We have a greater ability than at any other time in history to reach out to other people with lives unlike our own, yet too often we prefer to hear the echo of our own thoughts. One of the great pleasures of reading is the giddy sensation when we connect; truly connect, with another mind. We feel we understand them despite their different experience of the world.

The Empathy Museum, through its many audio recordings, offered the chance to walk in someone’s shoes, to hear their story. But what if the story changed? What if it could answer you back? We are, after all, more than one story.

Recently I was asked to curate a ‘human library’ composed of people with lived experience of prison. The human library idea originated in Denmark and was designed to combat stereotypes. People could visit the library and borrow a ‘Muslim’ or a ‘Young single mother’ and chat to them for a while. Intriguing, but I don’t like labels. Wasn’t that part of the problem? I didn’t want nine ‘exoffenders’ in my human library. These were people with their own stories, their own words. They would answer questions but I needed a way to present them to potential readers, a staging that would give a shape to their experience using their own words. The library catalogue would contain nine short narratives, allowing readers to choose who they would like to speak to. These could be the start of the conversation but the books would be in control.

Other parts of the Danish human library project I liked: having ‘librarians’ to guide people, and time limits (fifteen minutes maximum) to keep things focused. Essentially it is the staging of conversations. Instead of people speaking to an audience, or being lost on a panel, there would be multiple small intimate conversations, the content of which I would never know. It would take place within the Warwick University exhibition The Production of Truth, Justice, and History at the Tate Modern.

‘What if people ask something we’re not comfortable with?’ one of the Nine asked.
Just tell them that’s not in the book

To be
I was never the kind of person to get into trouble, but there I was sewing tracksuit bottoms in a prison for foreign nationals. Did I mention I was British? The first prison I was put in they asked me to choose what I wanted to eat the night before from the menu. Next day I go to the canteen and they tell me they haven’t any of what I ordered left. They’d run out. I was told you should have come earlier. How was I to know? Sewing tracksuit bottoms wasn’t great. Make a leg and pass it on. There was an older Nigerian lady next to me who used to help. She had a bad back, so I would sew a few extra and put them in her basket. One day, just for a laugh, I sewed a bee into the bottom of one of the tracksuit’s legs. People saw what I had done and laughed. Those clothes go to all different prisons. Quite a while later I’m sent to a different prison. I’ve got my enhanced, so I don’t have to wear prison clothes anymore. I take my prison tracksuit down to the laundry, and when I take it off I find the bee in the trouser leg! I don’t know how long it had been there, but I knew then it was all meant to be. I’m not angry or bitter like many. I know now what I’m going to do with myself.
Brenda Birungi is an emerging young artist and poet.

‘I don’t think I can do this. I’ve got butterflies.’ Within our Nine are some who have spoken at events previously, and others for whom this is the very first time.

Martin, who has the butterflies, hasn’t done anything like this before.
We all try to encourage him but he’s doubtful. When we break for lunch we realise Martin hasn’t returned from his cigarette break, and isn’t answering his phone. We’re all convinced he’s done a runner, but the truth is he simply got lost. The Tate is huge. Step out for a cigarette, turn around, and it’s easy to lose your way.

After lunch we’re ready. We set up three reading spaces – hoping we will have at least three readers. The Nine cluster around a table and swap prison stories, wondering who will be chosen first. Would people turn up?

From the moment the ‘library’ opens we have readers waiting, and Martin is the first to get his fifteen minutes. He comes back face aglow, and buzzing. Full of praise for his reader. ‘She really listened.’ And then we are laughing because the next reader wants Martin too, and it is so good to see his nervousness melt away.

The Library is a hit. We have a queue! My three sets of chairs have become five as conversations mushroom, springing up around the space, in the windows, around the tables, but each with its intimacy, its own bubble. All these conversations are centre stage but I hear none of them. It’s just the book and the reader, and the pleasure, the buzzy connection clear on their faces. People sit with serious intent – they laugh, and they cry. This is a living reading. Living gives mood. Living means each conversation will be different each time. Living means interruptions. Living means there is an edge. Some of those who come are already involved in the criminal justice system, some come from the larger Warwick University exhibition, and some were drifting through the Tate and saw the signs.

After a couple of hours the queue dies down. I check that everything is going well, and when I turn back, a man is waiting. I ask who he would like to speak to. Instead he stares at me and says, ‘What is this Criminal Justice?’

I start to explain the premise of the library but he interrupts.
‘I say, what is Criminal Justice?’ He says it with enough force that I can see people turn to look at us.
‘How can you have justice when you have a royal family who are corrupt?’
I can see Tate security hovering just behind the man, and one of my colleagues takes a stand next to me.

The man faces me, a little closer than comfortable, less than an arms reach. He does not smile, and his voice is harsh, and the English is expelled from his mouth in broken sentences. Again and again he comes back to what is justice? This is not a philosophical debate, or not quite. He launches into a tirade about the royal family, particularly Prince Philip who, in his eyes, preys on the poor. My questioner demands my close attention, as if I am a little slow picking up on his words.
‘How is it that Prince Philip can miraculously recover from illness? First he is ill, and cancels an engagement. Then is well again the next day. This is impossible for a man in his nineties, no?’
My questioner is convinced this can only be the result of organ donation, or rather the stealing of organs from the poor, those on the streets. How else can these people recover so fast? And as this is clearly the truth, how can I say there is such as thing as a criminal justice system, when the rich and the privileged are literally harvesting the poor?

We’re standing toe-to-toe and I can see that university and Tate staff are nervous. They are waiting for me to deal with this man – the last thing I want is for him to be escorted away. He deserves his fifteen minutes. And I do understand the need for explanations. It’s what we all want, and at one level the idea that the rich and privileged suck the life from others is not untrue. I wish we had more of a common language, as I often enjoy this sort of conversation. Trying to figure out the world. Not putting it to rights, but rather working out where we share points of understanding so we can turn over a few stones together. My questioner wants a conversation about justice based on how he sees the world. It is important to him. We continue, with me edging around his reality, occasionally sliding into it when I feel I grasp a concept. He gets his fifteen minutes, and then we part. He seems satisfied that he has been heard, and the security guards stand down.

Back at the ‘library’ we can begin to wind down. It has been frantic but the Nine are jubilant. It has been a good day for them. They have been properly paid for their time, and they were the centre of the work, rather than puppets wheeled on and wheeled off to justify some charitable programme. We talk about how important ‘lived experience is.’

‘It’s in our bodies, in how we move.’

Not everyone is convinced they had found a real audience at the Tate. ‘We should be in town, in pubs doing this. These people know all this already.’

But the majority feel it was an achievement.

‘It was when people said ‘Can I ask about your crimes?’ That respect bowled me over.’

‘They were amazing. Two were victims of crimes, and they wanted to hear from me whether prison would work.’

‘I didn’t realise how institutionalised I was. I thought it hadn’t got to me but these conversations made me realise.’

As we left it seemed to me everyone walked a little taller. The staging, the catalogue, The Tate, the exhibition all enabled people to be ready for that simplest of pleasures – an honest conversation.

The inspiration for this Human Library was shaped between Ana Chamberlen (Sociologist at the University of Warwick) and Charlotte Weinberg, Executive Director of Safe Ground.