Threads of Society

A multilingual book shop in Western Sydney is challenging the way we think about multiculturalism, and two of our alumni are helping lead the charge.

Stories are like magical threads woven through our social fabric, connecting cultures and ideas. Told well in words we understand, they elicit empathy and unity; told brilliantly, they can change lives. 

Lost in Books in Fairfield is doing just that: it’s promoted as “a kids’ bookshop that speaks your language”. Though it’s much more than a multilingual book store (with titles in more than 70 languages). Launched in 2017 by Jane Stratton’s THINK+DO Tank Foundation, it operates as a social enterprise to fund multilingual storytelling projects, a creative learning centre and, most importantly, a language exchange hub.

“Multilingual storytelling is important because it allows people to express their own identities, and at the same time learn from each other,” explains Afaf Al-Shammari, Lead Community Connector at the THINK+DO Tank Foundation and leader of its Arabic Language Writing Academy, who graduated from Western Sydney University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Psychology. “If we want the community to come close to each other, we need to be good listeners: hearing about each other’s cultural heritages, people’s challenges, desires and hopes.”

During the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, the store launched Lost In Books TV to bring joy and hope into people’s homes – which you can see in a Google ad campaign featuring Lillian Rodrigues-Pang, a former Western staff member and Forked Tongues Multilingual Storytelling Lead at Lost in Books. 

“From the first day I started at Lost In Books I felt celebrated for my multilingualism. Everyone is encouraged to express themselves and celebrating more languages means we’re celebrating more perspectives and creating more connections,” says Aphrodite Delaguiado, who graduated with a Bachelor of Design (Visual Communication) from Western in 2009 and worked as the Marketing and Creative Lead at Lost In Books in 2020*

Aphrodite speaks Tagalog, English, Spanish (and is learning Japanese). Her experiences as a migrant are a big part of her work and creative process, inspired by her university studies of the First Things First graphic design manifesto:

“Learning about First Things First in my first year of uni was a big lesson in design for purpose: I’d previously thought graphic design was just for advertising, but the manifesto is about using design for good – using it for socially responsible purposes.” 

Now running a creative enterprise of her own called Aphro, Aphrodite also draws on lessons from her time with community groups at Lost In Books, including homework clubs.

“Some of the parents who come to Lost In Books are learning English while trying to help their kids do homework, which can be very hard,” she says. “Having multilingual groups forms bridges between cultures, while at the same time parents gain confidence to help their kids with homework.” Afaf remembers feeling overwhelmed because she didn’t understand much English when she brought her young family to Australia from Kuwait in 1997:

“Starting a new life in a country with a different language and culture was challenging,” she says. “Through my experience I became very interested in ideas and strategies to help people adapt to change and build a new life.”

“So, once my kids were older, I started studying psychology at Western. The campus was conveniently nearby, but what really drew me to Western was that it has a really multicultural vibe: it was my first exposure to the wider community and meeting people from so many different cultures, and the tutors were very understanding of peoples’ different experiences.”

Now she applies her knowledge of psychology to helping women develop creative and communication skills in her community programs at Lost In Books. 

She says the purpose of Lost In Books as a language exchange hub goes much further than giving people a place to practice a new language – which is important – it also helps people reconnect with the culture of their mother tongue.

“When you speak with people in their first language you’re talking to their hearts,” she says. “We want people to feel connected through their hearts to community. It starts with listening deeply to each other’s stories so we can learn more from each other, and then shared connections and creativity grow into a real sense of belonging.”

*Aphrodite is now working at Guide Dogs NSW/ACT.