Drink (Tea) Every Time Guillebeau Refers to Africa as a Country



Yesterday I started and finished “The Happiness of Pursuit” by Chris Guillebeau. Guillbeau visited every country in the world by the time he was thirty-five (a fact he reminds readers of every few pages) and the book is supposed to be an exploration of how you too can find your own quest. According to Guillebeau, quests are projects that have a clear goal, a specific end point, and a defined set of milestones. Examples of quests are Guillebeau’s journey to visit every country in the world, a project to visit every basilica in the US, a project to walk across the US, a quest to never travel by car again, and the list goes on. This could have been an interesting read, but instead is just a poorly written book with no critical reflection and or ability to mention any African country without using stereotypes or using actual country names. When he talks about North America, he mentions specific town and city names (Manitoba, St. Louis etc) when he talks about an African country, he simply talks about visiting Africa. Here are (some) examples:

Sometimes I travel from the North America to the Africa too.

Sometimes I travel from the North America to the Africa too.

Thrilling Africa.

Thrilling Africa.

In between two cosmopolitan cities, the highlight is an African village

In between two cosmopolitan cities, the highlight is an African village

Trips to the Africa.

In addition, this book is completely devoid of any critical reflection or analysis of what it means to do a “quest”, and who gets to travel and pursue ridiculous journeys. There is no racial analysis, no discussion of privilege, and no examination of whether it is a good idea to seek meaning that is missing from your everyday life in a “faraway locale.” The chapters on creating personal lists and goal setting are interesting, but the flaws in this book make it impossible to take his advice seriously. Guillebeau says everyone can travel anywhere as long as they can save at least $2 a day, and seems unaware that that isn’t a measure that everyone can meet. Poverty and bills and responsibilities are not important variables as to whether or not someone can leave their life and go, in this book travel and adventure simply require that you are uncomfortable with your life and want to make a change in order to go out and do these things. He does spend a bit of time saying that you can do quests in the way that is meaningful for you, but he gives unrealistic examples of scaling down. For instance, if you feel like you can’t visit all the countries, 30 countries is pretty good too!

What isn’t discussed is that there are good and bad reasons to do a quest. He speaks of a friend who “after years of debauchery as a New York City nightclub promoter” finds his calling bringing clean water to Africa. He tells the story of another person who wants to connect with different cultures and decides to cook a different dish for her family from each country in the world. The ethics and validity of both of these projects are very different because the reasons for each project is very different, but there is little analysis in this book of personal motivations or broader political implications of the quests that people undertake. What does it mean to support oppressive regimes through travel? This a question that should be talked about because of the stories Guillebeau chooses to include, but isn’t discussed at all.

Ah so simple.

Ah so simple.

If you're wondering why this is bad, please read

If you’re wondering why this is bad, please read “The Ugly Tourist” by Jamaica Kincaid.

Last year I read “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” a delightful fictional read about a man who walks 500 miles across England to visit a colleague who is dying of cancer. The journey heals his marriage and his life, but he travels across small towns of England in his own country. Harold Fry’s journey is charming and sweet, this book is the opposite of that.

Further Reading:

  1. “The Ugly Tourist” by Jamaica Kincaid
  2. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Story Rumble at Home (Gems from Rising Strong by Brene Brown)

WangThai (Sandton, Johannesburg, May 2016)

WangThai (Sandton, Johannesburg, May 2016)

I’ve been reading Brene’s Brown’s stunning new book “Rising Strong” over the last few weeks (blog post/audio story/video/interpretative dance/all of the above about my thoughts coming soon) but in the meantime, I wanted to share some of her thoughts about talking through our emotions at home, with those closest to us. Reading this book has been transformative for me because it’s helped me find language and ways to sort through my feelings when I’m upset and about to either shut down or have a fight with my husband, and I’m really looking forward to sharing some of our learnings soon. Before that though, I wanted to share some of her concluding thoughts about rumbling with emotions and stories at home. We’ve been reading this book this book from the library (we’ve already signed the book out twice) but we’ve taken a lot of notes along the way to help keep our learnings alive. Have you read this book? What are your key takeaways? We’d love to hear from you.

