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How My Illiterate Mother Inspired Me To Become a Writer

Provided by Natalie Pattillo.
I remember university students frequently visiting our home. I was about three years old when they started coming. My dad hired these young women to teach my mum how to read and write in English and Malay. The tutor rotated every few months due to my mother’s frustration. While I watched her being tutored, I vaguely wondered why my dad read books for leisure while my mum struggled to learn how letters formed words. I didn’t have the capacity to process that my mother was illiterate, and no one explained it to me. The tutors coming to our home three times a week was as normal as my aunts, uncles, and cousins visiting for dinner.

My mum, Som binte Kader, and I were born in Singapore. She grew up with four brothers and two sisters in a kampong, a Malay village. Her parents raised my mother and her siblings in an attap house. These dwellings were built on hard dirt with palm-thatch roofs. The branches provided sturdy wattle for the walls. There was no electricity or access to gas and running water in their home.

Her brothers Abu, Ahman, Ahmad, and Ahim started attending school when they were about six. My grandfather forbade my mother and her older sister Salma to receive any formal schooling. My mum recalls my grandfather telling her, “Perempuan tak boleh pergi sekula. Perempuan tergolong di dapur,”: Girls don’t go to school. Girls belong at home in the kitchen. She wasn’t even allowed to play with other kids in the village.

Girls don’t go to school. Girls belong at home in the kitchen.

To earn money for the family, my mum cleaned the homes of wealthier Singaporeans. She enjoyed that work because her clients owned televisions. She watched black-and-white Samurai films in wonderment while ironing clothes, which felt like a rare luxury for a kampong girl. For pocket money, she sold a chilli side dish to women in the village. To get money for ingredients, she washed other people’s clothes. With a granite mortar and pestle, she pounded red chilies, oils, shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste to make sambal.

My mum loved sneaking out to watch Malay wedding ceremonies. Vibrant orange, gold, and fuchsia tapestries decorated the outside of a family’s attap house. Beef curries, saffron rice, and pickled chutneys were served on engraved silver platters. The bride’s hands were painted with earthy orange-coloured henna. Everyone looked happy, she recalls. It was an escape from her reality. “I didn’t have a childhood. I didn’t have any friends,” she told me, with difficulty understanding my desire to learn about her upbringing.

I’m the daughter of a mat salleh, a colloquial Malay term for white man or Westerner. In the eyes of my mother’s family, a mat salleh man meant wealth. My dad, James Pattillo, is from Alpine, Texas. He grew up with one brother and four sisters. They weren’t wealthy but they didn’t live in a kampong either.
I was born in 1991 at Singapore’s Parkway East Hospital. There was rapid urbanisation since mum’s kampong days. Over the four decades, villages were torn down, freeing up land for redevelopment. Our family lived in a two-story house on Jalan Pergam. Attap palm trees, scarlet hibiscuses, and purple orchid flowers adorned our spacious green backyard. Jalan Pergam was lined up with modern homes. Older homes were demolished to make room for sleeker ones. It was Singapore suburbia.

In our dining room, where the lessons took place, I remember my mother’s focus growing and waning in the span of an hour. I sat at the opposite end of the table watching and colouring. She wrote the letters in her tablet with exactitude. Lines were straight and neat. There was equal spacing between each uppercase and lowercase letter. She wrote lightly at first, then asked her tutor if it was correct. After receiving a nod of approval, she penciled over her outline with noticeable pressure. It was as though she wanted to leave an imprint of her writing onto the next few pages.

My mother argued with these women when it came time to read. “See Jane run. Run, Jane, run.” After hearing the phrases so often, I mouthed along under my breath. Every time my mother stammered, she lashed out. She told her tutor that she needed to cook lunch for my brother and me, and that it was time for them to leave. I never questioned it.
I loved kindergarten. Our morning routine consisted of my mum combing my jet-black hair, applying Johnson’s baby powder all over my face, and begging me to not spill breakfast on my starched school uniforms. “It looks like I don’t take care for you if your clothes are wrinkled and dirty,” she said. Almost every morning, my mum prepared nasi lemak, a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk served with spicy lamb curry, crispy fried anchovies, a hard-boiled egg, and fresh sliced cucumbers.

I began grade one at Griffiths Primary School. I loved school, but when we started learning how to read, I withdrew. In grade one, my teacher recited words like “tree” or “cat” and asked us to spell them out on the chalkboard. I knew spellings for most of the words. But watching my mother’s struggle to learn how to read had shaken my confidence.

“Natalie, spell shark,” my teacher asked. I sat frozen, hoping I misheard her. “Natalie…” she called again. I went up to the board as though I was walking the plank. I started writing. Then, I heard a roar of laughter coming from my classmates. S-A-R-K, I wrote on the board. There I was standing — chalk in hand — humiliated.

When I came home, I sat at the dining room table with my writing tablet, spelling “SHARK,” over and over, while tears splashed onto the paper. My mum checked on me. I handed her the writing tablet. Maybe she learned how to read when her tutor came over today, I hoped. I needed her to check my work before I embarrassed myself again. She looked down at the paper, confused and ashamed, just like I was in class. She couldn't help me.
In 1999, we moved to Alpine, Texas. The closest city, Midland, is 165 miles away. My mum felt isolated and defensive in the desert town of 5,000, where most speak, write, and read in English or Spanish.

My dad worked on oil rigs in Venezuela or Indonesia. He did as much as he could when he was home. Bills arrived while he was abroad. He left it to me to write checks for the bills and address payments accordingly.

There was no public transportation in Alpine. She bicycled to get errands done. I accompanied her to the grocery store to help read labels. When it was time to pay, she passed me her chequebook. She whispered to me, “Go to the bathroom so nobody can see you. Write a check for $200 for the food.” Her nervousness rubbed off on me. After filling out the check in the bathroom, I tucked the chequebook into the waistband of my pants, power-walked to our shopping cart, and snuck it into her purse. It felt like we were engaging in illegal activity.

At around age 10, I tried teaching her with my books. We would fight; maybe I wasn’t patient enough. I eventually left it alone. When she needed help with recipes or subtitles, I read aloud for her. My dad and I realised that she might be dyslexic — there had been signs, with how she jumbled some letters and numbers.

Now, my mum tells me that she was ashamed. She wanted to be like the American parents. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish I could read to you and Omar. But you’re so smart. Everyone tell me you so smart. What do you study again?” It’s hard to not get frustrated at her for not knowing what journalism is after explaining it throughout the years. But how could I be angry or upset? She was robbed of an education for simply being born a girl.
One thing is certain though, I inherited my mum’s resourcefulness. She’s an outstanding cook. She learns by watching cooking shows. She mimics recipes then adds her flair. In Alpine, she’s known for her delicious spring rolls. Her love for cooking taught me how to love my own craft — with vigour and intention to make an indelible impression.

I’m a single mother now. I’m raising my daughter Amora while balancing grad school and work. She’s identifying letters at school. My heart bursts with pride when I hear her recite the alphabet with confidence. When I graduate from Columbia’s Journalism school next May, Amora will walk across the stage with me. She will know that being a girl is an opportunity to be a warrior for female empowerment — and that education is her weapon for justice.