One book, one city
Read any good books lately, Houston? Surely there's one amazing thing you read this summer.
If the answer is no, the Houston Public Library wants you to read One Amazing Thing in September.
Don’t think you can shirk this assignment Bellaire, Conroe and all you “land” cities (Woodlands, Pearland and Sugar Land) because Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery county libraries want you to read One Amazing Thing as well.
This is not a vague request to read any good book but the title of acclaimed Houston author and University of Houston writing professor Chitra Divakaruni’s most recent novel. It is also the inaugural book of the new One Book, One City reading initiative, Gulf Coast Reads: On the Same Page.
A crowd of more than 100 gathered at Downtown Houston Public Library Saturday for the Gulf Coast Reads kick-off celebration. The program included a reading and Q&A with Divakaruni as well as a book discussion, story-telling workshop, craft stations and cultural awareness and disaster preparedness presentations. Channel 13 chief meteorologist Tim Heller was master of ceremonies.
So what do cultural awareness, disaster preparedness and a well-known local meteorologist have to do with a new reading program? Disaster, diversity and storytelling are major themes of One Amazing Thing, and Gulf Coast Reads organizers created a program to reflect those themes.
The novel tells the story of a diverse and wary group of strangers caught up in an earthquake who tell each other stories in order to survive their hours of darkness and fear as they face possible death. The act of telling each other their private tales of one amazing thing that happened in their lives transforms them from hostile strangers into a community.
While it's an earthquake that endangers those visiting the Indian consulate’s visa office in an unnamed U.S. city, Divakaruni told CultureMap in our March interview the idea for the story came during Hurricane Rita as her family crept down I-10 alongside a million other Houstonians. Her observations of coastal Texans, including herself, behaving both badly and kindly towards one another became the inspiration for the novel, another good reason for its pick as the region-wide book to read.
The One Book, One City project began in Seattle in the late 1990’s and quickly spread all over the country. While the programs have their naysayers, they have become a popular way for libraries and literacy organizations to get their communities reading, while spreading a sense of community through reading.
Houston Public Library created its own successful version of the program in 2002, calling it Books on the Bayou. Why the name change in 2011 to Gulf Coast Reads?
“We wanted to rebrand in the spirit of a fresh, new start. We wanted to give it a new name. Gulf Coast Reads gives us the opportunity in the future to possibly expand it on an even wider scale, maybe even to other Gulf Coast states," explained HPL adult programming manager Jennifer Schwartz.
This new, expanded program is a product of four library systems: Houston Public and Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery county libraries. However, Schwartz stressed, “Those four library systems form the steering committee, but we have partners on an even wider scale, other library systems, bookstores, literacy organizations. We’re getting as many partners as we can to be on the committee to select the book and help plan programs.”
The committee sat down with a list of 25 books and then narrowed it down to three. In the final vote, One Amazing Thing, won by a “landslide.” Schwartz noted one of the program's objectives is to “build cultural awareness and a sense of community. . .The reason we picked this book is because it ties into that. With Houston being such a diverse city, we just thought it the ideal pick.”
Divakaruni was in India presenting at the Jaipur Literature Festival when she was surprised to receive an email informing her that One Amazing Thing had been chosen as the Gulf Coast Reads selection because she had no idea it was even being considered.
I was very pleased, very excited. . .I love the thought of my community reading the book together. Really, because the book is about so many people from different backgrounds, different cultural, racial, religious backgrounds that just seems to be so like Houston. That’s what Houston is for me. It’s such a diverse city, and it’s nice for the communities to come together and I hope my book will do a little bit for that.”
During the month, Divakaruni plans to participate in readings around the region in person or via Skype. In keeping with the themes of the novel, organizers have scheduled events like disaster preparedness talks, Indian food tasting, storytelling workshops, doll making, yoga classes and even a disaster movie marathon. The public also can post stories of the one amazing thing in their own lives on the Gulf Coast Reads website to share with the whole community.
Heller made connections between our region’s response to hurricanes in the past, the present natural disasters the East Coast is struggling through and the novel. After the reading and Q&A, the audience got a chance to get a feel for the novel’s themes firsthand by wandering the room collecting educational material from the Red Cross, CAIR, the United Nations Association, Asia American Family Services and the city of Houston Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, chatting about yoga and meditation with representatives from Laughter Yoga or Art of Living or discussing Indian diet with author Dr. Raj R. Patel.
And if Henna tattoos, delicious Indian food, Indian and Chinese calligraphy demonstrations, sitar music and amazing storytelling weren’t entertainment enough for one afternoon, during her Q&A Divakaruni answered a burning question on at least one audience member’s mind.
Yes, James Franco has been admitted to the UH Creative Writing Program, and yes he has confirmed he will be attending. However, the exact time and room number you can find him on the UH campus honing his own storytelling skills is one story Divakaruni won’t be sharing anytime soon.