Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Dissector (2): A Love Letter to Reading and Genres

'The Dissector' is a series of posts in which I will dissect topics which interest me, with my subjective, frank, extra-sharp mental scalpel. While honesty is a rule of these posts, I'd like to emphasise, once more, that this is merely my attempt of understanding myself and the world better. This remains, simply, one woman's opinion. Something the said woman doesn't intend to, and will never think of, shoving down anyone's throat.

Disclaimer: All Included Images Are Taken from The Books' Goodreads Entries


I read.

And that's simply a two-word sentence. I don't want to expand it by adding 'YA books', 'speculative fiction', 'historical fiction', 'anything which is good', or other tags. Because, hey, I read. My brain is programmed to pick anything written and try to make sense of it within my language limitations (I'm only fluent in two languages, English and Bahasa Indonesia). The moment I wake, I will reach for my phone and check, after my personal email and private messages/direct messages on various social networking platforms, what my preferred news website has to offer that morning. More often than not, I will read one or more news articles, editorials, or feature articles which pique my interest, too (although I'll stop before that button which says 'comment', because the comment section is often waaaay darker than any depressing article). Then I will trawl Twitter, and read a couple of interesting book-and-writing related articles tweeted by the friends and authors I follow. I don't limit myself to what is serious and important; it's a matter of interest for me. And as such, chance is I will read self-posted advertisements on power poles on my way to work or to my weekend morning coffee. And the banners hanging above my lovely neighbourhood square. And the announcements in the lifts I ride on my way to my desk. And any announcement stuck on the office door, or behind the bathroom stall doors. And everything which has ever made its way to my home mailbox, except if it's a personal mail not addressed to me. And random blog posts from my random google search. And wikipedia articles about people who appeared in the news that day.

(Alright, let's take a moment of silence here to absorb all my craziness. Those who aren't willing to dig deeper into a long essay about my excessive reading habit may stop reading right here and right now -- thank you for stopping by.)

My attitude is, admittedly, quite different when it comes to my 'hobby reading/enjoyment reading'. This comes down to the fact that I cannot possibly read every book ever written, unless there are 300 hours in a day and 365,000 days in a year. Like everyone else, I pick and choose what I read. And throughout my life, my choices have always been evolving. It has been a really fluid journey, with winding roads and branching points, and loops which converge and re-converge.

As a preschooler and kindergartener, I read a lot of fairytales and books about animals. They were not my choice, of course -- they were either gifts, or something my parents bought in a bookstore -- but I did love them. And they did spark my interest in reading, and my creative imagination. I think my parents and everyone who had ever babysat me had caught, so many times over, me in the midst of recreating those stories with my plush toys -- with my own crazy twists.

In primary school (ages 6 - 12), I devoured things I could find in my library and in the (then-limited) children section of my local bookstore in Jakarta, Indonesia. I remember borrowing, as my first library book ever, a book about who Henry Dunant was (it was like a children's version of biography, it told me his life but not in excessive details). I remember reading this book and this one and this one, in full admiration of the strong girl protagonists and the adventures they go through. I remember reading a lot of children-appropriate humour, and translated mangas too (hi Sailor Moon!). But above all, I also remember, as a pre-teen in years 5 and 6, reading this book and this one. I couldn't find any English entry
for those, and I apologise for it. But to summarise -- they were Indonesian historical fiction novels, intended for adult, written by an Indonesian author who wrote several other historical fiction books. I did not purchase them. My Dad did, many years before. He didn't make me read it; he didn't even mention he had them. I simply found them sitting in one of his drawers, and devoured them during a summer holiday. I just couldn't stop. Ancient and Colonial-era Java, frozen in the vivid, enthralling lines of narration and dialogues, captivated me. Suddenly, I saw the soul in the eras I'd had brief, formal and hard-fact-ladden brushes with in the history classes at school. Those periods were suddenly not just periods. They were writhing, breathing, with characters -- imperfect, human -- who gave breaths of life to those periods. It was my first experience of true reading bliss, one which I remember fondly until today.

