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How Age-Inappropriate Reading Was Appropriate for Me

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This is a guest post from Ines Bellina. Ines is a writer, translator, and storyteller who is based in Chicago after many years in Lima, New York, Buenos Aires, Montreal, and other places that have slipped her mind. Along the way she got a bunch of literary degrees, which she is putting to good use at an ad agency. She is active in Chicago’s Live Lit scene and is currently writing a YA novel based on her love of musicals. Ines is also one of the hosts of XX,Will Travel, a podcast geared towards independent women travelers. When she’s not overscheduling herself, she sings love songs to her bulldog, Charlie. Follow her on Twitter @ibwrites.

These are the books I brought with me when my family and I moved from the United States to Peru: The Baby Sitters Club Super Special #1 Baby- Sitters on Board!, The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Super Mystery Double Crossing, Just as Long As We’re Together, Summer of My German Soldier and the complete and unabridged Three Musketeers. It’s easy to surmise that I was a cruise ship enthusiast with a penchant for mystery and a fascination with tortured love. But beyond that, you can also tell that I was an 11-year-old girl going through a very awkward stage in life. I was awkward about my reading choices and I was awkward in my body, having doubled in width without growing in height. And I was especially awkward about my new home situation.

There is a tendency to think that a return to one’s country is a joyous process in which the displaced individual is welcomed back into the fold and made whole. The reality is quite different. At the time, my memories of Peru were so brief and limited that it felt like any other foreign location. The nation itself was split open from a decades-long period of terrorist violence. The capital city holds the affectionate nickname of “Lima, La Horrible” and its overstated ugliness was never more apparent than in those years. Its perpetual gray skies gloomed over a labyrinth of ash-colored buildings where nothing seemed to work properly. Not lights, not hot water, not traffic signals, not anything that resembled order and safety. Worse yet, my parents decided to dump my sister and me at my Tía Marisa’s house while they finished taking care of things back in the States. It was sold to us as an adjustment period, a way to ease into our surroundings before school began.

What this brilliant idea had failed to take into account was that there was nothing to ease into until school began. My aunt worked full time, losing the only real connection I had to the outside world since I couldn’t go anywhere without adult supervision. My cousins were way older, cooler, and too involved in their teenage drama to deal with my quiet presence. There was no cable. There was never any food. Sometimes I would find ice cubes made from potable water in the freezer. This was as far as treats went in the house.

All I had were books. I zipped through Baby Sitters Club and Nancy Drew in a matter of hours. I reread Judy Blume and Summer of My German Soldier. The Three Musketeers, at 720 pages, took a week. By the time I finished, I had been so immersed in the world of Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan that I burst into tears when I turned the last page. This might have been due to the ending’s tragic death scene or to the ebullient cocktail of hormones my pubescent body was about to unleash. Probably a combination of the two. But a part of me knew that it was also brought on by panic. An entire summer of staring into walls with a few ice cubes for snack stretched before me. I begged my parents to come home, which is an 11-year-old’s way of communicating that things were getting real.

I roamed around the house like a ghost, looking for something, anything to do. The kitchen and the living room had already proven to be barren wastelands and my cousin’s bedrooms were not much better. Desperate, I turned to the master bedroom and opened my aunt’s walk-in closet in the hopes of finding at least a junk drawer full of sweets.

What I found instead was so much better.

Rows upon rows of books welcomed me like a beacon of celestial light. I shunned the Spanish-language ones for no other reason than a misguided notion that they would automatically be boring, difficult to understand and lacking any relation to my life. It wasn’t an opinion based on fact or ability. I was perfectly fluent in my native tongue but my total isolation in Peru had driven me to believe that my heritage was nothing more than an aberration, a strange mistake of destiny. So I turned my attention to the abundance of books in English. My hand grabbed the nearest one. A muscular man, his white blouse ripped open, embraced a woman whose dress was in a total state of disarray. I dropped it as if it were brimstone. This was not meant for my child eyes. Yet, as I waded through my aunt’s stash, it became obvious that there were no real alternatives. All the books showed variations of a partially nude strapping male and a lady on the verge of ecstasy. They all had titles that were both vaguely generic while also hinting at naughty deeds, like Sin and Scandal, Destiny and Desire, Danger and Devotion. Other nouns united by a conjunction.

I had to make a choice. I could either wither away in my first existential crisis….OR I could delve into the world of cooties, stare at the abyss of human sexuality and come out a slightly traumatized but informed woman-to-be.

I chose the latter.

My days were soon occupied by secret princes, dukes, tycoons, and sheiks or their unpolished counterparts: scoundrels, warriors, pirates, and cowboys. The heroine was never defined by professional aspirations because she never had any.  The important thing was that she was always in distress and divided into two categories: feisty or overlooked. The entire human race was composed of four ethnicities: Scottish, Viking, European Royalty, and Dark, this last one never to be fully explained. Bodices ripped. Lips devoured. Skin aroused. Toes curled. Thighs rumbled. Members swelled. My vocabulary increased with the velocity of a galloping steed, which apparently was what you wanted a man to be between the sheets. All this was met by a scrunched up face of disgust and an insatiable compulsion to keep reading.

But there was more to gleam from romance novels than a keen description of human anatomy. Though my feminist-inclined mind can now pinpoint the damaging portrayals of women in these novels, I have to give credit where credit is due. And though I couldn’t connect with the ladies when it came to their physical activities or their taste in men, I could understand their sense of displacement. To amp up the drama, this literary universe was populated with women who felt out of place because of societal expectations, economic constraints, political upheaval or the always annoying pillaging army. This was necessary in order for them to be rescued. And while they waited for their excruciatingly hairy paramour to do so, they saved me in those dark days.

Summer finished, my parents returned, we got our own house and before I knew it, I was in a new school and with my own books in tow. It was my first-time at an all-girls Catholic school, where half the rules were based on a deep suspicion of women’s desires. I learned this quickly when the Madeleine L’Engle book I brought was banned, for no other reason than it was American and in English and therefore likely full of sinful acts. I didn’t have the courage to tell my teacher about Madeleine L’Engle’s well-known Christian themes in her work and I doubt she would have cared to hear it. Sensing no way to resist, I opted for succumbing to the pressure of at least choosing a book in Spanish. I thumbed through my parent’s collection and soon came across a promising title: Of Love and Other Demons. The familiarity of two-nouns plus a conjunction moved me to pick it up. True, the cover was nothing more than a stark blue and it was written by a man but it probably had the same thrills I had discovered in my aunt’s closet.

So I brought it to school. The teachers said nothing. Even they couldn’t repress an 11-year-old’s desire to read Gabriel Garcia Márquez. And though my introduction to Spanish-language books was because of squelched lust,  it was the road that finally led me to love. To loving my own language.