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Third annual 'Big Read' event in Athens turns focus to Lunar New Year

Kristen B. Morales

January 18, 2018

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Athens is one of the first cities in the country to experience a selection from the National Endowment for the Arts' newly revamped "Big Read" book list, thanks to a new grant awarded to the University of Georgia.

The community-wide reading celebration, which kicks off in February to coincide with the Lunar New Year, focuses on "To Live," a novel by Chinese author Yu Hua. The book is one of 28 titles that make up the updated list of NEA Big Read books. Now in its 10th year, organizers selected a completely new slate of books to represent contemporary authors and books written since the founding of the NEA 50 years ago.

Athens is one of three cities in Georgia to host NEA Big Read events this year—other cities are Atlanta and Brunswick—but it is the only one among 32 locations across the country to read "To Live."

The selection of the novel was made by Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, a professor of language and literacy education in UGA's College of Education. She said not only did she pick the book because of its captivating story, but also its international perspective.

"When I first picked it up I couldn't put it down—this tale of grief, loss and strength—and it was also refreshing to read something that was Chinese, with the global society we now live in," she said. "We do so much according to the lunar calendar, and reading this novel really woke me up to that."

According to the Chinese zodiac, 2018 is the "year of the dog" and begins Feb. 16. In Athens, celebration of the new year and "To Live" kick off Feb. 10 with a pair of events—a dragon-making workshop at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and a lunar new year-themed Family Day at the Georgia Museum of Art. The NEA Big Read events continue into March, exploring language learning, how food reflects Asian culture and a visit by award-0winning children's literature illustrator Grace Lin. Visit the Year of the Dawg website for a full list of events.

Cahnmann-Taylor added that the celebration is also a way for Athens residents to connect with the many Asian students living in the area. UGA is home to nearly 1,000 Chinese-born students alone, making it one of the most popular American institutions among Chinese students, according to Collegefactual.com.

"The East is coming to us, but I feel we need to come to the East," she said. "If we want to create good relations we need to improve what we know about China and Asia."

In addition to events at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, the Georgia Museum of Art and the Athens-Clarke County Library, other events introduce the Athens community to Asian culture through experiences such as a fashion show of UGA student work at Clarke Central high School, a play on the Korean experience and a visit by the award-winning children's illustrator Grace Lin.

Reading "To Live" is one way the community can learn about the Asian experience, Cahnmann-Taylor said. But then, while each event relates to the book individually, it also offers an additional perspective. "With all of these events, we look at how we can experience literature through our senses," she added. "It's not just a dumpling—food is connected to stories. It's the same thing with fashion—recognizing that line between appropriating another culture's style versus embracing its beauty."

Events associated with the NEA Big Read event, "'To Live' in Athens," begin Feb. 10 and continue through March.