I am a member of not one, but two books clubs. Sometimes I finish the book each group has chosen, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the group as a whole really connects with the book and we have a rich discussion, sometimes we give it about 10 minutes of discussion then drink wine and talk about random stuff for 2+ hours. Occasionally, one of our books becomes a movie and we have have a book club outing to go see it. However, though many book selections have been culturally timely, we have not done much to seek out other ways to enrich our understanding and appreciation of the text. It’s not for lack of opportunities here in C-U necessarily, but the mere fact that we’re a bunch of busy women who have limited time to seek out such things unless they fall in our collective laps, so to speak.

Well, a big community-wide celebration of reading, global cultures, and community enrichment is about to fall in all of our laps as a result of the NEA Big Read coming to Champaign-Urbana.

NEA Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts that brings community reading programs to cities and towns all over the U.S. through the NEA Big Read Grant. From their website: "the NEA Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of contemporary titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.”

Out of the diverse selection of titles, one in particular caught the attention of Beth Watkins, Education and Publications Coordinator at Spurlock Museum, who has a particular interest in Indian culture, who then reached out to Mara Thacker, a University librarian specializing in South Asian Studies and Global Popular Culture. That book was The Namesake by Jumpha Lahiri. According to the NEA website, “In this 2003 bestseller by the Pulitzer-prize-winning author, two generations of a Bengali-American family in Massachusetts struggle between new and old, assimilation and cultural preservation, striving toward the future and longing for the past." You can read the full description of the book here. On their second application attempt, they were awarded one of the 79 NEA Big Read grants to bring a community reading program based around The Namesake to C-U and the University of Illinois, and now they are ready to launch this community “book club” with a month’s worth of events that are open to all.

This initiative has a staggering number of partners, including Spurlock Museum, International and Area Studies Library, Champaign Public Library, Urbana Free Library, The Art Theater, Krannert Art Museum, Indian Cultural Society of Champaign-Urbana, Asian American Cultural Center, Asian Educational Media Service, and Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Having this impressive list of collaborators not only helped secure the grant, but has connected a wide range of community and university entities. Says Thacker, “one of the reasons we’re really excited is because we’re really strategically bringing together groups that haven’t worked together this closely before. The University Library is collaborating with Spurlock Museum, the public libraries are involved, we have some activities that involve IPRH (Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities), we have a lot of faculty members...people from all different levels of the university and the community involved.”

Thacker has taken the reins in organizing events that are happening in the University Library or are co-sponsored by the Library, while Watkins has done a good portion of the coordination between groups and with the NEA. Through lots of email, conference calls, lunches, and meetings, representatives from that long list of partner organizations have pulled together some amazing events that all tie-in to the themes of culture and identity that The Namesake is centered around.

Through the University Library, there will be two exhibits: in the Marshall Gallery and International and Area Studies Library, three book club discussions that will feature “different discussants from different strata of the South Asian diaspora on campus,” a panel discussion as part of the library’s ongoing Chai Wai (Hindi for “tea or something like that”) series that will examine representation, identity, and diaspora in popular culture, and a “Chat and Chaat” where you can enjoy samosas and tea while taking in a curated collection of South Asian comics (Fun fact: U of I has the most comprehensive collection of Indian comics and graphic novels in all of North America).

Broader community offerings include a screening of Mississippi Masala at the Art, which is sponsored by IPRH, A History of Henna at the Champaign Public Library, and numerous panels, book club discussions, exhibits, and lectures at various partnering locations. You can find the full list of events here.

The whole thing kicks off this weekend at Spurlock Museum where from 1 to 3:30 p.m. you can “share the story of your name, trace your family’s journey of immigration to the United States, and design and write a postcard to loved ones.” Keynote speaker Professor Rini Bhattcharya Mehta will discuss the novel beginning at 2 p.m.

Thacker sees C-U as an ideal place for a deep dive into this novel and its themes. “We have one of the largest populations of international students in the United States. The countries that send the most (students) are China, South Korea, and the third highest is India. So we have this huge population on campus, and we have a lot of faculty members who either teach about or are from (South Asia)...Champaign Urbana is kind of a special place because when you think small-ish Midwestern town people may not think of what a diverse community we have. This is a good fit for this particular community.”

She also sees this as an important moment in history to be taking the time to truly learn about other cultures. “If I can add little bit of personal commentary...with what’s going on in today’s political climate, it’s really important to talk about things like culture, and identity, and the experience of being an immigrant. When we read things about these experiences it helps us empathize and it helps us talk and have critical conversations in our community.”

Every single event is free and open to the public, and there are several family friendly offerings. You can obtain a free copy of the book at the Champaign and Urbana Libraries or the International and Area Studies Library, or you may find them strategically placed around town. BUT, you do not have to read the book to participate in any of the activities. So, consider diving into a bit of South Asian culture throughout the next month and a half, because we can all stand to learn more about and from our neighbors. 

Photo from Urbana Free Library Facebook page