I remained a keen and (looking back) critical reader throughout High School (ages 13 - 18). My High School had a relatively large, well-stocked library of fiction and non-fiction alike, and I always end up on the 'fiction' section. Birthday money, pocket money, and allowances had also started flowing, leaving me with a new power to buy what I want to read. As my body and mind shifted from a child's to a woman's and hormones started flooding, I became more drawn to romance too. Adult romance, more exactly. There were the one or two YA romances (then a rare thing to see in the library or even in bookstores -- all I remember is Meg Cabot's contemporaries) thrown in there, but mostly I was busy wrangling one of Danielle Steel's bestsellers out of a fellow student's hands or browsing Sandra Brown's crime/romance in my local bookstore. I watched romantic Japanese animes, and swooned over romantic mangas. In the later years of my adolescence, as I battled (a relatively mild, now that I've seen many other cases) a year-long-encounter with anorexia and recovered, I was introduced to the world of the section of adult contemporary I then knew as 'chick-lit'; books about grown women and their everyday issue, ranging from weight management (something relevant to me then) to relationship issues (which often involved prettier, taller, skinner women competing for the hot guy's attention). The history, culture, and fantasy loving girl in me had never died though. I managed to introduce the Harry Potter series to my reading list in the midst of everything else. I also managed to read, between homework and marching band training camps, a couple of historical fiction and culture-nuanced books which strongly resonated to me then. I devoured Snow Flower and The Secret Fan. I read my way through Ca Bau Kan (book and summary in Bahasa Indonesia), a bittersweet (fictional) historical romance telling the story of a Chinese Indonesian merchant and his Betawi (native Batavian/Jakartan) mistress/courtesan. I also read this amazing Indonesian book about a Chinese Indonesian family in a relatively recent era (the title roughly translates to 'The Last Yum Cha'). And funny things being funny -- even though the amount of contemporary and romance I read back then exceeded the amount of the fantasy and historical, I remember those few fantasies and historicals better today. Seems that my subconscious has always been clinging to my preferred genres, after all!

The university/college period (ages 19 - 22) was what I would say the darkest period of my reading. Moving to a new country, switching from reading primarily in Bahasa Indonesia to reading primarily in English, and succumbing to peer pressure to 'be cool' and 'try find a boyfriend' slowed my reading -- a lot. It didn't help that I knew no one who loved reading as much as I did (or I knew them, but didn't know them enough to know they loved reading). And -- a dark story -- I was suffering from a severe 'new-grown-up' stuck-up syndrome, in which I refused to admit love for anything remotely youthful (apart from Harry Potter and a few Animes, which she read and watched in secret in her bedroom). If I could find 19 year old Nath and give her a real hard slap on her face and yell at her for being a bloody liar and con, I think I would. She should have known she was a fantasy and historical fiction girl. She should have known she loved characters who saw the world with fresh, untainted eyes, and strived to make them better. She should have stopped trying to be 'an adult' and tried to exclusively read 'deep' adult contemporaries and 'high literature' which didn't make her feel good about the world. She should have had a better sense of what made an adult and adult, and known that 'not reading dragon-and-kingdom fantasy and fictionalised history' didn't make her an adult. After all, at the end of those years of trying to read books which 'matter', she wasn't finished growing up. She still had childish whims. She still didn't know (and actually kind of doesn't) know what to do in many situations. She was still awkward.

And above all -- she was somewhat miserable creature who believed people were all messed up, and that heroes are creatures of fantasy.

What. A. Fool.