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It’s not an Optional Read (Thoughts On Reading “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates)

Race is a construct with social realities (Apartheid Museum, Joburg, Feb 2016)

Race is a construct with social realities (Apartheid Museum, Joburg, Feb 2016)

“But all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” ~ Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

“This is the foundation of the Dream – its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor and good works. There is some passing acknowledgement of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

There are some books that everyone needs to read – that have to be taught in each high school, that must be discussed and read in every family, that simply need to be read by as many people as possible. “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those books. At a 166 pages it is a short book, but a vital and essential text.

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A Dose of Monthly Joy (Details On The April Bookclub)


(Natures Valley, South Africa, November 2015)

(Natures Valley, South Africa, November 2015)

This weekend was the February session of the Seriously Planning bookclub, and for the first time since the club started in Joburg, I didn’t finish reading the bookclub selection before we met to discuss the book. I’m still reading our February selection “On Being Muslim” and enjoying the book thoroughly so proper thoughts about the read to come later. Despite not having completed the book our discussion filled my heart with so much light. Our monthly chats are a source of joy and help me to be better at being me, something I find is true for reading in general, but something that is amplified when I’m talking about amazing books with incredible people. Yesterday our discussion was about faith, living Islam holistically, how our lives overall support or don’t support our religious lives, self – knowledge, listening and appreciating others, the importance of self esteem and what that actually looks like, having meaningful prayer in our lives, the importance of akhlaq (good character), traditional madrassa education, and the role of the Qur’an in our lives. It was wonderful, and I can’t wait till our next session.

We met at a restaurant called “My bread and butter” near Zoo Lake, and it was perfect for the bookclub. It’s a big open airy space with lots of light and beautiful wooden tables, and the food and drinks and cakes were delicious, and the staff was super friendly and polite.  And best of all, because it’s a big space it wasn’t loud at all, and we were able to talk and hear each other properly,

Our next bookclub selection is  “The Golden Son” by Shilpi Somaya Gowda.
Date: April 2nd 2016
Time: 10:00 am to 12pm
Where: Nice, 37 4th Avenue, corner 14th street, Parkhurst, 2193

To RSVP: Email seriously.planning@gmail.com

About the book: “Author of the bestselling Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s The Golden Son is about a young Indian doctor who leaves his village for a residency in the US. But he grapples with the expectation that as the oldest son, he is expected to inherit the mantle of arbiter for all village disputes. And he finds himself torn between a beautiful American girl and his old childhood friend..” (Via Amazon)

Wanting to catch up on old reads? Here is what we’ve read so far:

September: Journey of Discovery by Na’eem Jeenah and Shamima Shaikh
November: Ghana Must Go By Taiye Selasi
December: Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
January: If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power
February: On Being Muslim by Farid Esack

Be a Doer Not a Dreamer (On Reading the “Year of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes)

Boulders Beach, Cape Town (May 2015)

Boulders Beach, Cape Town (May 2015)

“Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral. Pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.
Maybe you know exactly what you dream of being. Or maybe you’re paralysed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring, and dreams are not real. Just..DO. You think, “I wish I could travel” – you sell your crappy car and buy a ticket and go to Bangkok right now. I’m serious. You say, “I want to be a writer” – guess what? A writer is someone who writes every day. Start writing. Or: You don’t have a job? Get one. ANY JOB. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical dream opportunity. Who are you? Prince William? No. get a job. Work. Do until you can do something else.” (Shonda Rhimes, The Year of Yes)

It is scary to admit that you are struggling with something and to confront parts of yourself that you’ve always ignored. Today I attended a personal and professional development workshop about becoming more self aware and better understanding oneself as part of the Auwal Socio-Economic Institute Future Leaders Fellowship Programme and as part of the workshop, we spoke about the Johari Window, a chart with four quadrants where one axis is labelled “knowledge of ourselves” and the other axis is labelled “knowledge others have about us”. In each quadrant lies a different “self”, and where others have knowledge about us but we do not have that knowledge ourselves is our blind self, or the self that is not known to us. Where we do not have knowledge of ourselves and others do not have that knowledge either, our unknown self can be found, and in that quadrant there is unknown personal potential and potentially exciting learning and growth. In the workshop someone asked how one goes about discovering their unknown self given that that self is composed of parts of yourself that are not known by you or by others, and in response, another participant shared that to learn about themselves they found it was helpful to have as many different experiences as possible.

