My Reading Habit and the PCA

Carol McCloskey

When I was young and growing up in the 70’s in the north of Ireland, a place very different from the Mediterranean south of France where I live and work today, I read novels and poetry to understand the world and people around me. I read eagerly, curious about how other people lived and survived.  In the sectarian environment of the Irish ‘troubles’ poetry and other literary self-expression was encouraged and a means of expressing not just of Irish nationalist sentiment but also thoughts, emotions and self-concepts that had no place elsewhere. This was a ‘culture of clamped speech’ as the poet Seamus Heaney said, ‘whatever you say say nothing’ so much emotional sterility but also, luckily, irrigated by a literary tradition reaching centuries back to the itinerant Celtic bards free to say what they saw and felt in ballad and song without social punishment or repercussion. These poets male, often blind, had the right to complete self-congruence and guaranteed trust and safety. I studied literature many years before I met Olga and Patrick Kaufmann who ran the PCA institute in France and then during my training I experienced the radical possibilities in relationships created by a climate of  warmth, self-congruence and non-judgmental listening. I remember well  how like many others in the group, part of my first reaction to the intensive training course was the release of a lot of sadness and grief.

Today I am a practicing therapist.  Recalling that Rogers said ‘ a philosophy is not something one adopts, it’s something one experiences ‘ then for me the access to others’ experience represented in novels and poetry remains a life-source for what I call my ‘sentient imagination’ By this I mean what links the the mind to the heart in a wealth of detail similar to the atom-shower of our everyday lives. An example I’d like to share is the novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

What still sticks months after reading ?  Cockroach eggs for one. The ‘smooth black capsules lodged in all corners of the table’ in the village where beautiful, privileged Olanna, daughter of the London educated Nigerian ruling classes goes to visit her beloved Aunt Ifeka and her cousins in the north. The peppery character of Odenigbo – Olanna’s irascible lover, a university revolutionary. ” The sense of their desire grown out of love and his thick, strong body, ‘not ugly’ she tells people ‘good looks come in different ways.’ Words from another language ‘kedu’ – how are you, but more than that – to give ‘kedu’ way of showing deference and affection to another person. Food too, split yams, stockfish, delicious jollof rice, cassava tubers. Kola nuts brought out as a reflex of hospitality. Vegetation; the cashew trees. Other habits – wearing high wigs like clothes or jewelry.

There are  images from “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which on publication, acquired their own renown in the literary press – that of a mother escaped from massacre carrying her child’s head in a basket is the most famous. Leaving these more commented aspects of the book aside, I can say that while I read I lived in another world, inside the sensations of another skin. I can’t remember who said ‘Creating a whole world’ was the sign of genius but this is what Adichie does for me and in the novel I step into a panoramic Tolstyan canvas starting with the timorousness and hunger of Odenigbo’s houseboy, Ugwu. She writes of erotic love, the living, true kind put to various tests of self-betrayal and sceleroses of the heart. There is the sign of a woman writing from the inside of female experience in the evocation of  a mother’s love for her child, a one unconditional. Like Tolstoy, Adichie is erudite, depicting a historical backdrop which is the tragic war of Biafran independence waged by the Igbo minority against Nigeria in the early sixties. The title ‘half-sun’ is from the emblem of nationhood on the ill-fated Biafran flag. This is the war which gave the world those first documented images of dying, bigheaded children by which in the west we had the illusion that we are so far from African experience. We weren’t – and we aren’t- Adichie makes gentle references to the massacres and bombardment of Hamburg during the world war two.

Adichie who lives between Lagos and Washington, shares her gift of moving in and out of two cultures. My pleasure in reading her work is how she has at her fingertips the words that create my understanding of what is it is to taste, to shiver or get drunk out of fear, or happiness in the other language. The novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ like  incarnates my differences and takes me beyond them. I believe that Adichie’s work is a reminder of the reality that just as war and political conflict can pick you up and set you down through no fault at all of your own, so this other person in front of me, could just as well be me.

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