The West Michigan community will have a new opportunity this fall to explore a literary work in-depth through events and discussion, thanks to a broad-based coalition of area organizations and a third consecutive award to Hope College through “The Big Read,” a program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Hope is one of 77 nonprofit organizations to receive a grant to host an NEA Big Read project between September 2016 and June 2017. This year’s program, running across the first three weeks in November, will focus on “Brother, I’m Dying,” Edwidge Danticat’s memoir telling the story of her uncle and father as they build a future for themselves and their families, one brother in Haiti and the other in America.
The 2016 event follows successful Big Read Holland Area events in 2014 and 2015, which focused on Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” respectively. Some 3,000 area residents of all ages participated in events during the debut year, and 7,000 this past fall.
“The goal of the Big Read Holland Area is to create and foster a culture in our community where reading matters and where the power of story brings about change in the lives of individuals and in the life of our Holland area community,” said Dr. Deborah Van Duinen, an assistant professor of education at Hope who is the grant’s administrator. “We’ve seen change happen in the past two years of our programming and we’re looking forward to the conversations this year’s book will bring.”
Van Duinen noted that this year’s program will examine four themes explored in the book: family relations, Haitian culture, immigration to the United States and international aid.
“It seems fitting for our community to read a story about an immigrant to the United States,” she said. “After all, Holland is an immigrant town, a town named after another country, a town with both past and current immigrants.”
Hope is coordinating the events in partnership with Herrick District Library in Holland, Howard Miller Library in Zeeland, the Holland Museum, the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (OAISD), Western Theological Seminary and Cultureworks. Additional sponsoring organizations include the Fennville District Library, Loutit District Library in Grand Haven, Saugatuck-Douglas District Library and the City of Holland’s Human Relations Commission.
Managed by Arts Midwest, the NEA Big Read offers grants to support innovative community reading programs designed around a single book. The program supports organizations across the country in developing community-wide reading programs which encourage reading and participation by diverse audiences. Organizations selected to participate in the NEA Big Read receive a grant, access to online training resources and opportunities, and educational and promotional materials designed to support widespread community involvement. More information is available here.
Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said, “I have the opportunity to travel around the country and see the way the arts can inspire, allow for reflection, and create new experiences. I look forward to the creative ways these 77 organizations will bring their communities together around a great work of literature through their participation in the NEA Big Read.”
The NEA awarded Hope $16,000 for the Holland-area event. Hope and the other participating organizations will match the grant with additional financial and in-kind support.
As with the Big Read Holland Area programs in 2014 and 2015, the community will be engaging with a nationally acclaimed text. Published in 2007, “Brother, I’m Dying” received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Danticat’s parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti when she was two. She initially stayed in Haiti, where she was raised by her Uncle Joseph and his wife Tante Denise in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince until she was able to join her parents when she was 12. As described by the reader’s guide provided by neabigread.org, when “Brother, I’m Dying” opens, “the author is a grown woman living in Miami who learns, over the course of a single day, that her father is dying and that she is pregnant with her first child. Just weeks later, her beloved Uncle Joseph seeks asylum in the U.S. and experiences brutal treatment. Told through Danticat’s singular voice, these events set the stage for a powerful tale of loss and remembrance.”
Danticat is the author of multiple other books and collections, as well as short works, for which she has received other honors including the Pushcart Short Story Prize, the American Book Award and an additional National Book Award nomination. Her numerous other honors include a 2009 MacArthur Fellows Program genius grant. She is a graduate of Barnard College, from which her B.A. is in French literature, and holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Brown University.
The three-week program this fall will feature several main events and book discussions hosted by a variety of community organizations. The activities will begin on Tuesday, Nov. 1, with a kick-off event that will put the book into written, historical and cultural context, and will culminate in an address by Danticat on Tuesday, Nov. 15. Additional events will include a concert featuring Haitian music; a children’s author event; films at the Knickerbocker Theatre; a lecture and workshop on immigration; a presentation focused on West Michigan refugees; and a writing workshop on memoir and creative nonfiction led by Dr. Rhoda Janzen of the Hope English faculty, whose publications include the New York Times best-selling memoir “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.”
In addition, Jason Pasatta of the OAISD is coordinating a high school teacher program to help facilitate an exhibition of student learning that will be presented in conjunction with this year’s Big Read Holland Area. The program will partner local professional artists Joel Schoon Tanis and Barry Elz with area high school students and teachers. In previous years, 900 middle school and high school students were involved.
The organizers also anticipate at least 15 public book discussions and many private book discussions. As during the 2014 and 2015 events, they plan to distribute hundreds of free copies of the book to students and community members.
Details will be announced in the fall.
Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts, and the agency is celebrating this milestone with events and activities through September 2016. More information is available here.
Arts Midwest promotes creativity, nurtures cultural leadership, and engages people in meaningful arts experiences, bringing vitality to Midwest communities and enriching people’s lives. Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United States, Arts Midwest’s history spans more than 25 years. More information is available here.