From Freddy to Toni

As a child, I dreaded reading. I could never make myself focus on the page. I had to read each paragraph repeatedly to grasp the content. Memories of trying and failing to plough through Charlotte’s Webb still make me shudder. I was more into movies.

My parents didn’t monitor what my older brother, Luke, and I watched. Luke, a horror aficionado, exposed me to a number of 80’s horror classics. I recall reenacting scenes from A Nightmare on Elm Street with my friend, Megan, in kindergarten. She was familiar with the plot too; her parents must have had a similarly lax parenting style. We took turns being Freddy and Nancy, chasing each other around the schoolyard.

When I was eight-years-old, a trauma affected my personality. I turned shy. I seldom played with Megan, or any of my former friends. Luke and I drifted apart. Once he was a teenager, he spent as little time at home as possible. Still, I continued to watch films. I developed solitary interests, like drawing and collecting comics. The first book I remember enjoying was The Secret Garden, when I was ten-years-old. I responded to Mary’s loneliness. I longed for the kind of companionship she found with Colin and Dickon.

As a high school sophomore, I wrote a love poem inspired by a male freshman named Alex. Alex didn’t know who I was, but I occasionally passed him in the hall and we took the same subway to school. I learned his name by eavesdropping on his conversations with friends. The poem was an assignment for class. Being closeted, I used the pronoun “you” instead of “him.” Nonetheless, expressing my hidden desires felt liberating. I wrote other poems to Alex, for myself, not for class. Alas, I graduated high school without ever speaking to him.

College was a turbulent time. I came out. My shyness faded. Yet, I faced several personal ordeals. In moments of both exhilaration and anguish, I turned to writing to process my emotions. Ultimately, I lost interest in my studies. I preferred spending my evenings composing poetry and short fiction. I didn’t care that my grades suffered. Writing gratified me in a way nothing else could. It was healing.

The first author I was ever enamored with was Toni Morrison. I read Beloved during the summer after my freshman year at college. I was drawn to the haunted, damaged characters. I admired her use of fantastical elements to deepen the emotional impact, rather than for the sake of escapism. If ever there was a book halfway between A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Secret Garden, it’s Beloved. I quickly devoured all of her works. I dreamt of one day writing something as dark and beautiful as Song of Solomon, which I deemed her best novel.

My need to write, to turn my pain into art, led me to appreciate great writing. Aside from Toni Morrison, I came to idolize José Saramago, Kazuo Ishiguro, Louise Erdrich, Alice McDermott, James Baldwin, Elizabeth Strout, Lionel Shriver and Michael Cunningham, among others. I crave their voices, as if they are old friends. Without the sorrows I’ve experienced, I wouldn’t have this love of literature, so it’s hard to have any regrets.