Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018

I organized the second annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at my library. You can see some video of the whole thing, thanks to participant Meghann Foster. Here are my opening remarks.

We are about to hear again the words of one of the most famous speeches in American history, a speech given on a hot August day more than fifty years ago. We often think of this speech as a culmination, but in fact it was merely a milestone along the way to a goal we have not yet achieved.

A year after Dr. King’s speech, over a thousand northern college students, including University of Iowa student Steve Smith and Shel Stromquist, who is here today, went down to Mississippi to try to register black voters. You can read more about the intimidation and harassment they faced — harassment that black Mississippians faced every day — in our display about Freedom Summer.

The voting rights for which those young people fought in the summer of 1964 would not be codified into law for another year, in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today we see everywhere attempts to roll back the rights that law won.

The struggle for civl rights is not over: black people today are still disproportionately poor and disproportionately in prison; people with disabilities still too often do not receive the accommodations due to them by law; LGBT people are still too often the recipients of harassment and violence; immigrants and refugees face a precarious situation when they reach our shores.

Today is a day to celebrate but it is also a day to renew our commitment to a more just world. I hope you will share your dreams with us on the paper provided on our craft table. I hope you will take pride in our diverse community by welcoming as a neighbor someone who may not look like you or live like you. I invite you to share with us how you define yourself, where you come from, what languages you speak, and what religion you practice on our poster boards. And I invite you to check out the work of the many organizations represented here today who continue in Martin Luther King’s work for peace, for the poor, and for a world free from prejudice and discrimination.

I’d like to thank the many people who made this day possible: all our readers, David McCartney at the University of Iowa Special Collections and Shel Stromquist for loaning us items for the Freedom Summer display, and many library staff members, especially Kate Dale for creating the demographic posters and Erika Binegar for helping plan the event and finding the quotations. Kate and Erika also organized our displays of diverse books for readers of all ages.

One final note before we begin: Dr. King’s speech was made many years ago, and some of its language now sounds dated to our ears. Dr. King uses Negro where we would say black or African-American; he speaks of men where we would say people and of Christianity and Judaism where we would include Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, atheism, and many more. As our understanding of human diversity expands, so does our language.

And now, without further ado, I’d like to introduce our readers: ?

Mitch Gross from the Coralville Public Library Board and the Coralville City Council
Greg Hearns from the Iowa City Federation of Labor
Meghann Foster from the Coralville City Council
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz from the Consultation of Religious Communities
Lata D’Mello from Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa
Rod Sullivan from the Johnson County Board of Supervisors
Shel Stromquist, UI Professor of History Emeritus and Freedom Summer veteran
Kingsley Botchway from the Iowa City Community School District Equity Department
the Reverend Bill Lovin from the Consultation of Religious Communities
Newman Abuissa from PEACE Iowa and the UI Center for Human Rights
Senator Bob Dvorsky from the Coralville Community Food Pantry
Fatima Saeed* from the Eastern Iowa Center for Worker Justice

*Fatima was unable to make it, so I ended up reader her part

An Introduction to Roxane Gay

Each year my library hosts the presentation of the Paul Engle Prize and I write an introduction to the prizewinner. This year’s event is this Thursday, October 12 and we’ll be honoring Alexander Chee. In the meantime, here’s last year’s introduction.

Roxane Gay is a woman who survived girlhood. That’s true of many of us—more than half of us were girls; many girls are survivors. But few of us go on to write about those two things—girlhood and survival—and the tensions between them, and fewer still do so with the grace, wit, and punch of Roxane Gay.

Gay embraces the very things many of us were taught to reject as too girly. Whether she’s writing about the influence of Sweet Valley High or explaining her love of pink, Gay tackles girlhood and its accoutrements head on—not to fight them or deny them but to acknowledge that they are a part of us, that popular culture, as much as anything, has made us who we are.

