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 where else could the substance of our character be beautifully shaped, but in the extremist of settings.