The UNESCO City of Literature presentation at Town Hall last night was a love letter to the Seattle literary scene and an exciting preview of what the future of book culture in Seattle could look like. Memoirist Elissa Washuta opened the evening by providing some context for a history of Seattle literature: "Storytelling in Seattle boasts a ten thousand year legacy," she explained, talking about the native cultures that settled here and the way their stories resonate to writers working in Seattle today.
Seattle is a home to writers, but it welcomes writers from around the world, too. Elliott Bay Book Company events coordinator Rick Simonson talked about Haruki Murakami's visit to Seattle two decades ago, at a time when he'd sold a couple thousand books, total, in the United States. The city came out to greet him in staggering numbers. Simonson identified Seattle as a city that embraces international literature and introduces it to the rest of the country. He said his Murakami story could just as easily have been about Eduardo Galeano or Alice Munro or Orhan Pamuk or Arundhati Roy or any of a thousand authors from around the world.
Much of the evening was a celebration of the book culture that exists here every day. Chris Higashi of the Washington Center for the Book talked about our library system and concluded with a message: "The Seattle Public Library says 'thank you, and we love you back.'" Mayor Ed Murray proudly showed off his nearly full Elliott Bay book card, and said that his library card and his University Book Store card were always in his wallet, too. He identified the UNESCO City of Literature bid as a way to promote literacy among children who live in poverty. Sasquatch Books publisher Gary Luke talked about publishing as a "socially acceptable form of gambling," and imagined a Publishers Anonymous meeting with all the publishers in Seattle—Fantagraphics, Copper Canyon, Wave Books, Jaded Ibis Press, Dark Coast Press, and so on.
Luke also announced that Sasquatch will be publishing a book with Ryan Boudinot, the local author who has spearheaded the city's UNESCO bid. Tentatively titled Seattle: City of Literature, the book is intended to be an overview of all of Seattle's literary assets, as well as a celebration of our long and bookish history. That kicked off a series of announcements of programs inspired by our bid to join UNESCO's Creative Cities Network. Nancy Pearl floated the idea of a program to bring international authors to Seattle from all over the world—even authors who haven't yet been translated into English—and introduce them to the city via readings, collaborations, and even some sort of a residency. And Hugo House executive director Tree Swenson asked a question: "What if we had a literary arts center?" She proposed the idea of Hugo House joining forces with other local publishers, book-makers, and authors in a new building that could also house the city's UNESCO office. (I'll be publishing an interview with Swenson about this concept later today on Slog.)
Ryan Boudinot capped the evening with a rousing call to action, thanking Mayor Murray and Councilmember Nick Licata for all their support. (He also announced that Licata was "developing a City Poet position" as a relaunch—and, hopefully, reimagining—of the old Poet Populist program that ended a few years ago.) "It's time for alliances and partnerships," Boudinot said. There's no reason in a country this size, he said, that the entire publishing industry should be centered in a city three time zones away. Seattle needs to promote itself as the hub of literature that it is, and there's no better way to promote ourselves than through writing. "If you're a writer," Boudinot said, "It's time to throw down" and create your masterpiece. He said to all the writers in attendance, "you're not alone." The applause that followed that statement proved that Boudinot was right. Writing is a lonely pursuit, but in Seattle, an entire city has come together in support and celebration of literature.