Jeffrey Spalburg - IN AND OUT OF THE BOOKCASE
Roots! Read My World 2023
Books, books, books. My father loved them. Our entire house was full of them. From the attic to the basement: bookcases filled with bound paper. Most stood there with their spine facing you – a blatant rejection in real life, an invitation to become more closely acquainted in the world of books. Even so, I didn’t. Not yet.
And then there were these loose piles in front of a case. Books for which there was no room. They were the outsiders. The new arrivals. The last ones in had to prove themselves first. Show their added value to the others. That might earn them their own spot. ‘Enough is enough’ also applies to the world of books, you see.
No, there were other things on my mind, although I did know which titles we owned and where they all stood. When climbing the two stairs to my attic room, my eyes would scan the racks of dead paper: Rembrandt, the Romans, books about the Moerman Diet and Surinam recipes, Reve, Mulisch and Maarten ’t Hart. So dead, it felt like a graveyard. So I left them in peace. It wasn’t my world. I didn’t like to read at all. Why would I? Staring at dead print that all looked the same? The books didn’t even try to lure me into opening them, with their smells and colours. And most of them didn’t have any pictures! What a waste of time. Real life was happening around me. Outside on the street, where I would ride my BMX or play football in the courtyard with boys from the neighbourhood. Where I had to hold my own verbally, being a black boy in a white world. That takes time. And effort. To top it off, I also had ADHD before anyone had ever heard of it. In those days they just called it being ‘boisterous’. So having a quiet read was out of the question.
It therefore took quite some years before I discovered the power of reading. Initially through the mandatory reading list they shoved in my hands in secondary school, from which I had to choose multiple titles. No less than eight. Such agony for someone who couldn’t sit still. There I went: browsing the school library for the thinnest book I could find. Opening it briefly to check the font size, smelling it (yes, the smell says it all) and then bagging it. Next, forcing myself to turn ten pages every day until at last it was time to celebrate: I had read an entire book! A book of as much as one hundred pages. Without pictures!
And the best was yet to come: we were going to talk about it. See, that was the cool part, I grant you. Talking I was good at. It also involved words, but words in motion. Sharing how I had experienced the book with the entire class. With others who had read the same story. Guided by an impassioned, book-loving teacher. Who challenged us and changed our perception of what things meant. Having discussions. There was life in that. As if all of that dead matter had instantly been brought back to life, using two of those flat-irons – poof!
I was thrilled. How could one and the same story be interpreted so very differently? Hadn’t we all read the same book?
That first book was De trein der traagheid (The Train of Inertia) by Johan Daisne, a story about three travellers ending up in no-man’s-land after a mysterious train ride. Somewhere outside of time. A crossing between life and death. That’s the one that reeled me in. The style, its short sentences. The theme of mystery and mysticism, and mostly: the well-organized chapters, allowing me to reflect on what I had just read. I was lucky that my first literary book was such a bull’s-eye. Such a bull’s-eye indeed that in hindsight, I dare say it shaped me as a writer. It ignited my fascination with the concept of time and how I wanted to tell stories myself, should the opportunity arise. Even though that wasn’t on my mind yet back then.
I actually started to enjoy it. Reading more. Searching for hidden gems. In those small piles around our house as well. Still not too thick, of course. I discovered more and more of them. Stories that spoke to me. Exciting stories that moved me. That introduced me to a different perspective. The outsider’s perspective. Because that was exactly what I was, I realised. I was the new arrival lying in front of the bookcase, needing to prove myself before earning my spot. Hoping to be of some added value for the rest of them. Others had decided that for me – in school, on the streets or during our games of football.
I increasingly searched for books by authors who looked like me, who were seen as ‘the other’ and who described how they had dealt with that. Books from the USA, by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and James Baldwin. Or closer to home: stories that made me aware of the Surinam-Dutch relations and how they developed over time, by writers like Anton de Kom and Edgar Cairo. Stories about perseverance. Not from the perspective of victimhood, but powerful stories. Affirmative stories. Stories that made me realize I was not the only one, and that my perspective mattered.
Somewhere, the seed got planted. In my case, it was in an environment that made the existence of such stories feel self-evident. In small piles surrounding me. The only thing I had to do, was be ready. Pick them up. Read them. And pass them on in my own way. To their well-deserved spot in the bookcase. Which is what I have started doing. As a writer. In my own words, put to paper.
Translated by Tessa van Dooren