In Seattle, we’re a bookish bunch. We have more than 30 bookstores, a robust library system, and author talks and readings on nearly every night of the week. Not to mention the renowned writers who have called the Emerald City home—Rebecca Brown, Richard Hugo, Sherman Alexie, and Lindy West among them. According to Central Connecticut State University, Seattle’s also the second most literate city in the U.S.
Now, finally, Seattle’s bookworm proclivities are internationally recognized. After four years, four mayors, and two attempts for the title, Seattle is an official City of Literature, the second in the nation after Iowa City, courtesy of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. There’s just one problem—or maybe a plot twist: President Donald Trump plans to abandon the organization at the end of the year.
Our story begins in 2013, when writer (and Seattle Met contributor) Ryan Boudinot founded Seattle City of Literature, a nonprofit dedicated to applying to UNESCO’s Creative City Network. Joining the plexus opens up opportunities for global collaboration, comes with literary legitimacy, and affirms cities as safe spaces for free expression. “My hope was to establish Seattle as a place where those rights are vigorously defended,” Boudinot says. But he faced some backlash for invoking such rights when he wrote an editorial for The Stranger newspaper questioning MFA writing programs that was, to Seattle City of Literature’s former board president Bob Redmond, “really offensive to a lot of people of all backgrounds.” Boudinot resigned from the nonprofit in 2015.
Seattle City of Literature also lost its UNESCO bid that year. “We got really high marks,” Redmond says, but in a global pool of City of Literature applications “there just wasn’t room.” Still, with a brand-new board of directors, the group persevered. It worked on racial equity training for arts organizations, an economic impact study for literary arts, and an Indigenous Writers’ Exchange with Cowlitz tribal member Elissa Washuta and Nick Low, a Maori writer from New Zealand.
On October 12, though, Trump’s administration made an announcement: The country would withdraw from the United Nations’ cultural agency at the end of 2018. Seattle’s status as a Creative City is not just an honorific, but a call to action. “I believe UNESCO’s work to advance literacy and quality education is shared by the American people,” said Irina Bokova, then director-general for the peace-building organization.
Seattle, at least, is defiant. When the president tried to ban travelers from Muslim-majority countries, residents flocked to Sea-Tac to protest en masse. When he pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the city vowed to adhere to the accord anyway. So, if the administration decides to turn its back on international collaboration again, Seattle will press on. It’s what Seattle City of Literature did in pursuit of the designation after all.
“Trump is temporary, and efforts to build bridges between people are permanent,” Redmond says.
“So that’s what we’re going to do.”