By Kyla-Jayne Rajah
As an avid reader, I choose books I feel drawn to. Sometimes the topic sounds interesting, the first two pages of chapter one draws me in, or the characters’ journeys seem relevant. These books are often good, but are not usually on the same level as those 'other' books.
Do you know those 'other' books?
They're the ones that fortuitously fall into your hands at certain times, as if appearing out of nowhere, because, yes, they were created exactly for your crossroads moment.
That’s what they are to me. The Power of One by Bryce Courtney has been one of those books in my life.
In my early 20s, I was preparing for my first overseas adventure. Going from New Zealand to England—the Mother Country and my mother’s birth country, I was full of fearlessness and excited/nervous energy. Compared to the short mental distance it is today, this great foreign land felt to be on a whole other planet.
During the lead up to my departure, while I practised packing 59 times a day, I voraciously consumed The Power of One.
The main protagonist in the book, Peekay, wasn't difficult to sympathise with. While he fell victim to the racial circumstances of an era, he didn't present as victimised. Rather the opposite shone through the author's deft characterisations of this young boy who would became an inspiration.
For those unaware of the story, here is a short recap of the sense of place. The story is set in South Africa during the time of Apartheid when extreme racism prevailed alongside cruelty and violence. People of colour were legally and regularly discriminated against, while other ethnicities were treated with prejudice.
Many humans suffered during this time at the hands of heinous bullies deemed superior. Within Peekay's immediate environment at the conservative Afrikaans boarding school, he was bullied, and I think, traumatised too, by the treatment from the older Afrikaans boys.
The depths of Peekay's pain must've been cutting; however, I take some comfort knowing from a fiction writer's perspective that this kind of atmospheric setting is a great lever for meaningful characterisation. An integral part of Peekay's character was formed during his time at boarding school. It was here he learnt how essential it was to rely on and listen to his inner self.
The medicine man who cured his bed-wetting problem showed him how to visualise, which not only helped him escape the everyday invalidation, but also sharpened what would became his secret weapon. Peekay became a master fighter in the boxing ring and he put this down to being in tune with both his mind and intuition.
As a gifted and sharp learner, he found a sense of mastery in boxing. He learnt how to camouflage himself for the sake of survival, later suggesting he became what those around him wanted him to be, which presented him as an incredible success.
He'd found his niche. He'd found that external outlet where he could physically channel his strengths while turning 'his childhood trauma into a succession of conquests'. He was always capable of overcoming, and he did. He emerged from an oppressive environment like a phoenix, with strength, courage, determination and focus.
You could say, from a writer's perspective, the coherence between setting, plot and character development met congruently to create a real-to-life character. I believe the masterful characterisation was helped by those early years of shame and humiliation, which prepared Peekay to be a champion.
Encounters in life do affect each of us differently depending on various aspects from, personality to temperament, DNA to environment. What can be life-changing for one may be no big deal to another. Back in my early 20s, when my life experience was limited, Peekay the hereo became a symbol of hope for me.
Looking back, I could possibly pin some of the responsibility for my own decisions on Peekay and his story. Being an emotional reader, it wasn't hard to fall in love with the idea of South Africa and feel deep compassion for Peekay.
The Power of One planted a seed in my heart, which altered the course of my life for the better. Joining the dots, now, I realise if I'd never meet Peekay, I may never have been drawn to the English South African boy who became my friend and travel companion while I lived and worked in my mother's country.
Together, we travelled continents, perhaps as soul companions opening one another's eyes to the musicality of both Africa and Europe - its trails and errors, riches and losses, sufferings and over-comings. Experiencing the world with this friend opened me up to find my own way in the world, even if it meant I too would walk through Dante's fire to find, for myself, the things that matter most.
On all accounts, The Power of One was a powerful influence in my life. I needed Peekay. He was helpful to me, when after returning from my travels, I came to understand what he and other strong, brave characters feel like when humiliated by circumstances outside their control.
Peekay became someone I could identify with. A character, no less, in a semi-autobiographical story who wouldn't have been there if Bryce Courtney hadn't fictionalised his own faultlines.
How profound to me it is, that strongly imagined, well-crafted, dutiful characterisation presents hereos who do bring hope to others. There is purpose in our writing.
I feel that precise characterisation is one reason why, as readers, we become so emotionally caught up and involved in our heroes. Fully imagined characters are important, especially when book heroes have the potential to become role-models of outstanding strength assisting some of us in our real worlds.
For it was only when I encountered grief, coupled with loss of innocence that Peekay returned with fire. His character, alive in my memory, reminded me to stay strong, to find my 8 punch combination. And I did, alongwith a new friend, irrespective of his imaginary status.