This idea is echoed by Shonda Rhimes book “The Year of Yes” a funny and moving book that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading over the past few days. The book feels like a long conversation over a cup of tea, in which Shonda Rhimes imparts lesson after lesson on transforming one’s life for the better. Shonda Rhimes is the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and other shows (as she notes throughout the book, she owns Thursday night) and she opens the book by admitting that sharing about herself and being exposed and vulnerable feels terrifying, and that writing this book was a very very difficult process. Because sharing is difficult and something that makes her feel uncomfortable, she pushed through the fear and discomfort and wrote the book anyway.

The book gets its title from a conversation she had with her older sister Delores in 2013 when her sister was focused on making the Thanksgiving meal and Shonda Rhimes was telling her about a series of wonderful and amazing invitations she had just received. In response, her sister asks her if she is going to accept any of her invitations and Shonda is confused she hadn’t seriously contemplated accepting any of the invitations.  But as she leaves the kitchen to tend to her baby, her sister mumbles “You never say yes to anything”, and these six words become life-changing words that are the catalyst for rich experiences, new understandings and remarkable personal growth. The words made her feel deeply uncomfortable, and after realizing that her sister is right and that she is miserable, she decides to spend an entire year not saying no to anything even if it scares her. The book is a chronicling of her experiment and it is a fantastic book. It’s conversational, honest, personal, funny and most of all inspirational because Shonda is candid about her fears and challenges and does not attempt to present herself as perfect. Hearing about how she was able to discover new things about herself while still feeling scared about new things made me feel like I too can confront things that scare me and live a richer life for it.

The book was an important personal read because I identified with Shonda Rhimes description of herself as being an introverted shy person who has never wanted to be in the public eye. As a three year old, her happiest childhood memories are playing in the kitchen pantry with canned goods imagining worlds peopled with rich characters. I too remember playing lots of “pretend games” as a child and reading and telling stories enthusiastically to my nanny when I was three. As an adult, Shonda Rhimes admits that she doesn’t do interviews and the media events she has to do as part of her network obligations make her feel ill. She realizes that in interviews she only speaks in “Athlete Talk”, where”anything human, anything honest” she keeps to herself.  And so the first yes she tackles is an interview with Jimmy Kimmel about her political drama Scandal. From there the “yeses” only increase, and though each one is difficult in its own way, with each “yes” she becomes more comfortable and willing to embrace challenging and difficult moments. Among the things she does in that year and the months that follow it is lose over a hundred and fifteen pounds, give the commencement speech at Dartmouth in front of over 10,000 people, remove toxic people from her life, be a more forgiving mother to herself, make time to play (for her this manifests as spending time with her daughters) confront passive aggressive behaviour in other people, stop being a doormat, and speak the truths necessary for her to be her most authentic self (for Rhimes this involves a difficult conversation about never wanting to get married and ending a relationship). It’s an incredible year, and though it is not at all a compehensive list here are some of my take-aways/favourite quotes from the read. (Disclaimer: I read this an an ebook on my Android tablet, and could only see the percentage of the book I had completed instead of page numbers. So none of the quotes have page numbers)

