“I’ll tell you these poems are my birthmarks,
and I came so close to having them removed
I even kept a voice cutter hidden in my shoe
the day her flight took off.
But the runway—it’s made of marble, made of gush,
made of windmill, made of salt,
and there is a sea of hope chests
in every word I speak
praying to be opened by the night
with its belly full of yield.”
[excerpt, Jellyfish, Andrea Gibson]
It started unintentionally. Lubna al-Hussein was taking refuge in Paris from a death sentence in Sudan. She kissed me hard on two cheeks every time she saw me in the office at Ni Putes Ni Soumises. She was always filled with energy, glowing smile paving her path and a translator trailing her. I bought her book and the last day I saw her after she spoke at Sciences Po, two other interns and I stood with her in front of the stage holding a rare translator-free warm, awed conversation where Eileen spoke enough Arabic to ask her if she would sign our copies of Quarante coups de fouet pour un pantalon (forty lashes for a pair of pants). She wrote my name in Arabic with an endearment and she told me to stay an activist. I’ll never forget the feeling of the words she traced on the pages, in a language I do not even understand. A couple weeks later I bought my co-worker Diaryatou Bah’s book On m’a vole mon enfance (my childhood was stolen from me) about her survival of excision, forced child marriage, and domestic violence. She was a cherished and gentle force in the fight for women’s human rights in France. She wrote, Caroline, merci pour ta gentilesse. I hugged her hard. The activist book collection had begun.
The next few additions came from used bookstores, from tumbled stacks and travels. When Christina and I were road-tripping across Prince Edward Island at the end of the summer after college, I found Shirin Ebadi’s memoir Iran Awakening on the bottom shelf of a couple endless disorganized rows. I had been carrying a heavy copy of an English translation of the Icelandic sagas but in that moment, I quickly dropped it back on the shelf and carried away Ebadi’s book instead. A couple Canadian dollars and it was mine. When I met my friend Emily later that year, we shared a love and admiration for Ebadi and Emily eagerly carried my book to a conference in Minneapolis where Ebadi was speaking. The beautiful Peace Prize winner signed it for me, sitting beside my dear friend, and Emily texted me the picture with a grin. She brought the book back home later to rural Maine. It was the second book Emily added to my growing collection of books signed by their activist authors. Earlier, in a used bookstore in Hallowell, Maine, Emily had found a signed copy of a bell hooks book. One day, I’m sliding into the car and Emily pulled it off the passenger seat and said, as Emily often does, “Take it! All yours!” and protesting her gifts never does any good, so I took the book, read it, and slipped it onto my shelf with the others.
When Andrea Gibson came to speak at Washington University, I didn’t expect her to be from Calais, Maine. Only after her performance when she’s standing by a pile of her chapbooks, I asked her about a reference she made to Maine during her poetry. She signs my book as we talk about towns we both know, reference points, and she says, “Maybe I’ll see you there one day.” We both know it is not likely but I read her poetry on train rides and summer nights, listen to her voice to calm me sometimes, and I know it doesn’t matter where we meet again or if we do, but just that we’ve met. She’s left this book in my hands and signed it with her name. I find inspiration in the touch of a human spirit that is strong enough to fight for a better world. That is the gift of an activist book collection: every time I pick up my copy, I pick up a battle cry. These are the people I admire for their sense of justice and the voice they are not afraid to write down, own, sign, stand behind.