'A couple of weeks after my third book, a story collection, was accepted for publication, I got diagnosed with bowel cancer. A blow like that leaves its mark, even after a complete recovery. If you can’t trust your body, how can you trust yourself? '
While my childhood was in many ways lonely, in my mind I travelled widely. A therapist once asked me who my role models had been, since my parents seemed so absent. I thought for a moment and then said ‘Books’. It was the greatest gift they could have given me.
Later generations think that they can judge earlier ones because we who come later must be morally superior, having greater awareness and more enlightened attitudes. That’s a delusion. I know, because, at seventy, I’m embarrassed at some of my own attitudes when young.
As a young adult I discovered the Black American women writers, like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange and I followed the road of self-discovery. It was as if they knew me personally and understood me completely.
I wrote my version of Rapunzel — Zel: Let Out Your Hair: a child whose afro hair grows up and out, not like the version I’d grown up on. In that, Rapunzel’s hair is long and straight and grows downwards and she is rescued by a prince — not a myth I would like to perpetuate.
I take notes, which I write very neatly in pencil on a blank page at the end. When I’ve finished, I use these notes to help me write a piece about the book, imagining trying to give someone a flavour of it. The piece has to be less than 350 words, regardless of the book’s length.
I can only have one novel on the go at any given time but with creative nonfiction, I often have up to ten books that I dip in and out of! One day a prison memoir, the next an essay on Buddhist meditation, followed by a chapter on parenting a gender-creative child.
If Deenie was cool, that meant it was okay to have scoliosis and not the shameful secret it had once felt like. It affected the relationship I had with my own body and spurred me on to explore other writing about disability, and to write my own.
I don’t come from a bookish family, so my addiction to reading was a surprise. My mother read cookbooks, my brother read comics, and my sister preferred talking to reading — and still does. At home, my first picture books were lined up around the edges of our bedroom.
My reading routines are all over the place. The three or four pages of a recent novel I’ll be turning at night as I fall asleep remind me of the individual matchsticks from which a patient hobbyist can spend years constructing a skyscraper or a cathedral.
Reading T. S. Eliot, I saw the images, got caught up in the rhythms with no awareness of separation. Internalised is the word. But instead of losing myself, as happens in childhood reading, it was as if I were gaining a more intelligible sense of connection to real things.
As my understanding of the world grew, so my love for a broader spectrum of writing emerged. The tender brutality of Jean Genet, a defiant mix of love and grime. Authors who first provoked and then provided a home for my own emotions.