DECOLONIZING LITERATURE: WELLESLEY STUDENTS HELP BUILD “EMW COMMUNITY LIBRARY,” FEATURING GUEST SPEAKER JUNOT DÍAZ

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An article by Tina Xu for The Wellesley News.

Wellesley students joined hundreds packed onto the floor of the East Meets Words Bookstore in Cambridge on Saturday, April 11 to celebrate the opening of the Community Library. For all those who have struggled to see themselves reflected in the curriculum of educational institutions, the EMW Community Library has launched a collection featuring marginalized voices and lesser-told narratives. The audience was joined by guest speaker Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” who opened and closed the afternoon with a conversation on decolonizing literature.

The event began with an open mic with the theme “Mirrors,” where members of the community came on stage to share from a book, chapbook, album or film in which they saw themselves reflected. The theme was drawn from a quote by Junot Díaz that embodies the Community Library’s mission: “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died … I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

Helping literally build the library from the ground up was Amanda Zhang ’13, Assistant Director of EMW and alum from Wellesley. As a previous Co-Coordinator of the Wellesley Asian Alliance and an active leader in the movement establishing Asian American Studies at Wellesley, Zhang has continued her commitment for social and racial justice at EMW.  Zhang commented, “When I was at Wellesley, I inherited the work previous Asian American students and students of color had been doing in addressing the College’s structural default to whiteness. My peers and I sought to create palpable, affirming spaces for students of color in all dimensions. From that experience, I practiced getting organized … Moreover, I came to understand how severely we need physical and cultural spaces like the Community Library to bear witness to our own histories, pains, joys and futures so that hopefully, at the very least, we feel a little less crazy and alone in this world.”

Perhaps driven by a lack of multicultural spaces at Wellesley, scores of Wellesley students have flocked to EMW to find a sense of home and empowerment. Simone Labbance ’15 worked on the development team that secured a grant from the Forward Fund allowing the Community Library to come into fruition. Emcee-ing the open mic was Ally Ang ’17. In a blue polka dot button-up and dark red lipstick, she reminded the audience to practice self-care and to “leave racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and all that shit at the door.”

At the mic, EMW communications team member Sruthi Narayanan ’17, read her favorite excerpts from Rupi Kaur’s book of poetry, “milk and honey”: “i want to apologize for all the women i have called beautiful / before i’ve called them intelligent or brave / i am sorry i made it sound as though / something as simple as what you’re born with / is all you have to be proud of / when you have broken mountains with your wit.” Narayanan described the afternoon as “a room full of 100+ people all undergoing the same sort of ‘becoming woke’ process … by challenging us to reflect on the way we think about books and how they’re written.”

Díaz called the Community Library “a space that’s the materialization of the hope and love that a community has for its own community … This to me is perhaps the greatest artifact of love that one can produce … diversity is not white people writing about us. Diversity is us, writing about whatever we want, and occasionally, if we want to, writing about us.”

Students and faculty are encouraged to engage with and donate to the Community Library’s quickly growing collection of books, chapbooks, comics, zines, cassettes, vinyls, CDs, DVDs and other media. Books include fiction and nonfiction by people of color, including women of color and queer and trans people of color; subjects include critical theory, history, ethnic studies, feminist studies, and queer studies; resources include materials to promote an understanding of community organizing. Reading hours and other information can be found on the EMW Bookstore website (www.emwbookstore.com).

Lily Luo ’16 summarized the charge in the air that afternoon. “As we sat there, crammed on the floor of the stage, we felt the precious and precarious weight of the loving and compassionate energy around us. Each speaker came up and held their hearts in their hands for us to see, to observe, to understand. It was beautiful to see the books, songs, movies, ideas, dreams and hopes that contributed to each person’s journey of liberation. I felt the superhuman power exuding from the community around me, the power of maintaining one’s dignity in a world structured around destroying radical voices of color. Junot Díaz said that the great faith of an artist is reaching out one’s hand into the darkness and hoping someone reaches back. At the library opening, we were all reaching back.”

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