Who wants to be a book?

The "Living Library" at BM50 space. Source: Alexander Gudkovsky

Imagine a space where a childfree couple, a rawtarian, a Muslim girl and a transgender gather and put the corresponding labels on themselves; no names – just identities. In the “Living Library” project they are called books. More and more people come to the Library, choose these books and read them, ask questions, listen to the life stories of a homeless, a blind person, and a mother with many children. The books talk back.

“The “Living Library” is about people, identities, and the human diversity. Its ultimate goal is to conquer fear,” says Boris Romanov, civic education teacher, researcher, activist and coordinator of the Library project in Saint Petersburg. Similar projects exist around the world and are known as the “Human Library”. It started in Denmark in 2000s as a result of an assault on a black student who was violated by a local neo-Nazi in Copenhagen. Since then, the Libraries have come together in 70 countries including Germany, the UK and the US; the organization even has its own radio broadcast, Boris says.

“The first event I organized for the “Living Library” in Saint Petersburg was supported by the administration of the Frunzensky district,” he recalls. “Just imagine: It was 2012, and the officials called a punk and a feminist “extremists”. Now, homosexuals and transgenders could be targeted”.


A word to a transgender:

“I am lucky: a girl dressed like a boy never gets the same amount of aggression as a boy who dresses, puts on make-up and behaves like a girl. So the puzzle about who I really am was assembled just two or three years ago. When I entered school in the end of 80s, slacks and loose blouses were in fashion, everyone wore it. Then I went for rock music, and again, girls and boys both dressed up and wore mascara. I wouldn’t question myself – only sexual relationships with boys didn’t seem right. It was only when I met a homosexual for the first time that I realized how to feel comfortable in my own body”.

The frequency of the “Living Library” events always depends on finding a venue first. It should be spacious enough to accommodate dozens of people, located in the city center, tolerant to every book, religious or sexual. The latest Library took place on March 12th in a huge BM50 space close to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. More than 20 books were presented there, including a twerk dancer, a bisexual, a lesbian working for the government, an eco-activist, a sportsman with physical disability, a Jew, a mother of five children, an HIV-positive and many more. “We look for our heroes through the social media”, Boris explains. “We call them, kind of “Who wants to be a book?”. It can be any identity connected to any social group which is perceived more or less contradictory to the norms of our society”. Everyone who participates in the project as a book is worth an individual interview.

OlegA word to a blind guy:

“I always cut out all the pity and sorrow people show me. I grew up in a healthy environment, and I was never perceived as blind: I have no limited abilities, just higher needs.

It may seem naïve, but I ignore all the evil on purpose. I just don’t notice it. There is a program in iPhone for partially sighted people which spells the words while you are typing, and it spells the emojis too. The emoji of the monkey covering its eyes with its hands is called “A little monkey who doesn’t see evil”. Well, I am that little monkey.”

Once every half year the “Living Library” creates an inclusive environment where all possible identities are equally acknowledged for a day. For modern Russia, the problems of discrimination and segregation – where for instance, Russian and Gypsy children study at the same school, but in two separate buildings – are still painful. “Even some policemen came to the Library once – because it is wrong to think that all policemen in Russia are fascists and violators”, says Boris. “No sooner than people stop being in fear, they start talking to each other. It’s important to establish horizontal and peaceful communication, and only through this equal dialogue we can put our stereotypes into question.” For people who come here, the slogan “Don’t judge a book by its cover” change its meaning immediately.

A Muslim girl

A word to a Muslim woman:

“My observations of Muslim families in Russia – real families, not from the Internet, not from books, not from the news – have proved that Islam is primarily protecting a woman. A Muslim woman has more rights, and more opportunities to make choices. It is my own practice, too. In my family, just as in any other family in the world, when my husband is freaking out, I say nothing, when I am freaking out – my husband keeps quiet. We are just people.”

The “Living Library” is just one of the projects coordinated by Boris Romanov. He also organizes “Respect”, an educational comic-project for schoolchildren where they discuss important social problems and then picture them in graphic novels. “It’s all about the identities again, about the understanding of the other,” says Boris. “There is no such dialog in schools. Schools in Russia try to create a forcible formation out of children, and that’s a huge problem”.

Ironically, teenagers cannot attend the Library events. In order not to accidentally break any state propaganda laws, the organizers have to set the “18+” prerequisite for entrance. Boris and his team are striving to find a way to make a “Living Library” especially for under-age children, but keeping some identities away seems a hypocrisy to him.

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