Michaela Webb is a student at the University at Albany. She is from St. Catherine, Jamaica and lives in Middletown, New York.
Webb studies English and Journalism. Upon her graduation from the university she will go on to earn her master’s degree in education. She is interested in government, policy, literature and music.
A book had captured my soul
By Michaela Webb
The first gift I ever received was a collection of fairytales. There were 12 books in total. They were small; no bigger than my grandmother’s palms. The stories were brief, and their words were elementary, but I was enthralled. Above the words were pictures that captivated me.
No matter how many times I read these stories, I was enamored. I knew the stories by heart, and I’d seen the same images dozens of times, but each time I read those fairytales I felt the same excitement. I felt that same hope. When I held those books, I felt as if I held the world in palms of my hands. As I read the stories my heart raced, and my mind wandered. The pages gave me only glimpses. I could see Cinderella transforming and making her grand entrance to the ball. I could see Belle and the beast dancing together.
As I grew older my mind made movies. I doubted Cinderella’s love for the prince. They hadn’t known each other long. Feelings can be fickle if they don’t have sufficient time to develop. I doubted the sanctity of Belle’s relationship with the beast. They fell in love, but she was still his prisoner. There was a power imbalance between them. I hypothesized what happened after the happily every after. I wasn’t sure they lived happily.
"Aristotle and Dante: Discover the Secrets of the Universe" and author Benjamin Alire Saenz.
Life taught me that I couldn’t overcome all my obstacles. Good people didn’t always win. Bad people often went unpunished. In fact, humans were complicated; labels such as good and bad weren’t sufficient. Problems didn’t always get a neat conclusion; people may struggle with the same issue for a long time.
I don’t read fairytales anymore, but I’ll always love them. Fairytales are my youth. They gave me comfort when I had no one. They made the choices that children face manageable. Life was simpler because I knew that none of my problems would last forever. My childhood had darkness, but I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. They taught me that life had stages and I was only getting started. They equipped me with determination to fight battles. I became insightful. I learned that each story had various sides. Right and wrong was often subjective. It was essential to be open and understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings. I learned was that I mattered. My life is also a story. I am not a princess and my problems won’t be solved by a prince storming in and saving me, but I am the main character of my own story. I am powerful.
It was my freshman year of college. High school had taken a toll on me. Those four years left me exhausted and jaded. I lost my fighting spirit and the ferocious will that defined my youth was gone. I didn’t dream of being that bright and giddy young girl I used to be. As a child, I held my head high. When I walked my feet stood firmly on the ground. I went where I wanted, and I budged for no one. My words were clear and loud. I feared no one (with the exception of my fourth-grade Catholic school teacher who would hit me every time I performed poorly in class). My memories painted me as someone who used to shine. When I compared myself to my past self, I had changed for the worse; I was dull and worn-out.
That November for my 18th birthday my roommate bought me a young adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. She chose it because of its aesthetically pleasing cover and compelling title. I hadn’t read a book in months; my classes and new acquaintances kept me occupied. I was majoring in Biology; the work was complicated and boring. The people that I hung out with felt more like placeholder friends than lifelong friends. I was drinking, partying and doing things that wholesome girls didn’t do. I thought I would feel free, but I was miserable. I felt like I was wasting time. College wasn’t what I thought it would be; It wasn’t much better than high school. At least in high school I knew my place. In college, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t know where I was going. I was completely lost.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe established YA as my favorite genre. It was a book of many firsts. It was the first time I ever received a gift from a friend. It was the first time I cried while reading a book. It was the first book I read with a Mexican-American protagonist. It was the first book I read with a gay protagonist. It was the first time I felt a sense of relief since college.
I enjoy reading, and I usually connect with the protagonists and empathize with their struggles, but that was the first time that a book had captured my soul. I was poised, excited, devastated and overjoyed.
I felt represented. It wasn’t my first time reading a book with people of color as the main characters. I read Octavia Butler’s Kindred some time before. It was refreshing having a black woman as the main character, but it was even more meaningful reading a book by a black female author. When I read Kindred, I knew that people like me were also capable of creating great work.
