Content warning: Transphobia, Rape, Anorexia, Depression, Stalking and Bipolar Disorder.
When we read a book, we expect to be given an alternative view of life. We want to be temporarily placed in somebody else’s shoes, removed from our own way of thinking of the world. When we read a really good book, our perspectives might very well be changed forever.
At the Human Library event held in the Crosstown Eatery & Drinkery in Edinburgh last week, that is exactly what happened. In partnership with Heineken UK, the Human Library is a non-profit organisation which was founded in Denmark seventeen years ago. The two came together after Heineken’s ‘Worlds Apart’ campaign, which sought to prove that there is more that unites than divides us, and that there are no two people whose differences can’t reasonably be smoothed out over an ice cold beer. Though we didn’t go in with any qualms or prejudices, there were certainly differences between ourselves and the ‘books’ on offer, people whose lives have been made harder simply by the experiences forced upon them, their gender, and their forms of self-expression.
As readers, we went in feeling a mixture of nerves and excitement, though calmed somewhat by the endless stream of Heineken being distributed to participants. At the front desk, there are folders containing the range of ‘books’ available, from which you pick your own ‘bestseller’. My first was Diana, a transgender woman and ex-traffic warden. While this may seem like an unusual combination to fit into one reading session, this is just the attitude the Human Library is attempting to dispel: there is no one mould to fit into, no one story to tell.
Diana was confident and eager to share her experiences, and to tell what turned out to be an incredible mix of stories from her lifetime. She explained that she became intrigued with the concept of a Human Library, because there are so many topics where there’s just no discussion, no ‘how does this come about?’. She expressed her disappointment at the number of times she has been harassed, men ‘poking my breasts and asking ‘are they real?’, trying to put their hands between my legs to ‘find out’’.
Diana had just come from a UNESCO conference in New York, having been approached by the Human Library when it was starting to take steam in the UK. She explains that she loves the concept because she ‘can have the same kind of conversations as when I’m out socially… people have a much more open mind about your circumstances’. While she still does get the occasional reader asking invasive questions like ‘what’s your real name?’, she simply tells them that they clearly don’t know each other well enough to share that information, and moves on. She explains that there are two perceptions of being transgender: you’re either one or the other, a woman or a man. There is no middle ground, there are the accepting and there are the intolerant. And the only thing to be done about that is to try to make the intolerant see from her perspective.
She shares a whole range of anecdotes, from the times the bank has hung up on her because they don’t believe she’s herself, to the reactions she gets from women in swimming pool changing rooms and kids on the street who just don’t understand – not that she’s particularly phased by these encounters. She tells me ‘I’ve confronted kids’ parents about their behaviour in front of them before’. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. Though she admits ‘there are some people you will never convince that being transgender is okay’, Diana has well and truly taken that in her stride and explains ‘that’s just the nature of the beast’.
So what is it like to become a woman, and a part of the trans women community? Diana explains ‘I’ve been a woman since 2005: if I do see another [trans] woman, I will go over and talk to them and try to be supportive’. Though there are still some trans women who are uncomfortable with this kind of recognition, even from fellow trans people. That’s just how it is.
In terms of her body, however, Diana has no doubts whatsoever. She tells me, proudly and unhesitant, ‘my vagina. It’s a wonderful thing. It is a gift from God. I came back from the hospital and that’s how it felt’.
So what about sex? Well, that turns out to be a slightly different story. She tells me, with a disappointment I understand wholeheartedly, ‘one thing I noticed when I became a woman is how shit [men] are in bed’. Preach it to the choir, sister.
However, in spite of all the adversity she has faced, Diana explains that her biggest challenge is sounding like a woman, which is where her ‘Cheryl Cole-esque’ twang comes from – oh, and finding hair products that work for her as a voracious swimmer. She tells me ‘I use heroic amounts of morroccan oil’, and it’s so clear, beyond a doubt, that Diana is as much of a woman as I could ever hope to be.