In fact, how true it seems that life in fiction is not dissimilar to reality. Peekay grew up in a painful environment full of racially charged debasement and oppression, and he was shaped in relation to that. Yet, he didn't become a bitter, hard, revengeful person; on the contrary, he was a humanitarian and an intuitive athlete.
My point is that without this environment, without this specific racially tenacious sense of place, Peekay may never have had the opportunity to become a champion boxer - a winner in the ring when he'd been bullied outside of it.
I believe, like regrowth after a fire, Peekay's external crisis is what shaped him - moved him on to experience the power of divine growth, empowered him to manifest the fruit of internal labours.
I can relate to that. It is now unsurprising to me that when change recently came into my life again, Peekay returned.
Yes. The Power of One fell once more into my hands. This time I read the book from a writer's point of view, asking each chapter to show me how it's done. And I was shown, along with how strong I am.
I also noticed, in the latter reading, that by the end of The Power of One, Peekay hadn't realised his goal to be the welterweight champion of the world. Although, I knew he would reach his pinnacle for stamina and adapatation had been written into his character from the beginning.
As it is with us.
We all have access to stamina, strength, resources, and intuitive support. Whatever we ask for we can possess. For even when we walk through the passes of loss, suffering, trauma and angst, I'm a firm believer that 'it is in the quiet crucible of [our] personal, private sufferings that [our] noblest dreams are born and God's greatest gifts are given in compensation for what [we've] been through.'
And for that, I am profoundly grateful because the substance of our character is always shaped beautifull in the most challenging of settings.
"Some days enlighten our understanding of the world without, and within." - KJ Rajah
Many years ago, I lived in a doer-upper cottage that backed on to Belmont Regional Park. We owned a ¼ acre property, plentiful in native plants and trees. This meant visiting Kereru (the New Zealand Pigeon) would land regularly in one of our plum trees to sup on the delicious fruit.
We also had a few trees that attracted Tui—the bird whose voice and song is an, almost, existential experience. Our garden was full of green, lush, grass and I swear one day I actually saw a picture book illustration come alive: a common thrush pulled a worm from the ground, and then flew away.
This was the yard I stepped into the day the butterfly spoke to me. It was a day not unlike any other. I was to take my routine stroll to the letterbox, about 25 metres up an overgrown path that passed a pine and some plum trees.
But on this occasion, when I opened my red front door, my senses were accosted by the fleeting beauty of a butterfly. Initially, I thought it was a Monarch—one of the most colourful butterflies known to man. So, I followed it to the trunk of the pine tree where it came to rest.
It wasn’t a Monarch, although, it did possess very pretty wings. I stilled myself and peered as it spread its forewings to hug the pine tree. I gasped. Behind each outstretched wing was a complex pattern hidden on the hindwings. Painted on each hindwing were four white spots; each one was rimmed by a black circle and they all were embedded on a patch of orange.
What a sight! Each spot looked like an eye and there were now eight looking back at me. And that’s when it began to speak—not really the butterfly, more my heart.
Did you know that every person has a beautiful pattern they keep hidden behind their forewings?
Yes. Even you!
‘Oh. No. I didn’t realise there was a pattern hiding on the hindwings of every human being. I didn’t even know we had wings.’
When the Tui came, it landed too harshly in the nearby Kowhai tree and not only the yellow bell-like flowers were rattled, my enlightening butterfly was too. Its exhibitive display urgently shut down, and it flew off into the day without as much as a ‘ka kite’—see you again.
Goodbye, I waved and continued my way to the letter box. When I returned to my house, I spent an hour writing of my butterfly encounter. It turns out my new friend was a Red Admiral—a native New Zealand flying insect that lives only in certain regions.
What a privilege! Not only had I seen a Red Admiral, but I realised how each of us has, written beneath our protective surfaces, a distinct pattern for greatness. And now, I had the power to see it. I just needed to find the best way to encourage it out of hiding.
Click Red Admiral to see a photo of this beautiful butterfly.
I’ve never been great with surprises.
I’ve never been great with surprises, because I don’t like the feeling the thought of a surprise brings.
It’s wrought with anxiety, is it not? True, some call it excitement. But, whichever way you look at it, it remains to be that when you’re told a surprise is soon to come, your mind starts banging on at lightning speed, no less, wondering what the surprise might be.
Frankly, sometimes (not always) but definitely sometimes, the imagined surprise isn’t quite what we hoped for, now is it. That trip to Disneyland becomes piano lessons. That personal swimming pool turns into a birthday cake shaped round like a pool with chocolate finger sides and blue jelly crystals for water.
