The election of President Donald J. Trump has galvanized many in the book industry to a level of political activism not seen in generations. This week, we begin a series that shines a spotlight on some of the actions taken by those in publishing, bookselling, libraries, the nonprofit world, book-related media, and more.
Deandra Beard, the owner of Beyond Barcodes in Kokomo, Ind., recalls her shock the morning after the presidential election when she learned that more than 57% of voters in Indiana had cast their ballots for Donald Trump—including more than 50% of the voters in her county. She committed to using her multicultural bookstore as a safe space for aisle-crossing political conversations.
Since the election, Beard has organized two in-store community dialogues: the first was intended to let attendees blow off steam about the election, and the second was in a larger town hall format as part of the year-old store’s ongoing “We the People” series of discussions about intersectional social issues in the U.S. During the town hall, people of “various political persuasions” discussed the election, why they voted the way they did, and how to “work across the aisle” to build relationships in the future, she explained.
“Through that [town hall],” Beard noted, “I know that people for sure voted for Trump and are already regretting it.” More town halls on current events will be held as necessary, she said.
On April 22, Beyond Barcodes will hold a day of education about immigration. The event will include a concert by a Chicago-based band, Bassel & the Supernaturals, whose lead vocalist, a Syrian immigrant to the U.S., will also facilitate a discussion about the issue from the perspective of an Arab-American.
Chicago’s Women & Children First, one of the oldest women’s bookstores in the country, has taken a strong and vocal stand against the Trump presidency and its ramifications. In early January the store owners, Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck, announced that they were launching a feminist craft circle with the goal of “using traditionally ‘feminine’ crafts for political statements, art, and more.” The Feminist Craft Circle members knitted 100 pink “pussy hats” for the Women’s March in January, which were distributed before and during the marches in Chicago and Washington, D.C. The crafting group has decided to continue to meet as a regular crafting circle; most recently, they knitted hats and scarves to provide to a local nonprofit, Care for Real, that helps people in need with food and clothing.
Women and Children First has also launched two monthly events in response to the current political climate. The first, called Activism, showcases local activist organizations. Each month, representatives from a different Chicagoland social justice organization make a presentation about its mission, followed by a q&a and information session on how people can become involved with it.
The second monthly series is called the Conversation. In it, authors discuss issues of political, social, and cultural relevance. The inaugural panel was subtitled “Art + Resistance” and featured Aleksandar Hemon, Eula Biss, and Roger Reeves, among others.
In Houston last month, Tony Diaz, the proprietor of Nuestra Palabra Arts & Books, took to the streets to voice his opposition to some of the new policies of the Trump administration that have filtered down to the state level. Under protest was SB4: a law making its way through the Texas legislature that would empower police on university campuses to act as de facto immigration officers. “We have to work together to make this stop,” he said to the nearly 50 people who’d gathered in the 80-degree heat outside the administrative building of the University of Houston Downtown to hold placards with slogans such as “Immigrants Welcome Here” and “Stop Racism” for the television cameras. “This city behind us hums with industry, with trains and construction,” he announced, “and we know who built this city, this country—immigrants.”
Diaz opened Nuestra Palabra late last year. By his own account, it is just the fifth Latino-focused bookstore in the nation. It is housed inside Talento Bilingüe de Houston, a cultural center that also includes a 270-seat theater, which the store will use for special events. Currently, the shop has 500 titles on offer, with plans to expand to some 2,000.
A vocal advocate for Latino literary life, Diaz is also the founder of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Our Say—an organization that was responsible for the Latino Book and Family Show, which ran from 2002 to 2007—and a self-described librotraficante (“book smuggler”). In 2012, he organized a caravan to smuggle “wet books” into Arizona after the state outlawed Latino and ethnic studies at universities. In keeping with the spirit of that project, one of the first events at the store was a seminar for high school teachers on how to use Latino literature, which was free to attend with the purchase of Hecho in Tejasi, the anthology of Mexican-American literature edited by Dagoberto Gilb.
Asked why he started a bookstore, Diaz explained that downtown Houston is a book desert and, save for the headquarters of the Houston public library, there is nowhere to get a book in the district. (A Books-A-Million closed several years ago.) His mission is to give the Latino community a literary place to “chill” and to help the curious discover books that can help share the Latino experience.
At KitaabWorld, an online children’s bookstore focused on offering hard-to-find books from South Asian countries—including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Afghanistan, and Nepal—the focus has also been on educating readers, parents, and teachers. An ongoing campaign dubbed “45+ Books to Counter Islamophobia,” which has promoted books on topics from Muhammad Ali to the Grand Mosque in Paris, has garnered international attention.
“Our roles are not purely as booksellers,” said site cofounder Sadaf Saddique, a Silicon Valley consultant. “We see ourselves as taking bookselling to the next step by trying to facilitate representation for South Asian culture and children’s books. In this regard we are activists and advocates in addition to being booksellers.”
The site, which operates out of the San Francisco Bay area and has an office in Menlo Park, Calif., was born last year when Saddique and cofounder Gauri Manglik, an attorney, recognized a gap in the market for books that featured South Asian children in various cultures and countries, not only in the context of an immigrant or assimilation experience in America. “We wanted books that authentically depicted life back in India, for example, and for that reason we had to import the books ourselves.”
KitaabWorld currently offers approximately 1,000 titles, and it is working with a dozen publishers in India. The site also handles its own warehousing and distribution.
“The biggest challenge is discovery, educating people to let them know that these books do exist—there are books that depict little girls in hijabs doing everyday things,” Saddique said.
Educators are as much a target audience of KitaabWorld as are general readers. Sometimes, Saddique said, “teachers can sometimes be reticent to order books about, say, Islam, because they fear that they don’t know enough about the topic to make a good decision as to what to buy.” He added, “That is why we put out our list to counter Islamophobia—it was more to make people comfortable with the topic.” However, he continued, “we want to emphasize that we are not just a site for Islamic books. We have done campaigns to educate people about Diwali, for example.”
Among the site’s bestselling titles are Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan and illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Viking) and Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams (Eerdmans). But perhaps dearest to the cofounder’s heart is Dear Mrs. Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian (Young Zuuban), a story about an Indian girl living in a slum who battles the government to get education and becomes pen pals with Mrs. Naidu, a long-dead freedom fighter. “The book won the 2016 South Asian Book Award,” Saddique said, “and we were so eager to sell it here. Part of our mission is to help expand the audience for these books in the United States, but also to simply prove that the audience exists here so more of these types of books get published.”