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December 24, 2014

Priya Parmar: A Christmas Memory

Posted by emily

Priya Parmar’s latest novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER, is already topping the 2015 recommended reading lists. Set in the exhilarating days of prewar London, it tells the extraordinary tale of two gifted artists: Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf. But literary pursuits did not always come easy to Priya; as a young girl, she struggled to read. Here, she recounts the panic she felt each Christmas when she was presented with new books, as well as the wondrous relief at finally learning the notes.

My mother is one of those people who can just make things beautiful. She knows things. She knows to hang gold ornaments at the center of the tall bushy Christmas tree so that the whole tree is lit with a soft golden glow. She knows how to make the small acorn angel ornament face the front when for everyone else she stubbornly twists toward the back. She knows to put a clementine in the toe of our Christmas stockings to give it the right shape. She makes things warms and lovely. Christmas has always been about family, pajamas, chocolate, backgammon, apple pie, hot tea in fat cozy mugs, naps in front of the huge snapping fire, dogs, cats, kids, music and books. Always books. And for me, books meant anxiety, panic and the fear of being found out.

I learned to read late. Very late. My elementary school was starched, medieval and terrifying, and the pressure there was enormous. In my second grade class, the students were ranked according to ability on the blackboard for all to see. I was at the bottom. What no one knew was that I could not read. Too terrified to ask for help, I had learned to memorize rather than read. I could memorize anything. But when I picked up a book I did not know, I felt hot, lost and panicky. My parents worked with me and read to me. I would recite my memorizations back at them and pass it off as reading. I could even write the alphabet in cursive with a swishy tail on the "S", but I could not string the broken letters together into something fluid and musical. Trying to read was a secret staccato uphill march.

The summer before third grade, my parents sent me to a wonderful tutor who recognized what was wrong and helped. I stuttered and stumbled, and summer dropped into autumn, but eventually the notes turned into music and it happened. I could read.

That Christmas, my parents gave me books. Books in my stocking, books my mother wrapped in beautiful green and gold ribbons, books tucked under my pillow. A SECRET GARDEN, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, HEIDI and PIPPI LONGSTOCKING. Just like other Christmases, the house smelled like cinnamon and shortbread, and I lost to my brother at backgammon, but for the first year I was not anxious. I would not open a book on Christmas morning that I knew I would never read. And I spent the whole holiday curled up by the fire and feeling part of the music for the first time.