The representation that I felt while reading Benjamin Alire Saénz’s piece was different. The characters’ identities and voices spoke to me. I was attracted to YA novels because of their coming of age narratives. YA novels cover issues that many young people face. Like the white YA protagonist, I felt alone even amongst my friends. Like the white YA protagonist, the future scared me. Like the white YA protagonist, I didn’t know who I was. But that wasn’t my entire story. I had socio-economic issues that were a result of my race, class and nationality. I could see parts of myself in those YA characters, but there was always a barrier between me and them.
They were white, upper middle class and American; and I was black, working class and foreign. I never saw people like me depicted in YA. There weren’t any Asian protagonists who felt like outsiders. There weren’t any black protagonists who struggled between following their dreams and following their parents’ dreams. There weren’t any Arab protagonists who were distressed with their society and went on a journey to find where they belonged. There weren’t even any disabled protagonists who were raised in an oppressive regime and lead a revolt to overthrow their oppressors.
People like me were never properly portrayed—at least in the YA genre. We were always the sidekicks, the best friend, the comic relief or the stereotype. People like me were never depicted in the way that white protagonists were depicted—complicated and dynamic. Our lack of depiction told me that either society couldn’t fathom that young people of color also had problems or society didn’t think our issues were important enough to be shown.
Saénz’s storyline was simple. A hard-headed and introverted teen’s stagnant life is altered after he encounters an artistic and kind stranger. They form a strong friendship that spurs mutual growth and challenges their world views. Their friendship is tested and they both make a realization that changes the course of their relationship. The story was beautiful. It wasn’t complicated; It captivated me. What hooked me was the characters. I fell in love with both of the protagonists. They were young; their identities were just developing, but they both had strong senses of selves. They were both different from each other, but I saw myself in each one of them. Dante the young intellectual who loved books and his family. He was Mexican-American but often times he felt like a stranger in his own community. Ari, who was not as friendly as Dante but was just as earnest. Each day was the same; he longed for something more. His family was plagued by a past that he could not recall but it affected him immensely.
The characters had struggles that everyone can relate to, but also specific struggles that stem from their culture and social classes. What stood out to me was how true the characters were to themselves. They weren’t ashamed of their roots. They were open to new ideas. They were open to people. They made realizations that changed the way they saw themselves and the way they saw the world. They learned to love themselves. They recognized the power that they had, and they carved their own destinies. They weren’t concerned about the beliefs of the world; they just followed their own convictions.
When I finished the book, I bawled. I bawled because it was over, and I wanted more. I bawled because it was brief, but it gave me so much. The book was a reminder of concepts that I had long forgotten. I realized that I was in the dark. I became conscious of who I was and how I lived. Like Ari I was discontent with my life, and like Ari, I had to do something about it.
I didn’t wake up the next day and drastically change my life. I am a contemplative person. I don’t rush into anything because I don’t want to have any regrets. I had to figure out what I really wanted. I wanted my life to be different—better—but I had to ask myself how could I improve the quality of my life? My question then became, what would make me happy?
Writing makes me happy. I use my words to process my thoughts. I use my words to paint a picture of the world. When I’m writing my mind is clear and everything makes sense. When I’m writing whatever’s happening outside of the room is just noise. I’m grounded in the moment. I’m disconnected from the chaotic world.
I have three faces past, future, now, and I’m connected to each one of me. When I’m writing I know peace. My version of peace isn’t tranquility, it’s purpose.
Receiving those fairytales on my first birthday shaped me. My world view was configured because I embraced their values and rejected their blind idealism. I’m optimistic but grounded. I’m realistic, but I dare to dream. That YA novel made me realize that my eyes were closed. I became more introspective and perceptive. After some time, I forged my identity. I’m proud of my culture, my history, my gender, my race, my sexuality and my body. I’m no longer haunted by matters I can’t control. I focus on things that are within my reach. I dare to want more than the life I live. I’m walking towards an uncertain future, but I know I’ll get where I need to be. I’m cautious, but I’ve opened myself up to others. I see people as people; they no longer intimidate me. I’m comfortable with just me. I like who I am. I wouldn’t want to be anyone else.
I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe we are defined by a series of events throughout our lives. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t read the books that I read. The best gifts I’ve ever received were books. Books gave me the ability to see the world differently. They gave me the courage to live boldly and be my authentic self. I am me because I read.
Dedicated to my father, Michael Webb and my freshman year roommate A. Michel. Thank you.