By Na’Imah Todd, DVM
I speak in silence, but language is my story. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a prodigy is defined as “a young person who is unusually talented in some way.”
For me, this has always been language.
My family recounts I started speaking at around 9 months of age. Some views in child development assert that gifted children tend to say their first words around 6-9 months of age. By 12 months, I was starting to form sentences, and people could understand me clearly, a developmental milestone most children do not reach until age 2. When pre-school came, my parents were not surprised when my teachers raved that I could already read on a level above average. Despite my precociousness with language, I was a quiet child, who could enjoy being by myself. Even though I interacted with peers, I would eventually be drawn to the reprieve of individual play and reading and being in my own world.
Likewise, I was reserved around strangers, but once people got to know me, I have been told I could carry on advanced conversations and had a large vocabulary. Words have always resonated with me. In elementary school, I became the first girl of African American heritage to win the school spelling bee, and I set a similar record in middle school. Honestly, when I reflect back on my childhood, I was the “Brick” of my family [a character from one of my favorite TV shows The Middle].
Growing up, I loved animals as much as I loved reading and writing, so I loved reading anything that had to do with animals. When I received a dog breed encyclopedia around age 6, I memorized and learned to recognize over one hundred dog breeds, including their ancestral purpose and country of origin. I became a dog breed connoisseur. By age 9, I loved reading classics like “White Fang” and “The Black Stallion.” I was very selective about the books I read, and I would read the same ones over and over. I began to emulate them in my own attempts at writing, and I handwrote and illustrated (with stick people) books that I gifted to my mum.
At some point in school, I got a bit rebellious by refusing to write a book report on a book I did not want to read because I felt I should be able to select the book; and I was willing to go the mile to get my point across with a petition and a strike. After my mum assured me such rebellion was not an option, nor worth the trouble I had caused myself, I set to reading the book. I managed to find some engaging adventure and skimmed the high points of the book (skipping long descriptions of scenery and identifying important areas of common literary devices, such as foreshadowing, conflict and repetitive motifs). Identifying such elements has always helped me gain a deeper understanding of the story as well as build quickly into further meaning so that I can conclude the overarching theme to present in an essay. Finally, I reviewed the basic patterns of essay structure that my teacher had pointed out.
My essay “accidentally” got an “A.” The teacher and an administrator commended me on my paper; asked me why I had been so rebellious when I could write so well in so little time; and then had to give me a “B” for turning in the paper late. Despite their commendations, I was not placated. I still held true to choosing my own books for book reports, and I had just a couple smaller rebellions on the matter before I finally learned to expand my selective range. I eventually gained an appreciation for romance literature, including Jane Austen, who is now one of my favorite authors and inspirations.
My love of writing is exactly what silenced me. I would spend classes hyper-focused on writing, finding inspirations in everything I saw and heard. My dad got me my first laptop at 16. It was a gift that kept on giving for eight years. Prior to that, I would write page after page by hand after school and store my manuscripts in bags when they could no longer fit on my bookshelves. My mum would listen to my manuscripts for hours and give commentary on the themes and motifs; but I was still emulating my favorite authors a lot.
By 16, I had finally found my writing voice; it would continue to grow and develop, but it became the voice behind my first authentic novel. I say it is authentic because it is the first novel that reflected the common themes that continue throughout my novels today—the themes that make my novels mine. This book was Lions and Wildebeests, a Christian fiction bildungsroman, the story of a Zimbabwean girl around my age at the time. I did extensive research and managed to finish the manuscript in a couple of weeks. School was out for about a week because of a snowstorm. I remember that much, but the rest is a blur of hyperfocus agenda. Following that book, I also co-authored a historical fiction novel with my best friend and wrote several more manuscripts before I published another book.
The third book I published features an autistic protagonist. Until I started witnessing more autistic characters in the media, I never thought about my writing as a platform for autism advocacy, or education—a way to share the real life of autism using favorite fiction genres. This is surely a great way to connect with young adults, who are more likely to read fantasy than they are nonfiction. In this way, my silence became my voice.
Throughout my four years of vet school, I worked on this novel, which initiated my series The Chronicles of Forbidden Romance. The first book is called The Spy League. I have always been intrigued by stories of forbidden romance, alongside the various ways in which romance can act as a subgenre. I suppose I have Jane Austen to thank for my appreciation of the diverse motifs she presented throughout the romance genre. I do my own editing, and usually when it goes to the editor, there is very little to be done. My next book Girasoles is to be released soon and will also feature an autistic protagonist.
Linguistics, according to the Meriam-Webster dictionary, is “the study of human speech including the nature, structure, and development of language or of a language or group of languages.” In short, it is the story of my life.
I have been called a prodigy and acclaimed to have a photographic memory because of my knack for recognizing patterns in written language.
As such, I learn to read them much faster than I can speak them. Because of my heritage, I taught myself to read Cherokee in high school. I can also read Spanish, ancient Greek, and some French.
As with anything, the world of academics is controversial, and gifts are always defined by the eye of the beholder. Once, I wrote a paper in college about ancient Greece and Rome, and my professor stated it was the best paper he had ever read. I wrote it in a night of hyperfocus. I still have that paper to this day. Conversely, I remember a particular assignment in college where we had to write down the first thing that came to our minds after looking at a complex shape, and my paper ended up being a lovely short story. I had to argue the grade because my professor said he’d had a hard time believing that such an articulate piece was the first thing that came to my mind; he consulted with a senior professor who knew me, and the senior professor assured him, this was normal writing for me.
Time and time again, however, I have found one fact holds true. I am not known for being overtly loquacious. In fact, I am fundamentally soft-spoken; but when I write, it is something people seem to remember.
I speak in silence, but that silence has become my voice. Honestly, while I would love to be honored as a great writer, the desire is not nearly as strong as the longing I have for people to listen to my story—to analyze, engage, to find meaning, to find inspiration. Now, writing is not only my way of sharing a story, but it continues as my way of engaging with others and advocating. My mum helped me navigate the self-publishing world as a teen. Today, I continue self-publishing novel after novel because the silence of writing is my voice. It always will be, and I hope my novels help other people find their voices.
Na’Imah with service dog “Dame” Imani Fae