The title of the next book I take out is Rape Survivor. Another of his titles is Gay. This is his first Human Library event as a book, and yet despite the magnitude of his story, he is incredibly bubbly and positive. While some readers are initially bewildered by the fact that James is not in fact a woman, considering his title, he quickly dispels any stigma with his genuine warmth of character.
James had a difficult time of it from the start. From the age of 15, his parents struggled to accept him, which resulted in his marriage to a woman and the birth of two children, which are his absolute world.
Later on, he tells me the story of his assault. ‘I used to be cabin crew. I flew for 14 years and was based in Las Vegas’. He and his friends became regulars at a bar, and he began flirting with one of the bartenders. ‘so we met, had drinks, went for dinner, went dancing, ended up kissing’. When the man asked James to come back to his place, however, James said No. Too soon. The man behaved like a gentleman, acquiesced, and they arranged another date.
According to rainn.org, 3 per cent of men in America have been victims of rape. That night, James would become one of those few. Little did he know, it would leave him impaired for the rest of his life. Little did he know that it would take years of fighting mental illness, suicidal tendencies, and total lack of trust in men or interest in sex. Eventually, when he had recovered from this dark period in his life, a friend decided to send him on a blind date. After agreeing to go if they met in a group of friends, they were finally introduced, but James tells me, ‘he was huge. He was 6”6. I thought ‘No. he could overpower me’.
But despite going through all that he did, he took that leap of faith and he would start seeing this ‘big friendly giant’ as he affectionately calls him. James would tell him what he’d been through, and he would cry, and offer nothing but acceptance and comfort. Fast forward two more years, and James is happily engaged, and owner of his own successful pub business.
James tells me that his biggest trouble now is getting his more masculine customers to believe that despite being gay, he isn’t actually interested in every man he sees. He muses how ‘when I bought the pub I’m in, there was a big group of butch men who refused to be served by me’. So one day, James poured himself a drink and sat down with them; said he wanted to join in. They asked ‘But what if you fancy me?’ and he simply replied ‘Mate, I’m gay. Not blind’. Nowadays, they’re close. They talk about sports, they have a laugh, and James is just one of the lads. James proves that no matter what life throws at you, there is always hope for the future, always the opportunity to return to normality. And he has a damn nice ring on his finger to prove it.
The final book I took out had both the titles of ‘anorexia’ and ‘depression’, burdens which often go hand-in-hand. Emilia went through the ordeal of parental divorce, as many of us do, and it left her feeling guilty and insecure. She felt worthless, and decided that ‘because I wasn’t perfect, I should at least be good at something. So [not eating] became my talent’. She said despite acknowledging the extent of her anorexia growing up, doctors often sent her away with little more than ‘happy pills’.
Eventually, when it was nearly too late, Emilie was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 16, and was finally getting the help she needed – though by this point, doctors were unsure whether she was going to make it to the other side. She was on an apple and some crispbreads a day, and once had four blackouts within the space of one day. She was in hospital for four months, which got to ambulant treatment until she was 18. This was followed by daily visits over two years.
It was a long road to recovery, but Emilie insists it was all worth it. she is fully recovered, and tours with the Human Library in the hopes of making young people see that ‘we are so ruled by what we are eating nowadays, and it is so unhealthy. We are so unrealistic, and it’s soul-destroying for so many young, beautiful [men and] women’.
And how did this affect her relationship with her peers?
‘I cut everybody off. I couldn’t handle social relationships. I didn’t want anybody to see me because I just felt I wasn’t worth it for two to three years’. Sharing her words of wisdom on how to recover as a young person from such hardships. Having friends and people your own age around you is the best way to get out of these things’.
Thankfully, Emilie no longer has any body issues whatsoever, and on a missions to prevent this happening to as many young people as possible, Emilie now focuses a lot of her efforts on going to schools and talking about her experiences. I ask her if she can think of any times she’s really changed somebody’s perspectives. ‘Sometimes. If they reject you before they read you, it’s hard. But sometimes, I find with 16-18 year old boys in particular, they are mindblown. They as ‘Can you really feel like that?’’. And that is precisely why she is trying to share her story with as many people as possible, and why the Human Library works so well. No matter what people go in thinking, it’s impossible not to sympathise with these people. The environment is welcoming, and friendly, and there is no obligation to stick around – but despite the stigma surrounding every book in the library, I didn’t see one reader who didn’t come out moved.
