Growing up, visits to the public library were the highlight of my month. I would wake up bright-eyed and early on a Saturday morning and spend hours there, always indecisive about which books to take home. And there I’d be, safe and comfortable in this place of wonder and excitement and fantasy.
You could hear a pin drop, yet epic battles were being fought, dinosaurs roamed the earth, witches turned naughty kids into mice, and mysteries were being solved. Inside the crisp pages of tethered books contained a portal to new worlds, new lives, new possibilities, and new ideas. I remember eager anticipation in being able to migrate from the children’s section to the young adults, and eventually having the whole library to borrow from. It was where I first encountered Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Franklin Dixon’s The Hardy Boys, Anne Frank’s diary. It was where I first realized how infinitely complex and colourful our world is, and what a kaleidoscope of stories are out there, how each author was really just making sense of the world in their own way, through their characters and through their tales. Reading became a journey into the exhilarating unknown, always with the promise of learning something new at the end of it.
It is no accident that my love for reading has led to my love for writing, and confidence in writing comes with confidence in reading. The joys of literacy serve many purposes, the license to imagine being chief among them.
But as we churn out words and soak in sentences, beyond our complex analyses and fancy theoretical frameworks, is it helping create a kinder, more open society, wherein we respect and appreciate difference and diversity?
At the start of the annual Time of the Writer festival, which was held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) last week, 20 writers gathered to critically debate the theme “Freeing our Imagination”. In her opening address Professor Cheryl Potgieter, UKZN’s deputy vice-chancellor of humanities, pointed to current social ills, and challenged all the writers present, from far afield as Togo, Botswana, India, Nigeria, and Guinea to write out against homophobia and violence against gay and lesbian individuals. Her sentiments were echoed by others. After all, a failure to imagine an inclusive society is a failure to appreciate diversity and a failure at social cohesion.
People tend to hate what they fear, and the awful hate crimes being committed against members of sexual minorities shows how fear dominates our political and social culture. Fear of diverse sexual orientations is rooted in ignorance and self-righteous flawed reasoning. There is absolutely no logical, scientific, ethical or spiritual argument that can justify homophobia.
As Sarah Britten said later that evening, “fear is the ultimate failure of imagination” and Lauri Kubuitsile lamented that “the colonisation of our minds is still alive, strong and deadly”.
Mshai Mwangola then seduced the audience with the “what if” potentialities of story-telling, which allows and invites us to break unconscious barriers. These barriers limit imagination by keeping us stuck in prejudice, which itself is nothing more than fear. “Go beyond the safety of the status quo,” she dared us.
Satyajit Sarna, who works as a lawyer in India, spoke about the difficulty of wanting to be liberal while having to work within the confines of outdated laws, referring to India’s U-turn in criminalising consensual same-sex relationships. “Freedom is something you have to fight for,” he said, “including fighting for your right to love”.
In challenging prejudice, the power of reading and writing is vital but the power of reading and writing outside our comfort zone, to give ourselves a chance to re-assess our own life and the fears and prejudices we carry, cannot be overstated. For that reason, I am grateful for those many hours of sitting in the library and exploring the worlds and people hidden in those dusty pages. It opened up my mind and minds are like parachutes, they only work when open.
This column was originally published in The Post, March 26, 2014.