Shelf Talks is a series of interviews in which writer and librarian Oleg Kagan asks interesting people questions inspired by the contents of their bookshelves. Marilú is an aspiring librarian in New York, NY.
OLEG: Thanks for agreeing to take part in Shelf Talks, Marilú. I’ve been a fan of your Instagram for some time now — your delight with diverse books, romps through bookstores and coffee shops, and support of small businesses all make me smile. Actually, I thought you were a librarian already and am surprised to find out that you’re only thinking about getting your MLIS (Masters of Library and Information Science). At the very least, you’re an honorary librarian now.
So, I’m looking at your books and I see Stephen King among all of those books about folk tales and I want to start dark, if that’s okay. I think we’ll travel towards the light throughout the rest of the interview as a kind-of hero’s journey “belly of the whale” motif. I just searched Wikipedia for Joseph Campbell’s take on this and I think this quote is appropriate: “The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self. By entering this stage, the person shows a willingness to undergo a metamorphosis. When first entering the stage the hero may encounter a minor danger or setback.” So this first question might be a minor danger…We’ll see. What I want to know is: What folktale terrifies you the most?
MARILÚ: Thank you so much for your kind words. It means a lot to me that people like you have been saying similar things, how I am an honorary librarian. There was a time I would beat myself up. So, thank you. I do want to say that your sense of humor, writing musings, and similar posts on your own Instagram profile are so enjoyable. When I see them, it makes my day.
We can go dark! I’m going to be very lame – I can’t think of a folktale that I thought was terrifying. Not to say there isn’t one, but at the moment, nothing. There always a purpose. Part of folklore is about the darkness, shadows, and the unknown. Not just that they (as in evil, fear, worries, and the like) exist, but how to overcome them. How to stand up to them. (Joseph Campbell is amazing. Other than The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I recommend his Myths to Live By.) I believe I am afraid of concepts, the idea of intentional harm, that drove me into anxiety. I grew up with my mother, who is Jamaican, telling us stories about Duppies, malevolent spirits that enjoy terrorizing people at night. My mom would urge my siblings and me to never point at a cemetery because Duppies would find us, they will always find us and bite or cut off our fingers. The only way to stop them is to bite the offending finger. To this day, I still bite every single finger when I pass by a cemetery or what looks like a grave site.
OLEG: Your bringing up Duppies reminds me of the “Monster of the Week” segment on the fantastic Myths and Legends podcast as well as the Yokai of Japan in the off-beat humorous manga series GeGeGe no Kitarou by Shigeru Mizuki. In these examples, and beyond, I think we’re drawn to the off-putting, monstrous, terrifying aspects of folk tales and myths because they are portions of our inner-selves reflected back to us (what you said about purpose), and that conflict and drama is honey to humans. And where is there more drama and conflict than with mythic beasts?
I see you have Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges square in the middle of your shelfie. That’s the book that contains the enduring short story “The Library of Babel,” about an infinite library. In a way, through that story Borges brings “the library” onto the mythic plane, and if I remember correctly (it’s been years since I read it), the very endlessness of that building is a bit terrifying, which is unusual because libraries themselves are rarely represented as scary places (Ghostbusters notwithstanding). All that said, what is there to fear in the library?
MARILÚ: hank you so much for the podcast recommendation. Always looking for good ones especially on folklore! Speaking of Joseph Campbell, here are some podcasts from the Joseph Campbell Foundation.
Oh yes, we’re attracted to the monstrous, the dreadful, and the like as you said. There’s no doubt about it! Similar and connected yet different, I feel it is the similar reason why people like me are fascinated by crime. Why serial killers exist and do the thing they do? It’s just so…unheard of for “proper” people. But, we all have shadow selves. I think, to add to what you were saying, that it is a way for us to “test” our mortality in a way. Austrian-born psychologist Bruno Bettelheim details this argument in his “The Uses of Enchantment” where children love to play pretend especially monsters. They love to be “eaten” up as a way to confront death. I’m simplifying it, of course, there’s so much to this and so fascinating. I’m still learning about it! I think, in a way, we relate to monsters at times as long as they have a redemption arc or similar. I mean, look at Loki from Marvel! He has committed mass atrocities but people forgive him!
Gotta love Borges! “The Library of Babel” is one of my favorite short stories – you hit the nail on the head! There is a terror because it is the unknown I think. The fear of not having the absolute answers or wasting your time for knowledge. There are so many layers. But, to answer your question, I may be biased, but I find that libraries are wonderful places. Books, programs, resources….a place where everyone belongs. I mean I see so many homeless people and immigrants welcomed in a way that is so heart-touching! A true community. However. There are problems still – even a library is flawed. For one, diversity in the library staff. In a 2017 ALA study, a mere 4.3 percent of librarians are black, 3.5 percent are Asian, and 3.7 percent identify as “other.” That to me is horrorific…. A library is a prime example of community and should always go beyond that. Also, let’s not get into the economic treatment of libraries….terrifying!
OLEG: The demographics of library staff, I think, are, like so many qualities of libraries, a multi-generational development and will likely take generations to become truly representative, and the numbers are only a part of the story. I’m heartened that through the work of individual library workers, institutional groups in libraryland like REFORMA: The National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking, BCALA (Black Caucus American Library Association), and APALA (Asian Pacific Americans Librarians Association), as well as the increasing presence of people of color in management, libraries will become a more welcoming place to work for non-white library workers.
Since you have several books by Urusla K. Le Guin on your shelf, I’m going to make the (perhaps faulty) assumption that an extremely speculative question wouldn’t be out of place, and I’d like to linger on race for another moment. Do you think there will ever be, and/or whether there should be a post-racial world (or, at least, United States)? For the record, I’m ambivalent about the definition of “post-racial” or even the wisdom of such a conception. To me, the term has some violence in it.
