The Human Library Returns to the Push Festival

Human Library Vancouver
Photo by Heidi J Loos

On Saturday afternoon on the third floor of the Vancouver Public Library people were lining up to check out human books. Some folks were attracted by the large Push Festival banners and the neon binders strewn across the tabletop, others were enticed by the friendly Push Festival volunteers.

“Looking for the human library?” They’d ask.

“The what?”

Many passersby were confused, skeptical even, but most were genuinely intrigued.

People of all ages stopped to sift through the binders and ask a few questions about the event.

The human library is an experiential work that began in Denmark in year 2000. It has since gained popularity all over the world as a way for people to meet and talk with ‘human books’ from all different walks of life – hear their stories and struggles, and cross paths with people that they might not have a chance to converse with otherwise. Co-produced by Zee Zee theatre, the local production of the Human Library is a returning number to the Push Festival. Last year, the event was so popular, not a single human book went unopened or unread.

The Human Library runs Friday-Sunday from 12:00-4:00P.M. for the next two weeks. There are over thirty different human books to choose from, and none of them are fiction. These are no actors regurgitating rehearsed lines and recycled scripts; these are real people with real stories. Autobiographical, memoir, creative non-fiction: the binders are labeled with titles like “Open Marriage” “The Butterfly Boy” “Cultural Pirate” “Born Again Christian” but other than the distinctive titles, the book covers themselves are identical. The humans they represent, however, could not be more different. When you open the binders, some are empty, others have a picture, or a quote, or a whole synopsis of the human book you have the opportunity to check out.

“Can you recommend one of your favorites?” An eager reader asked the curator of the event on Friday afternoon.

The associate producer and curator, Dave Deveau smiled.

“All of them!”

With chuckle he went on to say, “It’s like asking a parent to pick their favourite child. I just can’t do it!”

Some of the human books are returning participants from last year. Others are brand new, ready and willing to share their lives with the public via this exciting and experimental forum.

This weekend I had the pleasure of meeting, checking out, and conversing with four different human books. Each twenty-minute session was completely different in style and in content, but each was equally informative and captivating.

The human book “Middle-sex Poet” showed me what discrimination and transphobia feels like, tastes like on the streets and in the dark corners of alleyways. Through powerful performance poetry and memories of their youth and childhood, this book wowed me with strength, perseverance and creativity.

“Invisibly Disabled” brought me into a world of doctors, surgeries, and uncertainties. What do you do when you are in constant pain, but you look ‘healthy’ to the naked eye, when doctors cannot figure out what’s wrong with you, and teachers don’t believe you’re really sick? This individual gave me some insight into what it’s like living with Chrohn’s disease, and how to be your own advocate in the healthcare system.

“Butterfly Boy” showed me the ins and outs of Epidermolsys Bullosa, a rare and incurable connective tissue disease. Most people have three layers of skin, the middle layer acting as the glue that keeps the other two together, but for people like Moe, born without the middle layer, their skin is as delicate as a butterfly’s wings. Tearing, ripping, blistering constantly.

The human book “I abducted her” scared me, surprised me, and moved me to tears. This parent’s journey is like none I’ve ever known: forced into hiding, living illegally, on the run for eight years without any contact with family or friends. Their touching and tragic story really makes you think, makes you wonder. How far would you go to protect your child, and what would you do if the court systems failed you?

I for one cannot wait to check out more human books at the library next weekend. There is a two-book per day limit so that everyone has a chance to try out the Human Library. Borrow a book, discover a person…