Some of My Best Friends Are…

By Stéphanie Pham-Dang

I have been an academic law librarian for over 11 years. I’m proudly born and raised in Montréal. 

I studied law about 20 years ago mostly for the wrong reasons, obvious ones for immigrants of first and second generations. Of course, I got lost along the way…Yet those LL.B years were the best ones of my student life. In those days, most law students were undergraduates in Québec, Canada – unlike the rest of North America. At the graduation ball, I was voted the Sunshine Student, a 22-year-old spontaneous and bookish social butterfly. Many students thought I was rather akin to the moon, i.e., the French idiom: être dans la lune (a daydreamer).  

Image par Stéphanie Pham-Dang on Canva

Many events occurred in my young adult life. I couldn’t explain to myself why I let them happen. As if I was unconsciously sabotaging every opportunity that came to me. Back then, nobody talked or even knew about anxiety, including myself… I was young and thus energetic. Coping… most of the time. I spent several more years trying to upgrade my résumé, tailored to be a very traditional legal one.

One day in my late 20s, I was at a crossroads. It was terrifying. As if my next decision would impact the rest of my existence. I couldn’t allow myself to make a mistake. Back then, I didn’t know it was “normal”: anxious people are often poorly decisive. And so, I reluctantly completed a Master’s in Information Sciences (MIS). This time, at the graduation party, I was awarded the Woody Allen Prize (in other words, voted the Most Neurotic Student!). Then, I let Life decide my future, getting head-hunted for a stable job with very few eligible applicants. The job I still hold today.

A lot of people have had great expectations of me because I had “potential”. And I felt that I have disappointed and deceived them all. My, oh, my, had I known pleasing others could become endless! I was miserable. And most of all, clueless about social anxiety, performance anxiety, etc. Well, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in general.

One day, I became a psychiatric patient, diagnosed with a “new” thing: premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Turns out I’m cray-cray 50% of the time (approximately 14 days in a regular 28-day cycle). But hey, the glass is half full, right?

Maybe because I’ll soon be in a dreaded new age bracket, I realised life is too short and I decided to finally love myself. Soooo cliché. No more fitting in, striving for constant approval, comparing myself with others, etc. 

Why am I still an academic law librarian? It reflects my core professional values: education, justice, intellectual curiosity. And I’m really, really, really, good at my job. Patrons thank me daily. I now embrace my eccentricity and my intensity. I’m not your typical librarian. I’m loud and spontaneous. Some might say theatrical. But then again, is there such a thing as being “typical”? I have learned about unconscious biases we all (including I!) have in mind.

In the past, I relied on many saviors: some are from my personal life, some are professionals, some are spiritual, and some are just plain pharmacological. Today, I know I can mostly count on myself to be okay and that’s enough. I am my own savior, in the end. And some of my best friends are… books. For as long as I can remember, I have never felt lonely when reading a great book. That’s how I made peace with my career.  

To all of you who are reading this and struggling with their independent tormented minds, I am honored to pass on (i.e., the purpose of this collective blog) some of my favorite law-related books. 

I thank the characters I love for their unique weirdness; the non-fiction heroes I admire through their exceptional biographies or memoirs; and the poets I cherish for their beautiful concise choice of words. Some are even my cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) magic phrases … for those of you who use this method in psychology to deal with mental illness.

L. Prang & Co, P. & L. Prang & Co, C. C. (1873) Jefferson’s ten rules. Presented by the publishers of Prang’s American chromos. , 1873. [Boston: L. Prang & Co., Boston, fine art publishers] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017650322/.

Jefferson’s ten rules by Thomas Jefferson (1839)

  • One of the American Founding Fathers. Was a lawyer, among other many professions. He described those rules as a “decalogue of canons for observation in practical life.” Jefferson was obsessed with books. More details about his personal collection, via the Library of Congress webpage.
  • So, no, I’m not talking about the famous Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018).

L. Prang & Co, P. & L. Prang & Co, C. C. (1873) Jefferson’s ten rules. Presented by the publishers of Prang’s American chromos. , 1873. [Boston: L. Prang & Co., Boston, fine art publishers] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017650322/.

The prophet by Kahlil Gibran (1923)

  • A spiritual poetic fiction of a prophet’s timeless insights on crime and punishment, on laws, and every other aspect of life.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Scout, a young narrator describing the struggles and the integrity of her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch battling the racist justice system of the rural South during the Depression era.

Chốn Vắng (No Man’s Land) by Duong Thu Huong (translated by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong, 2002)

  • Political dissident, advocate of human rights and democratic reform, Huong was expelled from the Communist Party in 1990, then arrested and imprisoned without trial. 
  • A marital triangle: a missing war hero legally presumed dead survives and comes back to his native village. Meanwhile, his widow remarried. A tragedy about the after-war, social expectations, family law, spousal duties, and beautiful descriptions of nature in Vietnam.
  • I only read the French translation which is exceptionally accurate. 

The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri (2003)

  • Ever thought of applying for a legal change of name? Those who have “challenging” first names (i.e., spelling, pronunciation, traditions, etc.) can relate with the main character. He hates his name and will find out why his parents picked it, through his family’s story from India to the USA. 
  • By the way, my full official unchanged name is Mai-Anh Stéphanie Pham-Dang. Colleagues call me Stéphanie. My family (and I mean my whole Asian extended huge family) call me Mai-Anh.

Ru by Kim Thúy (2009) – translated into English in 2012 by Sheila Fischman

  • Unique style: auto-fiction through beautiful unnumbered vignettes in French about Vietnamese boat people arriving in Québec, Canada
  • Prior to becoming a novelist, Thúy was a judicial translator, a lawyer (member of the Barreau du Québec) and a restaurant owner. Alumna of the Law Faculty of Université de Montréal.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom by Amy Chua (2011)

  • A very honest, provocative, touching, and hilarious memoir about modern parenting, Asian values, Eurasian children, 3rd generation of immigrants & refugees, mandatory music courses, loving pets.
  • Oh yeah and some anecdotes about Chua’s CV as a Harvard law student, a business lawyer on Wall Street and finally, a Yale law professor.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)

  • A story of motherhood – including custody battle of an adopted Chinese-American baby, surrogacy, abortion – in Shaker Heights, a progressive suburb in Ohio. 
  • Teenagers living in the 1990s, woot woot!
  • Perhaps the only time I will not say, “The book was better.”

Noire, la vie méconnue de Claudette Colvin by Émilie Plateau (2019)

Photo by Stéphanie Pham-Dang
  • Claudette Colvin who History decided to ignore… Because she was an un-flawless Black teen mom (pregnant from sexual assault) with the wrong hair and the skin too dark? Nine months before the event that would make Rosa Parks famous, Colvin refused to give way to a white woman on a bus, an act for which she was arrested and imprisoned.
  • I found out about her through this beautiful graphic novel, originally written… in French!

When I feel misunderstood, I turn to my companions (academic publishing pun intended).  I still excel in guiding my patrons through complex legal research. But from now on, my most important patron is: Me.

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Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.