'Pretentious reader Nath' died right at the end of her university days, when she met a wonderful man who to this day still appreciates her every quirk, the way she appreciates his. But her love for reading had been buried by years of pretension, and she evolved into a restless caged beast desperate to let her imaginative side roam free -- 'Non-reader Nath'. She paced and paced. She tried reading fanfiction of the books she'd read and loved -- most of which were of romance variety. She tried writing, doing something she loved -- and actually was so out of touch with her fantasy that she couldn't even write a page she didn't cringe at. She got confused, angry, bored. Until, one day, while sitting at a nail salon having her fingernails primped and painted some, she looked up and saw the TV there playing The Hunger Games movie. 'Non-reader Nath' saw two sisters on the screen. She saw one of them picking up a bow and a quiver, and later taking another's place in a death match. She saw a messed up society, and a character who gave hope. A character who took action and did good.

And 'Non-reader Nath', love child of 'Pretentious reader Nath' and 'Nath's innate mule-like stubbornness', burned to ashes right there and then. In her place, rose the Nath who realises she loves adventures, fantasy, history, and characters who give hope. The Nath who loves her stories, her reading, and who she is. The Nath who isn't afraid of getting judged -- and knows that whatever she does, she will end up getting judged anyway. The Nath who is who I am now.




I finished watching The Hunger Games at home that very day, with my husband. I bought all the three books soon after, and devoured them in two nights. I wrote The Hunger Games fanfiction (most of which I didn't end up publishing, because they were so bad -- but hey, that's part of writing journey, right?). I branched out to Divergent and Insurgent. I got introduced to Daughter of Smoke of Bone, and devoured Days of Blood and Starlight soon after. I found the whole YA fantasy/sci-fi/dystopia genre. I perused samples of others, bought some, read some, DNF some. I found Legend, just like that -- and devoured it, then Prodigy, and was completely humbled by the amazing characters and their struggles, the social injustice in their society which resembled something I'd seen as a child and accepted as part of life, being the entitled brat I was. I read Proxy, and was once more reminded of that. I analysed everything critically. And before I knew, I was alive again. I fell in love with characters who tried to make the world better by real action, and not just sitting-there-wallowing-why-life-is-unfair-and-sad like some of the characters 'Pretentious Nath' met. I wrote fanfiction. I started original story ideas, and am realising some of them in full-fledged WIPs. I met fellow readers and YA fiction enthusiasts on Twitter, some of whom I consider my close friends now. I was introduced to more books -- not just YA, but simply good books with inspirational stories and characters. I read some which fell within speculative fiction, and am planning to read some of the suggested historical fictions. For the first time in my life, I have a recommendation-based TBR list, instead of a haphazard one totally composed through long hours combing sections of bookstores and libraries. I learn to listen to others' inputs and opinions, and give chances to books I would otherwise not look at. I learn how to put the life lessons I've learned from books in coherent thoughts, and discuss them with my friends and in book reviews.

I am now alive. And learning.

And I am reading again, for pleasure.


All it took was an adaptation of a YA book, beautiful, hopeful stories which stoked the embers of my dormant fantasy-and-historical-fiction fangirl, characters who despite their limitations and their hardships are trying to make the world better and not muddle-it-because-my-life-suck-and-I-don't-know-how-to-not-rain-on-everyone's-parade, and a community of reading enthusiasts keen to read things which they can learn positive lessons from.


All it took was an inspired feeling.

But of course, this is just my reading journey. I am well aware that there are others who get inspirations in different ways, and others with different journeys. There are people who like sad stories and characters who constantly break things -- and it's more than alright. It's amazing that you read. It's amazing that things move you. Just like I love and respect my genres, you should love and respect your genres too -- never say you're 'ashamed',  'embarrassed', or that you feel you are 'weird'. Protect what is dear to your heart, if you must. Read what you read. Love what and who you love. Surround yourself with people who read similar things; find some on Goodreads or other social medias if you know none. Gift your favourite book to loved ones, convince them why they should read. Talk people to include your favourite books and genres in their reading list -- with the respect you'd like them to show your favourite books and genres. Spread the book love, not hatred for what you see as not 'on par with' your kind of books. Judge if you must, but remember that judgement is a reflection of what you think and not of someone else's behaviour (yes, it is hard. I still struggle with it myself. But just give it one try :)).

Let your books and genres make you a better person who learns from the stories and the characters.

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