By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Seattle Reads is turning 25 this month.
The Seattle Public Library (SPL) program—a citywide book group—was co-founded by Chris Higashi and Nancy Pearl in 1998, as a way for people to engage in literature and build community. Originally called “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” the program encourages people to read and discuss the same book, and attend programs with the featured author. Since its inception, the program has inspired others like it around the country and around the world.
“I was really surprised to be asked back,” she told the Northwest Asian Weekly.
Otsuka, the only author who has been selected twice for Seattle Reads, enjoyed her first experience with the program back in 2005, with her debut novel “When the Emperor Was Divine”—and is excited to be back.
“I love going to Seattle,” she said, adding that there is something special about the local Japanese American community and that she also has some personal ties to the area.
“The Swimmers” tells the story of a group of obsessed recreational swimmers when a crack shows up at the bottom of their local pool. One of the swimmers is Alice, a Japanese American woman who is slowly losing her memory, while old memories from childhood begin to surface, from when she was in an incarceration camp during World War II. Alice’s estranged daughter also re-enters into the picture, witnessing her mother’s decline.
While her other books are historical fiction, “The Swimmers” hit very close to home for Otsuka. The idea for the book came from her personal experiences—both as a recreational swimmer, as well as someone whose mother declined as a result of memory loss.
“”It was a very emotional process,” she said about writing the book and thinking back on her time taking care of her mother, and remembering who her mother was before and after the dementia.
The selection process
Books for Seattle Reads are selected by a small committee of library staff and community members, who discuss the pros and cons of potential selections. Stesha Brandon, SPL literature and humanities program manager, said some of the criteria for selecting a book for Seattle Reads include the book being discussable (worth talking about), and having some relevance to the Seattle community. For the latter, she said this doesn’t necessarily mean the stories need to take place in the Pacific Northwest. For example, the 2017 selection “The Turner House,” took place in Detroit, but covered themes of gentrification, something that’s happening in Seattle as well.
Brandon said with the library’s priority of focusing on equity, they also like to center the voices of those who have historically been marginalized—and make sure folks are compensated for their work.
One of the reasons the committee selected “The Swimmers” was its themes of memory, loss, and caregiving, and Brandon said they saw it as an opportunity to shine a light on some universal things that touch all communities.
“Literature is a really great way to have hard conversations,” she said, noting that books can be a good entry point to discuss difficult topics—such as memory loss and incarceration camps, in this case.
In addition to book discussions, the library also partners with relevant organizations to host programs and events for Seattle Reads. This year, with themes of memory, loss, and caregiving, the library’s partners include Frye Art Museum, Creative Aging Programs; the Phinney Neighborhood Association’s Greenwood Senior Center; The Memory Hub and UW Memory and Brain Wellness Center; as well as the Japanese American organization, Densho.
Author events and more
Otsuka will be in Seattle on Friday, May 19 and Saturday, May 20 for a number of Seattle Reads events throughout the city.
Her two library appearances will be from 7-8 p.m. on Friday, at Central Library (1000 Fourth Ave.), and from 11 a.m. to noon on Saturday at the Lake City Library Branch (12501 28th Ave. N.E.), where she’ll be discussing “The Swimmers.”
She’ll also be making appearances at two local senior centers. From 1:30-2:30 p.m. on Friday, Otsuka will be at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center (4655 S. Holly St.), and from 3-4 p.m. on Saturday, she’ll be at the Greenwood Senior Center (525 N. 85th St.).
Doors open at 30 minutes before each event and registration is required. For more information and to register, click here.
Brandon said the library also partners with an artist to create a piece inspired or related to the year’’s themes. This year, they chose visual artist Lauren Iida who will unveil a cut paper memory net on Friday at Otsuka’s Central Library event.
In addition to the copies in its catalog, SPL will also have a limited number of copies of “The Swimmers” for informal borrowing—meaning patrons don’t need to check out the copies—at most library locations, as well as community partner locations.
For more information, visit www.spl.org/SeattleReads.