Island Reading: Not Your Average Beachside Relaxation

I’m assuming you’re familiar with the concept of being ‘trapped in an island.’ Whenever people think of this occurrence, they’ll populate their hypothetical islands with classic palm trees, coconuts, and some savage wilderness to legitimize their odyssey. These perilous islands are usually invoked when we find ourselves on a plane or a cruise and begin to wonder what would happen if we couldn’t reach our destination.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started feeling like my island was too small for me, but I guess “right after exiting the womb,” is as good a reference point as any.

In many ways, being trapped in an island is a safe harbor, at least compared to being devoured by sharks or being roasted by jet fumes. But as an actual islander native of Dominican Republic, I can tell you that, despite the fact that we have avenues and malls and airports, there is a certain desolation that comes from being surrounded by water.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started feeling like my island was too small for me, but I guess “right after exiting the womb,” is as good a reference point as any. With this I don’t mean to say islands don’t hold stories or that Caribbean folklore escapes me. Islands, especially one that saw great events—like the spread of measles and the exploitation of African and Indigenous slaves—are indeed cornucopias of magical narratives that any writer would be lucky to delve into.

But I think the real power of islands resides in the fact that they expose you to their own limitations. This is a bold statement when you consider Dominican Republic has long been coveted due to its strategic location. But there is something vile about being raised somewhere that makes you feel excommunicated from global happenings. “FOMO” should be the motto of every islander in history.

But I think the real power of islands resides in the fact that they expose you to their own limitations.

Islands, as stepping stones of the sea, are spectators of innumerable journeys. And none of those journeys belonged to me. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that I developed an escapist love for books at a young age. After all, books were the only mode of transportation I could afford as, say, an eight-year-old.

Bitter about my surroundings, I started reading voraciously and engaging in some deep internalizing of the travels and adventures of fictional characters. I was a geisha in Japan, a queen in Spain, a nomadic ranch worker in California, and even part of the crew of seamen who believed they had found the New World. All this to once again look out my bedroom window and find the same street with the same buildings staring back at me as I stood there in defeat.

Even as a hater, I was still a beach reader. I would open my copy of Love in the Time of Cholera feeling—I’ll admit—like I was better than everyone. I’d make the most of our forced family trips to behold the immense ocean than kept me from whatever was “over there.” As an act of rebellion, I would connect my brain to the apparatus of literature and float into another time and space. This was all fun and games until I realized travelers read books by our shores, too. It was a fabulous thing to do, apparently, and they called it “beach reading.”

At the end of the day, reality would always set in the minute I reached the final period of a book. But I lived for the high of the trip.

A life crisis bubbled up, and the reading pile multiplied. I was going to out-read the travelers, a plan that would have worked fabulously, had I not had a second epiphany.

It didn’t matter if I read five million books, if I managed to replaced countless hours of my entrapped youth with courtesan dramas and jousting matches. At the end of the day, reality would always set in the minute I reached the final period of a book. But I lived for the high of the trip. And thus, when reading wasn’t enough, when I wasn’t finding the right stories, when my brain could no longer accept foreign anecdotes, I turned to writing.

My own writing had the unique power of creating storylines that were exclusively mine. At least until I allowed somebody else to read them. But it wasn’t a torturous deliriousness like those of books. There needn’t be a final point. A stranger’s name wasn’t claiming authorship of the contents. This malleable matter was the real liberator of my teenage angst, of the shackles of my islander condition. It also came with an added feature: a sense of pride.

My understanding of the world, thanks to the stepping stone of a home I had, had taught me that there was something in movement.

I felt a new kind of power when I opened my notebook by the beach and began writing stories that had nothing to do with sand or palm trees. There was merit in the euphoria I now felt, and nobody else was writing—at least at the time—by our shores. The important thing was that, even if they did, it didn’t matter because nobody else had my story. And just like every other life plan I’ve ever developed, this one worked. For a while. Until other things like negativity, expectations, standards, and doubts arrived.

These forces did change what I saw out my window. They made things gloomier, amped up the sense of urgency, and eventually found me on a plane. I knew then that the stories I wanted to write, read, and experience were still out there. My understanding of the world, thanks to the stepping stone of a home I had, had taught me that there was something in movement.

I had spent so much energy trying to recreate what I couldn’t grasp, that I forgot I actually could. I wasn’t eight years old anymore. I could go to college abroad and do things with my life. And while I’m not of the school of thought that needs to “experience” in order to write, I needed experience to grow as a person. I needed to see for myself what was on the other side, so that I could, as Eliot once said, “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

What is certain is that the global literary canon is revered by anyone who ever finds their way to it. And for good reasons.

Now that I’m older, and have been living outside of Santo Domingo for almost half a decade, I look back more fondly at my island reading. I realize that it is much easier to get lost in your own traditions when you live in a big country. Living in the States, I’ve noticed that for those whose range of stories went from cowboys to flappers, college was the first opportunity to become conscious of their own frontiers.

What is certain is that the global literary canon is revered by anyone who ever finds their way to it. And for good reasons. Reading is traveling. Reading is acquiring knowledge we wouldn’t otherwise have. Reading is gaining experience without being physically present. These are all statements we’ve heard, usually from the mouths of desperate literature teachers looking to engage their class with the texts at hand. Yet, if you think of every book you read as part of the raft that is carrying you out of your island—your island being the limitations of your own mind—then maybe you’ll be able to conceptualize these ideas.

Because I wasn’t the only Dominican who was hyper-aware of our nature-imposed excommunication, everything we as a society ever did was try to overcompensate. Our school curriculums doubled up on complying with European, North American, and South American standards of learning, especially when it came to literary canons. Our TVs broadcasted every major Latin American channel, everything from CBS to HBO, Spanish networks, and British networks. We inundated supermarkets with all kinds of imported goods from every corner of the world. And what is worse is that, even though we did so in record time for our means, we didn’t think much of it.

Maybe a connection between my voracious reading and a country-wide desire to “be in the loop” is far-fetched, but I believe in it. I also think that when our personal bubbles break, there is nothing we can do but become insatiable acquirers of foreign knowledge. And once this cycle starts for you, you can never again “relax” with your beach reading, or even your beach writing, because amassing all the knowledge in the world is as unattainable a goal as reaching the ever distant horizon. But boy, is that view something.

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