Not long ago, during the Before Times, I received a small award to pursue a non-fiction project. I planned to dedicate an entire week, maybe two or three, to writing without interruptions.
The morning I opened my laptop to begin—it was World Book Day, which seems ironic now—I found an email from my daughter’s primary school. They needed a parent to volunteer at the library.
Our primary school is fortunate to have a library at all. Many schools don’t have libraries. A primary school a few blocks from ours recently turned their library into a supply closet. Over 20 per cent of Laval’s public schools are without libraries, or enough books in classrooms.
Radio-Canada reports that a quarter of all school boards in Quebec don’t have librarians. Our library is run by volunteers. We shelve. We search for lost books. Like a team of amateur first responders in an emergency room that should be staffed by qualified surgeons, we learn to repair the broken spines of bandes dessinées from video tutorials.
The email from the school said that a few classes hadn’t been able to borrow books for months. Could you come today, maybe now, to turn on the computer and let the kids finally take some out?
So I did what any emerging writer starved for time to write would do. I closed my laptop. I put on my coat. I rushed to the school. I stayed all morning and returned in the following weeks until the pandemic shut everything down.
Writing, editing, and translating are jobs that can sometimes feel easy to walk away from. This is especially so when other urgent business gets in the way—like helping to provide literacy and library resources for kids when neoliberal education budgets consistently sap them dry.
It’s overwhelming to try and comprehend all the ways the arts, books, and writing are shaped by government policy. Even more overwhelming is the thought of my own personal luck at being born at the twilight of a golden age of state interventionism—right before the neoliberal assault on education. The idea of dedicating a life to writing would have never been possible for someone of my family’s background without policies that made public libraries, and librarians, part of every school.
“Books have their sources in, are made from readers (would-be writers) reading other people’s books,”muses Kate Briggs in her book This Little Art. “All books are made from other books,”she writes. Anything I have ever written, then, has come in some way from other books, and in turn from a childhood of reading books that had date due slips glued to the back cover, and which were tucked under my pillow at night. The stories within these books made their way into my dreams. These books were always borrowed. They belonged to my public school.
Now school libraries only open when parents have the income and the time to spend mornings taping together torn pages of Astérix.
It’s okay, a parent told me a while ago when we talked about this. We have plenty of books at home.
Lucky you, I thought. And what about those who don’t?
Lucky me, though. I get to write. It’s a privilege, in today’s economy, to do this thing with my life. But access to a school library should be a right, and not a privilege. The deep connections between my privilege and this right are buried somewhere within the early manifestations of my own creative desires over which I can take some measure of ownership; but they were undeniably helped along by state policy, making it possible for the artistic inclination and writerly imagination to be fostered by something other than luck, wealth, or family. It can’t be denied. My writing life is a result of private ambitions but also public will.
For now, I’ll keep writing until the school library finally reopens, when the pandemic is under control. Then the school will call and say that they need somebody to help the kids take out books. I should really say no, and stay at my desk, to avoid more interruptions.
But I will say yes. I will do this until something in the system changes radically, so kids can get their hands on more books. Maybe some of those kids can write in the future, too. In the meantime they’re waiting, hopefully not for long.
Deborah Ostrovsky is an editor, writer, and translator. Her work has been generously supported by the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Marian Hebb Research Grant, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and the Writers’ Trust of Canada.
Photo credit: Gopesa Paquette