Friday, May 14, 2010
Used Books and Second-Hand Clothes
Appeared in Steven's Window, a column in The National newspaper's Weekender. Published on Friday 14th May 2010, p.5.
The security guard was disinterested in me as I showed no enthusiasm that day. My wife pulled me into one of those large second-hand clothes barns in Port Moresby. This particular barn is located across the road from the PNG Institute of Education and next to Club 22. The tailoring company Luk Poy Wai was once the merchant there. Inside, as I took a peek, more out of curiosity than as a scavenger for second-hand clothes. I was there because my wife said we could find nice clothes since we had little money to spend. I truly disliked the idea out of my personal distaste for second-hand clothes. I’d rather buy new quality clothes that transform me to think for myself, than wear some else’s used clothes. The thing with me is that I can never rid myself with the awareness that there is more to life than wearing second hand clothes and thinking in those clothes.
My children had followed their mother into the second-hand clothes racks arranged in neat and tidy rows. It was a Saturday morning on the Easter weekend. The barn was one of the few shops open that morning. We had to find a new white shirt for my son to wear for his Baptism in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at Boroko the next day. Knowing how upset my son would be I followed my wife and the children to this second-hand shop. Whatever it was we had to get this white shirt.
It was not the second-hand clothes, the security guards, the customers, the cashiers, or the size of the barn that captured my attention. It was the sale of used books that attracted my attention. The racks holding the used books were next to the entrance. At first I thought it was one of those outfit selling books that have second rate intellectual content and are only good for pleasure readers; books that are unlikely to be recommended as text books in my literature courses at UPNG.
As it appeared, the books on sale were of both kinds, serious, and entertaining; some encyclopedia, children’s books, novels, and self-help books. I studied the encyclopedia, thinking how these could have been donated to the schools, instead of selling them for money. The longer I stood there I selected several books that I never thought I would find them in a place where second-hand clothes are sold. The books were sold for K1.00 to K2.50, depending on the size of the book. Books are not a priority in this second-hand clothes barn. A cashier and a guard, anxious and watchful, let me finish my business, without giving them any pleasure.
I spent close to K15.00 that day for 6 books, an amount that is insufficient to buy a new book of the same title in a bookshop. I was glad to spend my money on books that day. I even bought one book featuring Indigenous Maori women role models for my 14 year old daughter. The treasure I stumbled on to in this second hand clothes barn made my day. The books that I bought include: Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, Witi Ihimaera’s Bulibasha, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, Hingi McKinnon’s When the Kehua Calls, and Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop. Of these writers I have met Angela Carter, whose other book I already have in my private collection. I met Carter when she gave her talk during her visit to the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, in the early 1990s when I studied for my MA degree in English. Carter’s writings are intriguing exploration of folktales and modern day juxtapositions of feminist ideas to rewrite the gendered subconscious and transformation of the feminine self.
Then there is Witi Ihimaera, the senior Maori writer, a tall figure in Pacific literature, and a great friend I have so much respect and admiration for. I have followed Ihimaera’s writings since I was a second year student at the University of Papua New Guinea in 1985. His book Pounamu Pounamu, which means Greenstone, Greenstone was the first collection of short stories published by a Maori writer in 1972. Since then it has been reprinted several times. Ihimaera has since then published several award winning books such as The Matriarch, Tangi, The New Net Goes Fishing, Whanau, Whale Rider, and other books to make him one of the leading Pacific Island writer of our time.
The opportunity I had in meeting Ihimaera came about in a surprising way. I was in Honolulu several years ago at the University of Hawaii to participate in the 6th Fall Festival of Writers featuring the writers of the Pacific and the Caribbean. I was fortunate to be included as one of the Pacific Island writers, together with the two big names: Witi Ihimaera and Albert Wendt. There was also the Solomon Islands writer: Jully Sipolo Makini, one of few women writers of the Pacific. The Caribbean was represented by George Lamming via satellite, Michelle Cliff, and Nalo Hopkinson.
During the book signing ceremony at the University of Hawaii Bookshop I asked him to autograph his books Pounamu Pounamu, the Matriarch, and the Whale Rider. He asked for my name so that he could sign the books. On hearing my name he almost dropped his pen in disbelief. He said in embarrassment that he had read and followed my work all this time and never thought the day would come for us to meet. He told me also that his students at Auckland University were also studying some of my writings.
It was a great moment to remember as it was also the week I had the opportunity to see two films made from the writings of Witi Ihimaera and Albert Wendt: Whale Rider and Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, respectively. Both writers have always been my big brothers and role models.
The point of my story: Used books are as valuable as new books and second hand clothes.