An Essay Inspired by Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris
My mom grew up in a house in England without books. Her parents, Indian immigrants with little schooling, cared more about her watching her four younger siblings than doing homework. Once after school, while at gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, a religious leader claimed women who receive higher education become lethargic, and my mom disagreed, arguing women should get the same opportunities as men. Her parents heard about her comments and later scolded her, worried about appearances within Coventry’s active Indian community.
When she had an arranged marriage to my dad and then moved to Indianapolis in the eighties, her British credits didn't equal out to a degree, so she finished one when my brothers and I were toddlers. In many of my early memories of her, she has large textbook book on her lap and a highlighter in her hand. She'd always wanted to write a book and English was her favorite subject, but a career counselor had pushed her into technology.
We had books in almost every room. When she read to me, I’d laugh when Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin taunted Old Brown Owl, I rooted for Sister Bear when she was excluded by Brother Bear, and hoped Penny would find a home in The Little Cottage at the End of the Lane. Birthdays and Christmas always meant books as presents: Mrs. Pepperpot, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Anne of Green Gables, and The Wizard of Oz. Under my mom's care, the librarians at Marion County Public Library knew my brothers and me by name. This also could have been because we were the only Indians in the area, or because we pulled down the dividers at the library checkout line for fun.
Slowly, I went from The Little Engine That Could to Ramona Quimby to the Babysitter's Club series to Nancy Drew. My brothers and I continued to participate in the summer reading program long after our friends turned from books to video games. In fourth grade, my backpack zipper broke from straining to hold my fourteen school library books and I put grocery bags in my new backpack in case the same thing happened again. In our home set of encyclopedias, I began looking up words like “sex” and studied paintings of ancient naked people. When I was in fifth grade, I’d secretly look at her Vanity Fair magazines, fascinated by all the beautiful celebrities and their revealing outfits. One day, my mom called me into her room and asked if I’d been looking at her magazines, noting the pile was slightly askew. After receiving my confession, which required just a few steady stares, she told me not to look at them anymore, and I turned back to the reality of hitting puberty at the age of ten.
That reality meant my mustache came in before my twin brother’s, I was the tallest in my whole elementary school, girls teased me for my hairy legs, I bled through my jeans a few times at school, and worst of all, my parents and I began fighting regularly. My dad would yell at me to help my mom in the kitchen and when I would run away to my room, he would bang on my door until I emerged, shoulders hunched. My mom became distant, even when I shouted from two feet away.
In middle school, when I began reading from the young adult section, she would occasionally read the back of my books before allowing me to check them out of the library. Ones she didn’t like—about prom, books by Judy Bloom, books about steady boyfriends, books about women who worked behind makeup counters—she made me return to the bookshelves. Sometimes I got wholesome biographies of politicians so I could put them on top of my pile, and I kept the romantic novels at the bottom or hid them under my bed. Once, I picked a book by Alice Sebold just because I recognized her name. At home, in front of my brothers, my mom went through my books and confiscated some, then gave me a startled expression when she read the inside flap of Sebold’s book. She handed it back to me and safe in my room, I read the description. The first sentence read, “Artist’s model and divorcee, Helen Knightly spontaneously murders her mother, an agoraphobic now suffering from severe dementia, by suffocating her with a towel.”
In high school, with more freedom with my transportation, and with a more rebellious attitude, I found ways to read about white girls losing their virginity to their white college sweethearts, white women warriors falling for white warrior men, and white women slow dancing with white lawyers while listening to country music. (The caucasity of these books was lost on me at the time.) Unable to talk to boys without my brothers snitching, unable to wear fitted clothing, and unable to attend dances with boys, I could only live vicariously through the fictional characters.
One rainy Saturday afternoon, standing on one side of table in the library while I stood on the other, my mom went though my pile of books and actually skimmed the pages of the books—something new. Only one in the group was romantic and it was at the bottom. It seemed as if my mom was done checking, but perhaps after seeing my relief, she picked up the last book. In the prequel, Elizabeth Wakefield, who had dropped out of college and moved to England, had kissed the wealthy son of the parents for whom she worked as a maid. From my mother’s expression, I could tell Elizabeth had gone further. Slowly, my mom put the paper book on the table, and looking me hard in my eyes, she said, “You can check out this book, but you need to know that women can do more with their life than this.”
Rajpreet Heir is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Ithaca College with publications in The Rumpus, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Best of Brevity, and others. She is working on a memoir entitled Indian in Indiana.