In the furthest corner of my parent’s basement, beneath a tiny window that casts dusty light over my old futon, there’s a box buried beneath piles of other boxes. I am going to extract it from its cardboard-cobweb prison, because in it are all the chapter books I owned as a child and I want to retrieve a particular book: Mail Order Wings by Beatrice Gormley. It’s a paperback, well worn, the cover navy-blue. There is an illustration of a young girl in pigtails floating in the night sky, a glorious set of rainbow wings spread out behind her. The light from her bedroom window glows and there is a small teddy bear waving, its little paw raised as the girl lifts into the sky. The girl’s face is curiously content, not overjoyed.
She is flying, but she is at once self-assured, complacent, reserved, and wary of things to come. It’s a face that encapsulates the simultaneous thrill and sickly horror I felt every time I read the book. About halfway into the novel, the main character, Andrea, begins to notice alarming bodily changes: the skin webs up between her toes, her smooth back prickles with the new growth of tight little pinfeathers, her hunger becomes impetuous and biting. Andrea’s body is undergoing a slow, but definite transformation and I didn’t see then how my awe-struck fascination with the process had so much to do with my own nine-year-old body just beginning to crest the waves of changes that would arrive as intimately and horrifyingly as pin feathers poking through pores along shoulder blades. In later years, I would look back at this novel and would theorize its twisted Kafka-esque plotline – a little girl yearns to fly, orders wings in the mail, and soon finds that she is turning into a bird. How horrifying, how thrilling, how attractive, this possibility to transform and to escape out my own bedroom window and go up, up, up, away from the inexplicable fog that held me down.
Like clockwork, I regularly confront the urge to cleanse my whole self as a way of rising from what has become a perpetual fog of depression. To rid my space of the excess of objects that seem to be holding me down is a form of excavation. In the past few years, I have emptied my room two times over of boxes and boxes and boxes of books that have accumulated over the course of three literature degrees and a lifetime of loving what it feels like to own a book.
The expulsion of books from my shelves was distinctly more difficult than emptying all the clothes from my closet. I followed organizational wizard Marie Kondo’s guidelines, held each book in my hand and asked if it brought me joy. I didn’t want to keep every book; there were so many I wanted to release myself from, the sheer weight of them holding me back – but joy? Surely, the place a book should have in my life could not be measured on the same scale of joy used to categorize a sweater, a sock, or even a cherished pair of jeans? Books held all that clothes held – nostalgia, potential, memory – but, they also made up the architecture of how I learned to think of myself, of the world around me, and of my place in that world.
There was too much – my shelves bent under the weight of too many books. I emptied my shelves, but the books stayed in their boxes, piled at the bottom of our stairs, shoved in any available open space in the basement, stuffed into the trunk of my car alongside windshield wiper fluid and jumper cables, their destinies in limbo. I’d let them go, without letting them go. My shelves were lighter and brighter, my room more breathable, but the books were still stuffed into the subconscious, subterranean levels of my mind. I held onto the knowledge that they were still there, avoided the task of deciding where to send them, sidelined that internal confrontation, the one that required that I ask what these books were doing to me, for me, what did they give me that I couldn’t bear to let go?
As I sorted through my books, in search of the winged girl on the blue cover, I didn’t bask in the nostalgia of a childhood reading history peppered with well-loved classics – some were there, of course, Heidi, and Nancy Drew, and books by Judy Blume. But mostly, I saw an accumulation of books, rather than a collection. The books I owned as a child were most often given to me as gifts, a few purchased at the school book fair by my mother, some pulled from the “withdrawn” trolley at the library, many hand-me-downs from neighbours and family friends who had outgrown the stories I would soon spend hours reading again and again. They were not carefully selected tomes, but rather, stories that I consumed because they were there and they were free and they were mine to keep. This access meant that these books became my world. They guided my tastes, my desire to consume more of the same. I would search out similar books at the library seeking out the same fictional patterns, relying on the same hits of pleasure and excitement.
