By Dylan McGarry

A tiny book I wrote entitled “Suitably Strange”, so small it fits in the palm of your hand, or in your back pocket.

Imagine an entire hand-made library that could fit in a rucksack. A library that contained books made by all kinds of people. A book about the types of birds found in Filandia, Colombia by a group of six year olds. A book about water wise gardening by a grandmother from the rural Eastern Cape in South Africa. A book on how to dismantle power by an Ecological Economist and Environmental Justice Activist, and or a book about how to make a book, about books. These books are emerging out of our networks, and they are changing how we share, affirm, recognise and work with various ways of being, doing and knowing.

The tiny books aim to democratize knowledge, and open up new ways of being and doing in the world, that are accessible to everyone.

The “Tiny Books project” was birthed at our latest t-learning gathering and Living Aulas (or living classrooms) summer school, alongside our sister networks of ACKNOWL-EJ and Pathways.  In June 2018, in Colombia, the tiny book project was launched by Simon Kuany and myself as a way to democratize complex knowledge systems across a diverse group of academic activists. The gathering included a collective of Knowledge Action Networks (funded by the International Social Science Council’s, ISSC Transformations to Sustainability project) to share our three-year intensive collective practice-based research into understanding transformations to sustainability.

During this process, it became increasingly overwhelming to adequately hold and honour the complex, rich, and thickly described narratives that bubbled to the surface in the social learning space.  The knowledge ranged from deeply intuitive embodied forms of knowing to traditional academic theories. We needed to find a way to hold onto this richness and depth, without favouring one way of knowing over another, and to share these different ‘learnings’ in small digestible and relatable parts, again without diminishing, categorizing or losing their contexts. We found ways to simplify how we share these knowledges and perhaps a way to democratize how people could enter into the discussions and dialectic emerging in the space. Inspired by a suggestion from Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisika to “make something simple” of the bigger more complex narrative, we devised an intuitive process of creating tiny books that spoke to one aspect of our stories we were carrying.

What inspired us the most was how complex, contextually nuanced and evolving knowledge(s) could be easily and simply explained and shared in these tiny books. Leah Temper in her tiny book manages in 16 pages to articulate power dimensions and offers a simple framework for engaging power through a series of thoughtful and satirical questions. Lena Weber in her tiny book poetically describes our collective new vision for a university that acknowledges embodied, erotic and intuitive knowledge, titled: “a Pluraversity for Stuck Humans”. Gibson Mphepho writes a tiny book from the perspective of the weeping women of Malawi, whose lake is drying up and they are having to navigate misogyny and drought simultaneously. His tiny book carefully and richly describes their plight in a fictional letter to the president of Malawi. Rebecca Shelton shares a poignantly and neat narrative on reflexivity and shifting ontological framing in her tiny book entitled “Reflect: where to turn the mirror”. The Colombian team wrote a tiny book entitled “Cooking Chicha for cockroaches” which is a beautiful fable explore contemplative social practice and activism.

On returning to South Africa we shared the Tiny Project with our larger team at the Environmental Learning Research Centre, at the University Currently known as Rhodes. Post Doc research Jess Cockburn wrote a profound illustrated narrative that presented the crux of her doctoral research on “patchwork” landscapes and collaborative social learning. Professor Eureta Roseburg wrote an illustrated tiny-book on Monitoring and Evaluation, using the allegory of road signs and reading omens. Tom Jeffery a PhD student with us, wrote a tiny book on how to decolonise stuffy old museums into living, breathing and vital places of learning.

We were also lucky to have Sophie Mullins-Poole, a grade 11 student at a local high-school in our town join us for a short work experience programme. In that time, she created a politically powerful tiny-book that carefully and creatively explains intersectionality[1] through asking the question “how heavy is your backpack?”. Using a metaphor of a backpack filled with bricks, she tells the story of how layered and uneven prejudice and privledge is experienced. Even more recently we had a seed activist Claire Rousell visit us at the centre and she was able to express and share her work around seed/food sovereignty, her personal and professional longings and her future plans in a beautiful illustrated tiny book entitled “A path’s manifesto”.

My first tiny book, spoke to a concept I have been carrying for over a decade but struggled to share simply, the idea of ‘suitably strange’ creative practice, and its role in transgressive learning and public pedagogy. I am speaking specifically here, of the kind of learning that is needed to push us beyond the norm, to transgress oppressive boundaries and ‘un-stuck’ ourselves from capitalistic individualism, positivistic tunnel vision and socio-cultural violence’s like misogyny, patriarchy, structural racism, ecological apartheid etc. The tiny book helped me clarify and articulate the varied and multifaceted connective aesthetics and pedagogical innovation that have been evolving in my day to day life.

What makes these tiny books so powerful is that they all fit on a A4 double-sided single sheet of paper, that is easily folded three times into a tiny A7 pocket-sized, 16 page illustrated booklet. They are cheaply and easily reproduced, require little technical skill or equipment. They can be produced by children and adults, by tertiary educated and illiterate people alike (the latter are created by the use of demonstrative images)

We will be sharing the Tiny Book process at the World Social Forum in Japan next month, and in my backpack, I am able to carry with me our whole network of incredible change drivers and share a carefully and personally conceived facet of them and their world.

Watch this space for our online downloadable Tiny Book library.



[1] Intersectionality, defined by Sophie’s reading is a theory that describes the layering of the building blocks of bigotry to increase the weight of oppression and discrimination on an individual.