I had the opportunity late in March to attend an author’s talk held at the Mira Mesa Library with Zohreh Ghahremani, who wrote Sky of Red Poppies, one of the books chosen for this year’s KPBS One Book, One San Diego readers’ program. KPBS partners with San Diego Libraries to bring the entire city together in, One Book, One San Diego. Like the title elicits, each year one book is chosen for the city to read and discuss together (think of it as a city-wide book-clubbing event with various community events scattered throughout designated sites).
Last year’s selection was a non-fiction book, titled, The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy, about the author’s childhood as a Vietnamese refuge growing up in San Diego. I remember reading the book and savoring every poetic phrase, totally engrossed by thúy’s beautiful writing style. The memoir also has its moments of unease; her parents’ tumultuous relationship makes a deep impression on thúy and oftentimes the familiar landscape of San Diego is rendered in the same emotionally wrought scenes as her mother’s outbursts. One image that stood out for me was the empty swimming pool that thúy finds herself going to whenever her parents’ bitter fights end up being too much for her. In this particular scene, the cracked façade of the pool happened to perfectly embody thúy’s fissured mentality.
thúy’s book jumpstarted One Book, One San Diego’s first non-fiction piece and in a lot of ways it was a great premiere of a factual narrative work for the Library-based program. In The Gangster We Are All Looking For, thúy is able to explicitly express how San Diego libraries have powerfully impacted her while growing up.
“It is especially meaningful to me that the San Diego Public libraries play such a large part in the One Book program,” thúy told the Union-Tribune. “It was in the public libraries of San Diego that I learned to love being in the company of books, and experienced both the consolation of words, and their power to challenge and transport.”
Though I vaguely remember the author’s testament to the library’s role in her memoir, it makes complete sense why The Gangster We Are All Looking For was chosen for One Book, One San Diego. Libraries happened to impact thúy while growing up, and as the publishing world continues to morph, these literary institutions are attempting to maintain their influence in an ever-evolving industry. By creating a program that is for and based in the community, One Book, One San Diego melds the gap between libraries and its function in our society. The program features a smorgasbord of reader interactive activities that range from author events, book discussions at libraries, film screenings, as well as other events to explore the themes discussed in the featured book.
This year’s One Book, One San Diego selections offers the same insight, but with a wider perspective of what literature can do. The books chosen this year include: Moloka’i by Alan Brennert, Sky of Red Poppies by Zohreh Ghahremani, and Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea.
At the readers’ function I mentioned previously, I came to the author’s talk clutching my unread copy of Sky of Red Poppies, and listened in on the excited chit-chat on those who have read the book.
The warring state of the author’s country is used as a compelling backdrop to Ghahremani’s story, which is about a friendship that grows between two classmates. Curiously enough, Ghahremani’s story is similar to thúy’s in that both have enough auto-biographical essence to make each hefty works of non-fiction. The portrayal of the politically divided climate of Ghahremani’s Iran offers insight into why the author chooses to paint the landscape of the times in a fictional novel instead. In a country where the political regime is in a state of constant flux, and where a nation’s identity is heavily enmeshed in roles and tradition, fear and tragedy is rather something of a norm. But for the author, who admits she is Roya in the story, literature offers a safe haven from all that, and even provides a way that she can look beyond the tragic past and into the future.
I haven’t had the chance to read the other books selected for One Book, One San Diego, but from what I understood, each book revolves around the inexplicable importance literature has or will have on these characters’ lives. It is interesting what you can rework from experience, put thoughts onto paper, and then be able to render something that people generations from now may cherish and hopefully foster a newfound love and respect for. I find it simply amazing how literary works can continue to become that all-encompassing legacy, changing lives as well as fates.