Childhood and Storyworlds in an African City

For the Books Combined blog, we asked authors to write about the books that had a significant impact on their lives – whether personally, politically, or professionally. Over the course of the next few months we’ll be sharing posts from the Books Combined archives, including the books that have the ability to stop us in our tracks and make us feminists, life-changing books and – perhaps counter-intuitively for a publishing blog – the books not read.

Ato Quayson on the memorable stories of his childhood. (Originally published in 2015):

Ato Quayson

I grew up in Accra, the capital of Ghana, surrounded by books and lots of oral narratives.

My father was an avid reader of all things written. These included newspapers, Buddhist texts, novels, women’s magazines, refrigerator manuals, and Shakespeare. There was no knowing what he would be found reading next. This meant that reading became a natural part of the environment in which I and my two sisters grew up and also that our early reading was completely eclectic. I used to spend many secret afternoons after school in his bedroom rifling through his books and documents.

Stories also provided my father with opportunities for giving us memorable takes on what passed for the ordinary. One such instance I remember quite clearly happened when I was about eleven or twelve years old, just before leaving for boarding high school. He often took us on walks. Sometimes we all went together, but at other times he took one or the other of us three for a treat. This time it was my turn. We started kicking a stone. He kicked it, and I kicked it; he kicked it, and I kicked it. After about ten minutes of this he asked me, quite unexpectedly, ‘How old do you think that little stone is?’ I was taken completely by surprise, having never thought of a stone in that way before. But then followed the most breathtaking story of the formation of the earth, of volcanoes and avalanches, of magna and igneous rocks. The lesson: every stone you kick has come a very long way, both geographically and in terms of time. I have never looked at a stone in the same way since.

My mother also had stories to tell, but hers were those of the marketplace: rumours, gossip, and urban legends all generously leavened with great humour. Story genres that I came to discover much later in life were the transactional currencies of the city’s social imaginary. The context of stories and storytelling in which I grew up came not only to have a huge impact on my imagination, but also on my appetite for books and how I read them. There was no distinction growing up between fact and fiction; everything I read seemed to have a specific reality for me, which was sometimes quite intense. I didn’t actually learn how to read properly until I was around 8 years cold, but once I could read by myself I began to devour everything that I could find, including all my father’s many books, as I have already mentioned.

The children’s library about a mile-and-a-half from where we lived at Kaneshie became my favorite place. I quickly exhausted their holdings, and moved on to the Public Library in Accra’s city center. Then followed the British Council Library, one of whose attractions was that it had permanently running air conditioning. My high school was some sixty miles outside of Accra, and once I had rapidly exhausted my two exeats a term to get to the libraries, I just proceeded to sneak out of school and spend entire days in either one of them, shuffling my meagre borrowing rights so that I always had a couple of books with me at school.

Thus my reading proceeded apace, guided more by curiosity and serendipity than any organized process of discovery. And so my teenage years were marked by a series of memorable titles: Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte CristoChinua Achebe’s Things Fall ApartPeter Ustinov’s Dear MeArthur Koestler’s The Act of CreationRalph L. Woods’ Treasury of the Familiarand Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude were some of the books that I returned to several times during my teenage years. And then, at age 16 or 17 I found a dusty volume at the Central Library that said mischievously on its spine: “The Interpretation of Dreams” by Sigmund Freud. The interpretation of dreams, I said to myself. That should be interesting. So I took it down.

There was a context for my interest in poetry at that time. During my high school days, my best friend Jeeba was also an avid reader. He happened also to be a poet and a rebel. A year older than me and in the grade above mine, I considered him the most brilliant person in the world. This included all my teachers. Jeeba and I used to run away from school regularly on Tuesdays to the beach that was not far from our school, not to swim or anything like that but just to sit on the beach, eat bananas and tinned sardines (still an object of great nostalgia for me to this day), and read poetry. An incredible amount of lyric poetry that we would then try to both memorize and analyze. The meanings of poetry somehow always seemed to elude me and I was frequently lost for words.

This was until I encountered Freud. The entire Freudian apparatus of manifest and latent dream content, superego, ego, and id, the inter-psychic transfer of valences between elements and levels, and the overall transformation of signification, was perfect for interpreting poetry. And this is what I proceeded to do, more and more adroitly in my escapades with Jeeba, and then with complete confidence as I grew older. By the time I went to University I fancied myself a highly-sophisticated poetry critic. This, alas was not to last, as my interests shifted more and more toward prose narrative, which is where I draw the bulk of my inspiration from today. But the enchantment has never left me. I take completely seriously what the Bard said:

I had spent so much time at the Central Library by then that the librarians were happy to let me take out books without stamping them, knowing very well that I was so hungry for more books that I would bring them back. This was not the case with Freud. I read the book three times from cover-to-cover and returned it only after what seemed like six months but must have been barely two weeks. I could not read anything else while I had The Interpretation of Dreams. I proceeded, without even being fully aware of it, of interpreting dreams for my friends in what I thought to be the true Freudian manner. There was sex lurking in every manifest dream content, I opined seriously. And my own dreams became multiple and most vivid. I read The Interpretation of Dreams another three times by the time I was 25, but for some reason have never managed to go back to it again. This is not due to skepticism, far from it, but for a reason that did not become clear to me until very much later in my literary education. In brief, it was Freud that taught me how to read poetry.

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Ato Quayson is Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Strategic Transformations in Nigerian WritingCalibrations: Reading for the Social, and Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation, as well as editor of the two-volume Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature, coeditor of A Companion to Diaspora and Transnational Studies, and General Editor of the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry.