I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of building collections recently. As much as I love to see a cupboard (or an apartment or a house or a life) full of books, an empty bookshelf holds such wonderful possibilities. I’ve never had to build (read: populate) a bookshelf from scratch until this last year. As a child, I first began reading by dipping into my parents’ books—with or without their permission—and adding my own to their collection. I wasn’t allowed to read any books my parents wouldn’t read themselves. Our books were shared and thus, so were our tastes in reading material.
So many people talk of finding their voice at college but I found my ears. Finally, the chance to have a bookshelf of my own helped me develop a reading sensibility informed by my own identity, experiences, and preferences. Between readings at the Rose O’Neill Literary House, visits to the Dodge Poetry Festival, and research trips to New York, East Anglia, and Havana, I picked up an extensive collection of books that could serve as an introduction to me on its own.
Until May 2020, when I received a call from the Indian Embassy. They said they would be airlifting me from the States back to India. My flight was to take off in five days. My first thought: what am I going to do with my extensive book collection? So, I painstakingly chose a handful of books to bring with me that have since created the foundations of my current bookshelf. (The rest are safe in storage, don’t worry).
The first three books I chose because of my admiration of both the contents and its creators: A Brief History of Fruit by the inimitable Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin and translated by the inspirational Anton Hur, and finally, Bla_k by no other than M. Nourbese Philip. A book of poetry, a translated novel, and a collection of nonfiction. I was clearly working hard to curate as varied a list of texts as possible written/translated/created by folks of extraordinary character.
If there is one thing I can confidently say about my current book collection (other than its diminutive size), is that it continues to speak to my identity and current lived reality. I read books almost immediately after acquiring them, and thus, my book purchases reflect my priorities. Given the socio-political realities of the pandemic in India and the world writ large, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents have become Afrofuturist necessities. So has Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, trans. Stephen Snyder. I have also taken to engaging with my books on a more involved level by writing them out longhand so you will find a stack of notebooks containing (part of) Toni Morrison’s Beloved written in my hand on the bottom shelf. A benefit of repatriation: my shelves now also hold classic books from my homeland that are hard to find in the US, like फ़ैज़ अहमद “फ़ैज़” जी की मेरे दिल मेरे मुसाफ़िर (My Heart, My Traveller by Faiz Ahmed Faiz).
I must admit, I am cautiously enjoying this short liminal period of having a half-empty bookshelf. It’s so full of possibilities and wonder. Every so often, I feel a jab of resentment or irritation, finding myself wishing I’d packed a specific book or wishing I hadn’t had to leave my life behind. The thrill of curating a new collection tempers the loss of the old but it never truly resolves it. Someday, I will open those boxes again and perhaps rediscover a younger version of myself in those pages. Perhaps even combine these collections despite the Pacific Ocean in the way. Until then, on to the next one!
Saoirse‘s name and passion are the same: freedom. As an exophonic writer, their academic interests revolve around linguistic power dynamics, especially in connection to the land. They are always trying to write, and find, poetry that breaks the English language into articulating its own colonial violence. They are a freelance editor and serve as the Guest Editor for Emerging Voices in Poetry at Oyster River Pages. They are a 2021 Brooklyn Poets Fellow and a finalist for the Sophie Kerr Prize. They find excitement in travel, comfort in a good cup of coffee, and love in their newly adopted puppy, Malaika. Find them at saoirseedits.com or on Twitter @saoirseedits.