Diaspora and My Unpackable Library

What does it mean to travel and leave your books behind with only the faintest hope of any reunion? I did not leave only Lagos behind in 2013 when I travelled to Canada for doctoral education; like many people, I left my books too, a forced decision that still haunts today. But isn’t one of the often-overlooked conditions of migrancy the loss of books and personal libraries? Or to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, don’t the diasporic trajectories of the African scholar sometimes involve the loss of piles of volumes that may never see daylight again after years of darkness because of the collector’s willful displacement?

It does not have to be the case, but most of the times, certain economic anxieties impose choices on the African scholar who seeks knowledge outside the continent. His book collection in his new location is almost never complete; his library constantly vulnerable to absence. We don’t want to carry too much luggage when we travel, or we promise ourselves to retrieve them later, even if we never do. As genuine collectors and book lovers, when we pack our bags for the west to study, we want to take along the best of a collection that contains our memories and that catalogues our scribbles and communion with texts, but the uncertainties ahead often mean we must prioritize other symbols of survival, of arrival.

Markus Clemens, Unsplash.

Some must wonder if African urban spaces even have leisurely subjects that worry about the many pleasures of books and bookstores, or that walk in the city as a practice of everyday life; whether there exist flâneurs that delight in sauntering around public spaces in which they encounter different objects. In their many instances of subversive loitering, the flaneur, in moments of walking contemplation of cities like Lagos, produces narratives that are often based on the ancient habit of collecting used books from the dusty grounds of street bookstores and highbrow book spaces But what happens when as academics, they have to travel abroad? How should we read the meanings encoded into the collecting of books, a process that is sometimes the pastime of cosmopolitan African subjects? And how must we unpack, or perhaps recover, “a library languishing” in the homeland, in the words of a Nigerian scholar in the US academe? Are there any meanings to the hastily discarded books in our personal collection just before we left home for study elsewhere?

The art of collecting books and building a library are longings of the soul for many a woman of letters but at the moment we decided it was sacrosanct we leave home to study abroad—often permanently—most of us often leave behind books so meticulously packed after many years of sentimental collecting. So, with a stab to the heart, we are forced to forgo the cherished texts collected over the years, together with the memories, histories, and attachments they evoke. And the economic calculus that determines what we must pack remains long after we have settled in our new location and faced again with a dialectical tension between the poles of order and disorder, in Benjamin’s memorable phrasing. And he adds, “thus is the existence of the collector.”

In his 1931 short essay, “Unpacking My Library: A Speech on Collecting,” Benjamin explores readers’ relationship to their books, using the occasion of unpacking his many books from their boxes to offer insights on a reader’s possessions and on the art of collecting itself. Being then “at the threshold of forty and without property, position, home or assets,” Benjamin assigns usefulness and agency to his books as they provoke critical reflections through the process of unpacking them. The “chaotic memories” that is the passion of the collector overwhelm the room, with memories of cities and bookstores, of bookshelves at conference venues, of the disorder of used books on the streets of Ibadan or Accra. The ownership of these books, the most intimate entanglements that one can have with objects, invites us to disappear into them. Not that the books possess us, but that we own them sufficiently for the renewal of the self, or our existence each time the moment of packing and unpacking reveals itself.

Of course, like Benjamin I speak here of my own close scrutiny of books and the social facts that organize our relations with, and memory of, them. Although when Benjamin notes that the acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money, I would think there is a class dimension to book buying and the ability to transport hundreds and thousands of books to the West when one has to leave. Our libraries are unpackable because of the forces of capital, something to which the bourgeois class is impervious. My meditation chiefly applies to the mostly, young scholar who leaves home for the first time to study in the West. Unable to pack all of his books or any of them for that matter, he sets out on a journey of knowledge, with gaps and silences in his personal archive screaming from behind; with his best books left behind, so are the memories of his collecting and collection. Benjamin is right, “the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner,” in this case, as it loses its owner to another location.

And when books become unpackable because of the pressures of long-distance travel and economic costs, the act of unpacking is infinitely deferred and incomplete. There is no doubt the matter of book collection and leaving them behind press other sociological questions, including why African intellectuals leave their country? One possible answer to this specific problem may be the lack of books themselves, besides other glaring social indices. For instance, until recently, it was constantly said that books written about Africa were sometimes not available in most libraries on the continent. It makes sense then that some of the best African thinkers are pushed away by a culture that misrecognizes the value of books, a culture that is increasingly unfair to books the book fairs that molded an earlier generation of intellectuals. Even the idea of a public library or an institutional archive—supposedly infrastructures of knowledge—are anchored on weak systems. Hence, others are made to question whether bookstores and libraries even exist at all.

Although a country like Nigeria has a national library, one wonders how that space truly governs or contributes to the country’s social and political dynamics. We may buy new books and replace old ones, but the libraries we have left—and which appear to have left us—actually remain as fragments of our past, symbolic objects of our dissociation from the home that, as the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire poetically renders it, is the “mouth of a shark,” the “barrel of a gun”. So it is that every act of packing and unpacking we perform again in our new location necessarily bears traces of a past habit of collecting, having signs of the collection that was unpackable.

Unpacking is not just a symbolic ritual of remembrance and performative identification with books, therefore, it is also a site of loss, of rememory and affective belonging. But as we disappear into new collections and memories in the West or elsewhere, the markings of the past yet unfurl themselves to us. In new editions that contain emendations. In new copies that remind us of past annotations. This too is chaos. One wonders if the few among us who truly able to leave home behind do indeed leave their books too. We may say then that unpacking never ends. And we never can truly unpack a library that was once never indeed packable.

What happens when African scholars travel for education in the West? One of the many costs of this mobility is the loss of books, and we need to talk about this more. So, having collected and accumulated more books by now, my colleague whose library is still languishing in Ibadan will probably gift his once-prized possessions to an institutional library. For now he must continue to contemplate how his books must be unpacked.