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Vicky Mochama on the Power of Books with Heroes that Look Like You

Columnist Vicky Mochama always thought of herself as Lydia from Pride and Prejudice—that is, until she found heroes in books that weren't taught in school

Writer Vicky Mochama talks about the importance of reading about characters from the same cultural context as you

(Photo credit: Eduardo Lima)

Before Samantha, Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte, I always thought myself a Lydia. Lydia Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, that is. In her I could see my own willful attitude and shameless antics. Jane Austen’s world was full of women of numerous varieties and personalities and since so many of the assigned books in school were about boys and their adventures, I took every opportunity to read and do school assignments on Austen’s novels.

Yet the books I loved most weren’t actually by Austen. As much as I enjoyed thinking about lavish balls and inheritances, I could only really identify with the parts about maddening mothers. The stories that actually reflected my life, novels that I knew I could never get away with in school, were brought to me by visiting or immigrating relatives in suitcases full of fabrics and cases of sharp teas.

They came with simple formulaic titles: Truphena Student Nurse, Truphena City Nurse, Anna the Air Hostess, Pamela the Probation Officer. I loved these books. Their premise was often simple: a young African—in my books, often Kenyans—embarking on a career.

For example, in Truphena Student Nurse, by Cynthia Hunter, our heroine is on a tour of villages to deliver basic medicine when a young boy is brought to her in dire need of help. Though inexperienced, Truphena immediately sees that the boy must be brought to the hospital, which is many miles away. The frantic journey to get the boy the care he needs inspires Truphena to become a nurse.

It’s a simple plot, but man, I was hooked. I read these books a lot. Many have moved cities with me in the same way they came to me: in suitcases surrounded by boxes of Kericho gold tea and fabrics with Swahili on them.

There is power in reading stories where the character looks like you, and even better, eats your food. Never in her vast output did an Austen character give their guests chai na mandazi [tea and fried sweet bread], which personally, I think are vastly more delicious than tea and crumpets. The complex interior lives of women that attracted me to Austen’s work was even stronger in these books. These women had professions; they lived challenging modern lives, and took on goals beyond securing a husband. I could more readily imagine myself in the world of Pamelas and Truphenas than Elizabeths and Elinors. Riding a carriage through Regent Park in the 1800s was my fantasy, but working a new job in the big city was my reality.

The reason I sought out these worlds on my own was because the Canadian school curriculum I was taught rarely included literature I could relate to. To read science fiction was George Orwell, not Octavia Butler. To study the great playwrights was to read Shakespeare, not Lorraine Hansberry. To fall in love with poetry was dreaming of Robert Frost, not Amiri Baraka.

By omission, the official school system tells black students that their stories don’t have value. Outside of Black History Month, it is rare to find black writers and artists being taught in classroom. The rich depths of blackness—as culture, as politics, as history, as the future—found in black literature can’t be treated like a brief stop on the academic calendar.

Black kids must be taught that their lives deserve attention and study because they too are worth being seen. I saw myself as Lydia, but in the end, I was Truphena.

Vicky Mochama is a national columnist with Metro News and was also the co-author of The Canadaland Guide to Canada.

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