Friday, January 27, 2006

One city, one book: two languages

My San Francisco Bay Area town of around 90,000 people is declaring a "One city, one book" month. The librarians and the city council came up with a plan, and a list of possible books, but then scrapped it, realizing they had not invited input from the community. Last night I went to the first committee meeting, as one of around 8 "community members" to set the qualities we wanted to see in our One Book.

The central idea of the program is to get people in town talking with each other across normal social barriers. I've seen Harry Potter function that way; strangers see each other reading it, and talk to each other at the grocery store or train station. My town is said to be around 35-40% Latino, though I suspect the numbers are substantially higher if you include the unincorporated Fair Oaks neighborhood on the other side of the tracks. I'd set it more at 45%. Language and class are the barriers that divide our town. I put myself forward for this meeting primarily because I wanted to argue strongly that the book should be available in Spanish and English. I expected to meet resistance to this idea.

Our committee brainstormed a list of qualities for the One Book. (Doesn't it sound like Lord of the Rings... One book to rule them all, one book to bind them!) We were a committee of all white women, and I'd say all pretty upper class; and one latina librarian. To my (pleased) surprised, nearly everyone voted for "language accessibility" as their top priority; then "high interest and relevance to the community", then, third, "crossing age lines." After a while and more discussion, I finally said, "So, now, does that mean that we are absolutely ruling out any book that isn't available in Spanish?" And there was a long uncomfortable silence...

People talked the talk, and voted the vote, but when it comes down to it, I am worried that a few weeks from now when we come back with our lists of suggested books, about 90% of them will be chosen from whatever books in English that people like best. Are they going to take the time to narrow their field first, or to look up whether a book is available in translation? Probably not. But that's exactly the kind of effort it takes. In fact I think I'm about to see in action the way that the road to hell is paved with good intentions... And in my own head I had a tiny voice saying, "Put forth your friend's novel, it fits the other criteria, not available in Spanish, but think what a sales boost it would be for her book..." Hell indeed! And of course I won't do that.

Well, my point is, I would love suggestions. I thought of popular authors like Julia Álvarez but my top choice so far is Claribel Alegria and Darwin Flakoll's "Cenizas de Izalco/Ashes of Izalco" because it's cool, it's compelling, it's short, and it would tie in well for our heavily Salvadorean immigrant population, and it would give the anglos a little kick in the pants with Salvadorean history, but also it wouldn't be too heavy and disturbing as it's about difficult history from 1930 (rather than about something more recent). I have to go read it while thinking "Would a 13-14 year old possibly read this..." And then I'd like to look at books translated by ALTA members, and see if something jumps out as the perfect choice. Suggestions, anyone?

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