Reading what the doctor ordered

28 August 2012 - 02:15 By Dawn Garisch
Dawn Garisch is a doctor and writer
Dawn Garisch is a doctor and writer

I read books before I could read. As a laatlammetjie toddler, I was left behind at home while my sisters went off to school and university.

Left out, I pulled books out of the book shelf, sat on the floor and ploughed through them.

I remember the art books - paintings of Mary and cherubs and the naked baby Jesus.

I was astonished to discover that boys were different down there. My mother asked me what I was doing. I proudly announced I had read all the books from the end to the beginning.

Perhaps to an extent I was copying my big sisters.

Determined, I insisted that my mother teach me to read. She helped me learn to spell by teaching me Scrabble, allowing me to build words off the board when I could not attach them to the grid. She even allowed bad spelling as I experimented with this mysterious art of turning things into letters. "Honey" I spelt HNE. My mother also taught me to recognise numbers by playing cards with me.

I worked with words obsessively, creating my own newspapers with deliciously shocking articles (Hippo bites woman in half), and writing rhyming poems, all before age eight.

I read voraciously; my favourite books were Alice in Wonderland, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Little Mermaid, Jenny, and Babar the Elephant. Books introduced me to lands, ideas and characters beyond my small world; they encouraged me to think big and boldly. Stories fed and excited me; words brought them to life.

While walking on the mountain last weekend with a friend who also loves words, I commented on this strange preoccupation with sound, meaning, and derivation.

"They are like pimples," she said. "They keep popping up in one's head."

During eight years in boarding school, books allowed me an escape from boredom and feelings of abandonment and imprisonment.

For years before my work was published, I wrote for the pleasure of it, to find out what I was feeling and thinking, to have a conversation with what I did not know. It was a way of taking a vague feeling, often of distress, sometimes of intense pleasure, and giving it shape in the world. Writing was Ariadne's thread, showing me the way back to myself.

Having children was a gift in many ways; one was rediscovering the joy of children's literature, both books from my childhood that I had loved and also more modern books, such as The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, A Wizard of Earthsea, Tristan and Isolde.

I read almost every night to my two sons until, at the age of about eight and 10, they begged me to stop so they could do their own reading.

My writing is an attempt to give something back to the rich pool of ideas and invention that has fed and sustained me.

  • Garisch is a doctor who writes, a poet who walks, a researcher who dances. Her novel, 'Trespass', was nominated for the Commonwealth Prize in Africa. Her new book 'Eloquent Body' allows the two streams of her life to converge

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