Bird by Bird. Palo Alto, California, 2014
One Sunday evening found me browsing the shelves of a high school library where I chanced upon a book titled Bird by Bird. What exactly caught my eye about that book, I don’t remember, but reading the first couple of pages where the author; novelist, memoirist and non-fiction writer Anne Lamott, a San Franciscan native (where I now live); described her life growing up in a family of authors and readers. Her father, the late Kenneth Lamott, was also a writer; both her parents were avid readers, and every evening after dinner, the entire household, parents and children alike, took different corners in the house to retreat and read - imagine that, and what a sight to behold! Reading this account by Anne Lamott rekindled a flickering flame within my soul.
My love for reading. Malaysia, 1980s
As a child, I used to devour books as the air that I breathe and the food that I consume. I read voraciously, completing a couple of books per week. I’d borrow books from any library I could gain access into - my school library, the public library, the church library, my cousin’s library. Looking back now, my thirst for reading was insatiable. If I wasn’t in school or playing sports, I was reading. Books consumed my total being, sucking me into a world of words, language, imagination, make believe and true tales.
One of my favourite moments in primary school was the minute I got home from school in the afternoon, I’d have a quick lunch and shower, and with my body fresh and clean, I would leap onto bed with a book in hand. A little table fan would blow cool air to beat the afternoon heat while I got lost in a world of words.
On weekends while I read in bed, my father would pop his head into my room on his way down the stairwell (my room was right next to the top landing of the stairwell) – asking which page of the book I was on. I would usually challenge myself to finish each book as quickly as I could, so that by the time my father asked which page of the book I was on, I could proudly announce, “the last page!”, or “the second last page!”.
Seeing my enthusiasm, my father would step in, take a look at the book cover and exclaim his delight at the speed at which I was devouring my books. My heart would swell with pride.
We are a product of our upbringing. I am my father’s daughter, and here’s a little window into what makes me.
I have a rather large family - there’s six of us - my parents and three other siblings. In order to raise a large family, my middle-income parents worked double, sometimes triple jobs to put us all through school.
We didn’t have much luxuries growing up - we ate simply, seldom in restaurants, never had a family vacation, never had my parents buy us toys or new clothes for the new year. All we had was food in the table, pennies for food in school, and hand-me-down clothes from our older cousins. But if there’s one thing in abundance in the house - it was books. Books were the only thing my father would invest in. He strongly believed in education as the only vehicle for upward mobility. I remembered him asking me one day if I would like to own a set of LIFE Encyclopedia. Back in the 1980s, that series of encyclopedia was a huge deal. Having developed a love for books and reading in me since I was little, I of course said yes. I didn’t think he was serious when he asked me for my opinion if he should purchase the whole set from my cousin, at a used rate. But he was. He negotiated the price and bought it for a hefty thousand dollars (a brand new set cost $2,000).
I was both thrilled and confused. Thrilled at having a whole collection of what I thought then to be a window into the world - I could learn anything and everything, from that huge volume of encyclopedia - at my disposal, for my reading at my whim and desire. Confused that my highly-thrifty father would splurge a thousand dollars on a set of encyclopedia on his 10-year-old daughter. It baffled my young mind.
Now more than 20 years later, I’m testament that my father’s investment in our education has paid off. I had a rather long career in law, a creative writer and researcher producing documentaries for broadcasters including Nat Geo, Discovery, Lonely Planet and the History Channel. I’m not earning millions right now, but the foundation in education that he gave me through instilling a love for books and knowledge helped to shape my destiny today.
My desire to write. Malaysia, 1980s
My desire to write was birthed from as young as 10, when I read Enid Blyton, I don’t know what overcame me but I desired to be a writer after reading her collection of children’s books. Perhaps it was the way she lured me in her stories. By age 11, I was often asked to read my essays out loud to my fellow classmates. I remembered one particular day when my class teacher, accompanied by an English teacher, singled me out because they had read my essay and found it to far exceed the writing capability of an 11-year-old. They invited me to submit my piece to a writing competition, which I did, but I don’t remember the outcome of it. Well, the fact that I don’t remember could infer that I didn’t win because we would remember something as monumental as coming out tops in a competition, wouldn’t we?
I remember too my love for storytelling, and between the ages of 11 and 12, would often be telling and acting out stories from Tales from the Arabian Nights (my favorite was Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) to an entire morning assembly of students.
Favorite books. Singapore, 2005-2009
Now that I’ve shared and hopefully inspired you to pick up or resume reading, here are some books I read, love and recommend if you haven’t yet heard of or read them. Most are works of non-fiction because I love non-fiction - my thought is, the human life is fascinating enough - there is no need to create make believe stories. Yes I’m aware, this is my personal take and shouldn’t influence or inform your choice of genre. Works of fiction have its place, of course, in the literary world, because fiction allows both the writer and reader to create spaces, worlds, characters, events, objects, and lives that are outside of the natural realm and real world.
