Every time I take a new book to read, I hope that it will be one that will engage my senses and emotions, consume my thoughts and heart away, and make it extremely difficult to put it down. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen to me that often. I have read many good books, but they often fail to grip me or rip me apart the way I expect, want or need them too.
In a desperate attempt to find that book, I have been asking myself, what kind of book will it take to give me this kind experience? I have experienced it, and I want to experience it again and again. So, I began to explore, what the books that had this effect on me, have in common, and I noticed a rather interesting pattern; each one, speaking to an identity crisis.
The first time a book totally consumed me was in my early teens. At that point in time, I was going through that period that changed me, overnight from being a girl to “a woman” who needed to be “careful” because of the “danger” that it presented. I was not supposed to “play” with boys, because “I would get pregnant, get HIV, drop out school, or try to procure an abortion, and probably die in the process or be barren all my life”. That was sex education 101, for me in a nutshell. My “new-found womanhood” was a source of fear, and one that had the potential to ruin my entire life. I had to be very “clever” and “careful” if I wanted to finish unscathed. This message was repeated over and over; at school, at home, and in the “Welcome to Growing Up” books that I was required to read.
In the midst of growing up and being impressionable, my classmate lent me a novel to read; my first Mills and Boon, which I read the entire night, suffering my first hangover, and luckily not an alcohol-induced one. That night I got my sex education 102, a potential eraser of Sex ed. 101, and a new lesson about the “other side of my new-found womanhood”. In six hours I was introduced to a world of fantasy with unrealistic expectations of relationships, romance and sex. What kept me awake that night though, was the fresh and exciting discovery that being a sexual being was not just about danger, pain and shattered dreams but also about desire, romance and pleasure. This potentially erased all my previous sex ed., had it not been for the determination of my sex ed. 101 teachers, who hammered the message as often as possible. The confusion that comes with the conflicting messages, and bias of both narratives is a story for another day.
The second time I was unable to put down a book was in my early 20’s. This time, it was Marilyn French’s book, The Women’s Room. I bumped into this book when I was beginning to seriously question gender norms, what it meant to be a woman, and why women were in many ways given “lesser beings” status. So, when I met these women in Marilyn French’s book, I had an instant connection with them. Fascinated by their determination to break away from the social and economic limitations that society had placed on them, I felt as if we were walking the journey together. The conversational experience I had reading the book, was phenomenal. I cheered them on, asked the same questions they did, laughed and cried with them, and told my story as they told theirs. After reading that book I declared myself a feminist, a decision and journey that has been both interesting and frustrating. Again, that is not a story, but stories for other days.
The third and sadly, the last time a book consumed me in my entirety, was Chimamanda Adichie’s book, Americanah. At that time, in my early 30’s, I was struggling with my identity as a black person, an African, a Kenyan, and wanna-be-citizen-of-the-world. I had been to Europe studying, coming back to Kenya with high expectations, only to be met by a country that seemed to have little regard for what I had to offer, and for its people in general. At the height of my frustration, I toyed with the idea of disengaging from my Kenyan roots. I justified my thinking and tried to erase my guilt by arguing that I had not chosen my country of birth, and therefore accorded myself the right to live and be a citizen of my country of choice.
Like the prodigal son, I packed my bags, and set off on a journey to a far-off land to seek better fortunes. Unfortunately, my country of “choice” was proving to be equally, if not more hostile than my country of birth.
It was at that point, in my small room in London, that I met Ifemelu in Americanah. A young woman who had left her home, in Nigeria, leaving Obinze, her long-term boyfriend and the one thing that mattered most to her in the world, only to find that America wasn’t as rosy as she expected it to be, particularly for a black person. Reading Americanah, I reflected on my experiences, and began to ask myself whether I was leaving the 80 % that my country offered me, to engage in an endless search for the 20 % that I was missing.
Americanah, took me on a long ongoing journey. At that point, like the prodigal son, it directed me back home, physically. At the moment, it continues to direct me home in my heart and mind. I have many stories, again for other days, on my experiences and struggles on the journey to be Kenyan in my heart and in my mind.