MARILÚ: Agreed. There are many extraordinary organizations and people outside them who will help pave the way for libraries to become what they’re intended to be, not just an idea any longer, but a true community for all. It starts with us. It starts with us making changes.
This leads me to your next question. I like to think that with time and effort, we will become inclusive. Truly inclusive. I live in NYC and you see many kinds of people. But, there is this divide that you sense. This strange tension — this faux coexistence. I felt more at ease, more TOGETHER in places like Montreal, which has its own issues with diversity, but I see an intermingling that gives me hope for them. I don’t think we can get there without true understanding, compassion, conscious action, and persistence. I would like to say we will eventually yet there are days I am unsure, especially with recent brutalities. I had people tell me “enough about race” or “just pray”, and it is heartbreaking to hear this, especially, when you don’t have the choice to do so or it just feels like a lazy attempt to pacify. People like me are bone-tired but we have to keep going. But, you also have people who think that we shouldn’t; be friends with White people anymore. This isn’t the answer either. It just leads to more pain and trauma. I want us all to come together. I hope to see it before I die – not to be morbid, of course. Something I feel, for myself at least, is to take accountability. I’m still learning myself. What it means to be inclusive, to be together. I’m sure I made so many mistakes. But, I am happy to do my part to resolve them. So yeah, in some way, I still have faith still, and most importantly, I also have the will to act.
OLEG: Thank you for your active engagement. You have optimism that you’re earning through action! I want to shift a little bit to poetry. You’re my second interview to have that specific edition of Hafiz (The Gift, translated by Daniel Ladinsky) right in the middle of a shelf. Why do you respond to Hafiz?
MARILÚ: Love poetry, let’s do it! Similar to Rumi, Hafiz, is so spiritual in a way that he isn’t religious. There is this sensual feel– very intimate. Very of earth but also beyond so. I can’t describe it. I just know I cry each time I read a poem of his. My favorite is this one:
The Day Sky
Let us be like
Two falling stars in the day sky.
Let no one know of our sublime beauty
As we hold hands with God
Into a sacred existence that defies –
Every description of ecstasy
It’s so beautiful. It could certainly read romantic love, but it also seems to me that it’s the power of love for everything and everyone too. Like togetherness. The love of life!
I did have this interesting encounter with someone on my Instagram. She insisted “The Gift” wasn’t the true work of Hafiz and that I should read her father’s work. I was very puzzled as the book was a gift from a dear friend who is a Middle Eastern literary scholar and writer from the same region as Hafiz. All I could do was promise that if I would do my research and inquire about it. If it isn’t his poems, I will take the post down. I take holding myself accountable seriously as well as giving credit where it is due.
OLEG: Thank you for that poem! I’m sitting here in the back patio of Mavro Kafe on Venice Blvd in Los Angeles, it’s mid-afternoon, warm and sunny. I hear the sounds of not-so-distant traffic and a combination of jazzy lo-fi from the cafe and the thunk of knives from the restaurant next door. A second ago a siren cut through everything and now a helicopter thrums overhead. All in all, it’s the perfect moment for the poem you shared!
Your gloss of it is astute, too. The nature of that sublime invisible infinite togetherness is such an idea! Beyond an idea, even. After reading it over and over, I’m almost of the mind that the speaker and the listener may be strangers but for their connection through God — Hafiz reminding the reader that poet and reader aren’t strangers at all. I’ve been inspired many times by Rumi, but now I know I need to read Hafiz, too.
Let’s end the interview on a precipice of possibility. What’s a book (on your shelf or not) that you’d like to read but you’re not sure you ever will?
MARILÚ: That sounds marvelous! Isn’t it amazing when things like that come together? When the outside and the inside seem to line up? Seems like you experienced it!
There is a wonderful quote by Ram Dass, not sure if you heard of him but he was an American spiritual teacher, psychologist, and author (best known for Be Here Now). His quote: “We’re all just walking each other home.” In many ways, I do agree with this. We all want to belong. I try to remember this when I try to make sense of things.
I will do my utmost best to read as many books as I can! However, yes there is a book or two that I haven’t read (and don’t want to) or was reading it and stopped. Maybe it isn’t my cup of tea. Maybe I’m not ready to grapple with the subject(sO. There are exceptions where a book has problematic stuff going on. Many reasons. One book I am unsure of reading (not on this particular shelf – on the same stack) is American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I hear great things about it, plus I am intrigued by the idea of a book that follows a serial killing investment banker, with themes of the shallowness of capitalism. However, for whatever reason, I haven’t even touched it. I have never seen the 2000 film adaption with Christan Bale! Maybe because it’s hyped? I’m not sure why. Maybe one day – who knows! Never say never! But, if not, it won’t go to waste. I have been donating books these days. Regifting them. That’s why I love books. You’ll find a book for someone, anyone! Books are portable in so many ways.
Thank you so much for interviewing me! It’s been fun!
OLEG: Bonus question: A book shelf is always better with a dog sleeping in front of it. True or true?
MARILÚ: Always and always! However, if you have a cat, bird, fish, or whatever…that’s good too!
Thank you for having me!
My name is Marilú (IG: @iamthelibrarydragon), I’m a Jamaican Italian, born in Rome, living in NYC. I read all genres, but my go-to’s are fantasy, folklore (study and stories – i.e. legends, myths, fairytales, and so much more), science fiction, romance, Children’s, and YA. I want to be a librarian (looking into my Masters) with a focus on implementing multicultural programs and resources. Other than books, of course!, I am passionate about inclusive community and feel strongly to build a better world that we need to do our part. For me, it is libraries and bookstores (among other things). Nice to meet you!