A few years ago in Iceland, Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot sat down with Bjork's lyricist, a poet named Sjón, and had a conversation that might substantially increase the prestige and reach of Seattle's literary culture. Sjón and Boudinot discussed Reykjavik's recent designation as a UNESCO City of Literature—what it meant for the city's writers and readers, what it meant for the city as a whole.
UNESCO designates cities as exemplary in particular art forms, including music, film, design, gastronomy, crafts and folk art, media arts and literature. Once UNESCO designates a city as a City of X, it enters a network of creative cities around the world with whom it can start collaborating with those cities on writer exchanges, human rights efforts, education projects, tourism and cultural exchanges, etc. Current UNESCO Cities of Literature include Krakow, Iowa City, Dublin, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Norwich and Reykjavik.
Before a city enters this network, though, it has to make a bid. The application process involves a cover letter that describes the city's past contributions to literature, a plan for what it'll do with the designation and a statement about what the city can bring to the network as a whole. The city also needs to be endorsed by five other UNESCO cities. After all that, somewhat shadowy but benign groups of outside NGOs review the application and make a decision to accept or deny access to the network.
After the conversation with his new Icelandic friend, Boudinot felt inspired. At Elliott Bay Book Company's 40th anniversary reading, he proposed to the crowd that Seattle make a bid. When the people at the reading said yes, he began to assemble a veritable literary Justice League that included Hugo House executive director Tree Swenson, City Council member Nick Licata, Washington Center for the Book's Chris Higashi, Seattle Public Library's Chance Hunt, polymath Nancy Pearl and several other figures from around the community. Together, these people convened to help push Seattle's bid, which the city council unanimously approved back in January.
Boudinot also did the international footwork and glad-handing necessary to secure Seattle's endorsements by traveling to Paris, Norwich, Dublin, Edinburgh and Reykjavik, and giving speeches to each city's organizers. (To show his commitment to Seattle literature, he also fired his New York agent, told his publisher that he will from now on only publish in Seattle, and he has vowed to take all the money he makes from book sales and put it toward the UNESCO City of Literature budget.)
"I'm not applying to become a City of Literature," says Boudinot, "I'm just trying to get Seattle to see itself as it truly is, which is a city of international significance in literature."
He and the rest of the team are confident they have a good case. The UNESCO application will be submitted by March 20, and Seattle will find out whether or not it receives the designation in November.
The possibilities for collaboration with other Cities of Literature are exciting. We could set up writer exchanges, wherein we'd send a few Seattle writers to Krakow, and they'd send a few writers to us. We'd increase our region's publication visibility, in that the international community will know when a Seattle writer publishes a book. Seattle writers would also work on projects related to freedom of expression and other human rights issues. Plus, we'd have a seat at the table at UNESCO's annual Creative City Summit. At this summit, all 41 creative cities gather to develop international programming and to discuss issues of literary importance. And that's not all—depending on how the bid shakes out, there could be opportunities for more kids' education programs through Seattle Public Libraries, plans to encourage literary tourism and designs to foster greater cultural exchange through literary programming.
If you want to hear more about the contents of the UNESCO bid, and about what Seattle plans to do if we are designated a City of Literature, go to Town hall this Wednesday and party with Boudinot, Ed Murray and local literary luminaries Elissa Washuta of the University of Washington, Gary Luke of Sasquatch Books, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Co., Tree Swenson of Richard Hugo House and Nancy Pearl of everywhere.
Wednesday, March 12, 7:30 p.m., FREE, Town Hall. Photo of Ryan Boudinot by Leah Brock.