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The Human Library | No one bears witness for the witness

Literary Landscapes is a monthly column by Indra Wussow, a writer, translator and director of the Sylt Foundation.

Paul Celan translated poem library Pierre Joris Ashglory

It is a Saturday afternoon when I take part in my first Human Library event. It is a workshop in Roodepoort and as I arrive quite late, all the participants are already sitting around the table. An immense buzz of energy fills the room and the warm welcome makes me immediately feel at home among these 14 strangers. Twelve of them are ‘books’ (to use the Human Library’s jargon) who are discussing the next event with the two organisers. Annemarie is the generous host and laughingly tells me: ‘I am an old book, well-read and acknowledged.’ Capetonian Madi van Schalkwyk is the founder of the South African branch of the Human Library and this young and beautiful woman immediately had me hooked on the concept. Her energy levels seem to be that of three people and she never gets tired of affirming us in her empathetic and unbiased manner when we feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. 
     While we are told never to judge a book by its cover, this philosophy doesn’t always make it into practice. That’s why the Human Library tries to challenge our preconceptions by giving those from stigmatised and stereotyped backgrounds a platform to tell their stories. The Human Library is an international organisation and movement that first started in Denmark in 2000. It aims to address people’s prejudices by helping them to talk to people they would not normally meet. At the Human Library, people are the books. While their labels tell you an important chapter of their story, they are so much more than that. As in a conventional library, these books wait for their readers and give them an opportunity to challenge their own preconceived notions – to truly get to know and learn from someone they might otherwise make a snap judgement about. 

Human Library Madi van Schalkwyk Indra Wussow

Today, we are without readers and are learning how to choose a title and subtitle for the readers we will meet in the coming event. The honesty and the courage of many of the workshop participants is palpable as they tell their stories, often of abuse, disempowerment and trauma. Or of ‘otherness’ in the most beautiful sense of the word. I can already imagine how intrigued the readers will be who hopefully learn something new about how others live and what they deal with. I am already satisfied with having met these amazing people and sharing stories. I once again witnessed how powerful storytelling is and how narratives can give us back our self-agency. The psychologist Donald Meichenbaum used narrative approaches in his Cognitive Behavourial Modification and understood that ‘storytelling provides disconfirmatory information and helps clients take back control and experience a sense of mastery.’ We are not in a therapy session and yet our sharing of stories is the first step to acknowledging our emotional baggage and, for many of us, our trauma. To overcome one’s own silence is the decisive first step to be heard and to share experiences. 
      On the day of the event in the iStore in Sandton, I am a bit nervous even though I am well prepared. My topic of ‘trans-generational guilt’ feels like a village walk compared to some of my fellow books, who have survived prison, rape, necklacing, or left a religious sect. Readers queue at the counter and look at a list with all the book titles of the day and choose the number they want to read and are guided to our tables where we have 30-minute sessions to talk about our topic and answer the reader’s questions. They should be honest, as prejudiced as they are, and should be allowed to ask the most ‘stupid’ questions. Madi made it clear that it is in this safe space that we are able to share, almost anonymously, what we often cannot share with friends and family.

Human Library Madi van Schalkwyk Indra Wussow
Madi van Schalkwyk and Indra Wussow

 All of us ‘books’ are available for six sessions and in between these sessions we share what we experienced in the previous interviews. South Africa, in its diversity, is such a wonderful teacher when we are exposed to the perceived ‘other’ – the discovery that every ‘other’ possesses so many personality traits, dreams and aspirations that are similar to our own. 
     I met the most amazing readers during my sessions and had wonderful conversations about how we deal with our past and its legacy. My first reader came to my table and before we sat down, she said: ‘Hello, I am Jewish!’ And we both know that the Holocaust has connected Germans and Jews forever in the most painful way. The involvement in underlying historical trauma and guilt at a young age made me understand that as a descendant of German perpetrators, it is my duty to accept guilt, trans-generational trauma and the responsibility to ensure such crimes never happen again. 
     ‘There is the speechless silence of the victims as an expression of a continuation of paralysis and there is the silence of the perpetrators that preserves the secret and therewith is an expression of power,’ German sociologist Aleida Assmann wrote in her book Shadows of Trauma: Memory and the Politics of Postwar Identity. It is important to break this fatal silence to honour the victims and survivors, to make perpetrators talk about their motives beyond what philosopher Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of the evil’, beyond pretending to have been muted underlings. 
     It is important to point out how my experience may be relevant to South Africans, who have dealt so long with the awful history of apartheid. It is a question everybody has to deal with individually and for me, my obsession with history was the right way to prepare me for life and for sharing. 
     On this Saturday, I meet people from all walks of life, all age groups. It is not really the storytelling but rather an equal sharing of our experiences that makes this interaction so valuable and memorable. 
     The Human Library is such an important concept and can help us to overcome prejudices and group identities and I hope that all of us will have the opportunity to participate in this initiative. It tells us so much more about where we live, how we live and particularly what we become when we really care for an honest and empathetic encounter with the world we are part of. 
     For some short moments, the world seems less violent and more embracing than I could have ever imagined and my biggest dream is that the Human Library will be an integral part in South Africa’s future.

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