By Prarthana Mitra
It was past three on a part-cloudy, part-rainy Saturday when I reached TIFA Working Studios, off Connaught Road in Pune, to be a part of an interactive travelling library. I can’t recall having heard about the likes of a mobile library ever before, and my interest was naturally piqued when the event presented itself to me on social media.
Sister Library (Pune chapter), curated by artivist Aqui Thami, showcased an enviable collection of works by women novelists, poets, graphic novelists, and zine-makers, sparking a much-needed conversation about the representation of women in literature. Originating in Mumbai, Thami’s project aims to plug crucial gender gaps, by being that safe space where women read other women with other women.
The idea behind this evolving and generative project was to engage in an in-depth reflection on the visual and reading culture prevalent among women in India, according to TIFA. The studio sought to provide the safe and non-judgmental space for women to come together and explore the pleasure of reading and creating.
Thami’s eclectic mix of works of fiction, non-fiction, comics, zines, and periodicals will travel to six different cities—Mumbai, Delhi, Cochin, Pune, Goa, and Bangalore—to independent and artist-run spaces that are working towards greater representation for the woman’s written word.Mumbai based artist-activist Aqui Thami is touring the country with her travelling Sister Library.
A library of one’s own
It was the kind of weekend I have looked forward to for a long time.
The first to arrive on the final day of the event, which took place from July 12-15, I was quickly ushered into the quiet space filled with a smattering of chairs and books arranged on tabletops. Quickly finding myself a reading nook, I spent a good couple of hours browsing through books I never knew existed, sending pictures to friends of books we’ve always wanted to read but couldn’t procure a copy of, talking to feminists around me about the books in the library, and of others from my memory, smiling wryly at the provocative zines laid bare in front of me, and reading aloud to myself some poems by writers of colour.
Thami, a young community artist from Darjeeling, received the Inlaks Fine Art Award for the project this year, and has been touring with a 100 works from her collection around the country. Some of the notable authors in her treasured collection include Alison Bechdel, Naomi Wolf, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sontag, bell hooks, Simone de Beauvoir, Audre Lorde, Ursula le Guin and Sylvia Plath. Alongside them were displayed the works of Ishmat Chugtai, Imitiaz Dharker, Sharmila Rege, Taslima Nasrin, and Nayyirah Waheed, and plenty of non-fictional works on intersectional feminist history.
Speaking to Qrius, Thami reflected on the absence of community spaces for women to comfortably invest themselves in reading works about women by other women. Such a space, Thami claims, can “break the epistemological hierarchy.”Finding my well-lit nook to read Julia Gfrorer’s graphic novel Laid Waste.
On the zine code
Sister Library also includes around 30 self-published books and zines.
Based out of Mumbai, Thami had curated the city’s first zine fest Bombay Underground last year, and spoke at length about the independent publishing culture that zines inspire. “I love how they are completely devoid of surveillance. That’s what makes them so honest, I think.”
A few of the zines are journals of her experience at the Dharavi Art Room where she worked with women and children, and provided them a space to express and heal themselves through art. Among the zines I loved was The Chapess published by Synchronise Witches Press, a Patti Smith fanzine called Pissing in a River, GIRLS by Jenn Woodall and Ambivalently Yours (Tumblr Years, Volume I).
There were a number of zines on women’s health and queer sexuality, like periods, flawless, Brick (a zine about abortion) and Girl Fuck (an introduction to girl-on-girl lovin’). Never before had I seen so many textually and visually rich graphic novels by female storytellers under one roof, including resplendent copies of Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds, Julia Gfrorer’s Laid Waste and Keiler Roberts’ Sunburning.
Zines from around the world on sale at Sister Library.
Sparking a dialogue about community reading and learning
Thami wasn’t keen to talk about the painstaking process of collecting, curating and travelling with the collection. Instead, she looked up to see the visitors trickling into the reading space she had created from scratch and talked about her dreams. “I want a permanent space for Sister Library, preferably in Bombay.” But more importantly, she said, “I want to take this travelling library to smaller cities and share in the exchange of cultures and literature of marginalised and indigenous communities.”
She wants more vernacular and extant works to find a place in her repository in the future, but she would need a multilingual team first. Having worked with blind children, she also dreams of a future when women with disabilities can access the library with equal ease, with the help of audio books or braille editions perhaps.
Thami also conducted a poster-making workshop that ended with an art exchange.
Asked about the role of libraries and librarians in the digital age, she isn’t too hopeful about diverse and diasporic literature finding a place in privately-funded libraries. She wasn’t too sure, she said, whether the qualifications required of librarians to become custodians of knowledge would ensure adequate and accurate representation of women and women’s literature in libraries.
At a time when the academic curriculum for liberal arts scholars is predominantly composed of male authors, critics and thinkers, Thami hopes this library will provide the alternate space for women’s literature, narratives and feminist criticism to flourish. More importantly, she hopes to plant the seeds of community building, something she rues is notably missing from the fabric of Indian art and culture.
Strictly against hierarchy and exclusionary politics, Thami refuses to play into the hegemony of privilege, when she says she wants a permanent community space for her library but doesn’t want to own it. “A community-owned space is what I have in mind if you ask me,” she said before divulging with a lot of heart and hope, what she wants to ultimately achieve with Sister Library. “I want a space where generations of women—mothers with their mothers and daughters—feel welcome in a space where they can learn and interact with stories much like their own.”
Sontag, Bechdel and Wolf’s seminal works on gender on display at Sister Library
Among the books that I read that morning was a yellow-leafed copy of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Between its pages lay a forgotten photograph of two girls staring sheepishly into the camera in what looks like a college dorm during a cold winter. It reminded me of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and for an instant, I hoped that these young women found all the space and time in the world they needed in this now-faded room. And then I remembered how Woolf recounted in the very same book, in rage, about being expelled from a men’s only library at Oxbridge.
Thami hopes to build a library of her own, a permanent collection if enough support and interest is generated by the tour. You can support Sister Library by contributing books, money, and space, or simply by sending a word of encouragement to email@example.com.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
All featured photographs belong to the writer.
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