Seattle is a UNESCO City of Literature

A woman browses bookshelves. (Photo by Germán Poo-Caamaño via Flickr.)

We live in a city of bookworms. On my journeys about town, I’ve spied a gentleman on a Lake Washington bench reading Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” before her talk at the Seattle Art Museum. Crossing the noisy maw of Interstate 5 on Denny Way, I spotted a beefcake with a gym bag in one hand and a novel by South African Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee in the other. I’ve even seen people gaze intently at paperbacks while strolling down the street – take that, texting and walking!

Now the rest of the world will learn that Seattle is more than just coffee, grunge, rain and Amazon. As of yesterday, we’re an official UNESCO City of Literature — but the United States’ current relationship with the international organization adds a layer of complexity to the announcement.

UNESCO, the Paris-based education, science, and culture arm of the United Nations, is best known for administering World Heritage Sites (one is visible from downtown on a clear day – Olympic National Park). It also runs a host of other programs, including the Creative Cities Network, an initiative started in 2004 to connect cities with similar cultural backgrounds and help them grow their creative industries.

Seattle is lucky to have squeaked in the door before it was slammed shut by the Trump administration. Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department informed UNESCO it was withdrawing from its membership in the agency, effective Dec. 31, 2018.

It’s the latest move in a fraught relationship that has spanned several administrations. In 2011, UNESCO’s member countries voted to admit Palestine, a move that prompted the Obama administration to stop paying $80 million in annual dues. In July, a UNESCO committee voted to declare the Old City of Hebron and Tomb of the Patriarchs, which are located in the Occupied West Bank, as Palestinian, rather than Israeli, heritage sites. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Literature is among the seven creative fields UNESCO recognizes, and Seattle has been trying for four years to receive global recognition as a city of readers on the strength of our vibrant small presses, 16 independent bookstores, consistent top national ranking as a well-read city, and past and present famous authors including Octavia Butler, Neal Stephenson and Sherman Alexie. In 2015, the city’s bid was turned down. That same year, City of Literature’s then-director Ryan Boudinot left the nonprofit after people responded negatively to a controversial essay about his experience as a creative writing instructor.

In June, a reconstituted City of Literature nonprofit board submitted a new application and got the good news, making Seattle the second U.S. designee after Iowa City. Other newly minted cities of literature include Durban, Lillehammer, Milan, Québec City and Bucheon, South Korea. Longer standing cities of literature include Melbourne, Edinburgh, and Reykjavik.

“We’re just thrilled,” City of Literature board member Stesha Brandon told the Globalist. “Tons of people have put in hundreds of hours of volunteer work to get to this point. We’re excited to see what we can build now that we’ve been designated.”

While the dashed expectations of 2015 meant that the current board was reluctant to plan ahead, yesterday’s announcement has opened the floodgates to any number of ideas.

Brandon said she is particularly excited to work with cities where English is not the native language, as well as to foster cross-cultural collaborations with other Creative Cities outside of the Literature network. The other six creative fields UNESCO recognizes are music, film, design, media arts, gastronomy, and folk arts and craft.

Not that the City of Literature team has been sitting on their heels while waiting to hear back from Paris. In the past few years, they brokered an indigenous writers exchange with our sister city Christchurch, New Zealand. Last year, Seattle sent Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz tribe, to Christchurch’s annual writers and readers festival. Earlier this month, Nic Low, a writer of Ngāi Tahu Maori descent, had a residency here.

According to Denise Bax, who manages the Creative Cities Network from UNESCO Headquarters, Seattle can expect more of these international connections in the future. “When you are part of a network, [you have] the possibility to exchange with other cities, participate in international events, and apply for projects,” she told the Globalist in May from her office in Paris.

UNESCO had no further details by press time on how the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the country out of the agency might affect future projects. But Brandon said the State Department did not block the initiative, and the announcement apparently did not hurt Seattle’s bid.

“We would not have been able to put this bid forward without the support of the State Department,” said Brandon, who works for the Seattle Public Library. “We’re grateful for their support of the initiative.”

But, geopolitics could complicate future collaborations. For instance, Seattle might not be able to host a writer from Baghdad, another of UNESCO’s Cities of Literature. Iraq is one of the countries on President Donald Trump’s travel ban list.

But with this bright horizon for global connections in Seattle’s literary scene, those are exciting hurdles to cross as cities like Seattle keep the flame alive for U.S. engagement with the world.

“Regardless of what the federal government is doing, we are committed to the mission that UNESCO supports, the idea that we’re trying to build peace through understanding and cross-cultural exchange,” Brandon said. “The withdrawal makes the work that we do even more important. We have the opportunity to help build bridges across divisions through art.”

To borrow a literary technique, it must have been unintentional foreshadowing of the good news to come when I raised my herbal glass of Fernet in toast to departing Seattle civic poet – and City of Literature booster – Claudia Castro Luna at Vermilion Gallery last month during the Seattle Lit Crawl.