I forget why I was late for my appointment to Zee Zee Theatre Company’s Vancouver Public Library event. I just remember the blur of traffic and grey raincoats I had to dodge on the way over. I’d heard about returning books late, but never had I been late to reading one.
But late I was, and when I arrived ten minutes into my appointment to “read” Polygamy and Me: Growing Up Mormon, the curators welcomed me with an understanding smile, notified the “Book” of my arrival, and hummed their way through what you might call a “preface.”
You see, I usually skip prefaces in printed books, but today I needed to know what I’d be experiencing for the twenty—cut to 10 by my tardiness—minutes I’d be sitting down with a complete stranger. As my host Emily, an animated thespian armed with a clipboard and a stopwatch, walked me through reference library stacks, I caught her instructions piecemeal: “You are not an audience. You are 50% of the experience … No need to exchange names … I’ll be your timekeeper.
“And here she is, your Book.”
A sky-blue shawl wrapped around a serene woman sitting at a pair of seats marked ‘Reserved.’ She rose in courtesy, welcoming me with a gentle handshake and kind smile. A dozen or so Books and readers were talking animatedly around us. I then began ‘reading’ her.
The Human Library Project was conceived in Copenhagen in 2000 in an artist community’s grief over the murder of their friend. This death, they believed, could have been prevented if his assailants hadn’t labeled their community with hateful preconception.
The woman in sky blue told me about a moment when she was 11 years old in her Mormon church parking lot. A fundamentalist sect, known for its ‘open-secret’ polygamy, had been visiting my Book’s local (mainstream) Mormon church. My Book painted an image she remembered: the polygamist’s wife, visibly pregnant, struggling to calm a crying toddler fussing about the car seat; my Book’s elder sister, demurely hearing this middle-aged stranger speak to her father; her father —politely listening and bidding him a nice evening. And then, that creeped-out feeling when she learned that the polygamist had asked for Sky-Blue’s sister’s hand in marriage
And now — the gratitude on my Book’s face, thinking of her father’s courage in turning down the polygamist’s request. In a community that suppressed freedom to think, freedom to feel, freedom to question, my Book “learned to face disapproval” from her community. Today, I heard a truth that took years to bring out.
My time was up, and I was escorted to the next Book, a self-identified “Non-Binary Indigenous Sober Cross-Dressing Clown Faggot” named Continental Breakfast. Painted in a pleasant white and blue mask with charcoal cheekbones, this Book recounted their awakening to sobriety. They told me what it felt like to wake up next to someone who had died from an overdose. I read that, upon returning from rehab, it took three weeks just to clean up their apartment. I read what it’s like to attend the funeral of your twenty-two year old friend, who had succumbed to addiction.
Continental Breakfast is a drag performer, and says getting sober has allowed them to thrive as an artist. “Artists deep in booze and drugs,” Breakfast says, “are kidding themselves.” In Continental Breakfast’s view, ‘making it’ in art is possible only with the sobriety of mind and spirit only found in sobriety. If you’re dead, you’re just a statistic.
Vancouver’s Human Library project came about when the PuSh Festival approached Zee Zee Theatre, a company whose stated mission is to tell the story of those on the margins. Co-founders David D. and Cameron Mackenzie added local flair to the Copenhagen model and now, seven years later, the Library has about 118 Human Books in their catalogue, and are putting on events several times a year, with the goal being a monthly rhythm. The team behind the project are hopeful it has a shot at making incremental progress towards a less-lonely world, especially in a city where chronic loneliness is a widely reported and hazardous phenomenon. In the 20-minute increments this project offers, participants can gain a totally new view on the strangers they so frequently pass by.
I had an opportunity to ‘read’ one last human Book before I left. With deep, teal eyes and a delicate silk scarf, she has been a professional storyteller for 35 years. She sat close and spoke softly, so I didn’t miss a word.
On July 7, 1983, the BC Social Credit Party passed a slew of austerity measures, trading millions in social programs for spending on Expo ‘86 . Over two dozen bills were passed in one dizzying session, to be known as the “26 lashes.” My Book told me her story from those days, when she was a single mom of a teenage girl. Those cuts included the support she needed to raise her daughter. On top of that, my Book was wrongfully fired from a non-union job because her company disapproved of her participation in an anti-austerity rally. The injustice of her story wasn’t of her own sorrow, however; it was encapsulated in the image she left me with: in a rally of thousands, one visibly disabled young man being laughed at by bigwigs pointing down from an office tower.
As this image festered in my mind, the timekeeper hurried by flashing the peace sign, indicating a two-minute warning. I was transported back into Vancouver in 2019, in a room full of strangers telling intimate truths. The feeling was as though I’d just read an entire bookshelf, but with the added bonus of asking each book’s author every question that I had.
But time was over, and these strangers would now recede in to the stacks for now.
The sun had come out by the time I left the Vancouver Public Library. The people walking down the street seemed a bit less grey, less blurry. Yet I now noticed how many seemed a bit crooked, hunched over; weighed down and pushed forward by their story.
You can read more about Zee Zee and their mission here. The Human Library repeats quarterly at different Vancouver Public Library locations, so keep an eye out for future dates should you want to experience it first-hand! The next edition runs May 11/12 at the VPL’s Mount Pleasant Branch.