Meet Aqui Thami from Darjeeling, whose travelling library is putting the spotlight on women’s books

By Urvashi Bahuguna on July 17, 2018 in Learning and Education

‘Sister Library’, founded by the artist and activist, is going to several cities and sparking conversations around the representation of women in literature.

Aqui Thami is an artist and activist from Darjeeling, currently based in Mumbai, who is known for work that brings together both of those worlds. She put up one hundred posters with the words, “A woman was harassed here,” or “You aren’t giving me a compliment. You’re giving me the creeps,” in places around Mumbai where she and people she knew had been harassed. She has been working in the Dharavi Art Room with the founder, Himanshu, since 2012 to provide women and children in the community with a place to express and heal themselves through art.

In Bombay Underground, they promote and publish zines – a low-cost artistic production that allows them to, in Thami’s words, “break the epistemological hierarchy.” One of her zines about periods featured women’s reflections and stories about menstruation. Her latest project is the Sister Library – a travelling library of one hundred books from Thami’s own book collection that focuses solely on women’s writing. The library will tour Mumbai, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Goa, and Cochin with accompanying talks and discussions. She spoke to Scroll.in about the role of libraries, the desire to share books and zines that took her a long time to find, and what a permanent collection of these works might look like. Excerpts from the interview:

I want to start by asking about your personal connection to libraries. Did you have access to libraries growing up? Can you tell us about a library experience that has been meaningful for you?

The project comes from an absence of spaces like these in my life. From longing to find books written by female authors at the roadside bookwallahs to fancier bookshops in the city – a variety of books, not just that token bestseller. Also, Sister Library is not a conventional library, it is an evolving and generative artwork that engages with the visual and reading culture of our times.

Underground Bookhouse (a bookshop-cum-library with books on art, culture and activism) was an experience like no other when it came to reading and writing. As an artist, activist and a scholar it was the only space that triangulated my interests. It was from this place of syncretism that I started to reflect on a possibility of a space just like that but one that celebrates women.

Is there a criteria besides female authorship for inclusion in the library? What would you say drives this curation?

It is a curated library of a hundred works by women writers, artists and zine makers. I have curated a mix of things that I really enjoyed. It came from a place of sharing. Having scouted numerous places in search of these works and knowing how difficult it is to procure them, I feel like it is only fair that I share them with everyone that thirsts for them like I did.

Is the role of a librarian a political one to you? You’re choosing to focus on women’s literature. When the size of the collection is still relatively small, every book or zine becomes a reading recommendation.

I wouldn’t call myself a librarian. Sadly, in our times libraries have become places of exclusion, not only in the sense of who might have access to these high walls and gates but also whose works are celebrated, cited and awarded as the most valid and credible.

Sister Library is more an act of reclaiming libraries – celebrating works that don’t find mention in the mainstream media and re-examining the idea of what a library could be. The fact that this project is an interactive work that will be travelling in all its DIY spirit and glory is a step towards redefining what a library could be.

At Sister Library, we will also be celebrating orality. Being an indigenous person, I feel a sense of restriction that writing has brought about amongst us. While we cannot ignore the importance of written text, I also look at it as a colonial legacy. Our libraries were our ancestors. Oral literatures were not just a cultural heritage but also a way of teaching language, rituals and knowledge.

I have over 1000 books in my collection but since it is a travelling library it limits me to a certain number. I have decided on 100.

The books featured on the project’s Instagram include a lot of non-fiction, graphic novels, zines, and poetry. Could you talk to us a little about why the library is drawn to those genres, what it gains from them?

It is curated mix of fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, zines and periodicals.

I am a zinester and have been drawn towards their straightforwardness. Content is the only thing that sells a zine. How nice the paper is, how great the print is are all secondary. Since these works are produced independently, they are so very refreshing, from their themes to deconstruction of language. Zines made by women talk about things that we never really get to read about anywhere else.

Non-fiction works of women are harder to find in my experience. Historical factuality from a woman’s perspective is not considered important, but to understand and reflect on where our world stands it is important that we read non-fiction. Reading nonfiction helps unlearn and deconstruct that internalised male gaze you know we all have after years of consuming male perspectives of everything.

And I do enjoy non-fiction as much as I enjoy fiction. But because women were historically denied epistemic validity when writing non-fiction, I was moved to reading more and more non-fiction which in turn enriched my work and life processes.

I can’t ignore the relationship between women’s movement and poetry. Poetry has been medicine to me at various points in my life. I wanted to share it with the visitors of Sister Library too.

The library is set to tour from the end of April to Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Goa, and Cochin with accompanying talks and discussions. Do you expect that the different personality of each of these places will affect how they interact with the library?
I cannot predict how each city will interact with the SL. I can only say that it will be constantly modified by its interaction with the people.

Aqui Thami (centre) with Urvashi Butalia (left) and Belinder Dhanoa (right) at the opening of Sister Library at FICA Reading Room in Delhi

At the moment, the library draws from your personal book collection. If people are interested in the project and want to donate books written by women, how would they go about it?

All contributions are welcome. There have been zinesters sending their zines from all over the world, there have been authors wanting to send their books and there have been older feminists and activists who want to share books that drove them in the struggle that paved a way for us. It has been such a blessing.

At every venue, there will be a collection booth for interested people to drop their books. They could also ship books to this address in Mumbai: Art Room Foundation, Flat No 1, Shangri-La Apartments, Khandeshwari Mandir Marg, Mount Mary Steps, Bandra West, 400050.

The goal, I’ve heard you say in another interview, is to have a permanent collection if enough support and interest is generated by the tour. What would this permanent collection where people can borrow books look like?

I have dreamed of a feminist library, it’s true. It will be everything the travelling Sister Library is but in a permanent space. Open to people to come and read, as well as become members and borrow books. It will be a new place to see and understand the world – providing a unique experience to be immersed in works created by women exclusively thereby creating new narrative, providing the space to ask questions, and to look and to think about the answers. It obviously must be community-owned, volunteer-run and a safe space. It will all depend on how much funding I will be able to raise to make the permanent space happen, but ideally, it should be a big enough space for the books, zines and other publication as well as other activities such as story telling, reading circles, book clubs, and zine making. It should be accessible to people with disabilities. People can get in touch with me if they are interested in supporting Sister Library with money, space or books.

First published by Scroll.In



Story Tags: books, women empowerment, women, literacy, adivasi, inclusive
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