Thursday, December 11, 2014

Amina Gautier Says: "Remember Who You Were"

In the 59th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Amina Gautier, author of Now We Will Be Happy (University of Nebraska Press), discusses her life-long love of reading.

If I could give one piece of advice to another writer, it would be this: Remember who you were before you became a published Writer.

Before I ever had a short story published or a book published and became a Writer, I was just a girl who loved to read. While growing up in Brooklyn, I had two homes and two lives. From Friday to Sunday, I lived in East New York, in an apartment full of people. There I lived with my mother, grandmother, uncle, and male cousin, and we were a family of five. On the weekends, I lived with noise and activity, and very little time to think. During the week, I lived in Brownsville, with my grandmother’s older sister. My great-aunt was forty-four years my senior; she did not know how to play dolls; and she still had a hi-fi stereo system capable of playing eight tracks—in short, to me she was as old as old could get. But, in her home, there was quiet and the time and the freedom to read. Every night, after she went to bed, I would perch on a kitchen counter and read. The light in the small space of our kitchen was the strongest, brightest light in the apartment. I would hoist myself onto the kitchen counter and nestle in the space between the refrigerator and the sink and there I would read for hour, lost to the page. The mosquitoes—attracted by the light—that came in through the opened living room window and bit my legs to bloodiness didn’t bother me. The warmth radiating from the refrigerator’s back coils went unnoticed. The cramps, neck cricks, numbness and tingles that come from sitting in one position too long? They were as nothing to me so long as I had the words, the book, the pages to turn.

Before I ever became a Writer, I was a reader enchanted and seduced by what the words on the page could do, in love with the way a short story or novel could reach inside of me and spread itself across my soul. I had been warned that there were consequences that came from reading. Frederick Douglass’s masters warned that it could make a disadvantaged person discontented. Parents and guardians warned that it could cause one to strain one’s eyes and wear glasses for the rest of one’s life. It could pull you from your friends. If you did it before going to bed, your brain would be too active and it would make you lose sleep. But what are such threats in the face of such an irresistible lure?

And now—lucky me—I am a Writer. Which means that not only do I have the honor and privilege of attempting to write books that will do for other readers the same things books first did for me, but also that I get paid to read. Like many published writers, I am tasked with reading the fledgling work of students for the purpose of commenting and grading, reading published collections and novels for the purpose of conducting interviews or writing book reviews, and reading unpublished manuscripts submitted for various contests, journals, prizes, and residencies for the purpose of assessing, evaluating, and ranking. And then, of course, there is my own writing. There are deadlines; there are rejections; there are rewrites and editors’ comments; there are changes I did not approve or wish I could go back and make. There are payments in contributor’s copies and promises never fulfilled. There are bad reviews; no reviews and any number of writing-life-related distractions that can threaten my joy with tedium. It’s easy for one to forget why one loves writing or why one started and how one even got here in the first place.

Dear Writer,

Permit me to refresh your memory. Here is how you got here:

Books: You gotta love 'em
Before you became a Writer, you were a Reader, a lover of good and fine books. Once upon a time, you read books that moved you, that took over your mind and ruined your day for whatever else it was that you had planned. You read books that made your brain stand up, applaud and beg for more. You read books that made you believe that writing was something secret and magic and wonderful. (How does that magician do it?). You memorized your favorite lines, recited them aloud in public and in private, used them to impress teachers and crushes. You snuck flashlights under the cover in defiance of calls for lights out and time for bed (You book-loving insurgent, you!). You took chances with your life by reading while walking, bumping into people or stepping off of curbs into oncoming traffic. You folded beloved books into your back pocket to keep them around just in case of emergencies. You loved books the way a child first loves its mother—joyfully, unquestioningly, simply, fully, and without judgment.