But Roxane Gay is more than a celebrant of sugar and spice: she is also someone who knows their dark side. She knows, as she puts it in the title of one essay, both the illusion of safety and the safety of illusion, and she is not afraid to break up those illusions and bring us face to face with the things we would rather not see: the lack of characters of color on television. The casual violence toward women we hear all around us. The actual violence perpetrated on women’s bodies and on black bodies.

Girlhood plus survival: from these things, and from her life as the daughter of Haitian immigrants, a professor, a Scrabble player, and more, Roxane Gay has made herself into a writer of breathtaking fiction and thought-provoking essays. Reading her work is like getting a tour of contemporary culture from your smartest friend, the one who seems to have been everywhere and seen everything and who has come back to put it all together for you.

Gay is the author of a collection of stories, Ayiti; a novel, An Untamed State; an essay collection called Bad Feminist; innumerable essays both online and in print; and a Twitter feed that will have you laughing, cheering, and up in arms. Her memoir Hunger is forthcoming this year, and she will be writing Marvel’s World of Wakanda comic along with poet Yona Harvey. She teaches at Purdue University, where she is an associate professor of English.

“Don’t bother coming back to my world,” the narrator of An Untamed State says to her future husband in an argument. It’s a challenge and a dare, one he ends up accepting, and one you should, too. Once you have stepped into Roxane Gay’s world, you will see things you have never seen, and you will be wiser and better for it.

Each year the Paul Engle Award Committee works with artists at M.C. Ginsberg, who design the one-of-a-kind prize. This year, designers Brigitta Stoner and Ji Young Yoon found inspiration in Roxane Gay’s writing. In an artist’s statement about the piece, they write that their efforts “were combined to create a representation of the thoughts in a woman’s mind. We ask ourselves many questions every day, and often there are conflicts between society and the many internal thoughts and feelings females experience daily.” The piece, as with all past Engle Prizes, includes a small charm in the shape of Iowa, with a diamond representing Iowa City.

It is with great pleasure that we now present it to Roxane Gay—woman, survivor, writer, and winner of this year’s Paul Engle Prize.

An Introduction to Sara Paretsky

Long-running female detective story author Sara Paretsky of Chicago poses for pictures under train tracks in Hyde Park, Thursday, January 12, 2012.
Long-running female detective story author Sara Paretsky of Chicago poses for pictures under train tracks in Hyde Park, Thursday, January 12, 2012. (Alex Garcia/ Chicago Tribune)
Sara Paretsky received the Paul Engle Prize, awarded by Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and sponsored by the City of Coralville a little over a year ago. After the award was granted, she was interviewed on stage by NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan at the Coralville Public Library.

Here is the introduction I wrote for her.

“Every writer’s difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech.”

This weekend marks the end of Banned Books Week, the time each year when we librarians stop to call attention to the books that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want you to read. If you stopped at our display near the front desk, you’ll see some of the more frequently challenged books there, along with the reasons they’ve been challenged—they use bad words, or they talk about sexuality, or they express unpopular political opinions, or they encourage witchcraft. Frequently these are books for young people, because it is young people whose exposure to ideas we seem to worry the most about.

Sara Paretsky was lucky to grow up in an environment where books were encouraged—in fact, her mother later became a children’s librarian—but she also grew up in a time and in a household where women were not supposed to get ideas. Though her parents paid to send her four brothers away to school, they told Paretsky that if she wanted to go to college, she’d have to do so in state, and she’d have to pay for it herself. She did, earning a BA from the University of Kansas and eventually a PhD and an MBA from the University of Chicago. Though she’d written privately for years, it wasn’t until she was working in the insurance industry in Chicago in 1978 that, during a meeting with an executive she began thinking of all the things she’d like to say but couldn’t—and V.I. Warshawski was born. Indemnity Only, her first novel, written at nights while she was still working full time, was published in 1981.

She has since written sixteen more novels in the V.I. Warshawski, plus several standalone novels, short stories, and a memoir in essays called Writing in an Age of Silence. Paretsky’s work has garnered both critical and popular acclaim for nearly three decades. Among her many awards and honors, she was named Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1987; she received Mark Twain Award for Distinguished Contribution to Midwest Literature in 1996; the Gold Dagger from the British Crime Writers in 2004; and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2011. She holds honorary doctorates from MacMurray College and Columbia College, Chicago. After remarks she made in 1986 about the way women in many crime novels were treated and the paucity of reviews of books by female mystery authors set off a firestorm, she became a founding member of Sisters in Crime, the now worldwide organization for women crime writers.

With such a long list of publications and accomplishments, it is hard to think of Paretsky as ever being silent, or ever being silenced. “Every writers difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech,” she wrote in her 2007 essay collection Writing in an Age of Silence. “We must be intensely private and interior in order to find a voice and a vision—and we must bring our work to the outside world where the market, or public outrage, or even government censorship can destroy our voice.” Paretsky has had experience fighting all three of those forces of silence, both for herself and on behalf of others.

The Library Bill of Rights notes that “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment” and that “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.”

We are honored tonight to welcome Sara Paretsky, author, activist, and ally in the ongoing fight for free expression.

An Introduction to Marvin Bell

Occasionally I am called upon to write–and sometimes deliver–introductions to authors. I’m rather fond of some of them, and so I’ve decided to start publishing them here.

Marvin Bell at the Coralville Marriott for the Coralville Public Library
23 April 2015
World Book Day

Marvin Bell in a hat. Photo by Sam Roxas-Chua.
Marvin Bell in a hat. Photo by Sam Roxas-Chua.

In 1977, the place where we stand now was a sort of wasteland, a mostly blank spot on the map with a few houses along the edge of the river and a little light industry. I was a toddler, and my mother was a graduate student in the English department at the University of Iowa, and her dissertation director, Paul Baender, sometimes played chess with a poet on the faculty of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who had just published a book called Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, which included a poem called “To Dorothy.”

A couple of decades later, that poem inspired a sculptor named James Anthony Bearden to make a sculpture, commissioned by the City of Coralville, for a sculpture walk at the recently built Iowa River Landing, built on the site of that former wetland wasteland, which now housed this fancy hotel and a library of books by graduates and faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop. I grew up to become a librarian at the Coralville Public Library, and one day I wrote to the poet asking if he might come and read and speak a little bit about his work.

That poet was Marvin Bell.

Marvin was a long term member of the Iowa Writers Workshop faculty and served two terms as Iowa’s first poet laureate. Of his twenty-three books, recent titles include Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems and Whiteout, a collaboration photographer Nathan Lyons. After the Fact: Scripts & Postscripts, a collaboration with Christopher Merrill, will appear in 2016. He lives in Iowa City and Port Townsend, Washington and teaches for the brief-residency MFA based in Oregon at Pacific University.

In an interview some years ago, Marvin noted “that it’s ultimately pleasanter and healthier and better for everyone if one thinks of the self as being very small and very unimportant. … And I think, as I may not always have thought, that the only way out of the self is to concentrate on others and on things outside the self.”

Art can bring us to that focus, as can time. 3800 years ago this spot was a campsite. In 1864, the naturalist Louis Agassiz gave a talk called “The Coral Reefs of Iowa City” that gave Coralville, founded in 1873, its name. In 1964, the space where we stand now was barren. A girl scout troop held a bake sale to raise funds for a library in Coralville, Iowa, and my parents met, and the sculptor James Anthony Bearden was born. This year the Coralville Public Library celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. And throughout all that time, Marvin Bell has been writing poems: poems that recognize the world around us—the mulberry trees, the heat of summer, the light of the moon—and our history, from the Holocaust to our current wars, and our relationship to those around us, the living and the dead. Many years from now, we cannot guess what this place will hold, but the people here will still be reading poems. We are deeply pleased and honored to welcome Marvin Bell here tonight.