choice to read has always been an act of defiance. With the onset of this crisis it may have momentarily seemed inessential. I was mistaken. It never is.
Kylie Boltin is a Walkley award winning producer and journalist. She is a current finalist for the 2020 Betty Roland Prize for Script Writing at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Find her on Twitter.