Joy came to visit at the beginning of August. A friend from the first time the Goblin had found herself stranded in London. She’d couch surfed with a couple of Canadians near Marylebone Station and Joy had been resident in the basement of the basement flat. She had been an island of baking, dancing and canal walks in an otherwise tumultuous ocean of a year but geography had gotten the better of both of them for a time, depositing their lives on opposite ends of the earth for a long while.
Sunday morning was breakfast and coffee for days and our words wandered over many subjects, one of which was recent books we had read. Joy suggested the Goblin listen to Levar Burton’s podcast; the actor reading short fiction, often speculative or sci-fi, always curated with the care and taste of a true short story connoisseur.
And so she does.
The Goblin works and Levar Burton reads to her and one day the story is The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar. It centers a Lebanese girl who comes to live first in England and later in Glasgow after war erupts between her home country and Israel. It’s about identity, one’s relationship to family and home, owls and Welsh mythology. The summary makes it sound bloated but El-Mohtar sews these things together with a delicacy that hides the stitches completely.
It is this story that disrupts a channel in the Goblin’s thinking that had been worn so deep and run so true for so long, she had never really considered it alterable.
The Goblin is all fractured immigrant blood and trouble from her Grandparent’s down and since the days she was first forced to think about it as a child having racist epithets cast her way in ignorance, curiosity and cruelty, she has thought of herself as a ‘mongrel’. It is a self deprecating word with an ugly history when applied to those of mixed heritage but it has always made the Goblin feel tough and proud. She came to it herself and wore it like a leather jacket, a two fingered salute to the world.
The girl in the short story finds solace in an owl sanctuary in Glasgow, and finds kinship with a barn owl and friendship with the woman who takes care of the bird. When the girl is describing her frustration at the mess of conflicting pieces currently trying to find coherence within herself, the owl handler says coolly, “There’s a word for that…anthology.”
Something in the Goblin’s brain clicks, a door opens, light pours out. It cannot be closed again.
The Goblin had never thought of it like that, transcending blood and lines drawn on maps. To be an Anthology made sense of the fragments, secrets and stories that made up all the people, lives, political and personal upheavals that led to her coming into the world. It not only described the cacophony of identities within her but it gave authorship to her ancestry. Sometimes in conflict, sometimes under impossible odds, they were collected together and bound up beneath one skin. For the first time it gave an anchor to something in her that had always felt set adrift from a cultural identity, from physical roots.
The owl handler gives another name to this, the Latin word for anthology:
It means a collection of flowers. The Goblin imagines them gathered on a journey that spans generations, continents and the mercurial nature of countries and borders, dried and pressed between pages under her tough mongrel hide. And perhaps most poignantly turned something that had always made her feel defensive and sometimes ugly, into something beautiful.
Such are the magical properties of fleeting visits from old friends, audio books and owls.
You can listen to Levar Burton read to you and have your life changed forever here: