I wasn’t a reader until I became one. I mean, I have been a reader since forever, since I was a teeny wee of a child, always with a book in my hands. I read, but I didn’t see myself as a reader, not till much later. I read only what I liked – naturally, specifically – and it didn’t occur to me that reading and being a reader was two very distinct things, one an act and a skill, and the other a role and a persona. Learning to read was one thing, but being a reader was something I had to grow into.
How then did I become a reader? When did I know I was a reader? I could point to several ages of my life, and every age would be, could be, the point when I grew into my being as a reader. But let’s go with the year, 1992, when I was fifteen, living with my family in Ang Mo Kio, an old housing estate in Singapore. And let’s begin at the second-hand book stall that I used to frequent as a teenager.
The book stall – it didn’t qualify as a bookshop, it was too small and dingy – was situated in a row of stalls beside the food centre where I had breakfast with my family on weekends. The front of the stall was stacked with hills of books that crested and spilled into the narrow confines of the U-shaped space. It was lorded over by a plump scowling middle-aged woman with an encyclopedic knowledge, it seemed, of every book she had in her stall. I’d scan the spines and titles furtively whenever I was there, conscious of her constant stare.
It was at this book stall that I found my first gay book. No, not found, but discovered, for it felt like something that landed serendipitously in my hands, a gift and a weapon, a fount of secret knowledge, something born out of the unknown. What book was it? It could have been Paul Monette’s Afterlife, or Neil Bartlett’s Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall – it could have been either, or something else entirely. There, at the very bottom of a stack, tucked out of sight, where the covers scraped the filthy floor, were these books. And there, on the back covers, as I carefully read every word, were the words I didn’t know I needed until I read them. A secret . . . pretended to be the same as everyone else . . . to come out . . . a gay. I noted the prices on the front inside page of each book – all the same – and put them back neatly, spines aligned, nothing out of place.
For the next few weeks, I saved up and returned to buy these books. Some of the books would be gone by then, but others would take their place. When I made my selection – how did I ever make a choice on which book to choose: was it the cover, the alchemy of marketing copy and blurbs, or the surreptitious glances at certain passages inside that swayed my decision? – I would walk up to the stall-owner, with the exact amount of money in my fist, face burning, my insides a sickening churn of nerves, and wait for her to check the price and hand the book over to me, refusing to meet her scrutinising, censorious glare.
Of all the books that I devoured that year, the one that had stuck in my mind is Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. The protagonist is a teenage boy growing up in the 1950s in the Midwest, floundering his way through adolescence and his nascent sexuality. Deeply alienated, he often has to turn inwards, to his imagination, to find relief, to make sense of the world around him. In him, the unnamed narrator, I instantly found a double and an alibi, someone who I could see and identify with, in ways that go beyond the visible and tangible. The indelible stain of loneliness that permeates his existence – how terribly lonely it is to be stuck in a particular body, one seething ceaselessly with such wants, such unbearable yearning, with no end or release in sight – is something I feel deep in my own bones, a marrow that goes through all that I am. In him, I see myself, stark and queer and real, quivering with everything that makes me, me.
It’s in this novel, and the others I read that year, that I learned to see who and what I was. These books were a mirror and a light, allowing me to take a closer look at what was out there in the world, and to bring that knowledge back into my own life. I read not only for pleasure – and there are many pleasures to be found in these books: the sex, the couplings, the heated flesh, spilling over the pages – but for something more, something that would take me out of myself and put me into many other selves, into other worlds that are not my own, but nonetheless, reside in some essential part of me, that speak to the core of who I am.
In every aspect, I could not have been more different than any character in these books, and yet, in every other aspect, I’m very much any character on these pages, pining for another person, another body, a man’s, waiting to be loved, to be lusted after, to want, to need, to crave. The word is flesh, made flesh, unto me, as I read.
To read, then and now, is to live, and so it is.
Image, public domain