dating from childhood, when my family was struggling with debt in the face of smug middle-class consumption. I still remember a casual remark tossed out by a fourth-grade classmate: ‘Why are you wearing the same thing again?’ (I owned only two changes of clothing then, and have been a staunch advocate of school uniforms ever since I learned of them.) Maybe it was sheer meanness, maybe mere thoughtlessness on that girl’s part. But it still amazes me how something so slight can rankle and be remembered for decades afterwards. I can almost taste my shame even as I sit at my computer in what, for the majority of the world, is not just comfort, but genuine luxury.
We weren’t really poor – not starving, roofless poor – yet it has taken me years to stop acquiring stuff as a bulwark against deprivation. And I’d be the first to admit that the need for material security has to do with much more than physical want. Thus, in Africa, when I was daily confronted with real destitution, I still collected, be it pottery or masks or basketwork, telling myself, naturally, that I was helping to create jobs and feed the starving. Which was in part true – in itself an extremely complex issue, as anyone who has worked on aid projects in the Third World can testify – but nevertheless a pretext. To be a foreigner, and most particularly a white middle-class American, in a place like Zimbabwe is to live in constant confrontation with one’s pretexts. I could go to the shops and buy up all the dried fruit or mealie meal or light bulbs whenever a shipment came in. Does it matter that I shared with my staff? Greed and guilt are as closely bound as conjoined twins.
Now I still acquire, though it’s mostly books, and just as obsessively, odds and ends of quotes, information, gleanings that that I may one day use in a piece of fiction. My printer chatters throughout the day, my shelves and files are groaning, and still I continue to collect. More than I can ever read, more than I can possibly absorb. After a certain age, most of us realise that we can’t be buried with our cars or polished silver. I suppose I’m still hoping that something of what I know, or imagine, might grant me a small measure of security, if not immortality.