An ode to the writers of my world

To another world: A tunnel of books in the Prague City Library

To another world: A tunnel of books in the Prague City Library

In November last year, I attended the launch of “We the People: Insights of an Activist Judge”, a book written by a revered former justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, Albie Sachs. As I sat under the cool conditioned air of Exclusive Books in Hyde Park Corner, Johannesburg, I took note of my giddy, former-law-student-fangirl feelings that had carried me into that room. In my formative years in law school, I read many of Sachs’s well-reasoned constitutional judgments and even early on in my intellectual development, I appreciated the work of his weighty pen, which has done much to restore and affirm the equality and dignity of South Africans living under our relatively new constitutional dispensation.

Sitting quietly and cross-legged with my notebook on my lap, I began to take furious notes as soon as Sachs started to speak about his life and experience.
I felt some reverence for the moment, admittedly in part due to the glass of red wine that the bookshop had gifted me to mark this occasion — and it was the end of a very long day.

When I later reviewed my notes, I noticed that one of the things that had resonated deeply with me that evening was a point Sachs had made about reading. Reflecting on his privilege as a white South African male, he recognised his ability to read, and to read widely, as an instance of his privilege. I cannot remember his exact phrasing, but in my notebook, I wrote: “I have had three privileges in my life … the third and final privilege I have enjoyed as a white South African man is the ability to imagine. As a child, I read books and learned that anything was possible for me. I could do anything, be anything … fly to the moon.”

I can relate. Through the books I have read, I have encountered many worlds. I have surrendered my love to an unlikely suitor in 18th Century rural England. I have been barefoot and full of mirth as a child in the slums of India. I have been a disciplined ballet dancer at Madame Mao’s Dance Academy in Beijing, China. I have run away from grisly beasts through a dozen enchanted forests and vigorously pursued a ring to the edge of Mount Doom. In my imagination, I have danced with princes until midnight and stolen deadly poison from my sleeping beloved’s lips. I have eaten, I have prayed and I have loved at the sacred altars of humanity all across the globe.

The Harry Potter series in particular was a significant part of my childhood. This was unusual in my context, as I grew up in what was then a rural area in Mpumalanga. Having gone through most of the books in the makeshift library of my English classroom in primary school, my white English teacher would borrow her goddaughter’s books, so that I could also read them. I now know that my teacher understood the truth that Sachs came to know — books can give us the world.

And Harry Potter has been a most precious gift. I spent five months as an exchange student in Washington, DC in 2015 and lived at the International Student House with other young people from different countries, backgrounds and cultures. The easy common ground we quickly found was our shared childhood experience of JK Rowling’s wizard boy who confronted evil and lived. Saying that Harry Potter bridged gaps between our different contexts and lived experiences would be overstating things, but for me, our shared attachment to the series highlighted the power of books to inspire people across different continents and contexts, exposing what I like to call the “me-too-ness” of human stories.

I did not come to fully understand the revolutionary power of books until I encountered the ones that wove my world and my particular context into existence. In high school, I started to read African literature and an inner world, which I had not previously recognised existed, began to unfold. I came to realise that in all my previous reading, stories about people who looked and sounded like me — people who had my name — were always on the periphery. My imagination was not filled with images of the daily lives of my people, but with otherworldly, fantastical lives of a different people.  

This became problematic as my encounters with racism in South Africa started to make me realise that being black meant something in my context — it meant that I was somehow inferior and that my stories were not worth telling or sharing.

It was at this stage of my development that I started to avoid books written by white men. I stubbornly read books written by black authors, and as I started to bring black stories to the centre of my reading experience, I was affirmed in my identity in various ways. The world that I had cultivated through reading, along with my imagination, finally became complete.

In my early years in high school, I was particularly impacted by Tsitsi Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions. Apart from the startling and seemingly callous first line — “I was not sorry when my brother died” — I was captivated by the beautiful coming of age story, which depicted two young women, Tambu and Nyasha, as they represented two different ways of dealing with the constraints that society places on black women and girls. Their experiences have coloured by own life as I navigate the persistent structures of power and privilege that continue to dictate what I as a woman can and cannot do. I have also been greatly affected by the works of Chinua Achebe, Zora Neale Houston, Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Maya Angelou, Kgebetli Moele and, more recently, Shonda Rhimes, to name a few. The books of female black writers in particular have taught me that I can be young, black, female, intelligent and liberated all in a single breath, and not have to apologise for it.

Like Sachs, I have learned to be grateful for all the books that have taught me that I can unlock different worlds, particularly the ones which I once considered as belonging outside of the realm of possibility for a woman like me. I am particularly appreciative of the black writers who have completed my world by writing stories that have shown me that I can inherit the earth. The writers of my world have wrecked and built my life in various ways, and made me proud to say my name.

Zinhle Mkhabela works for the Communicating for Impact faculty at the African Leadership University in Mauritius. She holds BA, LLB and master’s degrees from the University of the Witwatersrand, all with distinction

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