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (Novel, Fiction)
Afghan by birth, a doctor by training, it was a visit back to his homeland of Afghanistan that inspired him to write a story about the friendship of two boys based on a time where he remembered Afghanistan to be a beautiful place with the snow-capped Kurdish mountains visible from Kabul, the capital city, before the Soviet rule in 1979. Khaled Hosseini weaves a powerful narrative around the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption.
This is the first book I read in 2005 that so captured me I was looking forward to waking up each day to read while on my way to work by train and looking forward to getting off work so I could read more on the way home from work by train. As I approached the last few chapters, I was filled with a sense of dread and read slower than usual because I wanted to prolong the ending. I was afraid I wouldn’t find another book that captured me as much as this book did. In fact I was certain there would never be another book that would possess me as much as this book did. I immediately googled to see if Khaled Hosseini has other books or was he working on another book, because if this book was so good, surely his other works would be literary masterpieces I would enjoy as well. Well, he didn’t have other books at that point and it wasn’t till 2007 that his second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns came to print and I of course promptly bought a copy.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (Memoir, Non Fiction)
The late Maya Angelou wrote a series of memoirs, this being her first and most heart wrenching of all. I cry each time I re-read her abuse at the young age of seven. She detailed the drama of a fractured family, the search for love and acceptance and violent relationships she witnessed in her mother and encountered in her own life. She wrote not as a victim of circumstances, but victoriously and with immense courage. If I think my life was terrible and my heart broken, Maya Angelou offers hope that we can triumph despite the many heartache and challenges life brings us.
Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama (Memoir, Non Fiction)
Before he became President of the United States of America, former lawyer and Senator to the State of Illinois Barack Obama tells the story of his struggle to understand the forces that shaped him as the son of a black African father and white American mother, his work as a community organizer in Chicago against the backdrop of tumultuous political and racial conflict, instilling faith in the midst of adversity, his search for the meaning of identity in America.
The Chinese Cinderella, by Adeline Yen-Mah (Memoir, Non Fiction)
This book was gifted to me by my then boyfriend now husband. It was his first Valentine’s Day gift to me in 2006. After reading the initial chapters and being utterly gripped by it, I was amazed with my then boyfriend (now husband)’s ability to not only choose an appropriate gift (duh, for a book lover), but also the correct genre (memoir, which I really did enjoy after reading Maya Angelou and Barack Obama). The author Adeline’s memoirs are thoughtfully titled: her first, The Chinese Cinderella, details her early years - she was born into an affluent family in Shanghai, her mother died after giving birth to her; in the Chinese culture, that was considered bad luck; her father remarried quickly after, and Adeline’s life became a living hell as she lived under the cruel and emotional manipulative rule of her Eurasian stepmother and step brothers.
Her second memoir, Fallen Leaves, is titled after a Chinese proverb wherein “fallen leaves return to their roots”. Adeline life philosophies was largely shaped by her loving grandfather who taught her many life lessons from ancient Chinese proverbs. Despite her painful childhood growing up under the tyranny of her iron-fisted stepmother, Adeline fought for her independence, attended a boarding school in Hong Kong and eventually moving to the United States to become a physician and writer.
I so love Adeline’s works I bought and read every single one of her books, including one on the origin of ancient Chinese proverbs, A Thousand Pieces of Gold. This book is aptly titled to mean a single good word spoken at the right time to avoid conflict or to appease a dangerous situation is worth a thousand pieces of gold. Here, Adeline opens the window to the historical and cultural soul of China by weaving her personal reflections with historical insights as she dissects the origin of each of the Chinese proverbs covered in the book. I consider myself English-educated and ill-informed of my ancestral roots - this book rekindles a deep love and appreciation for my roots and makes me proud to be a Chinese.
Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Memoir, Non Fiction)
Summon some guts to read this painful account of the author’s first hand experience with genital mutilation in Somalia. A warrior through and through, Ayaan Hirsi Ali survived civil war, female mutilation, brutal beatings during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Somalia, escaped from a forced marriage, sought asylum in the Netherlands, earned a college degree in political science, became a member of Parliament and fought for the rights of Muslim women.
Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Novel, Fiction)
A fascinating story of an Indian immigrant family living in the US. This book beautifully exposes the immigrant experience, cultural differences, struggles of assimilation and strained ties between generations.
Istanbul, by Orhan Pamuk (Historical Memoir, Non Fiction)
Orhan Pamuk is a foremost Turkish writer whose books have been translated into thousands of languages and sold millions of copies. His intimate account of the city in which he grew up in, his description of the sights and day-to-day lives of his people are so vivid you could almost see the scenes jumping out of the pages of the book.