I never thought I’d become a writer. I never read under the covers, never scrawled diaries under tables at school or in the attic at home. I never had an attic. In fact, I didn’t own a computer until I was 21. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I often said an astrophysicist, because it sounded like shooting into stars. I really thought: James Bond. The truth is, I was a daydreamer. I would read a sentence or watch a movie 10 or 12 times over, then feel upset that images and colours and characters snapped shut like a telescope, so I would continue them in my head.
I’d be hiking up a mountain or walking through a museum, and would half pretend to be there. But for the longest time, I simply wasn’t. The night wasn’t enough, I had to dream during the day.
I started writing when I fell in love with the wrong boy. He was articulate and absurdly handsome. He would talk for days on end. I was so intoxicated by his sentences that I wrote them down to keep bits and pieces of him when he left. I wrote down hundreds of pages that read like delirious love fragments (I seldom included my own responses in these notebooks). They made me feel like I was keeping his love in magic bottles. I’ve put them away and I’m disinclined to open them, still. So I never wrote about him or what he said in those months. But he had told me one day: “you’re a daydreamer, like a writer.” And from that one comparison, my first book was born.
I was 10 or 11, I think, and sitting with my mother on the top deck of a red double-decker bus. I do not remember the topic of the conversation, but I had doubtless been free-associating in the way that children do, chasing one idea after another, one word after another. Then my mother said to me, “You’ve got too much imagination.” It was not uttered as a stern rebuke, more a matter of mild, even amused, comment. But I understood that “imagination”, though not necessarily bad, was an irrelevant thing: irrelevant to the process of being adult, mature, of making one’s way in the world and earning a living.
So my key memory is not one of encouragement, of breakthrough, of seeing the potential way ahead; but rather of discouragement, of being advised to keep my eyes closed. But I think writers are made in different ways. Some have that inspirational teacher, or the kindly uncle who lets them run loose in his library, and so on. Well, there were certainly books in my home (my parents were both schoolteachers), but their presence always seemed to imply that other people write books, not people like us. My mother had once had a letter printed in an evening paper; her father had once published a pamphlet about wood-working. That was my literary heritage. But that again is normal.
Becoming a writer was for me a complex process made up of many elements. But one of them, I am fairly sure, was an unconscious revolt against the mother. You think the imagination overrated? Then I will show you that it is not. I will demonstrate that the free-association of childhood leads to the controlled, artful associations of fiction. You will see and then acknowledge that you were wrong. These antagonistic attitudes were never articulated (we were very British in this regard); nor did my mother ever admit she had been wrong. I have no doubt that she had completely forgotten the incident on the bus by the time I published my first novel. But – in a way – I thank her for that discouragement.
It was my first library. I was six years old and had only just immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic. The librarian didn’t speak a word of Spanish and I didn’t speak a word of English and yet she didn’t care; she persevered until I understood. Not every adult would do that – all my other teachers ignored me. I had never seen a library before, all those dark wooden shelves dense with books, and something of the librarian’s generosity and patience mingled with the austere awesomeness of the books began to open in me a strong sense of belonging. That day I was allowed to take out two, and I remember rushing my choices and then holding on to those books for dear life the whole bus ride home. Back at our apartment I opened them gingerly, scanning the pages, understanding nothing. The next day I got two more books but these had gorgeous illustrations. The librarian talked to me some more even though we had no real understanding of each other.
And that’s how it all started. At least that’s what I like to tell myself.
In the beginning was one word in a poem. One word in a poem in a classroom in a terrible city named Beirut. The poem was by the French surrealist Paul Eluard.
On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sands of snow
I write your name
The girl looked all around her: the roof was still intact, chairs and desks were in their place, the books on the shelves were in perfect order. There had been no earthquake. At least, not outside.
On the window of surprises
On a pair of expectant lips
In a state far deeper than silence
I write your name
She was barely aware that her heart was beating in her chest like a dog full of fury, and that blood was rising to her rosy cheeks: nothing mattered; nothing existed beyond the magical torrent of light and hope that emanated from the teacher’s throat and headed towards the girl’s life.
Who ever said that the process of fertility could not be determined exactly or pinned down to a precise moment? That very instant, the young Joumana knew she would be a writer.
I learnt to read when I was five – so, in 1941 – in my first year of primary school. My classmates were a year older than I was, but my mother insisted on my starting school because I was so naughty it drove her mad. Our teacher was Brother Justinian – thin, angelic with a white, almost shaved head. He made us sing the letters, one by one, and then, hand in hand, in a round. He made us identify the syllables in each word, reproduce them and memorise them. From colourful spelling books illustrated with animals we moved on to a little book of sacred history and finally to comics, poems and stories. I am certain that in Christmas 1941 baby Jesus deposited on my bed a pile of adventure books, from Pinocchio to Little Red Riding Hood, from The Wizard of Oz to Cinderella, from Snow White to Mandrake the Magician.
My vocation as a writer developed in the shadow of that reading. The power to transport myself to a marine abyss, to the stratosphere, to Africa, England, Belgium or Malaysia; to travel back in time from the 20th century to the France of Richelieu and Mazarin; and, with each fictional character, to change my skin, my face, my name, my job, my lover or my destiny, without ceasing to be myself, was a miracle that revolutionised my life. I would never tire of repeating that magic, with the fascination and enthusiasm of my early years, until it became the central activity of my existence.
These responses were published by the Colombian magazine Arcadia in celebration of its 100th issue. Hay Festival Cartagena starts on January 30. Visit hayfestival.org