Before we left, we managed to catch a couple of the organisers for a chat – Alexander Drake, Brand Manager for Heineken, and Hannah Nottage, who works for their publicity firm. They’re very proud of what they’ve put together, and the books they have to offer. They tells us how the Human Library began in Denmark, where one is held every week.
While they’re still working on how best to open up the Human Library to the UK, themselves and the books are all in agreement that this, the third of three regional events in Liverpool, Manchester, and now Edinburgh, has been the most successful. Alexander explains that they’ve been experimenting with setting, because ‘British people have a different opening to their psyche’, but they really seem to have nailed it this time. Any true book lover will tell you they couldn’t pick a favourite. Each story you read builds on from the next, changing perspectives, and maybe even changing you in the process. But when those books talk to you, engage with you, welcoming you to ask anything and everything you could possibly think of to understand them better, these books will stay with you longer than any novel, because these stories aren’t simply ink on paper. They’re life.
I ask at the end whether they might perhaps consider holding a Student Library. They tell me they don’t see why not. While this will be the last regional Human Library held in the UK this year, watch this space. Maybe with a little encouragement they’ll come to us next time.
From the outside the Crosstown Eatery & Drinkery appeared a warm and inviting pub, the glowing orange lights and customers huddled around their beers tempting you to retreat inside from the chilly Edinburgh autumn. Only on stepping inside did it become clear that the people sat happily chatting weren’t customers, but books and their readers.
A pair of librarians welcomed us into this week’s venue for the Human Library, and explained how the event works; you choose a story to read out of a selection of titles, then you are introduced to your book and given half an hour to hear their tale, all while being in an environment where you can ask anything that springs to mind (it’s true; there’s no such thing as a stupid question!). The selection of titles all offered an opportunity to find out about someone who might challenge a stereotype or who has experienced something most people will struggle to understand. To follow the aim of the event and ‘open my world’, the first book I took out was a genre completely new to me, entitled ‘A Victim of Stalking’, surely that kind of thing only happens in fiction?
On being introduced to Batoul I realised that on entering the venue I had seen her outside and presumed her to be a customer or reader, she seemed so… normal. Then I remembered the old cliché; I was judging her by her cover. Extraordinary stories don’t necessarily physically manifest themselves, books don’t carry a neon sign screaming “Read me! I have something to share!”. Immediately, I had learnt something.
As I began ‘reading’ Batoul, it became clear that I know stalking as a word casually thrown about and something we would all probably admit to doing. If someone has posted their 2013 holiday photos from Malaga on Facebook they’re almost asking for us to scroll down, click on the tags and find out about their friend’s, boyfriend’s, cousin’s ex-girlfriend… It turns out that the reality of stalking, as Batoul experienced, is much more complicated.
She didn’t realise that she was being stalked at first, but the same man would come and camp in the entrance of her block of flats. He became aggressive if he was unable to enter the building and on one occasion he grabbed Batoul’s ankle as she passed him, yet she still was unaware that she was the one he awaited. The seriousness of the situation finally hit her when he confronted her in a supermarket, telling her that she may not always be able to see him, but that he could see her. This sinister encounter persuaded her to tell a friend about the man and they instantly recognised that she was being stalked. On calling the police she was told that she should have gone to them sooner, but to Batoul the man was a stranger, what had she done to provoke him?
One of the biggest stereotypes victims of stalking face is people presuming that they somehow ‘asked for’ the stalking situation, or that the stalker is someone known by the victim, perhaps an ex-boyfriend. For this reason, Batoul began to question herself, as did some of her family who were under the same common misconception. This made it even harder for her to speak up when she was stalked for a second time, feeling that the police wouldn’t believe that another stalker could appear a year later without Batoul having incited it.