Good job we didn't hope for our parents' divorces to be annulled (if that’s possible) because we may have ended up with a Barbie and Ken play-set and a lifetime of happy-family pretension. All jokes aside, I want to tell you how I did become the recipient of a fantastic, full-bodied, ripe-with-age surprise; however, it only came as a surprise after I’d received the experience of it, which is, from now on, how I think all surprises should be presented.
See, I booked myself into a Saturday afternoon writing workshop—a poetry workshop where I would learn how to use my voice, my performance poet’s voice, that is. But, I didn’t turn up. I was nowhere to be found because I couldn’t find the venue.
I did look. I drove around and around and asked people, who also didn’t know the location very well, where the venue was. And, having done my best looking, I then went to read the paper at a nearby café. Except, after a while, I began to think how disappointed I was at not making the workshop (I am a time-keeping perfectionist, after all).
So, I decided to check the event website to see if any other workshops were on late afternoon. By now, I’d received clearer directions on how to find the venue, and by golly if I wasn’t determined as salt to make it there on time for something!
To my surprise, the very singing workshop I’d longed to book into but didn’t, due to some stonewall excuse, was beginning in 15 minutes. This time, I found the venue too easily.
Without a hitch, I slipped into that gathering crowd of woman also there to learn about their voice. The instructor explained that part of the workshop was to encourage women (who loved to sing in the shower or the car) to step out of those familiar places, and to be confident to use their voices out in the world.
After the warm-up sessions, we were guided to find the place where we best felt our voices sat--either in the low, mid, or high range. I clumped myself in with the mid-rangers, as usual, but after a while, realised I was singing too high. So, with fear and a mild to fast heartbeat, I travelled the gritty space over the theatre floor where the high singers stood.
Seeing my trepidation, the instructor took me by the shoulders and slotted me next to the singing teacher in the high group. I listened to the voices around me, and realised I was in the right place. My voice seemed to fit in, and I began to harmonise.
I’m not sure if it was the spiritual rhythms of the indigenous songs we learnt, or if the unity in the circle of woman was so strong that made me trust, but, I sung as part of that high group as if I’d always been able to. I believed that I belonged there. And, to my complete surprise, I found more voice than I knew was within me.
That workshop is the reason I'm writing this post. Because even though I didn't get to my writing workshop, I left the singing one fully empowered to use my writing voice in the world. Now, that was a fabulous surprise.
Photography by Paul Harris
Editors are passionate about language and understand the function of words. By using their knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, style, voice and tone, editors clarify meaning to enhance the intent of the writer.
As a written work is made from several parts of speech within the framework of grammatical rules, an editor's main objective is to restore grammatical oversights that cause confusion or misunderstanding. Sometimes, even the thought of an editor's mark-ups can remind people of a teacher's red correction pen on their favourite essay and the accompanying feelings of failure.
Many a person has told me they're not very good writers. They always make spelling mistakes, or are hopeless with commas. However, that doesn't mean they're not articulate, or should give up. Rather the opposite is true. Some of us are so engrossed with writing that we don't think about editing our work. It's quite normal to miss small punctuation errors or grammatical mistakes when proofreading.
Instead, we must try not to think we can't or won't write because we fragmented a few sentences; in fact, if you feel afraid to begin again then my encouragement to you, is let yourself go. Write for 1 minute while paying no attention to punctuation, spelling, grammar, or tense. When you're done, write for another minute gradually working your way up to 10 minutes without stopping. What does it matter if it makes no sense as it comes out stream of consciousness. Sometimes, we have to write our way back to believing we have the ability and that often means stumbling through spelling errors and disgruntled apostrophes or semi-colons.
This exercise frees you to write fluidly without interruption from your intensely critical right brain where, possibly, a rather under-utilised editor resides, eager to point out every punctuation, grammar or spelling mistake. These internal editors need to be given something to do, and when you remind them how they'll have their turn and that your writing mind is at work right now, it quietens them enough to get on with some lovely writing.
Besides, in the long run, your eager internal editor can only do so much, particularly if you decide to publish your writing. Most writers engage the services of a proofreader or editor. It may be your best-friend, a writing colleague, or even your partner. Whatever works is what's best for you, as long as it extends your thinking and sharpens your work.
In my view, this collaboration works on the precipice of directness and courage. The writer has to be brave enough to hand over their piece of work, while the editor must be objective so that their effort furthers the impact the writing has on its audience - for they too are important.