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I never planned to run for library board trustee. I’d assumed I couldn’t be elected after spending my twenties as an erotica writer, to the dismay of my poor parents.
We’d come as immigrants from Sri Lanka in 1973. They’d raised me with the expectation that I would study hard, become a doctor, have a happy arranged marriage, and settle into a respectable life. When I started dating white boys in college (and nonwhite boys and, eventually, girls, too), it led to years of fierce arguments. I was writing fiction by then. Writers often write about the conflicts in their lives, and all the conflict in my own life centered on whom I was allowed to date, so I ended up writing about sex and relationships. I wrote erotica and posted it online under my own name. In my defense, the internet was so new in 1990 that it didn’t occur to me that anyone I knew in real life would ever run across these stories. So when a relative in England called up my parents and asked them if they knew what their daughter was posting on the internet, they asked, “What’s the internet?” Then all hell broke loose.
I turned to writing about race, ethnicity, and my native Sri Lanka. I wrote linked stories about mothers and daughters (and a few about fathers and sons), tracing a path from Sri Lanka in the 1940s to America and back again. Those immigrant stories became a book, Bodies in Motion (2005), and I became an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaching post-colonial literature, creative writing, and, eventually, science fiction and fantasy. I wrote The Stars Change (2015), linked stories about Sri Lankans in space. I settled down with my partner and two children in an old Victorian in Oak Park, a leafy suburb just outside Chicago. If Hillary Clinton had actually won in 2016, I might have just stayed on that path.
I had taken my ten-year-old daughter—both of us wearing suffragette white—with me to vote for Hillary; we were so excited about supporting the first woman president of America. Watching the returns that night was crushing. I’d had a rough couple of years after being diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2014. I’m fine now (knock on wood). But in 2016 I was deeply frustrated. That week, I hosted a meeting of local progressive women, and I tried to offer a few constructive suggestions for moving forward and building strategies. One woman said she thought I should run for office. I told her about my erotica past. She said that in our town, it shouldn’t be a problem.
My husband agreed to back me; it wouldn’t have been possible without him. In 2017, a lot of people wanted to see change and to be the change. In Oak Park, we had ten people running for four library board seats, the most ever. Often libraries have to practically beg people to serve on the board. This was not a typical year. And I ran my heart out. I went to a community meeting every night for months, and more on the weekends. I asked people what they wanted in our library, and listened to their answers, and in the end, I won my race. The best part is that I love the job. It did take me a while to learn the ropes, and I’ll forever be grateful to the library’s financial director, who patiently explained things as I learned how to help oversee a nine-million-dollar budget. Library board work has been a series of fascinating exercises in problem-solving to help the library staff get more of what they need in order to better serve the community.
Many of my efforts on the board in the last few years have been aimed towards raising the pay of our staffers and increasing support for their continuing education. In an era of increasing income disparities and rapid societal change, a stable and well-resourced library is an essential public good. The Sri Lankan American girl who spent so many childhood hours taking refuge in her public library is both honored and privileged to serve as a steward for her library today. And as a writer and avid reader, spending more time in a library is sheer delight!
The author of 15 books, including Bodies in Motion, a USA Today Notable Book, Mary Anne Mohanraj writes for George R.R. Martin’s Wild Card series. Her Sri Lankan American cookbook, A Feast of Serendib, is due out in March 2020. Read more at www.maryannemohanraj.com.
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