When I was very new in the USA I took a decision that would change my life.
I had always been an avid reader, so while my one-year-old was napping I traded Le Monde for The San Francisco Chronicle and Libération for The San Jose Mercury News. In addition I read the free papers that back in the 90s I could find all over the San Francisco Bay.
With the help of my French English dictionary I searched for the words I didn’t understand and wrote them with their translation in a notebook. When I think of this period of time, I remember being tired but also determined. Sometimes I wish to be as focused and relentless as I was.
Even for the news junkie I am, the newspapers could be a little boring. Since I had no money I spent a lot of time at the public library. One day as I was choosing picture books for my little girl, I saw a sign on a table:
I had learned that “librarian” was my French “bibliothécaire” while “bookseller” was my “libraire.”
I assumed that a pick was a good book.
Meanwhile my daughter got a little impatient, so I grabbed the first book on the table.
At home I read the picture book to my daughter. I always translated the story in French because I didn’t want my child to catch my accent, so it always took longer than it should have.
When she was finally asleep I started Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan.
Back then I had no idea that Ms. McMillan was an African American author who wrote urban fiction.
I had no idea what these words meant.
In all honesty the novel wasn’t the kind I used to read in France. But two significant events happened with this book.
For the first time I was able to read without the constant support of my dictionary.
Then the author came to town for a signing.
I had to go. I went.
It was one of the saddest days in my new American life.
I didn’t get a single word during the author’s event.
I left, embarrassed, sad, ashamed, discouraged. You get the picture.
Outside night had fallen, and the sky had filled with countless stars.
I would have given anything to be back in Paris. But since my husband was working in the Bay Area and I had no intention to leave him my only choice was to get my act together. I didn’t wish upon a star but made the promise to work harder and to become fluent in English.
Although neither Terry McMillan nor urban fiction is my favorite author and genre, I’ve never forgotten the book that ignited my decision.
In the fall, while attending a literary event, I bumped into James Tyner, the Poet Laureate for the city of Fresno for the next two years. While he read his poems and told of his job as a librarian in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Fresno, I knew his branch was the perfect place to give books away on World Book Night.
I prepared my application and when I saw that Waiting to Exhale was on the list of books to give on April 23, I knew it had to work.
When James told me that urban fiction was the favorite genre among his patrons and that Waiting to Exhale was regularly stolen, I could hardly contain my emotion.
Two days ago World Book Night sent me an e-mail: I am in and twenty copies of Waiting to Exhale are mine to give away.
I don’t believe in destiny, only in possibilities and choices, but I like symbols.
On April 23, I will meet with a group of people who live in an underserved neighborhood and are socially and economically challenged.
In appearance there is little in common between them and me.
But Waiting to Exhale.
If only I can summon the overwhelming emotions that followed that freaking signing event, I’ll be able to convey the invaluable impact of a book on a life.
Now, your turn.
Are you a giver on World Book Night 2014? Have you been in the past? Has a book played a significant role in your life?