NEA Arts Magazine

Crossing Checkpoints

The Big Read Goes International


Galina Alekseeva, Chairman Dana Gioia, and Vladimir Tolstoy

Galina Alekseeva, Chairman Dana Gioia, and Vladimir Tolstoy at a special presentation on Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich at the NEA in Washington, DC. NEA file photo.

One of the ideas behind the NEA's national reading program The Big Read is that, through literature, neighbors are able to get to know each other better and make lasting connections. The same is true for global neighbors who live across borders rather than down the block. With that in mind, the NEA has expanded The Big Read to include titles by authors from Russia, Egypt, and Mexico. These international reads feature U.S. communities reading the literature of the other country, while partner communities in that country read American classics. Although each international Big Read has its own personality, the programs are all propelled by a sense of cross-cultural cooperation, conversation, and, ultimately, understanding. As NEA Director of National Reading Initiatives David Kipen has commented, “There’s no country in the world that couldn’t benefit from this kind of cultural exchange—maybe ours especially. Too often publishing is a one-way street, with the rest of the world getting so much of our writing in translation, and America seeing so little writing from abroad.”

In many cases the selected U.S. titles are already available in translation. The NEA, however, works with partners to fill in any gaps. For example, with funding from the U.S. Department of State, Egyptian publisher Dar Sharouk published a new Arabic translation of Fahrenheit 451 with a special preface by Ray Bradbury. The Arts Endowment also works with partners to make sure that translated versions of The Big Read educational materials are culturally appropriate for overseas audiences.

The first bilateral Big Read took place in the Russian cities of Saratov and Ivanovo in October 2007 with events around Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Prior to the launch, through a partnership with OpenWorld Leadership Center and CEC ArtsLink, the NEA hosted a delegation from both cities for an orientation in DC to help them prepare to host Big Read activities. The visiting Russian partners next traveled to Huntsville, Alabama, and Asheville, North Carolina, where they were able to exchange ideas with their counterparts while taking a first-hand, up-close look at two different Big Reads focused on Lee’s novel.

Kipen, NEA International Activities Director Pennie Ojeda, and NEA Chairman Dana Gioia next traveled to Russia to attend the cities’ inaugural Big Read activities. Reporting on The Big Read Blog ( about a visit to Ivanovo’s children’s library, Kipen enthused, “Teen after teen stood up and got straight to the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird . . . A girl in back asked if the second-class citizenship that the black townspeople endured in the book was so different from what the Chechens are going through nowadays. A local student invited for the occasion spoke movingly of the prejudice he still suffers as the son of a Tartar. And a teenage guy—a guy!—talked about the universality of a good book, and allowed as how 'Writers have no nationality.'”

Group of people pose with the pyramids in the background

Arts Midwest and delegates from the four lead U.S. organizations for The Big Read Egypt/U.S. visited Cairo and Alexandria to meet their counterparts in April 2008. Photo courtesy of Huntsville-Madison County Public Library.

The U.S. segment of The Big Read Russia focused three American communities on Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, launching in spring 2008 with projects hosted by Muncie Public Library (Indiana), Ephrata Public Library (Pennsylvania), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The communities used Ivan Ilyich as a springboard for a range of activities, including an Internet forum on the novella with Russian students, a panel discussion on literary translation, and a “White Nights” festival.

One of the hallmarks of the cross-cultural Big Reads is the participation of international scholars and cultural specialists. In March 2008, Vladimir Tolstoy, the greatgreat-grandson of Leo Tolstoy and director of the State Museum-Estate of Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, and Galina Alekseeva, the museum’s director of academic research, visited the U.S. to illuminate communities about Tolstoy’s life and work. Vladimir Tolstoy and Alekseeva traveled to Muncie and Champaign, where the itinerary included television and radio broadcasts with local high school and college students, a discussion group with teachers, and Champaign’s Big Read kick-o4 event at which Vladimir Tolstoy read from his distinguished ancestor’s work in Russian. Kipen noted that the many connections made during the U.S. and Russian phases of the program “just underlines the continuing need for a program that uses a book as a bridge between nations, or even just between neighbors.”

The NEA will continue to meet that need by launching two additional international Big Read programs this fall. Presented in partnership with the U.S. Department of State and Arts Midwest, The Big Read Egypt/U.S. will focus on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s 1961 novel The Thief and the Dogs. Four American organizations will host the project: Columbia University in the City of New York, Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College, South Dakota Humanities Council/South Dakota Center for the Book, and Alabama’s Huntsville-Madison County Public Library. In Egypt, the project is spearheaded by the Egyptian Association for Educational Resources and the American University in Cairo, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria. Egyptian Big Readers can choose to read Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, or John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Chairman Gioia announced The Big Read Egypt/ U.S. at the 2008 Cairo International Book Fair along with State Department officials. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alina L. Romanowski remarked, “Through literature and The Big Read Egypt/U.S., our nations will deepen our understanding and respect of one another, one community at a time, one page at a time.”

Through a State Department cultural exchange program, U.S. organizers visited Cairo and Alexandria in April 2008 to meet their Egyptian counterparts and learn more about Mahfouz and Egyptian culture. As Huntsville-Madison organizer Sophie Young reported, “On top of enhancing our own ways of sharing the novel [traveling to Egypt] enabled our organizers to work with the Egyptian community here more sensitively and allow them a wider berth in sharing their understanding of the novel and related issues.” (Read more from Sophie Young at index.php?choosemonth=2008_08.)

Covers of two publications

Covers courtesy of Fondo de Cultura Económica.

The third international Big Read will be a little closer to home—The Big Read Mexico. The El Paso Public Library will host Big Read activities in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, while the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College will host activities in Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico. El Paso Public Library Director Carol Brey Casiano called the program especially appropriate for a border community. “Thousands of citizens from El Paso and Juarez cross the border every day to work, play, shop, and visit relatives, so it’s a natural progression for us to o4er reading programs that appeal to citizens of both countries.”

Communities will read an anthology created especially for The Big Read, Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories, featuring short fiction by twentieth-century Mexican writers such as Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, and Juan Rulfo. Available in English and Spanish, Sun, Stone, and Shadows was published by Mexico’s Fondo de Cultura Económica. The Embassy of Mexico in the U. S. and the Embassy of the U.S. in Mexico are also partners in The Big Read Mexico.This anthology marks The Big Read’s first venture into short fiction. As anthology editor Jorge F. Hernández wrote in the collection’s introduction, “[P]erhaps the short story is the vehicle best suited for rendering snapshot scenes, actual places, words that have been shared by generations or forgotten by time, and above all, 5esh-and-blood portraits of Mexicans that are perfectly credible—even when they’re no more than inventions of ink on paper—whose biographies are eternal, precisely because they’ve been read.”

Wondering where in the world The Big Read will show up next? Although nothing is yet confirmed, it’s a sure thing that The Big Read will continue to traverse borders— both metaphorically and literally. Or to quote Kipen, “ There’s no checkpoint a great book can’t cross.”