My guest in the attic this week is Rashida Murphy. Rashida is a Western Australian author whose writing I’ve admired since we first met at a writing course in 2012. At the time, we were both starting out and in throes of writing our début novels. Since then, our novels have both been published and we’ve become firm friends.
Rashida’s novel, The Historian’s Daughter, was published by UWA Publishing in 2016, after being shortlisted in the Dundee International Book Prize. Her award-winning short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies world-wide, including Marginata, Landscapes, Westerly, Southern Crossings, Veils Halos & Shackles, We Will Be Shelter, Newcastle Short Story Anthology and others.
You can read more of Rashida’s writing and learn more about her at her blog.
Sesame, Lilies, and Conquistadors
There is a scene early in my novel, The Historian’s Daughter, when the young narrator slips into her father’s library and encounters a series of books titled The English Conquistadors of India. Such books did exist, in the library I can still recall, when I was a child living in India. But my clearest memory of reading something that spoke to me and perhaps planted the seed that would nurture the writer I became, was a slim blue book called Sesame and Lilies by John Ruskin. I know now I could not have possibly understood what a 19th century English classicist said in entirety, but it was the book that started my quest to collect words, to understand music in language and dream of a world where I too could distinguish between ‘the books of the hour’ and ‘the books of all time.’
I have never attempted to read Sesame and Lilies as an adult, cherry-picking quotes from Goodreads and other online sources instead. I don’t know what happened to that book because I never found it again on trips to India, where my father still kept a small selection in a claw-footed bookshelf with only two shelves. I did find and bring home to Perth some conquistador books, Jane Austen, Thomas Carlyle, Byron, Shelley and a single poem by Matthew Arnold pressed between the pages of Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb.
I read ferociously as a child. I read whatever I found, and mostly what I found was literature by old white men with imperial tendencies in a time before postcolonialism was thought of, before Ruskin’s prudish announcements on the nature of women could be critiqued, before language became charged with choice, politics and ethics. I read without discrimination, in the same month, just before I turned 18, the complete works of Bernard Shaw and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.
I remember tingling with the sensation of recognising a brown person in fiction for the first time in my Anglocentric world, while giggling at Arms and the Man and switching between Rushdie and Shaw as if they were old friends. I guess they were my friends and I did not see any reason to separate them or even read them one at a time. Rushdie’s book was a contraband acquisition, hastily loaned by a friend who said simply; read this, your life will never be the same (she was right). It remains a favourite to this day and I did buy my own copy.
I might add that I read Mills and Boon romances, Archie comics and low-grade crime novels with the same reverence as I read the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde and T.S. Eliot. In the words of e.e. cummings, ‘my mind stroll[ed] about hungry and fearless and thirsty and supple.’ From an acquaintance of my father’s I acquired an incomplete set of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels and I read them all in a week. I was eleven years old. It helped that my father was also a criminal defence lawyer and for a while I imagined curious brides and stuttering bishops in the sad-eyed people who waited patiently outside my father’s office for a chance at legal representation.
Discrimination came much later, in the shape of my English teacher at high school, a beautiful woman who wore gorgeous saris and also taught kathak. She introduced us to Hemingway and Toni Morrison and Nayantara Sahgal. She encouraged our fledgling writing, marshalled our scattered thoughts and listened to us outside the confines of a convent in mid 70s small town India. She alerted us to the politics of language and the joy of subversion by forbidding us to mention Kipling or Forster in her presence.
And for me, the youngest, most awkward child in a gregarious family, books became the way I understood the world. Books taught me about friendship and love and betrayal and offered solace, music and company I could depend on.
These days I still look at my early teachers, those small leather hardcover books in blue and red with small writing and thin pages, and I can go back to the ten-year-old I was when I first encountered them. I’ve never bought nicer, glossier, easier to read versions of these—Heathcliff and Catherine will always be confined within the threadbare pages they were when I first met them, and Northanger Abbey will always be held together with sticky tape, and it will always hurt my arms to carry down from the top shelf the complete (leather-bound) works of George Bernard Shaw in Volumes 1 and 2.
As it should.
More posts like this?
If you’ve enjoyed reading this and would like to read more, there are plenty of wonderful essays by writers who’ve visited the attic over the past couple of years.
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