  1. It is possible to develop your weaknesses and become stronger and better at things you find difficult. With determination and courage, fear doesn’t have to stop you from living your best life. It is possible to become a more well-rounded person.
  2. In her Dartmouth speech, Shonda talks about finding a cause, and something weekly to give back to other people. I like this idea and am looking at literacy organizations this week that might be a good fit for me.
  3. It’s important to be honest and real about one’s struggles and admit that you find things difficult. Rhimes talks about how she is always asked by reporters how she manages motherhood and working life and while one response is to smile and talk about doing laundry late at night, the truth is that she has an amazing support structure and an amazing nanny named Jenny McCarthy. Shonda argues passionately that women are shamed for having help and for not mothering in ways that other people believe to be best (being judged for not making homemade treats is the example she gives) and tries to end “Mommy Wars” for herself and be open about what she finds difficult and how she works through it. Honesty is helpful for everyone, and Shonda talks about going through high school desperately trying to create Whitney Houston’s hair only to find out as an adult that Whitney Houston wore a wig. Knowing that even Whitney Houston doesn’t look like Whitney Houston would have saved her from a lot of heartache, and she makes a strong case for avoiding small talk, having real conversations and not misrepresenting your own life to others.
  4. You can be more productive and happier when you live an honest life. Shonda Rhimes talks in the book about how she hid from life and let issues fester before the “Year of Yes”, and that the complaining and regret took up a lot of mental space. As she committed to addressing her issues and confronting what she found difficult, she found that she had more free time because she got rid of the time wasted in “complaining and feeling sorry” for herself.
  5. You need to address your fears in a way that is authentic for you and allows you to be yourself. In the case of the Jimmy Kimmel interview for example, even though it’s a live show Shonda Rhimes realized that it would feel like a horrible experience for her if it was live. And so they did a taped show, something that was still scary and forced her out of her comfort zone, but didn’t cause her to stop functioning because of her emotional distress.
  6. It’s important to play as part of your self care. For Shonda Rhimes playing means being with her kids, and saying yes to playing for her meant saying yes to her “happy place” and giving herself the “permission to shift the focus of what is a priority from what is good for you to what makes you feel good.” When she made to play she was more joyful and better at writing and mothering and doing everything else that she does.
  7. Complaining is a waste of energy. In her chapter titled “Saying yes to my body” she describes the moment she realized that the seatbelt in her first-class airplane seat doesn’t fit her and how that moment triggered reflections about how and why she has become the size that she is. Her weight is upsetting not because she is striving for a specific body type but because she has kids and her joints ache and she is tired all the time. She recognizes how food is a way of hiding herself and also realizes that losing weight will mean having to give up foods that she loves and exercising, two things that she does not relish making a part of her life. What she realizes though is that she has at a yes crossroads, she either has to say yes to new health patterns or “say yes to “fatness” and buy bigger clothes, she can’t do nothing and still complain about her size. The deciding and doing is important because no health program will work unless “you decide that you are really and truly ready to do it. Meaning nothing works if you don’t actually decide that you are really truly ready to do it.”
  8. You need a team. Shonda talks in the book about her “Ride or Die” people, the people that are honest with her and wants what is best and who are sources of light in her life. As she describes it:

“It’s not merely about surrounding myself with people who treat me well. It’s also about surrounding myself with people whose self-worth, self-respect and values inspire me to elevate my own behaviour. People who requite that I stay truthful and kind and not totally crazy.”

Life is a team sport, and hearing how different people supported her along the way was a reminder to celebrate the fabulous people in my life and to strive to develop friendship that help me become the best version of myself.

9. Writing takes time and energy and dedication. This book was an testament to how much is needed of oneself in order to develop excellence. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Big Magic”, the last book I read spoke about never wanting to be a mother, and Shonda Rhimes in this book speaks about recognising that between her work and her children there is no room for another person. As she describes it, there is a door, and behind the door there are wonderful things to be found, but the door is 5 miles away and you have to run towards it in order to be able to open the door. The run is procrastination and doodling and youtube videos and staring at a blank page, and the more you run, the fitter you become and the easier and faster it is to complete that five mile run. Writing takes daily practice and hearing about Shonda Rhimes dedication makes me want to be a better and more consistent writer.

10. Your writing can heal you. Shonda Rhimes speaks about how her character Cristina Yang held parts of her that she was unable to express, and said things that she was unable to say. Creating Cristina helped her understand herself and understand the world better.

A Fair Witnessing (Gems from Scott Korb’s Light Without Fire)


Sweetness for the mind and  heart.

Sweetness for the mind and heart. (Soma Chocolate, Toronto)

Some books call out to you to share them with others. Recently I read Scott Korb’s book Light Without Fire about the first year at Zaytuna College, America’s first Muslim liberal arts college, and ever since I finished it, I can’t stop talking about it with others.

There are so many things to appreciate and admire about this book. To begin, it is rare to encounter an author who is able to talk about Islam/Muslims with honesty and sensitivity. In Light without Fire, the author’s admiration, warmth and connection with the people he meets shines from every page, and you get the sense that he is not a journalist simply watching Zaytuna from the sidelines, but someone who participates in the life of the community. When he visits the Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland for Friday prayers for instance, he lines up shoulder to shoulder with others in prayer. When he attends the mawlids (a celebration of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him), at Zaytuna or in the broader community, over time he becomes familiar with the poetry and sacred music that is recited.

His curiosity and engagement makes the book a very readable, thoughtful, interesting, important read, and one that rewards its reader generously for their time and attention. It makes the book a light, a book of beautiful writing, subtle humour, and humanity, that helps the reader see and understand Zaytuna College more clearly.

