Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Anxiety of Unarrived Books + Congrats to Tasha!

StitouThe anxiety of unarrived books! But what do I really mean? The books' anxiety, which is personification and therefore projection, or mine, as I await their appearance on my doorstep in New Jersey, after a week's (or less) journey from a UPS store in Chicago? Clothes, toiletries, etc., I never worry about; in fact, after having to switch my ticket at the last minute on Monday, which led me to be subjected to an IML-style pat-and-poke down (by a very thorough but polite TSA rep at O'Hare who slightly favored Ving Rhames), I momentarily worried about my four pieces of checked luggage (which included an elaborately taped iMac box that I'd filled with clothes and desert boots) being ripped open and half my summer clothes ending up in some underground quarantine room, but then thought, I do have some clothes in New Jersey, and my partner has great taste and I can always wear his clothes, so...but those books, a number of which are university library volumes! Please let them get here, and in as close shape as possible to how they were when I shipped them!

My worst experience with shipping books occurred once during a trip to Europe. Whenever I travel, I inveterately start acquiring books. I can't help myself. I love books, I always have, I like holding them, reading them, putting them on the shelves, pulling them off, stacking them--I love the sheer materiality of books, as well as what's in them. And if they're by unknown or Black or LGBT or other authors who fall outside the mainstream traditions in the societies I'm visiting, so much the better. On one trip, my partner and I got very affordable tickets to Brussels (a city that is worth seeing, with some of the most delicious food I've ever eaten), and so we decided we once again try the European train system, which ought to be a model for the US, except that it receives extensive government subsidies so it'll never have a chance here. The previous time we'd traveled cross-country by train over there, we went south from France to Spain (Barcelona, well before the Olympics, and people stared at us in the street, and Madrid, where we met beautiful Egyptians we mistook for Puerto Ricans) and Portugal (where I was shooed out of a restaurant until I challenged the waiter in English, at which point he immediately backtracked and invited me to stay; this is the only overtly racial incident I've ever experienced outside the US); this time we decided to do a loop through Paris, on to Amsterdam, and then return to Brussels.

At each stop I bought books. In Brussels, I picked out one novel whose cover stood out, and 2 or 3 that a bookseller suggested were new or different Belgian literary works (in French, not Flemish); in Paris, I snapped up a number of tomes, from works I'd wanted for a long time (a novel by Martinican Edouard Glissant, collections of poems by Michel Deguy, Anne-Marie Albiach and Dominique Hocquard) to relatively recent LGBT literature (Erik Remès, Rachid O., etc.) at several bookstores in the Marais (including les Mots à la Bouche, which I've previously blurbed in an earlier blog entry); in Amsterdam I found a wonderful poetry store (the name escapes me) along one of the canals, and bought books by the young Moroccan Dutch poet Mustafa Stitou, whom I'd never heard of and the Netherlands Antillean writer Astrid Roemer, whose work I knew only from brief translations. I was so excited by this cache, which I had already begun cataloguing that it was only as we were getting ready to leave Amsterdam that I realized it was too large to carry back with us. I've stuffed my bags full of books before, but this was pushing it. So I made a logical decision to mail them back to the US. I took them to the post office, purchased a box which the attendant meticulously taped up, attaching my clearly penned mailing label right in front of me, then I headed back to the hotel, never once thinking that anything bad might happen to that box.

Something bad, however, did happen to that box. That box arrived in Jersey City, but encased in a plastic sheath with an apologetic pre-printed message from the US Postal Service. I've seen both the sorry wrap and the message before, and my blood pressure rose. Inside the body-bag, my box was badly smashed up, half-torn open, crumpled. One of its flaps was missing completely. It looked as though it had been kicked across ten Dutch soccer fields by several grade school teams, dropped from an airplane into the Grand Canyon, fished out, then shot by rocket against every wall along the Eastern seabord. It wasn't a box anymore; it was a deconstructionist's or minimalist's idea of a box. And not a talented or inventive one's. Naturally and worst of all, many of the books were no longer in it. In fact, most of the books were no longer in it. Most of the French books, and the Belgian books in French, and the Roemer book...only 3 remained, and of those, only the Stitou book hadn't also been mangled. Remarkably. The other two were in bad shape. The spine of the Deguy book was broken. I was so disappointed...and enraged. Shit happens, I know. But what shit had happened in this case? Who or what had done this to this box? And where were all those books? I assumed that postal inspectors had assumed it was filled with bricks of hashish (which is legal in the Netherlands and which I imagine some visitors to that country may believe can be mailed without incident back to their home countries), or an automated machine process had gone very, very awry, or it'd been unfortunately perched on a mountain of boxes being loaded onto an airplane, whereupon it fell off, onto the tarmac, and another's plane's wheel or wheels could not break its/their fate with the rectangular, heavily taped, cardboard object lying before it/them.... On top of this, the disappearance of almost all the French-language books (this was well before the widespread US hatred of France because of its vocal anti-Iraq War stance) made me wonder....

