At the Nelson launch of Tear Water Tea in August, I told an anecdote about my mum. It seemed only fair – the crowd was a friendly bunch who had known both my mum and I for many years, plus she had just told an equally revealing story about me out on the deck of the Nelson Museum, moments before I was about to read to the crowd. Actually, let’s have her story first: One day when I was about three years old I emerged from the corner of the room where I had been busy and serious with a crayon (I imagine) and a piece of paper. I had written a story. I showed it to my mum and she said yes yes very nice dear and sent me on my way. She hadn’t looked properly! So I told her it was writing and demanded she read it. She held the paper and read it aloud, “it says I O I O I O I O I O” and I duly had a tantrum and stormed off. Classic stuff. The truth was of course I hadn’t written a word but had filled a page with shapes I thought were writing. I also like to think that as I was writing it I had a story in mind that I felt I was articulating letter by letter. Pretty frustrating for small person and mother alike.
So anyway, my own anecdote: One day when I was in high school – probably about 15 years old – my mum said “are you coming straight home after school? I need to talk to you about something. I’m worried about you.” I heard the question as a command and didn’t argue (but no doubt rolled my eyes). Secretly I was crapping myself. What on earth did she want to talk to me about? Was this going to be the “birds and the bees” talk? Does she think I’m getting too fat? Too skinny? Doing drugs? Somehow I knew it was going to be that advice-that-sounds-like-judgement kind of talk and never once did I think it wasn’t going to be about something I had done or it was imagined I was doing. Needless to say I stressed out all day. My friends made fun of me; balked at the idea of anyone thinking I was having sex or taking drugs and we swapped horror stories about mother-daughter chats. At the end of the day I came home as instructed and my mum sat me down. I probably avoided eye-contact or practised my signature eye-roll. “So,” she said, “I’m a bit worried about you.” (eye-roll out of fear) “I just really don’t think you’re … reading enough.” Tension released, flippant remark from me, eye-roll of relief, storm off. Phew. It’s funny for a number of reasons: The undue stress of course, but also my mum was serious about this. I mean drugs, sex, who cares as long as you’re reading books.
And of course she was right. It’s hard to imagine now though how I couldn’t find the time to read. Admittedly I was being a teenager, watching movies (much more social), listening to music, playing my violin and bass, writing angsty poetry… and really what was there to read anyway? As a young teenager there seemed to be masses of books for me – Judy Blume, Beverly Dunlop, Gaelyn Gordon, Maurice Gee, Roald Dahl plus classics like ‘Treasure Island’, ‘The Secret Garden’, ‘Harriet the Spy’ and ‘Charlotte Sometimes’. And that was before raiding my brother’s collection of Willard Price and Choose-your-own Adventures. But what was there for the nerdy older (but obviously not into sex and drugs) teen? Thank god for Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, I guess. Maybe I was making excuses, but it does seem like teens these days have a much better selection of literature. I mean there are some seriously good young adult writers out there. Currently I’m reading Mandy Hager’s ‘Dear Vincent’ – not just for myself, but for my 15 year old self (and, I guess, for her overly-worried mum). Here’s a random page I just turned to: “My fingers itch to paint. I shut the door and turn on the radio. It’s playing a piece from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. I close my eyes. A chorus gently hums together, yearning voices building over the delicate massed plucking of violins and clear-throated flutes. They rise and swell, intermingling, soaring, filled with pain. It’s the saddest, sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.” It’s beautiful writing and a compelling story. And hey, a teen protagonist who paints, loves Van Gogh and is moved to tears by opera…? If anything was going to confirm my angsty, nerdy self as OK this would have had potential.
The “talk” my mum had with me nearly 20 years ago has obviously stayed with me. Not just as anecdote or a way to point out her bookishness, but as a constant reminder to see reading as something that’s as important as eating properly. Maybe if my mum had handed me a copy of ‘Dear Vincent’ when I was 15 I would have rolled my eyes, but I like to think secretly I would have devoured it, lived in it, mulled over it, sought out more.