My father used to always tell the story of how we, a family of four South African citizens, almost got caught in the early 1990s smuggling a book from Swaziland (my first and forever home) to South Africa (my now and forever home). The story goes something like this:
“You and your brother were both so young, and we had placed the book under the blankets that you and him were sitting on. When we arrived at the border, I was standing outside the car, explaining to the police officer that we had nothing to declare, when your brother said from inside the car, “But Dad, what about the book?” I don’t know if the officer didn’t hear or didn’t care, but I froze and thought this is it, if they find that book, it’s over.”
Suffice to say, we weren’t caught and my uncle received the book. I still remember the cover, pure black with only the title written on it.
I have been hearing that story (and many others) since I was a child. This one, however, stood out because of my love for books and history. I wanted to read it. I wanted to understand what was so evil about this book that nations (not just South Africa, but India, Iran, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Egypt…the list is long) would ban words being issued and then, in some instances, put a death sentence on the author. It couldn’t just be the title, could it?
I also wanted to understand what was so good about this book that a man would put his life and those of his family at risk. During the days of Apartheid, even slight suspicion would get one arrested or even killed. The atrocities my elders went through are things that still haunt them. I know this because it took decades for my parents or uncles to share stories with me, and to this day, there are some books they still will not read, the pain still too fresh.
Even though I’ve not fully read it yet (it’s, um…heavy and complicated and I’m getting through it, page by page), it’s still a part of a history that I’ve had an experience in. I want to understand the past in some way, shape, or form. I want to make sense of it so that I do not repeat it.
My love for history started young, and maybe it complements my need to get lost in novels, because I just want to absorb all that I can.
And while reading may not give me a full sense of all that happened, it helps me learn that people are people. Complicated by experience, emotions, dreams and wants and desires, we sometimes carry that which is not ours to carry. And sometimes we own less of what we should be owning, specifically the negative aspects. And to top all this, if you’re the type of person that believes in reincarnation or past lives, it makes understanding one’s history even more complicated.
The way I’ve learned to channel this is to dive into the depths of people’s pasts, either in novels, movies, or listening to people’s stories. The similarities and differences are contrasting and blurry all at once. Maybe it makes me too understanding or maybe it makes me less attached, but it’s the way I can make sense of all that I do not fully comprehend. It’s the reason why I place such importance on the past, on history, and on people’s experiences.