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  • Writer's pictureMalsa Maaz

Island State of Mind: A Sea of Stories & Sandy Toes

Wow! Where do I start? If someone had told me that I would be running a pop-up bookshop in Soneva Jani, on the infamous jetty which snakes across the sparkling turquoise lagoon, I would not have believed them. I mean, Lonely Planet has called it a ‘dream job’ and let me tell you, it really is.

Hi, I am Malsa and I am honoured to introduce myself as the first Maldivian Barefoot Bookseller. Just like our last Barefoot Bookseller Bianca Harland who has a degree in Nutrition, I don’t share the same path as the previous Soneva Booksellers who have experience in bookselling and publishing. I have just completed my MRes in Engaged Anthropology. So, you may be wondering, what is an anthropologist doing selling books?!

Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human

This is what my lecturer said in the first class and I found that absolutely beautiful. Anthropology as a discipline has a complicated history, but it has changed over the years and now you can find anthropologists working just about anywhere from urban settings, corporate entities, hospitals and now, in desert island bookshops...

I initially heard about this job last year during the first lockdown while I was still studying in Wales. The first lockdown was surreal. The high streets once filled with street performers and bustling with curious window shoppers looking for a good bargain shut down and became eerily quiet and bleak. Little kids enjoying an ice cream after school in the neighbourhood parks, regular pub-goers catching up on their day over a pint and the delicious aroma of freshly brewed coffee when you passed busy cafés all disappeared. Supermarkets remained open, but the empty aisles and shelves left behind by panic buyers made it feel like we were living in a post-apocalyptic world. Perhaps what made it so terrifying was the uncertainty of everything.

So naturally, I did what any bookworm would do: I found solace in books. I was determined to get back into reading for pleasure which is usually impossible when you are a student. With this new sense of purpose, I joined a lot of book club groups on Facebook where I connected with people from all over the world over our shared love of reading.

It was on one of these book groups that I first saw an article about a dream job selling books in paradise. Intrigued, I clicked on it without even realising that it was based in the Maldives. The book lover and the Maldivian in me jumped, screamed and spent the whole evening telling any book club member who would listen that it was in my country! I was so thrilled. However, at this point, I was still in university. So, I told myself ‘One day...’

A few months passed by, and I moved back home to the Maldives after six years. Although I am not a city person, I realised that I had missed Malé, the little concrete jungle of a city I grew up in with its quirky coffee shops around every corner and the narrow streets that always seem to be crowded. It was wonderful being back with my family and reuniting with old friends.

But as I was nearing the end of my masters, I started panicking. I have always been a planner. I was panicking because, for the first time in my life, I did not have a solid plan. What was next for me? I had no idea. But I am sure you can guess what is coming.

I saw the Barefoot Bookseller role being advertised again, this time on a local news article that they were looking for a Maldivian candidate. Yes!!!! Can you imagine my excitement? One of the last words said to me by my late father popped into my head:

‘Opportunity comes and knocks your door once in a lifetime. Make sure you open the door and make full use of the opportunity’

Unable to sit still, I quickly updated my CV and applied. Two months later, here I am. I look forward to sharing this journey with fellow readers and book lovers. This job is more than just selling books. I get to engage with people every day over my favourite hobby, host creative writing classes, personally recommend books to avid readers from around the world.

Here is a list of some of my personal favourites from the collection here:

The Little Book of Ikigai: Live a Happy and Long Life the Japanese Way - Ken Mogi

Ken Mogi describes Ikigai as the Japanese word for describing the pleasures and meanings of life: ‘iki’ to live and ‘gai’ reason. I read this book this during my six-day quarantine when I arrived here in Soneva Jani. Although I was excited about my new journey, the quarantine period was tough with the feeling of being completely lost in an unfamiliar surroundings. This book was helpful in making me realise, it is always the pleasure of appreciating the little things in life. By slowing down and moving forward with a sense of purpose. It was only quite recently that I started getting into self-help books, and I think this will remain as one of my favourites.

Girl, Woman, Other - Bernadine Evaristo

Privilege is about context and circumstance

This book is a collection of stories reflecting the life of twelve British black women who come from different social and cultural backgrounds navigating modern-day Britain’s social hierarchy. I must admit, the unconventional writing style which she calls ‘fusion- fiction’ was challenging at first, but when I got into the book it flowed beautifully. The writing is real and raw which makes you feel a range of emotions from anger, frustration to laughter.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris

In the last few years, historical fiction has become my go-to genre. Let me loose in a bookshop, and that’s where you’ll find me.

I did a module in one of my archaeology classes called ‘Difficult Heritage’ which is concerned with dealing with a contested and awkward past. I wrote my paper on the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp and was utterly shocked at what I learnt.

After I finished this module, I got a bit obsessed with Holocaust novels, and this book in particular stuck with me as it is based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov. It was a hard-read living through the painful day to day life in Auschwitz, but it taught me to appreciate the strength of the human spirit for survival in the darkest of times.

Folk Tales of the Maldives - Xavier Romero-Frias

This is a rare gem of a book to get even in the Maldives, so I was amazed to find this book here! After having lived in the Maldives for a number of years, Spanish anthropologist Romero-Frias wrote a collection of folk stories that have contributed to the documentation of Maldivian intangible cultural heritage. Some of the popular stories include Ambofulhu & Dhambofulhu, Ranna Maari and Dhon Hiyala and Alifulhu.

A Life on Our Planet - David Attenborough

A true hero, Sir David Attenborough documents his life throughout the decades highlighting the changes he has witnessed; the impact we humans have had on this planet and what this could mean for the future. It is his urgent message for us, giving hope that if we act now, together, we can still save our planet.

“Our planet is small, isolated and vulnerable. It is the only place we have, the only place where life exists as far as we can tell. It is uniquely precious”.

This is truly an essential read for everyone!

Dear book lovers - thank you for reading this blog post. I am so inspired by the previous Barefoot Booksellers, and just like they did, I hope I can make this a creative and entertaining space for you to follow this literary journey with me. Let’s go!

Love, Malsa x

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