Updated: Jul 9
I grew up in the Fiji Islands - and yes, it was as idyllic as it sounds. Balmy climate, ripe mangoes straight off the trees, fresh fish, prawns and lobster ... I could go on. But if I had to choose, my best childhood memories revolve around the time when school holidays were ending and it was time to return back to school! Why? Because that was the only time in the years when we'd receive new (well newish) books. Here's a look back at those wonderful times and an ode to the wonderful books that I studied for my English Literature class that went on to shape me.
A pre-technology age childhood
'Back in the day...' when I was growing up, there was no internet a-n-y-w-h-e-r-e in the world!
We only got the phone put into our house when I was in school year three I believe but it was too expensive to use ... so we never did. The only time that thing would ring was when relatives from overseas would call using some dodgy international calling card; the line was so bad that mum and dad had to scream into the handset (any louder and relatives overseas would not have needed a phone to listen in…). Ironically the habit seems to have stuck…
At any rate, we lived a rather sheltered life as children in those days. And no, we did not have TV either. That too only got introduced when I was in year three (must have been an age of significant technological transformation in Fiji) but the programming was so sparse that the only available channel wouldn't even be on all the time!
Before you technically connected folks keel over and die in horror, know that all in all it was a rather nice childhood. The lack of mind-numbing manufactured entertainment meant that we created our own worlds within worlds during play. Our house and surrounding grounds were large, open and largely covered in a jungle. We’d be free to explore and the conquer new territory, battle dangerous beasts and discover lost civilisations.
But there were days, especially during summer school holidays, when you would just crave some form of contact with the outside world - beyond your mum and dad and siblings that is. Those of us who have experienced some form of COVID lockdown will surely be able to empathise with this sentiment!
The best childhood memories then...
It is no surprise therefore that my best childhood memories are from around the time our very long summer school holidays were about to end, and a new school year was about to start!
Oh the excitement I would feel at the prospect of going to school again.
I enjoyed the 'learning new things' part of school a lot (of course) but it was the prospect of seeing my friends (other people), hearing all about their summer holidays (nothing happened in mine) and finding out (often in horror) who our new teachers would be that made it all that more exciting.
The best bit about these time though was getting ‘new’ books for the school year ahead.
My love of books transcends space and time
I love books. Books were the only thing I had in that non-technologically connected age which broadened my horizons.
They fed and stimulated my imagination, getting me to leap out of my little island home and go off visiting the most magical and fantastical faraway places - the bottom of the seas, the top of mountains, snowy fields and smugglers caves, maybe the moon, the sands of the Sahara and enchanted woods full of fairies, pixies and goblins!
Oh how I loved books! And a new school year meant new books to read and new stories to enjoy.
The books I most looked forward to getting were for our English Literature lessons as it always included great pieces of fiction that I wouldn't have otherwise had access to. I also loved the textbooks for Social Science as the curriculum involved learning about far away people, cultures and places.
It was not all joy however as these wonderful times came with a downside ...
The perils of being the third child
I am a third child. My parents had two other children before me (to state the bleeding obvious); the eldest is a girl, followed by a boy and then me. Many years later they had another little boy who remains the youngest. We are four siblings, each of whom could not be more different than the other.
Every new school year, my textbook list would be ticked off against everything that had already been acquired for the education of the elder children in preceding years - queue hand-me-downs...
Now I have always been a frugal and waste-conscious kid and would never impose on my parents who already worked so hard to make ends meet … but I also happen to be a clean freak and a neat freak who likes all things to be clean and tidy. Books were my treasure and I liked them in mint condition, with clean and crisp pages and that ‘fresh-off-the-press’ smell.
Unfortunately, the second child who I inherited most of my text books from was a not so neat, not so clean, not really a book loving person. And he was a boy ...
As you can imagine, by the time I inherited the books used by the two other siblings before me, there were no crisp pages left. Everything was bent over, had crease marks, oils stains, writing and even torn pages. As for the new book smell, that had been well and truly replaced by the co-mingled smell of a thousand school lunches …
Joy in suffering
Alas what was one to do except accept the tatty copies of glorious literature and try to make the best of it. It may not have had the 'new book' smell but the books never lost their 'new story' charm.
I read all my school books from end-to-end (several times over) before the school year began, fretting over every stain, crease, tear and mark ... Some things I could repair but the oil stains from pre-historic lunches, that I had to learn to live with.
But no matter how stained, torn or worn my books were, the words on the pages never failed to affect to me. The stories cut through all my neurosis and before I knew it, I was lost in a whole new world; living the highs and feeling the lows of every character.
I have to hand it to whoever chose the books for our English Literature classes, they were absolute gems. In the early days they were madly adventurous and as we grew older, the stories became a lot more serious and tackled issues that we would encounter and have to deal with in our lives - loneliness, isolation, prejudice, setbacks, colonisation, disempowerment and death.
The lesson imparted by each has what shaped me into the person I am today. A few in particular stand out in my memory:
Treasure Island, by Robert Louise Stevenson
Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss
Jungle Adventures, by Ian Serraillier
The Silent One, by Joy Cowley
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell
I Heard the Owl Call my Name, by Margaret Craven
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
Treasure Island introduced me to thrill of quests and the dangers of pirates.
Swiss Family Robinson made me feel like being a pioneer all over again, build my own tree house and discover my very own crystal caves.
Jungles Adventures made me feel like running away from home to the Amazonian forests to live out my life amongst the tribes.
The Silent One made my heart ache and helped me understand the pain caused by ignorance and prejudice. It also instilled a deep spiritual love of turtles that lives in me to this day.
Island of the Blue Dolphins taught me the solace that can be found in solitude. It taught me to love my own company and hinted at the quite strength we call carry inside us.
I Heard the Owl call my name brought death into the picture. It made me love and respect indigenous cultures like I had never had before. It made me seek a connection to the natural world like I never had done before.
As for Things Fall Apart, it felt like a familiar story of a family being torn apart as the influences of colonisers set in. It confronted the reality of the mission movement and the havoc it wreaked on local cultures, traditions and peoples. Nothing was swept under the carpet — the light and the dark of both sides were laid bare for the reader to see. I realised, probably for the first time that the world wasn't as black and white as I had imagined it to be.
Maybe one day, I will write more about the insights and joy each book brought into my life. For now, it's time to sign-off and leave you with the question we began with ...