The Books that Formed my Childhood
At The Sapling we believe that books grow humans. What kinds of books grew Ockham-shortlisted writer Brannavan Gnanalingam? An intriguing mix, as we find out today.
Detail of Matilda, by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake
I don’t remember when I learned English, but it wasn’t my first language. That was Tamil. There was a point though when I rejected my parents’ tongue, in order to fit in with my New Zealand peers. It was books (and cricket) that played a very significant role in allowing me to figure out New Zealand.
My reading tastes growing up were orthodox. As someone who was very keen to fit in, my reading was notable for being the books that everybody else read. One author I devoured was Enid Blyton. In hindsight, it was a marvel she was so prolific. Sure, her books are conservative, predictable, formulaic - all of the things that people consider bad writing now. But her books were like a warm blanket growing up. They appealed to me far more so than Disney ever did.
I guess I hadn't quite appreciated the links between New Zealand and Britishness, given my complete lack of knowledge of - or was it indifference to - Britain. Britain was just another country as far as young me was concerned. The Famous Five, The Adventurous Four and Noddy were loved, but my favourites were the Faraway Tree stories. When I was in hospital following a nearly burst appendix, I read the Faraway Tree story books over and over again (along with an Encyclopaedia of World Cricket). The various lands above the clouds were thrilling; the characters were charming; and there was a clear-cut sense of morality that I really bought into. Blyton’s writing had such an effect on me that London felt far more like home than Australia or the United States ever could. Which is why I ended up living in Paris.
Blyton’s writing had such an effect on me that London felt far more like home than Australia or the United States ever could.
Despite wanting to fit in, I was a curious child to the point of annoyance to my parents and I assume, my teachers. For my parents, the Hutt Library became one of the best possible places to take me. Mum would spend hours waiting in a library while I looked at the books. She never really read books herself, but she would drop everything so that I could. I can’t imagine I’d ever be a writer were it not for Mum’s patience.
I’d do school projects on pretentious things like Joan of Arc, the Renaissance, and the Black Death. I’d read world history books and travel books. And, at my school, you were either an Asterix fan or a Tintin fan. I chose Tintin. Tintin was a curiously asexual and earnest chap. The humour came from the people around him – the blustery Haddock, the brilliant but naïve Professor Calculus, and the plucky Snowy. I loved Tintin’s adventures through, admittedly stereotyped, other parts of the world. The Blue Lotus set in 1930s China in particular was a favourite. The way Hergé blended history (the Manchurian incident!), dramatic action sequences, and rich illustrations was intoxicating.
...at my school, you were either an Asterix fan or a Tintin fan.
Another favourite was Peter Gossage’s Māui books. They were so vivid and for an immigrant kid like me, so different. It took me too long to start to understand the complexity of New Zealand’s colonial history. I was however very lucky to have excellent teachers in primary schools and they introduced me to Gossage’s books. They were my first introduction to Māori legends and I’m fairly sure there’s an entire generation for whom Gossage’s illustrations are fixed in their memory.
I was lucky enough never to feel like an outsider at primary school. But I was drawn to books about outsiders. My favourite book for a long time was Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Roald Dahl had this great ability to make you feel like he was on your side. When I say ‘your side’, I mean the kids’ side. Dahl’s children were oh-so-good, which particularly appealed to the goody-good kid that I was. The only Dahl hero I didn’t really like was Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that was because I could never understand a kid who could save a chocolate bar for weeks by nibbling at it. The villains in his book were the most adult of characters – or if the villains were children, then they were well on their way to demonstrating the worst adult traits. The thing about Matilda that appealed was the way Matilda used her brain to triumph over the brawn of Miss Trunchbull and the greed of her parents. I spent hours trying to practise – well at least attempt – telekinesis.
I could never understand a kid who could save a chocolate bar for weeks by nibbling at it.
My parents were also keen to ensure that I retained some sense of my Tamil and Hindu heritage. While they largely failed, the stories – the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, and many other folk tales, are still firmly in my memory. Also having a working knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita has helpfully allowed me to say ‘yeah yeah I’ve read it’ to the Hare Krishnas who harass me on the street.
Battle at Lanka, Ramayana, by Sahib Din. Battle between the armies of Rama and the King of Lanka. Udaipur, 1649-1653, via Wikimedia Commons.
My favourite though was a children’s version of the Ramayana, the epic poem where Rama teams up with the devoted Hanuman, to try to rescue Rama’s wife Sita. Sita had been kidnapped by the evil king Ravana and taken to [Sri] Lanka.
I’ve always been suspicious of idealising the past. In particular, I’ve never been comfortable with the way nostalgia makes smooth the hard edges of the past. The Sri Lankan Civil War for example was fought in part over who owned the past. I have never been able to accept the tales of my youth as simply that, as frustrating a trait as that must be to everybody around me: ‘Oh god Bran, just let things slide.’
I’m far from idealistic about the books of the past too. Dahl made a number of anti-Semitic comments and his books were frequently populated by fairly grotesque women. Blyton’s books were snobbish, racist, and misogynistic. I never read Hergé’s Tintin in Congo because Hutt Library refused to stock it. I only read it as an adult – and that was after reading about Belgium’s genocidal control of Congo. I also read about what happened to Sita after she was rescued from Sri Lanka. When she returned home, she had to walk through fire to prove she was ‘untouched’ by her kidnappers. Despite ‘passing’ the test, the population were so suspicious of her ‘tarnished’ nature that she was banished – pregnant – into the forest. Years later, Rama asked her to come back, but only if she’d walk through the fire again. She politely tells him no, and walks into the earth.
Years later, Rama asked her to come back, but only if she’d walk through the fire again. She politely tells him no, and walks into the earth.
The Māori legends I learned were mocked and marginalised by the most powerful voices in New Zealand - I distinctly remember Paul Holmes’ racist rant against wahi tapu land in Tauranga, for example - let alone many of the people I associated with growing up.
When I look back at the books that meant so much to me, their flaws or how marginalised they were stand out. That's probably because I'm too cynical and jaded. I suspect however, learning to understand the heroes of my youth were flawed or learning that there was darkness behind even the most heroic tales, was one of the most important lessons I could ever learn and it continues to inform my writing and reading to this very day.
That said, I still occasionally try, and fail, to use telekinesis.
Brannavan Gnanalingam is a novelist and reviewer based in Wellington. He has published five novels through Lawrence & Gibson and his latest Sodden Downstream has been shortlisted for the Acorn Foundation fiction award and the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.