Now I've had mail "accidents," mail nightmares, mail horrors before. In fact, every time I return to Chicago in the fall to teach, I realize how great the learning curve is for our postal service in terms of its "temporary" forwarding option. As a kindly postal worker told me just this past week, sometimes there are "situations," so I should be extra-vigilant in taking my mail's destiny in my own hands (notes to the postmaster, forms, you name it). I've had letters ripped open, "accidentally," gnarled, scrunched into two-dimensional bellows. Reggie H. sent me a musical flier that a gremlin or gremlinesque machine gnawed into one diagonal strip that I took to be a kind of appetizer--this is just a taste, so bring your ass down to Baltimore and hear the music live. But I'd never had a mail experience quite like this one. I contacted the US Post Office, using the claim number that was attached to that bizarre, clear sleeve. Of course they were no help. They directed me in all directions, I spoke to a postmaster (or assistant postmaster, I can't remember), blah blah blah, they were so sorry, Johnny, but they didn't know where the books might be, etc. Et cetera. That about sums it up. I never saw the books again. And as I've posted before, one of the publishers ceased publishing one entire, important line I'd sampled a few volumes from, so that was that. Nevermore.

So I await the books from Chicago with some trepidation. The brotha who owns the UP Store from which I shipped them assured me that DHL, the carrier I used this time, isn't a problem (and I once worked in an office that only used DHL, with no problems I can ever recall or was blamed for), unlike UPS, which "lost" one of my boxes at a transit point in rural Illinois last fall--they still can't account for what happened, it simply separated itself from the others--though I finally did get it shipped to me, a bit battered but containing all its expected contents. But then the Dutch postal worker had also assured me my box of books--far smaller, far better wrapped--would reach my US address, as it was, without fail. I have faith in the brotha, but still....


I want to give a special shout out to Tasha Hawthorne, an excellent graduate student I had the pleasure of reading late 19th and 20th century American and European poetry closely with this past winter and spring, who passed her Ph.D. orals today! I knew she would, because she's brilliant! CONGRATULATIONS, Tasha!


  1. ah!

    (1) Good luck on the arrival of your books!

    (2) We should talk "overtly racial incidents" outside of the US sometime.

    (3) Yay for shouting out your student! I salute you, too, Tasha!

  2. good luck i hope your books get to you john...i've had my own experiences with getting things from outside the us only to have them come to my doorstep badly damaged or not at all....

    congrats to tasha and yea! for you mentioning her...

    gotta run downtown to get a free pass for HIGH TENSION, the french horror film that's coming out here in the states the SAME DAY as Mr. and Mrs. Smith...and hopefully schedule an appointment to see a doctor (per my most recent post at my blog) before i start work (contract position) on monday...

  3. Thanks, Mendi and Ryan, the books arrived today, and the boxes were in very good shape!!!

    I am so proud of Tasha; I haven't heard if the other Black graduate student, a wonderful woman named Janaka, passed her orals, so I've been sending messages around, but I hope she did too. I'm sure she did. One thing that's utterly important to me at ______ University is to see that every Black student, especially the ones in the small and difficult graduate program, make it through. They certainly do not have an easy time, I can tell you, even though ______ is considerable to be one of the more liberal institutions out there.

  4. I could almost cry remembering all the boxes of books that disappeared, etc. But then, after a tour of New Delhi's wonderful bookstores and stalls, I opted not to have my books shipped. I had brought an extra suitcase and two bags, and packed everything onto the plane. I could have opened a small boutique with the booty I brought back, but I wasn't stopped at all through customs. Go figure.

    Also, I have a photo album of overtly racist imagery observed overseas, and a cocktail hour of overtly racist tales, first person, of overseas travels...
    you are lucky!

  5. Tisa, I think I remember you telling me about not having problems shipping the books back from India; I never bring enough extra bags, to tell the truth. I'm also always afraid of losing bags too.

    I HAVE seen much racist imagery overseas, and I do recall some of your awful experiences, so I think I've been very, very lucky. You know, the very first time I went to France, I was SO on guard; I was sure they were going to be so racist it would make me ready to throw down at every streetcorner. But it was the exact opposite. I was very surprised. They did stare at us in Barcelona, but people were actually quite friendly, and asked if we were athetes (years later in Amsterdam: "Are you sporters?"), which I think may have had some effect on people's overall behavior. Of course there was no need to ask us this in either DR or Brazil, since the majority of people in DR, and the majority in Salvador and Rio, are black. But in terms of racist imagery, it has been quite apparent everywhere we've gone. I always am keyed to be ready for the racism; I know about the racist structure of every one of these societies, and the overt racism that non-white people in them experienc. That time in Portugal was the one moment when it was just grossly overt, and otherwise the people in Lisbon were fine. But then again, we were convinced that Lisbon was really an African city, since we really saw no one who would, under US circumstances, be considered "white," and came across more than a few people (including a gigantic crowd, one day, of nothing but black folks) from Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, etc....