A Literary Portrait of Seattle

Before arriving in Seattle, notions of the Pacific Northwest as rainy and gray prevailed, the perfect setting for the evolution of Grunge in the nineties. Contrary to these expectations, I was met with a week of perpetual sunshine and an array of all things literary that rival Seattle’s reputation as a hotbed for music. Specialty bookstores including Ada’s Technical Books, a science bookstore, Open Books, one of four poetry-only stores in the US, and Book Larder, a community cookbook store, form a surprising complement to the chain-oriented big-business of tech giants Google and Amazon.

Touring the book spiral

Seattle Public Library

But you don’t have to spend money to get advice and access to books in Seattle. The city’s Public Library is a magnet for avid readers: You can browse it online or in person, ask the friendly staff members at the information desk for recommendations, follow their weekly blogposts, or attend their story hours. A visit to the central branch is not only recommended for those literarily inclined: You can take a free tour of the building and its book spiral storage system designed by internationally acclaimed architect Rem Kohlhaas using your phone (if you have a US number) or a plan that can be obtained from the general information on the ground floor.

Fearless space travelers

Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co.

Shifting the attention from reading to writing, my next stop is the Space Travel Supply Co. in Greenwood. What does space travel have to do with writing? More than you’d think: The items on display inspire curiosity, and the store’s revenue goes directly to the non-profit organization located behind it – Bureau of Fearless Ideas. The writing and communications center offers free after-school tutoring, visits to schools, and field trips, as well as various experience-based writing workshops whose results get published in their own books. The workshops are designed so even students with limited English skills can participate and enjoy being creative. Apart from sparking interest in writing, the organization aims to bring kids from different backgrounds together to build community by countering prejudices early on to create more empathy and understanding.

Buzzwords and other challenges

Asked about the role of diversity in an organization aimed at helping underprivileged students, many of them poor, of color, or first generation immigrants, Executive Director Andy Herbst gives an interesting answer: According to him, diversity has become a buzzword that is often misunderstood. The problem is that the question “What kind of diversity management is useful to our organization?” is replaced with “How can we fulfil an arbitrary quota?”

BFI LogoAs many of the students at BFI are of East African origin, hiring people of East African decent would be a useful increase in diversity. Currently, most people equipped and desiring to work in the non-profit sector, however, are white Americans of European decent, as people from economically struggling households, which are disproportionately of color in the US, tend to aspire to more lucrative careers if they have the chance to enter higher education (often in order to cover the stifling cost of this education). While I find this argument relatable, I personally think that staff with a wide range of backgrounds – be it educational, national, racial  – is always an advantage when it comes to creative problem solving; and if you look at the staff bios, this is the case with BFI, too.

A pressing matter for BFI is the increasing gentrification of the Greenwood area: The people they aim to serve can’t afford living in the neighborhood anymore. As more and more of them are moving further south, BFI seeks to stay accessible to them in their new branch in First Hill, which is about to open in the fall of 2017.

Make your own words better

Temporary Hugo House, Seattle

While BFI supports kids and teens in their writing endeavors, Hugo House is open to everyone. Named after Richard Hugo, a working-class poet from Seattle who rose to national and international fame, the institution describes itself as “a place to read words, hear words, and make your own words better”. They host events, offer writing classes for all ages and genres, provide residencies, and give out scholarships. Amongst these are the Made at Hugo House fellowships awarded to four to six writers in the Seattle area per year to work on their projects with the help of free classes, regular meetings with their fellows, advice by the writers-in-residence, and reading opportunities.

One of these opportunities is the Mid-Year Reading on May 26, 2017. The six fellows for 2016/17 are writers of poetry, prose or cross-genre experiments, male, female, and trans people, Seattle natives and newcomers, some already with a long list of awards and credentials, others just starting out. While each of them writes in a distinct voice, all writers seem to draw inspiration from their personal backgrounds, which lets the age-old writing advice to “write about what you know” ring true: There are factual and fictionalized memoirs, and writing with a strong sense of place or marked absence thereof.

What’s in a place?

Addressing this with writers Beryl Clark and Gabrielle Bates, both confirm my notion for their own writing. Beryl Clark’s fictionalized, cross-genre piece Dust Mounthead is based on her own life, and she says that writing it helped her to reassess and better understand her childhood and teenage years. While landscape doesn’t play an important role in her writing, she affirms that the various landscapes she has inhabited throughout her life shaped her perception of place.

In Gabrielle Bates’ work, which experiments with various genres and crosses the boundary between the textual and the visual, personal influences are harder to detect, but she, too, states drawing inspiration from her upbringing in Alabama both for her imagery and the topics she addresses. Both responses imply that a place is more than what meets the eye, a complex intertwining of landscape, culture, and emotion.

Even in a week in which not many events were happening, I was able to experience a wide variety of literature-related people and places in Seattle. Although rising living costs and gentrification threaten the accessibility of literary life in the city, the institutions portrayed do their best to keep up with the changes and offer their services to people of all backgrounds.

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