Long live our librarians: an ode to Mrs Veal
Maxine Mei-Fung Chung, author of The Eighth Girl, on the woman who inspired her
She came to be in my life some time around my 11th year when I’d grown accustomed to the teasing I neither understood, nor accepted. “Boffin!”, “Four eyes!” and “Nerd!”, said the kids at school. Fingers stretching sideways their mean eyes behind my back.
At home, my thirst for learning was also undergoing some tedious challenges, my reading discharged like an illness that must be kept at bay, cured, especially when there were chores to be done, errands to be run. When I arrived from school with my books I didn’t realise I was bringing home the plague. I rubbed my own back with small, soft circles. I meandered, and stalled my short walk towards school anticipating cruel words and hindered learning. Something would have to change, I told myself. I needed to find somewhere else to read stories.
I found myself standing in what I could only describe, at the time, as pure heaven. Now I think of libraries as archives of longing, unending balm; and home. I felt happier, safer, growing up in the town’s library – almost cheerful – with books I could trust and hold until I understood the story. They didn’t try to trick me, or change their minds half way through a sentence.
The library had comfortable, orange chairs. A water cooler. The books gifted me worlds very different to my own and were respectfully placed back on the shelves, never hurled, and rarely dismissed.
I walked along the narrow aisles of the library, running my fingers along spines of all colours and waited for one to jump out, speak my name and offer itself up before eventually settling on Charlotte’s Web. Enchanted, I hadn’t noticed, kneeling beside me on the pale linoleum, a slight woman with delicate wrists and skin like my own. She was sorting through a collection of poetry books when she turned to me and smiled, “Do you need some help?”
I hadn’t known then that Mrs Veal, the librarian, would become a lifelong friend and my literary therapist.
I wonder now if she sensed my crippling aloneness, later; my narrow adolescence. A desire felt so strongly to connect, that whenever I visited the library she would mostly appear to talk about school, hobbies, her growing tomatoes, Mr Veal (who was responsible for her smiles), but rarely about home.
A few weeks later I was handed a yellow laminated card with my name written by a thick permanent marker. My own freedom pass. Mrs Veal explained that I could take out eight books at a time “Eight?” My voice spoke, fizzing at the edge.
“Yes, but you mustn’t be late bringing them back. This here is where I’ll stamp the return date. If you do there’s a small fine.”
They will never be late, I told myself, knowing my desire would take care of any words left unread.
Over the years I gorged on books with Mrs Veal’s guidance, starting off with Enid Blyton and Judy Blume. Later; Steinbeck, Golding, Hardy, Orwell, Le Guin and Lee. Then came the Brontës, Du Maurier, Austen and Woolf. The relief my body felt for having books, and a friend, was life changing.
Mrs Veal told me one of her favourite books was The Street by Ann Petry, that usually when she asked a person their favourite book they answered: The Great Gatsby. She loved Gatsby too, but for her, The Street was “the real deal”. Mrs Veal said that perhaps I could wait a while to read The Street. “It’s not that I think you’re too young, but I want you to enjoy it for what it is.” She was like that, big on age-appropriate reading. Encouraging and boundaried in equal measure. “But don’t worry I have a copy for you, waiting. For now I thought you might read this.”
Thirty-five years after reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings I am still reeling from Angelou’s all-powerful words. It is a book I now read once a year, without fail. At the time, my poor nerves were all cracks. I was destroyed. And I still believe my heart is all the better for it.
When I was 16 I left school to attend community college where I studied art, English literature and history. Mrs Veal and I would meet for lunch or sometimes take a walk along the canal to a coffee shop where she insisted we reward ourselves with voluminous sponge cake. We’d discuss the reading group she hoped to convince the council to fund, her latest reads, my hope for a bursary and acceptance letter from art college.
I’d asked her for further guidance on writers of colour. I didn’t relate to the majority of white protagonists I was reading, their worlds often distant and foreign. At this point I was reading the mighty James Baldwin, Yang Jiang, Audre Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston and belle hooks. Their voices had me sat up straight, my mind alert and my heart swelling. With their words in my rucksack I plucked any thread of want and belonging and weaved a whole new world.
Shortly after my 18th birthday and just before I was accepted into art college Mr Veal was diagnosed with cancer. My friend was distraught. Her one love of 40 years was told in a quiet bedside manner that he had just weeks to live. I struggled to leave her side and promised to take the bus home on weekends. She dismissed my enthusiasm for return. My place, she said, was not caring for her but with adventure, where I must wait to be dazzled. “We’ll write,” she said. I still have her letters, dozens of them:
Life here is slow, but I have the poets for company. Have you made any new friends?
What art are you creating?
Mrs. Veal x
Her letters were always short and to the point. But I looked on them fondly, as invisible threads of attachment from her world to mine. The truth was I hadn’t made a bunch of friends, but I’d made a few. As a child of an immigrant I’ve had to rewire my thinking that we arrive anywhere feeling on the outside, looking in. I replied, also short and to the point, something like:
Dear Mrs Veal,
I miss you. I’m settling in and making friends. I’m struck by the creative feminine and how she, like your poets, keeps me company. This week I’m painting a house, a home, not literally – on canvas. I’ve also taken to vegetarianism. We’ll see how that goes.
The poets. I was glad Mrs Veal wasn’t feeling too alone. That she’d continued to work in the library. I felt a pang of envy towards anyone who might find himself or herself guided by her literary light and soothed myself with the memory of a time when, aged 13, I’d also taken to writing poetry.
Are you lonely?
Yes, I’m lonely, I replied in my neatest hand, and brown. Lonely and Brown – not the most eloquent of titles I thought, and tried a couple more: What’s it like being a brown girl? And; I Know Why The Brown Girl Sings. Pft. Who do you think you are? Don’t insult the greats. I’d explained to Mrs Veal that I wanted to explore poetry; maybe it would help get some things off my chest. Mrs Veal returned with more books, aesthetic and rhythmic this time, and a gift of several Hello Kitty notebooks. “Write what you feel, not what your head thinks you should write.”
We are all readers before we are writers. It’s a noun before it’s a verb, and for this I have Mrs Veal to thank. As I loaded up my badge-covered rucksack with glorious books she’d recommended over the years I understand now that I’d discovered solace for my feeling different, and strange. An outsider. The library and its librarian were my secure base, their mighty words a literary balm for my crippling aloneness. Mrs Veal; my literary therapist.
Four years ago my friend left her body after a beautiful fight with dementia. Unfortunately she never got to see my first book in print, and was unable to read the many manuscripts of Eighth Girl, due to her illness. We wrote one another for close to 25 years – seeing off deaths, divorce, the birth of my son, a change in career, but always there was mention of art and literature. Mrs Veal taught me that our pain is not our destiny, but our reason. And I promise to honour that and write what I feel, always; and not what my head thinks I should write. Long live our beautiful librarians.
The Eighth Girl by Maxine Mei-Fung Chung is published by Pushkin Press