Her second experience of stalking was different to the first, his style was more ‘romanticised’, giving her flowers and letters, but he only made her fear leaving her flat in case he was lingering outside, it could become aggressive at any point. Again, she felt ashamed that she had been chosen as a victim, but this time she managed to find out the cause. The stalker had seen her in the street helping a child looking for their parent and somehow, he had taken her act of kindness as something meant for him. She explained that any sort of communication with a stalker, whether kind or hostile, only increases their habits as they take every action towards them as a positive interaction.
The police reacted well, dispelling her fears of being judged for calling them again and she managed to obtain a restraining order. Batoul was impressed at how the police are well trained and equipped to deal with all types of stalking situations, but explained that it’s the public who need to be educated. Victims can find it difficult to realise that they are, in fact, victims, believing that only celebrities are stalked. It is much more common than most people realise and could happen to absolutely anyone, which is why it is important to Batoul to raise awareness about recognising if we are being targeted, or even if we are behaving like a stalker.
After realising how eye opening a human book can be, I was excited to be able to loan out another. My next read was Katy who, in her own words, “is” bipolar. She explained that some people prefer to be described as “having” bipolar, but to her bipolar disorder isn’t a disorder, but a part of who she is.
As a child it was thought that she had ADHD, she was later diagnosed with depression, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Mood Affective Disorder (MAD; an acronym Katy happily embraced). Finally, she was identified as having Bipolar 2. Her experience of multiple diagnoses is highly common, she explained that it can take 10 years to diagnose in some cases, yet having a correct diagnosis didn’t make her life immediately easier.
Katy experienced difficulties with the prescribed medication, she described it as making her feel like a “zombie”, she wasn’t herself. If emotions are a scale of 0-10, 0 being suicidal and 10 being dancing on the tables, kissing strangers, like drunkenness without the drinking, the medication kept her at around 1-4. There were no highs to counteract the lows. Most people experience emotions ranging from 4 to 6 on an average day, but having chosen to come off her medication, in the space of a day Katy will experience “anything but”.
Although the lows of bipolar are extremely hard to get through; being unable to get out of bed or answer phone calls and becoming extremely introverted, the highs can bring a feeling of invincibility. Katy embraces her productivity and creativity at times when she’s at 7-8, art being an extremely important form of expression for many people with mental illness. If she wasn’t bipolar, Katy explained that she wouldn’t have taken risks and broken rules which have led her to adventures most people shun as ‘unrealistic’. Her highs have allowed her to stay up to paint the sunrise, seize opportunities to feature on TV programs such as Queer Britain and having an interest in anything and everything, being the owner of a 6000-strong book collection.
Equally, the highs bring some risks, yet not, as stereotypes suggest, to other people, but occasionally to themselves, and more often to their pride… or bank accounts. Katy explained that she can become “irresponsible” to say the least, buying 44 pairs of Doc Martens, ending up as the owner of 28 cats, then waking up the next day asking, “Please don’t tell me I kissed them last night?”. Thankfully, Katy has a very understanding partner, who is more than happy to tease her about the events of the night before.
Having somewhat befriended her bipolar, Katy wouldn’t want to experience life any other way as it has given her a wider view of the world, unconfined by ordinary rules or wavelengths; it lets her “see infrared”. Everyone experiences bipolar differently, but for Katy the key is to accept yourself as you are, to praise yourself for the smaller victories, and above all to “know thyself”. Words of wisdom which relate to us all.
The Human Library’s relaxed atmosphere meant that the free Heineken beer was just a delicious extra, conversations were flowing without the need for ‘liquid courage’. Even after the end of the official story time the books are still human, Katy and I continued chatting past the allotted thirty minutes about a shared addiction to languages, her knowing the basics of half a dozen languages, me hoping to someday tackle at least French and German. It struck me that we had achieved the very aim of the ‘Open Your World’ campaign; finding common ground with someone who had initially seemed so completely different.
Image: Sara Kondradi, Photo Editor
Note: All other images on our print edition have been credited incorrectly. These photos can be credited to Heineken UK. Apologies.