A good book changes your perspective on the world and your place in it. And a great book, read by a whole community of people intent on finding meaning and making connections? Well, that’s the driving force behind Whatcom READS, a program that creates county-wide conversation around a single book.

This year’s book is Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. I won’t give away any spoilers, but it begins with the protagonist escaping slavery to adventure across the globe, encountering intrigue and invention and…an octopus. It’s a thrilling and thought-provoking read that invites questions about race and belonging, which is exactly the kind of dialogue Whatcom READS wants to encourage.

You’ll have to read the book to figure out how the octopus comes into the story—but you’ll be glad you did! Photo courtesy Whatcom READS/Good Eye Design

“One of the factors we consider when selecting a book is if it includes themes or issues of local interest,” says Whatcom County Library System’s Community Relations Manager Mary Vermillion. “Issues of race and belonging are of local—and national—interest. The book fits with some of the important conversations that are happening in our community right now.”

Masa DeLara, an educator, facilitator and consultant in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion and cultural humility, is also an Advisory Board member for the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center with a deep commitment to equity, inclusion, and racial and social justice. Photo courtesy Masa DeLara

Whatcom READS is a collaborative effort, a partnership among all the public and academic libraries in Bellingham and Whatcom County, as well as Village Books. That collaboration spreads to all who participate in the program. Vermillion explains, “It encourages everyone to read and discuss the same book. The inspiration is to inspire a love of reading, bring our community together, address issues, create empathy, and get to know and understand each other in a new way.”

Whatcom READS has been bringing Whatcom County together for 13 years, but this year in particular required unprecedented creativity and dedication to shift all events online. Though they may be virtual, they’re no less exciting, and offer a chance to ‘gather’ and explore meaningful questions through facilitated discussions.

People can participate in several upcoming events. For those looking to explore anti-racism with a local social justice leader, Whatcom READS offers facilitated online book club discussions and downloadable discussion questions. Three exceptional advocates—Masa DeLara, Dr. Vernon Damani Johnson, and Shu-Ling Zhao—are available to guide books clubs through challenging and powerful conversations.

Vermillion is especially grateful that Whatcom READS, with the support of the Equity Fund of the Whatcom Community Foundation, can “expand the conversation so more people can have a chance to understand these complex issues that are important in our community.”

Dr. Vernon Damani Johnson, faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Western Washington University. Photo courtesy Damani Johnson

And who better than the author herself to join and lead the conversation? 

Esi Edugyan will participate in three interviews and book talks on March 4th and 5th. Edugyan writes “richly imagined and impeccably researched stories that illuminate complicated truths about race and belonging. She is the only the third writer to twice win the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award.” To hear her share her creative process—as well as learn more about the inspiration behind the book—is the chance of a lifetime. Registration is required. Visit whatcomreads.org/events.

Edugyan’s evening talk on March 4th can be complemented by an incredible Think, Drink, and Dine experience from Evolve, with a menu dreamed up by Chef Christy Fox and inspired by Washington Black.

“The idea is that you pre-order your dinner, pick it up and take it home, and dine while watching the author interview,” says Vermillion. These dinners are limited availability, so pre-order yours here. Evolve is also offering a Book Club Kit available for purchase at the café’s counter. The kit includes a themed cocktail or mocktail, book discussion questions, and a Whatcom READS bookmark and poster (while supplies last).

Shu-Ling Zhao, artist and co-founder of Sylvia Center for the Arts, works with the Chuckanut Health Foundation and is collaborating with local government to found the Whatcom County Racial Equity Commission. Photo courtesy Shu-Ling Zhao

“Even in this year of COVID, we’re trying to still create experiences of coming together to read and discuss the same book and learn about the author,” Vermillion says.

Though these events may look different than in years past, they’re no less meaningful and inspirational.

“Bellingham and Whatcom County are fortunate to have an incredible artistic and literary community,” says Vermillion. “When we come together, we can find joy, ask important questions, and consider things in a new light. That’s what Whatcom READS is trying to do, with this book in particular.”

We may not be able to gather with our book clubs in person, sharing good food, drinks, laughter, and conversation. But that doesn’t mean that the power of a good book is diminished. In fact, it may be just the opposite. So many of us have found solace, developed empathy, and connected with others through books this year, and Whatcom READS amplifies these gifts that come with the simple act of reading.

So crack open Esi Edugyan Washington Black, prepare yourself a delicious meal (or order one!), and let’s start the conversation.

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