A lot has changed in the past decade in South King County. Communities such as Tukwila, White Center and SeaTac — not always known as epicenters of international diversity — now have mosques alongside diners, artisan ice cream across from Vietnamese Pho and some of the most diverse schools in the nation.
It’s a shift that King County libraries hopes to explore in this fall’s The Big Read — a National Endowment for the Arts program that encourages communities to come together to read and discuss the same book. They’ve chosen “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” by Dinaw Mengestu , a novel about the immigrant experience of an Ethiopian American in Washington, D.C.
The setting is almost 3,000 miles away. But the themes of displacement, struggles against racism and classism and the pressure to assimilate are recognizable in the everyday life of many South King County residents, says Jo Anderson Cavinta, diversity-services coordinator for the King County Library system.
“There are new people with new languages and cultures coming into communities,” says Cavinta, who wants to include immigrants and refugees as well as longtime residents of South King County in the program. “We’re bringing people together in safe spaces. ”
To do that, the library system has given away 800 copies of the book as well as countless copies of selected passages translated into Amharic, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese and Khmer since the program started on Sept. 1.
“We just wanted to get people talking to each other,” says Cavinta, who adds that the results of these events have been surprising, and sometimes challenging, conversations between new immigrants and what Cavinta calls “receiving communities.”
She says favorite discussion topics for immigrants and refugees include obligation to family left behind and miscommunication between generations. Receiving communities have asked about assimilation and why new arrivals tend to live together and speak their native language together, instead of English.
They’ve found common ground in conversations about just how attainable the “American dream” actually is and about gentrification — the process of wealthier residents moving into a historically low-income or working-class neighborhood.
“For me the book is about trying to build a home and community whether you’re an immigrant or not,” says Mengestu, who will be visiting Seattle this weekend to participate in The Big Read meet-the-author event and a youth writing workshop. “We’ve all experienced that kind of loss in our lives, and the book is trying to capture that.”
Mengestu was born in the capitol of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, in 1978 and came to the U.S. as a child. He says his initial goal for writing the book was to “excavate” narratives he felt had been lost in his own family. But he’s pleased the book has gone on to serve as a “gathering point” for conversations about immigration.
He says programs like The Big Read are crucial to ensuring that the experience of immigrants and refugees are humanized and not just used as fodder for increasingly hostile political debates.
“They [programs like The Big Read] ask for a public conversation that doesn’t happen otherwise, that tends to happen among friends, families and in the home,” says Mengestu.
If you’d like to join the conversation, it’s not too late. The Big Read continues into mid-November. You also don’t have to live in South King County, though upcoming programming offers a great excuse for a visit.
Find out more at: www.kcls.org/programs/bigread/