Childhood books, still my favourites–Devika Brendon | Sunday Observer

Childhood books, still my favourites–Devika Brendon

23 August, 2020

Devika Brendon is an educator, reviewer, journalist, writer and a bookworm. She was awarded First Class Honours in English Literature at the University of Sydney, and holds a PhD in English Literature from Monash University. She is a teacher of English language and literature, and a literary mentor to emerging writers of all ages. Devika’s poetry and short stories have been published in journals and anthologies in Sri Lanka, Australia, India and Italy, and now she works as the consultant editor at FemAsia and. is also on the editorial board of New Ceylon Writing.

Q: What is your favourite book?

A: The books that I loved in my childhood are still my favourites. The ones that probably had the biggest impact on me were the Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin. Not just the trilogy, but the fourth one as well, which was published 20 years later.

Q: Why do you like it?

A: I liked the story arc, the difficult main character with his wilful stubbornness and pride, and the wisdom he learns from his failures. I loved the writing: Le Guin’s own knowledge and intellectual curiosity was fused in the story with the fantasy setting she created. Her writing style is so beautiful and clear and clean, uncluttered and precise.

Q:How about the characters?

A: Ged is a person on an epic journey, a flawed individual who came to understand the stages of a person’s life, and certainly that sense of quest is something I felt drawn to. There were not many female characters in books at that time who had adventures like that. In the fourth book, Tehanu, there is strong discussion about that, as he unites with Tenar, whose life paralleled his own, but who didn’t have the freedom he had to confront and create his destiny.

Q: How did you find the book?

A: This series was given to my brother and me by our neighbours, and it began a lifelong love for adventure, fantasy and science fiction stories in both of us. I was eight years old when I first read these, and the world was full of joy, and felt safe, not as dark and troubled as it is now.

Q: Did you use libraries?

A: I loved libraries. At my first school, we had book bags and we were allowed to borrow as many books as we could carry! This love of libraries continued into my university days, and into my doctoral studies, when I did research at the Duke Humfrey library in Oxford - where the oldest books are chained to the reading desks, because they are so valuable. Old books fascinate me - their texture, the ornate print, and their beautiful illustrations. I was given a first edition of a book by Jonathan Swift as a graduation gift by my father, and it is one of the most treasured books in my own library. I researched Dr. Swift’s writing for my PhD, and to actually hold a book that he had published as a young author himself in the early 1700s is an amazing experience.

Q: What is your favourite literature?

A: I can read French, but English is my first reading language. I love a broad range of literature - historical fiction, politics, satire, detective fiction, biography, memoir, philosophy, romance, speculative fiction, essays, as well as poetry, light fiction, manga and fairy tales, myths and legends. If I like a writer’s style of writing and respect their way of thinking, I will gradually build a whole collection of their work. Donna Leon for example, has created a very interesting character called Brunetti who solves mysteries in Venice. The descriptions and details of the City and his life and family are more interesting to me than the solution of each mystery. I like feeling the different atmospheres of countries and societies when I read - books set in Sweden or Iceland are very different from those set in Africa, India or Spain. The contrasts of character and codes of behaviour are fascinating.

Q: How do you select a book to read?

A: I select books depending on my mood and the context of what I’m working on at the time. Since the coronavirus crisis, I’ve been reading a lot of Agatha Christie, whose succinct portrayals of character and setting over so many decades are so satisfying. I’ve also been reading flashy escapist thrillers by Dan Brown about the end of the world, and Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, and Tagore’s poetry, and Tolkien.

Q: Do you have a personal library?

A: I’ve been building my personal library since I was a young person. My mother used to read to us when we were little, and we were given books as birthday gifts when growing up. At school, we belonged to book clubs where we could order paperback books which were delivered by mail, which was very exciting! I still have favourite bookshops which let me know when books come in. I arrange the books according to era and subject matter.

Q: What are your reading habits?

A: I read every day, and usually in the afternoon and evening. I can read anywhere - if the book is interesting I can’t hear or see anything else. I try not to read after 8pm in case I read into the early hours of the next day and miss out on sleep! I write in the mornings, and I like to write notes in an unlined book and then develop it straight onto my phone.

Q: Which is the more interesting: Reading or writing?

A: Reading is like stepping into someone else’s created world. Writing is immersing yourself into a world you create yourself. It’s so exciting! I’ve written short stories so far, but am working on longer stories now, and it is literally a parallel universe that draws you in, a path your own hand creates. You’re discovering your own ideas and beliefs as the characters develop.

Q: How do you feel when you read a marvelous, touching book?

A: I am very responsive to great literature, very open to being impacted by new ideas, and am moved even by very touching passages in an otherwise bland or cliched popular story, like Me Before You. I find the closing pages of the first book of The Hunger Games unbearably sad and beautifully written. I found the opening chapters of the first book of the Game ofThrones fascinating. That story line of the family members all being suddenly forced to go their different ways is a mythic starting point. Like the story of the Pandavas ( five brothers) in the Mahabharata.

Q: What do you think of the present readership in society?

A: Everyone I know reads, today. Not only my friends and colleagues and students, but so many people of all ages are reading for pleasure at every stage in life. It’s more engaging and imaginative and effortful than passively watching a story unfold on a screen. You get to know and feel for so many human beings and their lives through the written word.

Q: Do you read Sinhala novels?

A: I learned to read and write in English, and because it is an international language, there is a vast range of literature accessible, and there was a mix of all kinds of books available to me in every country from a young age. Books are the biggest component of what I own, and moving house is very difficult for that reason! I carry a book with me everywhere I go.

Q: Any advice to an aspiring writer and a reader?

A: My advice is to create time to read in your daily life. Through reading, you connect to other worlds, other times and other people’ situations and see how they dealt with the human experiences we all share. To be swept up in a story someone is telling you, is to be enchanted. It’s not necessarily escapist - it can actually help you confront and face realities you might otherwise find it hard to process. If you don’t read, you are missing out. Swift scolded a young friend of his for laziness: ‘I never look at your work without wondering how a Brat who will not read can possibly write so well’. I agree with him on this 100 %.