/ 11 August 2020

Saved by literature and love

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(John McCann/M&G)

Late last year, on the day after my 47th birthday, I found myself for the first time in decades, at the Belhar Library, my second home as a child. I had been invited by one of the librarians, Santel Pienaar Smit, to drop off copies of my novel, Grace for a book-club gathering. The librarians, all women, welcomed me warmly and graciously. 

I donated a signed copy of my book to the library, which closed a loop in my life, allowing me to move further away from the trauma, towards my healing from the pain that was my constant companion as a child. I fought back tears for this homecoming. 

Grace is a work of fiction based on my experience of growing up in a home with gender-based violence and donating a copy of the book brought back a flood of memories. The last time I had walked into that library was as a 12-year-old girl, despondent, living daily with the most horrific violence in my home. There were times when I felt that today might be the day that my mother, sister and I could be killed during a violent tirade. Life had become a joyless, apprehensive state of waiting for death to happen. 

This is the experience I drew on later in life to write a work of fiction that would highlight the scourge of gender-based violence. I could never envision surviving my childhood, but somehow I did, thanks to the comforting pockets of space where I was seen, held and, most importantly, safe. 

The library was one of those safe spaces. It became a place where I could sit and just be in silence, while reading or being read to by an adult. It was a refuge I could run to when violence ripped at the very fabric of our existence and threatened to extinguish life itself. I joined when I was six, and trooped religiously, every few days, to exchange my books. 

What I found was a space of order where I could breathe freely, and where kind librarians took the time to talk to me and teach me about books. I will never forget caring librarians like Mrs Adams and Mrs Bothman, who both recommended books and were steadying influences. Their loving act of attending to me, and others like me, was enough to ground me for a bit, to make me feel safe and untouchable, and to arm me with the courage to face what awaited back home.  They did so much more than just administer book loans. They provided care and solace to children like me who had nowhere else to go when things were bad. I am forever grateful for the oasis they provided, which helped shape me into a book lover and eventually, writer, and fuelled one of my enduring passions — literature. 

When I returned all those years later, I was forcefully struck by what it meant to be a survivor. I am infinitely grateful to people like the librarians who went above and beyond the call of duty to perform the unpaid labour of care, because they wanted, somehow, to make things better, even in the smallest of ways. Reading to a child is one of these ways. People who practice this sort of kindness will never know the dividends of their loving work, but they truly make a difference. 

Nal’ibali is an organisation working to create awareness around promoting public and school libraries as quiet, safe spaces where children may seek refuge and solace in the loving arms of books. Books inspire children to dream and give them the tools to achieve their dreams.  

Dr Barbara Boswell is an associate professor of English at the University of Cape Town, and author of Grace: A Novel, published in 2017.