Library Love Stories: For Avani Chhaya, The Library Was Where She Found How To Feel Less 'Alone'

Oct 11, 2019

What do libraries mean to you? Are they places of learning or imagination? Or maybe a place of belonging? 

We partnered with Austin’s Library Foundation to collect your stories about what libraries mean to you. 

Today, we hear a Library Love Story from Austinite Avani Chhaya.

For as long as I can remember, reading has been my refuge. I could tuck myself away into one of my grandfather’s homemade tents, held together with twine and bedsheets, and read for hours upon hours. Reading transported me into another world entirely, filled with fantastical magic.

In school, I was struck down to earthly matters and a stark reality.

Teachers mispronounced my name and students inevitably whitewashed my Indian identity. My classmates asked me questions like, “Why does your house smell?” or “What is that in your lunchbox?” As a budding adolescent, I struggled articulating the beautiful medley of garam masala, elaichi, jeera, haldi, or hing that emanated from my mother’s cooking and wafted in my home. The aroma of those bold spices seeped into my clothing, marking me as different. I didn’t understand how to bridge my classmates’ lunches to my own filled with thepla and shaak instead of Lunchables.

So what does a kid do to navigate elementary and secondary school?

They shun everything about their South Asian identity because they ache to belong.

It wasn’t until late in high school that I borrowed a Jhumpa Lahiri book, “Interpreter of Maladies,” from my local library. I was magnetically drawn to the patterned cover that playfully danced between light and dark, between the yellows and oranges.

As I softly opened this new book, I realized that these characters looked like me with caramel skin and spice-infused homes. They sounded like me, code-switching between two languages.

Most importantly, I discovered that these fictional characters unfurled on the pages of this book never felt like they truly belonged either.

Simply, I was not alone. It was the first time I felt truly seen and represented.

These days, I wear colorful kurtas to work and fill my book lists with bold Asian-American authors. I cannot fathom to think about what might have happened if I had never found that Jhumpa Lahiri book tucked in between busy shelves at my local library.

It gave my struggles a voice. It helped me find a place for my hyphenated identity as an Indian-American.

Avani Chhaya works at the Children's Research Center at UT Austin and is a graduate student studying education and leadership policy.