And so, the books I absorbed as a child before I had developed taste and a sense of what was good, or even what I truly enjoyed, were the books – for better or worse – that contributed to the way I perceived myself in the world in ways that no other physical object could have done. In this squashed box in the corner of our basement, cob-webbed in misty blue basement light, the novels from my childhood served as the blueprint to my tender, fitful heart.
Like many girls, I fell in love with Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield of the Sweet Valley Twins series while I was in elementary school. I read them compulsively, without understanding that my automatic glorification of their lives, their looks, their family, their communities – their everything – was a direct result of the formulaic ways in which popular serialized books for young girls were written. The physical descriptions of the girls and their important relationships were replicated at the start of every book – a form of repetitive world building that created a reliable source of imagery that I drew upon regularly in my everyday imaginings of what life could be like. The series ran a monthly essay contest where readers could write in explaining why they loved The Sweet Valley Twins so much. One winner, ten-year-old Jenny from California, wrote how she could relate to the twins, that they “live an ordinary life just like I do. It isn’t like Cinderella or Snow White. It is real life.” Jenny’s picture was printed on the inside front cover of the book, her long, shining blonde hair, 90s t-shirt and earrings, and shy smile a representation of the kind of reader who could see her life replicated in the lives of the twins. I drew stars and a moon around Jenny’s head and wrote her name in my own cursive, trying to replicate what it would be like to sign her name.
For Jenny, the twins were relatable. For me, they were aspirational. Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, with their kind, complacent parents, their network of adoring friends, their happy, perfect endings – these were the internal images that dictated the way I moved through the world. I aspired to be like the girls, imagined myself in their shoes and tried to move through the world like they did, effortlessly included in a landscape built specifically for me. I was keenly aware of how I did not measure up, how my imperfect family could not attain the level of perfection displayed by the families in the books I read, or the families around me who seemed to match what I read, like one were made for the other. And they were, weren’t they? My fifth grade teacher with her three blonde daughters who played soccer and were so very kind – they were Sweet Valley. My best friend with the wide moon face and the long, dark hair, her South African roots just the right amount of exotic, but not too much, not like me – she could slip into Sweet Valley and be just fine, be wanted and loved. I know now that the girls I admired had complex histories of their own, but their belonging seemed so effortless and deserved. Why not me? It could be me, maybe – I would have to work hard to be in there among them all, to play a part in the story, to write myself into it.
When I was 13, my older brother purchased Book 3 of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia for me as an Eid gift. It was one of the first gifts my brother gave me, spending from his own pocket money, choosing The Horse and His Boy because it featured a horse and I was a girl who loved to read, loved to daydream, loved horses the way young girls do. I’ve kept this torn, worn paperback copy of the book on my shelf for years – it never made it to that basement box. It stayed with me because I read it and it became my favourite, this book about an orphaned boy and a talking horse. I loved stories about horses – these powerful, wild bodies in meadows, their muscled limbs beating against the good earth. I loved stories about orphans – these lone displaced figures who belonged nowhere and so could find themselves anywhere – and here, the two came together in alluring, unsettling ways. So many of my evenings were spent spread on my bed looking out my window, plotting escapes into the sky, into somewhere outside the space of my own mind where everything was crowded in static.
In the book, Shasta is a mistreated orphan who would be “given a hunk of bread and turned out of the cottage” whenever company arrived. He discovers he is not the son of the dark-skinned fisherman who “would box [his] ears and tell him to attend to his work.” Shasta begins an escape with Bree, a talking horse, to Narnia when his adoptive father tries to sell him to a “Tarkaan” with dark skin and a long beard, a man who, the horse assures him, will abuse him so badly that Shasta would “better be lying dead tonight than go to be a human slave in [the Tarkaan’s] house tomorrow.” Shasta and his horse companion make their way to “the happy land of Narnia” and along the way run into Narnian soldiers who were “fair-skinned” with “fair hair” and were dressed in “woodland green, or gay yellow or fresh blue.” They are set apart from the dark-skinned, turban wearing Calormenes who are “grave and mysterious” while the Narnians “walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed.” As a teen, I didn’t interpret this clear contrast between dark and light as a clash of cultures inspired by deep-rooted cultural biases against the Middle Eastern world. I thought the clash of colours was bright and intriguing, received the fair-skinned Narnians as beautiful creatures, and was glad that Shasta escaped his life of servitude from these long-bearded, turban wearing, dark-skinned Tarkaans. I did not connect the Tarkaans with my own cultural and ethnic heritage. I aspired to be among the Narnians, to find my place among my “true people,” just like Shasta.
I look at my childhood box of books and what I see is an accumulation of all the pages that took up space in the slick and pulsing paths of my brain. I want to let the nostalgia flourish, but I have to skid through it instead, because I, and so many children who like me didn’t look the part, or live the part, children who would never, ever fit in, who would be isolated and misplaced no matter where they went – children who weren’t white, weren’t Christian, weren’t straight, or any of the multitude of things that the world valued and validated with such vehemence – these were the children who would face a set of inherent challenges that would be the hardest to battle because their dislocation began from the inside out. Their dislocation was structural, it happened without their permission, while they were reading, while they were breathing, while they were just being in the world.
Our basement was once open, with slick cement floors, the rafters in the ceiling exposed, the insulation and pipes visible. It was space – it was open and cool and away – it was where I spread out to escape and create, though it was also a space of utility. We kept our rice, potatoes, and onions under the stairs and my brother and I dared each other to crouch into the crawlspace, to face the ghostly jinn that must live there, eating and sleeping and creeping, just like us. We washed our laundry downstairs, hung it up to dry on the lines, running against the cold smack of wet clothes. It was the liminal space of life and escape from life. It was open to us and it was what we all needed so that we could emerge upstairs into the heat of fanned summer air and rooms bursting with sunlight, our insides aligned and our brains cooled from the misty gloom of a subterranean atmosphere.
Now the basement is full – my parents say it’s full of me. It’s full of all of us, but there is so much me: there are boxes and boxes of papers and books, giant containers of art supplies, old bikes, broken shelves, my old futon, unfinished art projects, and all the implements I use to make things – broken shells and twigs, packets of glitter, dried up paint tubes, cotton batting and scrapbook paper, albums, and brushes and four types of glue. There is a giant box of my father’s records I’ve forbid him from letting go, bags of fabric that belong to my mother, but that I savour sorting through, the patterns surprising and glorious with potential. As the years went on, the basement continued to hold us, but it held less of our bodies and creative energy, and more of our things – all the things we wanted and didn’t want all at once.
I feel an urgency to drop down into my basement and empty it out – everything – just haul it all out and drop it at the curbside and watch the men in trucks pick it up and pulverize it,crush all that paper and all those words and all those objects into hard little cubes the size of my hands. And then, I want those cubes destroyed – I want all this accumulation, this excess destroyed. This paper-driven history of our lives, all the things that we hold beneath us in that blue-shadowed room – I want it gone, cleared away, a clean slate, no history to contend with, no clutter in the foundation, nothing. I want the privilege of an empty space to stand in and breathe musty, dust-filled air that becomes microscopic spores of history in my lungs. I’m standing in my basement, breathing in my own dust, just cycling through histories of my own self.
Mail Order Wings is the book I want to return to, it’s the one I pull out of the box and carry back up to my room where I study its cover, read over the pages and pinpoint the thrilling feeling of alarm and horror. Here is a girl metamorphosing against her will. Here is a girl trying to come to term with changes she didn’t expect, didn’t want. Here is a girl who wanted control. She wanted to fly and so she did it. She ordered wings, put them together, drank a suspicious potion – and then, she flew. It was exhilarating and it was terrifying. Here was a girl I already knew.
Shoilee Khan’s fiction appears in the short story collection The Unpublished City (BookThug, 2017) as well as in a diverse collection of magazines and journals. Her academic work most recently appeared in Confluences 2 (Mawenzi, 2017). She currently serves as a member of the Planning Committee for the Festival of Literary Diversity. She teaches English in the School of Communication and Literary Studies at Sheridan College and is currently a doctoral student in English Literature at York University.