Texts That Made Me: Veronica Barnsley

My reading has always been eclectic. In one of those school aptitude tests I was told my intellectual talents take the form of an edible plant – I never unpacked this vague simile but maybe my mind is a strawberry putting out suckers in many directions.

My family had no TV until I was in my teens and being read to was my favourite thing. The first book I remember was The Maggie B, which featured a ramshackle boat inhabited by a little girl, an old lady and a collection of animals. It had the cosiest bedroom you could imagine because it had a porthole. My school was ‘alternative’ and we read a lot of myths and had no homework – I particularly loved Myths of the Norsemen. At home I read the classics (Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden etc.) and all sorts of proto-feminist trash (anyone remember Nancy Drew?), as well as horror (Stephen King and Virginia Andrews mainly) and the Victorians (the Brontës, of course).

At university I developed an admiration for the Renaissance poets – I’ll never forget the line from Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’, ‘Stumbling on melons, I fall on grass’, and my boyfriend bought me an early edition of Robert Herrick’s poems. I also discovered an antipathy for Milton that I’ve never got over, and a wish to study texts from other places, sometimes pretentiously known as ‘world literature’. The first I read of these was probably Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, stories that proliferate with odd powers.

Texts That Made Veronica

I moved house recently and before dismantling my unstable bedside book pile I took a quick picture – it was hard to resist the urge to give it the Instagram treatment! This is really what was there and kind of confirms my inability to specialise. If I was to categorise these texts they might look like this:

  • Worthy reading: in this case Freud (I find him hard but decided I had to tackle ‘On Narcissism’ for a paper I’m writing); Derrida, who I’ve been unprogrammatically dipping into having been told by a patronising (male) academic that ‘Margins of Philosophy’ is all I need for analysing the child, which is one of my research interests. Jacques Rancierre features too, though he’s been sent to the office now as he’s impossible in bed.
  • Postcolonial fiction: Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John (novel about Islamic extremism in Nigeria); Elegy for Easterley by Petina Gappa (fantastic short story collection from Zimbabwe); Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (child soldier novel made into a film in 2015); Aya of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet (graphic novel about growing up in Cote d’Ivore that my 9 year old loves; I can thank her for opening up the world of graphic fiction to me – there’s load out there for girls who want action, particularly a series called Lumberjanes about an all-girl gang and their animal pals.)
  • Other fiction – Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (re-reading for first year module I teach); Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (feisty 60s feminists); Anakana Schofield’s Martin John (I subscribe to And Other Stories and this is one of their offerings, haven’t read it yet); William Gay’s Provinces of Night (I love Southern Gothic); Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal (a YA book about a trans character highly recommended by my 13 year old); Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes (dour and haunting Irish novel that I read for a book club). There was Proust too, which I do love but had to sacrifice to hold up the leg of the bedside table.
  • Non-fiction: a book on Syria that I’m hoping will inform a writing project; The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu which I read on holiday, it’s a thrilling tale about trying to save an ancient library from religious extremists and termites.
  • Memoir(?): Maggie Nelson’s recently published The Argonauts is unclassifiable: a variegated and joyful mix of a personal account of relationships with her partner (known as a man but in the process of ‘becoming’ a woman) and child; a conversation with philosophers and feminists who help her think through sexuality, birth, aging; and an exploration of her creative life as a poet. I’m keen to add this one to our MA course on Memory and Narrative and I’ll be getting hold of her other books too.

Veronica Barnsley

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