Interview with The Big Read Egypt/U.S. with Sophie Young of the Huntsville-Madison Public Library (Alabama)

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        Ten men and women sitting in a row with Egyptian pyramids behind them

U.S. organizers for The Big Read Egypt/U.S. visited Cairo and Alexandria in April 2008 to meet their Egyptian counterparts and learn more about Mahfouz and Egyptian culture.

Huntsville-Madison County Public Library (HMCPL) is one of four Big Read grantees that will help to inaugurate The Big Read Egypt/U.S., the second international component of the NEA's national one book-one community reading program. The Big Read Egypt/U.S., presented in partnership with the U.S. Department of State and Arts Midwest, celebrates The Thief and the Dogs by Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. HMCPL has received two previous Big Read grants: one for Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, and the other for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, for which the library earned a John Cotton Dana Award for outstanding marketing campaign.

Librarian and Big Read Planning Committee Chair Sophie Young spoke with the NEA about the library's plans for the upcoming Big Read, how previous Big Read projects have benefited her community, and the importance of helping Americans to learn more about international authors.

NEA: Please say a little bit about the community that Huntsville-Madison County Public Library serves.

SOPHIE YOUNG: We're a modestly sized community, about 300,000, but we're surprisingly diverse, especially for Alabama. Because of space and engineering industries, we have a sizeable population of residents who were not born or raised in Alabama, people from all parts of the country. We have a large immigrant population: Chinese, German, Latino, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian.

NEA: You've had two previous grants for The Big Read. Why do you keep returning to the program?

YOUNG: One-book-one-community projects bring people together, doing something that is important for so many reasons: reading. I feel Madison County truly embraces the idea that a novel isn't just pages between two covers: it's a stepping ground for exploring music, theatre, visual arts, film and more. And now, we've generated enough interest in these annual projects that people come to us, asking what the next book will be. If all goes well, we'll apply for Big Read grants for years to come.

NEA: Why did HMCPL want to help launch The Big Read Egypt/U.S.?

YOUNG: We were excited by the prospect of exploring literature from another culture and learning about an author that few in Madison County would be familiar with. Because we are such a diverse and, if I may say so, a fairly tolerant community, our organizers felt that we could celebrate our diversity and highlight a community -- Muslims and Middle Eastern people -- that are not as visible in our area. To be honest, we also recognized a challenge and wanted to dive into it.

NEA: Why should Americans read The Thief and the Dogs?

YOUNG: When we first read The Thief and the Dogs, our organizers were fascinated by the characters and taken with the accessibility of the narrative. We feel that its themes transcend culture, and the novel speaks on a basic human level that can appeal to a broad audience. As we looked deeper into the historical setting of the novel and learned more about Mahfouz, we found that there was a rich story behind the book's setting and themes. I think this is the nature of penetrating into world literature: one finds that humanity has a lot in common, but that each culture carries a unique stamp that can expands one's own world.

NEA: How is this international Big Read different from your previous Big Read projects?

YOUNG: Certainly the international aspect of this project has expanded our local partner base considerably and, we hope, will enlarge our community participation. We've worked with local Chinese, Japanese, and Latino partners before, but in a fairly limited way. This project will require us to incorporate and rely on our local international partners much more than we have in the past. I hope that the Middle Eastern and Muslim residents in the area will participate actively in The Big Read Egypt/U.S. and find that the library can offer them a place and events that pique their interests.

Also, one benefit of working closely with our U.S. partner institutions has been sharing the resources in a much more effective way than in previous, larger Big Read projects. That has been a huge plus.

NEA: As part of your grant, you were able to travel to Egypt with the other Big Read Egypt/U.S. organizers. How did that affect your project planning?

YOUNG: The trip to Egypt gave our organizers a heightened understanding of Mahfouz, the book, and contemporary Egypt. Discussing these elements with Egyptians -- hearing their views and even hearing parts of the novel read in Arabic -- made all the difference. On top of enhancing our own ways of sharing the novel, it enables 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.

We also have a framework for working with our overseas partners. We're in the planning phases of developing ways to share our local efforts for The Big Read Egypt/U.S. with people in Egypt, and that adds a dimension to the project that we've never experienced before.

NEA: What are some of the activities that you're planning for this Big Read?

YOUNG: Certainly we'll have programs that are specific to Mahfouz, the book, and Egypt at the time of Mahfouz's writing. We'll bring in lecturers and host adult-learning sessions on these topics, in addition to a number of book discussions.

But, since Mahfouz is not really well known in Madison County, we want to take advantage of the built-in fascination people have with Egypt and use it as a doorway to the community read. We're developing a program on ancient Egypt and archaeology; this is appropriate, given Mahfouz's love for that time period. And the Egyptian community here is working with us to host a cultural festival kick-off, as well as an Egyptian pavilion in the county's annual spring arts festival. There's also an Egyptian film series and a "folktales" morning for kids. And all the time, people will be hearing about Mahfouz and The Thief and the Dogs -- hopefully in a way that piques their curiosity about the book.

NEA: How do you hope that The Big Read Egypt/U.S. will benefit Madison County?

YOUNG: I hope we'll discover something heartening in our community: that its members are curious and excited to learn about cultures, histories and authors that they had never really considered before, and that they will relish sharing the experience with others. I like to think that we can open a dialogue between widely divergent cultures in Madison County, and find that we can embrace people who could be considered "others."

NEA: And what effect do you think this particular project will have on the library?

YOUNG: On a very local level, The Big Read has helped raise the profile of HMCPL in the community. The library has always been beloved and well utilized by our community. Unfortunately, the community has taken us for granted over the last two decades, and our financial support has not kept up with the demand for services. Because of the prestige of The Big Read and the excellent media coverage we have received, our profile is on the rise. We can feel a change in attitude from the public and government officials about our role in the community. We hope the successes we have enjoyed with The Big Read will translate into more robust financial support in the near future.

Ultimately, we are about books. Even if The Big Read doesn't result in greater monetary support, we have succeeded in getting more patrons to read -- and read books they never would have read otherwise! We feel very lucky to be a part of The Big Read movement.

 

Read more about Big Read Egypt/U.S. and the NEA's other international activities in the new issue of NEA Arts .