Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Why I Read by Bongani Kona

Bongani Kona, photo courtesy of the Caine Prize

In December 1999, as their final act before the turn of the millennium, TIME magazine published a special issue profiling the hundred most influential people of the 20th Century. I remember casually paging through the issue and being drawn by the brief entry on Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who invented television. What really caught my interest was not the entry itself – Farnsworth died in relative obscurity, dogged by lawsuits and in debt – but the caption that ran underneath the photograph, of a man sitting with his back turned to the camera, in a room surrounded by screens. It said Farnsworth was unhappy with what he saw, even before 500 channels.
Perhaps because I was going through puberty and its attendant flux of emotion – I was fourteen that year – I felt a sense of kinship with Farnsworth. I could relate to that difficult-to-explain unhappiness, even as a teenager growing up in Harare. In hindsight, the reason I’ve never forgotten that episode is because I understood for the first time something I’d always felt but had been unable to name; what it means to be alone.  
I’m trying to explain to you, in so few words, why I was drawn so much to the world of books. Reading made me feel less estranged from the world. My favourite scene in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is when Holden Caulfield goes to visit Mr. Antolini and he says to him: “Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them – if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.”

In short, reading has been my way of connecting with the world. My way of understanding what it means to be human. I can’t offer an equally coherent explanation for why I write. Writing is difficult and it’s the only line of work I know of where you’re guaranteed to fail more times than you succeed and there have been times when I’ve given up. The only reason I keep going is because I want to give to someone else what books have given to me. A way out of loneliness.

Zimbabwean writer Bongani Kona was shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing with his short story 'At your Requiem'. The story is published in the 2016 Caine Prize anthology The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things, published by amaBooks in Zimbabwe, New Internationalist in the UK, Jacana Media in South Africa, Interlink Books in Nigeria, Kwani? in Kenya, Sub-Saharan Publishers in Ghana, Gadsden Books in Zambia, Femrite in Uganda and Langaa in Cameroon. 'At your Requiem' was first published in South Africa by Burnet Media in Incredible Journey: Stories That Move You.
Bongani is a freelance writer and contributing editor of Chimurenga. His writing has appeared in Mail & Guardian, Rolling Stone (South Africa), Sunday Times and other publications and websites. He is also enrolled as a Masters student in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Cape Town. 

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