Seattle supporters of the city’s bid to become a UNESCO International City of Literature have regrouped and are moving forward, after being sidelined earlier this year.
Seattle supporters of the city’s campaign to become a UNESCO City of Literature have regrouped and are moving forward after its former executive director made controversial comments about writing students that threatened to derail the bid.
The UNESCO City of Literature designation is awarded to cities that show a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression. Seattle submitted a formal application to the program in March 2014, supported by the Seattle City Council.
Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot got the idea rolling and campaigned for Seattle for more than two years. Supporters believed that the city’s affection for books, authors and reading, plus local support for literature-related programs, made Seattle an excellent candidate.
Boudinot became executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature (seattlecityoflit.org), cashed in his own frequent-flier miles to visit other cities of literature around the world and solicited local support.
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But the sometime writing teacher created a national fracas when he published a Feb. 27 opinion piece in The Stranger stating that, among other things, most “MFA (Master of Fine Arts) students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy.” Other controversial points included his contention that “writers are born with talent — either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t.”
The board of Seattle City of Literature resigned in protest. Boudinot did not.
After the uproar, a number of people from the local literary scene contacted Boudinot and expressed a desire to find a way to move forward.
Now there is a new board. Boudinot is no longer the executive director, though he remains on the board. And the new, all-volunteer board is preparing a 2015 bid to submit to UNESCO.
Wednesday, after a meeting attended by Mayor Ed Murray, city officials and other interested parties, board Vice President Alix Wilber said the board has the city’s support. At the meeting, there was “some discussion of whether Ryan should remain on the board,” she said. But “as much as people disagreed with what he said, they can’t not defend his right to say it.”
“If we can’t embrace freedom of speech, what kind of city of literature are we?” she said.
The new bid will be written by Rebecca Brinson, former managing director and co-founder of City of Literature, who co-wrote the 2014 proposal with Boudinot. The city has advanced $2,000 to pay for her work.
The application is due in July. The 2014 bid failed in part because supporters got only two of five letters of recommendation needed from other cities in the program, said Wilber and Hanady Kader, board secretary. Cities receiving the designation in 2014 include Heidelberg, Germany, Dunedin, New Zealand, Granada, Spain and Prague, Czech Republic.
This year, Baghdad and Kampala, Uganda are likely applicants. Thus far, the only American city designated an International City of Literature is Iowa City, home to the world-famous Iowa Writers Workshop. But Kader said that Seattle, with its passion for books and authors, its multicultural population and its “amazing wealth, technology, and entrepreneurial zeal,” remains a strong contender.