“Always carry a little notebook around with you. Whatever inspires you, or rings true for you, was meant for you. So make sure you write it down.” Faced with what Faatimah called “the obvious way” that the Zaytuna classroom – or really any classroom – was not like the rest of the world, and vice versa, every moment deserved the attention of a notetaker. Though the Zaytuna classroom might be structured with the books and schedules and tests that are the trappings of any classroom, what’s “out here” is no less important, structured as it is, she said “so much more by the divine.” The whole world is the classroom. She saw in it signs and proofs of Allah.” ~ (Light without Fire, p.110)

In the spirit of this advice to be a notetaker (given by Shaykh Yahya Rhodus), below are a few thoughts from my read.

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Celebrating 2014 with Books

My two loves: tea and books

The perfect accompaniment to a great read

I love to share what I read. What I’m reading becomes the subject of my social media posts, my dinner time discussions with my family, my conversations with colleagues, and every so often, a conversation icebreaker with other fellow commuters. And though not every book makes its way to the blog, every so often, I write about the book I’m reading. At home, a good book and a cup of tea from my favourite teapot is the way I destress.

As we enter a new year, I’m curious to hear from you. What books have been important for you over the last twelve months, and what do you recommend reading in 2014?

Leave a comment on the blog, or if you’re in Toronto over the new year, tell us in person on December 31st.  If you can make it, let us know on the Facebook event here.

Below: the ten books that we discussed this year on the blog.

  1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (January)
  2. The Footsteps of the Prophet by Tariq Ramadan (January)
  3. Green Deen by Ibrahim Abdul Matin (February)
  4. Islam and the Destiny of Man by Gai Eaton (March)
  5. Muhammad: A Prophet for our Time by Karen Armstrong (April)
  6. Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture (May)
  7. The Smart One by Jennifer Close (August)
  8. Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell (August)
  9. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (December)
  10. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (December)

Accidental Speech

“I was quite sorry when Miss Thornton came to take me to the other end of the room, saying she was sure I should be uncomfortable at being the only lady among so many gentlemen. I had never thought about it, I was so busy listening; and the ladies were so dull, papa – oh so dull! Yet I think it was clever too. It reminded me of our old game of having each so many nouns to introduce into a sentence.’

‘What do you mean, child?’ asked Mr Hale.

‘Why, they took nouns that were signs of things which gave evidence of wealth – housekeepers, under-gardeners, extent of glass, valuable lace, diamonds, and all such things; and each one formed her speech so as to bring them all in, in the prettiest accidental manner possible.’

~ North and South, p.202 (published 1854)

On Reading “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Deer Lake, Burnaby, BC

Deer Lake, Burnaby, BC

“I don’t think of my books as being forms of entertainment. I don’t read books for entertainment. I read books to deepen my understanding of the human condition, and I think that condition is a very complex thing, and that people are very complex creatures…” ~Jhumpa Lahiri on The Lowland

Sixty – six years separate today from Pakistan and India’s independence. It is hard sometimes to process that fact – to understand that within the last hundred years India was a colony. That it is still reeling from centuries of colonial presence, and that for both countries, the decades since 1947 have been complicated, violent, difficult ones.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel “The Lowland” tells the story of two brothers Udayan and Subhash who grow up in the early days of Independence. They live near a British colonial club where they are not allowed entry, and see how for so many people, colonial power was replaced by different forms of exploitation and oppression. They are two scientists who observe what is going on, and make different assessments about how social change can occur. The novel is about family, about the relationship between siblings, parents and children, spouses, and about how one event can shape the life arc of so many people. It’s a fascinating, ambitious book, and one that is well worth the read. Once I started I couldn’t stop reading until I finished a day later, but it’s a novel that imprints itself on you. Without giving any plot spoilers (I read the book without any idea of what it was about), a few thoughts from the read.

The book is an exploration of how one event can shape the arc of so many people. Every person experiences their own trauma from injury. For some the injury is life threatening, for other characters, they manage to continue living. The wars, rebellions, deaths, protests of a nation are often described in a sentence to explain how we got to the present day, but the impact of these events is best understood by zooming up close. This novel looks at postcolonial India and the Naxalite movement by zooming up to one family.

The book is also about globalization, immigration and cultural transition. We see how ideas in one place migrate to other places without the advantage of hindsight, analysis and assessing local context, and from our own vantage point of history, we can see the consequences of this travel. We also observe how destinies and possibilities alter depending on where we live. We can become different versions of ourselves.

