Books are dangerous things. I didn’t always know that. I used to think they were windows to other worlds, portals to my other selves. I used to get lost in books, thinking them innocent, benign things that brought knowledge, and more importantly – fun. I didn’t know that I wasn’t to be seen with them. So, I mingled with them in public spaces – walking down the street, sitting on a bus, in a classroom; in private places – in my bedroom, on the kitchen stoop, in the plum tree of my neighbour’s yard, hiding under the dining table so I could read without our being disturbed. But now I know. Books are dangerous. They must be. Why else would packages of books cause such suspicion going through customs? Surely there must be something to them other than words?
So, I’m heading off to a book festival, and yes, my carry on luggage is full of books. I prefer to put them there because I’ve seen what happens to checked luggage, and my books are too precious for me to risk that fate with all of them. To protect them on the journey, they have been swathed in bubblewrap. The suitcase goes through the scanner and the officer comes over. For a moment, I wonder if it is the comb I slipped in the suitcase at the last minute that has brought suspicion. I wasn’t sure it could go in my carry-on. It has a pointy end, after all, and certainly, it was the closest thing I had to a dangerous weapon. It might only be plastic, but if there is one thing The Walking Dead has taught me it’s that anything with a pointy end can be dangerous.
“Ma’am,” the officer says. “I have to open the bag.”
“Okay,” I say, wishing the stupid comb to hell.
“She say is only books she see in there, so I have to open it and check,” the officer continues. My ghast is flabbered.
She proceeds to open a few of the packages, checks that there really are only books in them then waves me on. Jamaica, I think. Only in this place would a woman going through customs with books attract suspicion.
But I would soon learn.
Now, I’m on my way back to Jamaica and am wending my way through the almost never-ending immigration line to have my bags and person scanned. I am pulled out of the line. It’s the books again. This time, the officer does not merely check a few. She rips apart all the packages, pulls out every single book and flips through the pages. I do not know what she is looking for? With each rough turn of a page, I feel a little more violated. I didn’t know travelling with books could cause so much suspicion. My anger boils, but I know better than to be rude to an immigration officer. Only a few weeks ago I had been at a seminar where they warned, don’t engage, don’t ask what they are looking for. Just let them look.
But she is handling the books too roughly, ripping at the protective padding I have layered them in to protect them on this journey.
“You’re crushing the books,” I tell her. It is all I can manage to say. My impotent anger is threatening to manifest as tears.
“Sorry ma’am,” she says. She is polite. Nothing about her behaviour tells me this is personal. It’s not her. It’s the books. They are suspicious. Then finally it dawns on me. Maybe it isn’t the books. Maybe it’s me. In this skin what business do I have travelling with books? After all, everyone knows that people like me do not read, so I must be trying to smuggle something other than words.