Reading with My Daughter

Reading with My Daughter

A book lies on my table – My Ear at his Heart by Hanif Kureishi. It is about Kureishi’s discovery of an old manuscript that recounts his father’s childhood in Bombay around the time of India’s partition, and Kureishi’s father’s subsequent journey to England as an immigrant.

I had first encountered Kureishi many years ago as a graduate student. He was a breath of fresh air, he was counterculture, he was bad boy; he talked about sex and drugs and rock and roll – he was the rock-star among Rushdie, Naipaul and the stalwarts who had already become the canon.

Then, over the decades, I stopped reading Kureishi. Until last year, when my daughter, who has been making inroads into our books at home, read The Black Album and started her own journey into Kureishi’s oeuvre. I then realized that although I fancied that I had read much of Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia, London Kills Me, The Black Album) – I hadn’t read many others, like The Last Word, which my daughter had been reading sometime earlier. I’d never even heard of My Ear... before she brought it to my attention.

So this book now lies on my table, waiting to be read. And as I reflect about how my daughter has been directing me towards things to read, I realize that my book journey with her began much before Kureishi.

When my children were very young, I read to them. I picked things I’d decided would amuse or inform them, or I chose what conventional wisdom said was appropriate and entertaining. They had no say in the matter, but seemed to listen or watch with interest. Then when they were a little older, I tried to get them to read what I’d read and loved in my childhood. And that’s where we parted ways.

Like many of my peers, I grew up on an early diet of Enid Blyton. The Famous Five series, The Secret Seven, Mallory Towers, the St. Clare’s series. Then I graduated to The Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys. My friends and I devoured every one of the books from these series. They remained a treasured memory in my adulthood, and as a mother of young children, I couldn’t wait to introduce my children to those worlds of midnight swims, adventures, picnics, school dorm friendships and mysterious people waiting to be shadowed.

I don’t know if my kids completed even one of those books out of fear/respect/ submissiveness. (They claim they did.) In any case, their tepid response to them confused me. I went out and bought more of the same. They evinced scant interest in them. I got yet more books. Surely they would get hooked to the next one, or the next one in the series? How was it possible not to?
Apparently it was. Eminently.

After a period of frustration following my abortive attempt to shove my old reading tastes on them, I realized that although they were not reading what I used to read as a child – they were reading. Quite prolifically. And when I saw what they were reading, I got intrigued. Adventure stories which used archetypes from Greek mythology. Science fiction meets crime fiction. About a teenager with a learning disability, and another with a physical disability, who find strength in each other.

Before long I was glad that my attempts to push onto my children the world of young white healthy middle-class hetero heroes (who came from two-parent homes and whose mothers, although curiously unaware of their children’s shenanigans and whereabouts, nevertheless provided clotted cream and scone teas with cucumber sandwiches with gratifying frequency), had failed miserably.

And I began reading what they, particularly my daughter, were reading. I discovered The Illustrated Mum. Jacqueline Wilson’s story of a single mother, gloriously tattooed, struggling with bipolar disorder; her two daughters who fend for themselves and take care of their mother while trying to track down their biological fathers and avoid foster home. Wilson had me hooked. I read Girls Under Pressure. Secrets. Kiss. Candyfloss.… stories about single parents struggling to keep their jobs, stories about heartbreak, about people failing. Stories, situations and issues that readers like my daughter found relevant and interesting and gravitated towards naturally.

My education into my daughter’s reading habits was not without its discomfiting moments, of course. She was fifteen or sixteen when she recommended that I read a popular series with a young, female (also heavily tattooed) protagonist. I did, becoming quickly horrified at the graphic sex, rape, and violence in the first book. Horrified that my child was reading about this sadistic sexually violent world at such an early age. She told me to relax. I tried to.

Other books followed – among them the remainder of the violent series. Meanwhile, something else was happening. Without direction or recommendations from me, she was making forays into my collection of books. We still argued about books, only now, the arguments were about keeping the book back in its place after she’d finished reading it.
So it comes to be that she’s gone beyond the Hanif Kureishis on my shelf, and is bringing home those books of his I haven’t read before or, as in the case of My Ear at His Heart, had not even heard of. Somehow, while I was unable to foist my childhood world of books on her in spite of my vigorous attempts, she entered my adult world of books with an ease and comfort that I didn’t anticipate.

Perhaps there’s some poetic justice in that. As also in the fact that along the way, she effortlessly drew me into her world of reading, of new authors. For that gift, I am glad. Glad that she’s been showing me new things to read, new ways of reading.

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