Unlike classic literature, this book is ambiguous.  It is not staking a moral claim about which character is  ‘right’, it is simply describing what happens to a set of characters over decades. The story is a reaction unfolding. The two brothers, Udayan and Subhash study physics and oceanography respectively, and this story is an exploration of how the choices Udayan makes impact those around him. We see how his actions have equal and opposite reactions, and unintended consequences. Subhash, an oceanographer, cultivates and studies life. He creates roots. He is careful, measured, slower moving. There are no tidy endings in this book, there are simply flawed, human characters maturing, failing, striving again, failing, continuing to exist. There are contradictions and ironies explored.

“Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.” ~The Lowland, page 1.

Like the creatures of the lowland that titles the book, the book explores how we can become fixed in certain parts of our lives. Like Subhash and Udayan’s mother, we can become struck reviewing and reliving certain moments that come to define us. Growth and survival is only possible from acceptance, moving forward and sharing, We stifle each other and suffocate when we isolate ourselves in our personal grief. This is true collectively as well, and reading this book made me think about all the different histories that exist in our countries and cities, and that our different histories are the backdrop to how we understands other conversations – conversations about assimilation and the ‘rights’ of immigrants,  conversations about the tolerance and accommodation of benevolent nations. In a multicultural nation, there is no dominant shared narrative. To understand, you need to be aware of the world.

She Cannot Read

Words Matter.

Words Matter (London 2010)

She cannot read. This is her own private truth. Because of it, she must lead a double life: the fact of it saturates every molecule of her being, defines her to herself, always and forever, but nobody else knows. Not her friends, not her colleagues, not her family – certainly not her family. She has kept it from all of them, felt herself brimming with the secret of it her whole life. (p.76)

She cannot read. She cannot do that thing that other people find so artlessly easy: to see the arrangements of inked shapes on a page and alchemize them into meaning. She can create letters, she can form them with the nib of a pen or the lead of a pencil, but she cannot get them to line up in the right order, in a sequence that anyone else could understand. She can hold words in her head – she hoards them there – she can spin sentences, paragraphs, whole books in her mind; she can stack up words inside herself but she cannot get these words down her arm, through her fingers and out onto a page. She suspects that, as a baby, she crossed paths with a sorcerer who was in a bad mood that day and, on seeing her, on passing her pram, decided to suck this magical ability from her, to leave her cast out, washed up on the shores of illiteracy and ignorance, cursed forever. (p. 80)

The passages above are from a book called Instructions for a Heatwave, and refer to a character named Aoife who never learnt to read at school. Letters jump at her when she looks at a page, and after years of frustration, she leaves school without completing any of her subjects, and unable to read simple texts. When we meet her, she is working as a photographer’s assistant in America. While at work, whenever she receives a contract or any other document she must process, she puts the pieces of paper in a blue file folder. By now, the file is overflowing with things that need attending.

Because she cannot read the labels on the boxes of equipment in the studio, she memorises the location of every tiny item in the studio so that nobody guesses her secret. I don’t know what happens to Aoife as I’m not done the book, but I can sympathize with her. I have (like many other readers I’m sure) had the experience of travelling and being unable to read the local language. Such moments can leave you feeling diminished, unintelligent, and embarrassed. They can impact how you feel about yourself.  You can become reluctant to speak for fear of making grammatical mistakes, and overwhelmed figuring out key things such as where you are, and how the transit system operates.  Struggling with basics means it is harder to tackle more complicated topics such as learning about current events and debates with different levels of government.

If the experience of being unable to understand your local environment is frustrating even in short term doses, it is difficult to imagine how frustrating that must be if that is your long term reality.  And in fact, even at home, there are so many people who struggle with low literacy every day.

In Canada, “four of ten adult Canadians, age 16 to 65 – representing 9 million Canadians – struggle with low literacy. They fall below level 3 (high school completion) on the prose literacy scale.” 27% of those 9 million Canadians struggle with simple reading tasks. (ABC Life Literacy Canada). This has multiple social impacts, from employment prospects to health impacts to civic engagement.

I currently work with a nonprofit that supports social programs in the city, and seeks to (among other goals) target the root causes of poverty in order to create systemic sustainable change. Thinking about illiteracy this evening though, I can’t help thinking that while there are important contributions to make on a systemic level, we cannot lose sight of the contributions that are needed on an individual basis as well. There are organisations that need tutors, there are libraries that need books, there are people who need someone to help them gain the confidence to read out loud and to practice their writing.

There is so much to do! My last post was about loving words, today, I am realising that each love, each gift that one is given necessitates sharing, and serving others in a way that is of benefit.