I Get By With a Little Help From My Books
Books were her safe haven amidst the multiple upheavals in her childhood. Now, Indonesian author Avianti creates books that help children deal with difficult situations or emotions. She recounts in this personal piece how books helped her escape to parallel worlds that were filled with fun and magic.
Books moved me from situations I did not want to be in into a world of fun, with tons of toys, full of adventure, mystery and magic.
I spent the early 12 years of my life moving from one city to another. Father’s job in the air force required our family to move every three years to a different air base. Every time we moved, I was uprooted from the things and environment I was familiar with. And every time, I had to adapt to a new situation that was different, odd to me, and almost always scary.
I certainly cannot vividly remember what I experienced in those early years of my life. Only flashes of nostalgia about my first house in Jakarta that never fails to give me warm feelings; the field on the side of the house where I usually played, the kindergarten school teacher who always picked me up on her way to work even though I was only three years old at that time, not old enough to enrol at her school; gulping down free rationed green bean porridge along with other children at that school, my uncle who liked to take me riding on his motorbike in the afternoon, my neighbourhood’s friends who usually came to play with dolls, and my aunts who visit our house twice a week. I'm sure I remember that I felt happy, protected, and safe.
From that kind of environment, our family had to move to another city following my father’s new assignment, to another air base in Makassar, about 1434 kilometres from my hometown. All of a sudden, I could no longer meet the kindergarten teacher who picked me up every morning. All of a sudden, I would not be able to see my friends and my aunts and uncles for who knows how long. All of a sudden, I could no longer play in my favourite green field nearby. All of a sudden, I lost what I could and used to call home.
In the new air base, in the new city, we had a bigger house, bigger rooms, but no bed with the smell I know so well. We had a larger sitting room, but my aunts and uncles would not come visit due to the distance. We had a bigger yard, but my friends weren't there. There were neighbourhood kids. But I did not know how to talk to them and play with them. I was afraid of them. And it seemed like they were afraid of me too because they just stared at me from afar, then went out to play without asking me to come along. In those moments, I felt helpless and alone and lonely and confused and did not know how to react to these new situations.
Books gave me a door to get away for a while and forget about my problems.
Then my mother introduced me to books and children’s magazines. She did not read me bedtime stories. I have two younger siblings who were enough of a hassle for her and took up a lot of her time and energy, but she taught me how to read at a very early age. In my loneliness and solitude, books became my friends. I devoured everything in an instant. Not just the children’s books and magazines that my mother bought, but all forms of written text we had at home: pamphlets, church weekly magazines, labels on food and medicine packages, and newspapers. Often, my mother had to hide the newspapers from me because not all of the news was suitable for children. I once surprised her when I asked: “Mom, what does it mean to be raped?”
After three years in Makassar, our family moved again to Solo in Central Java. Three years later, we moved back to Jakarta, to the house where I was born, before moving again – although still in the same city – to a house in the air force housing complex, about 12.5 kilometres away. Each time, the same situations and feelings repeated themselves: I was cut off from the things and environments I was familiar with. And each time, I had to adapt to a new situation that was different, odd to me, and almost always scary.
Looking back on those days, I am grateful that my mother gave me the books. Whenever I missed my friends and felt lonely, I read a book. Whenever I felt alienated and scared in a new environment, I read a book. Books moved me from situations I did not want to be in into a world of fun, with tons of toys, full of adventure, mystery and magic. Books gave me a door to get away for a while and forget about my problems. Of course, I could not run away from them. But reading a book never fails to put me in a better mood with better feelings afterward, enough to face my problems a little bit more confidently.
At that age, did I have the wisdom to take lessons from every story I read? How could Cinderella endure the evil of her stepmother and two stepsisters? What about Belle’s willingness to sacrifice herself to save her father? What value can I learn from Ariel’s unfortunate love story or the passivity of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty who waited for the kisses of their true loves? I do believe so, although not in the “moral of the story” format which is usually concluded at the end of each story.
Apart from the reflections that may occur unconsciously and infiltrate my consciousness, and contribute to nurturing my understanding and the eventual building of emotional and mental resilience within myself in the face of crises or difficult situations, books have always been able to provide a comfortable escape. Books gave me a safe space to hide from fear, confusion, loneliness, and sadness. Books also set aside time for me to heal. People always say, “time will heal”. Yes. But how we manage to go through time is the most important thing. Some people get by with a little help from their friends. Some others with their pets. I get by with a little help from my books.
Avianti Armand is a curator and writer. Her short story, Once Upon a Time There was Mother and Radian, was awarded the Kompas Best Short Story in 2009. Her collection of poems Women Whose Names were Erased won the Kusala Katulistiwa Award in 2011. She is a member of the Literary Committee of the Jakarta Arts Council and has published three illustrated children’s story books which help children deal with difficult situations.