IUP students, book lovers make cultural connection through library group

| Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010

A new community group in Homer City is drawing attention to the value of literature, literacy and libraries while offering its members a unique opportunity to learn about other countries in a social setting.

Some doctoral students from Indiana University of Pennsylvania have partnered with the Homer-Center Public Library in Homer City and Burrell Township Library in Black Lick to offer Community Connections, a discussion group that focuses on studies of postcolonial nations and cultures in print and films.

There are about 15 members in the group, and others are welcome to join. The group includes several IUP students pursuing doctoral degrees in literature and criticism and in composition and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, according to founder Tracy J. Lassiter. A resident of Homer City, Lassiter is a teaching associate at IUP and an English department doctoral student specializing in postcolonial literature and criticism.

Judy Palaski, board president of the Homer-Center Public Library and founder of the Book Ends book club there, worked with Lassiter, a library volunteer, to develop Community Connections.

"There are so many books out now that feature Mideastern, African and Asian countries," Palaski said. "Through our association with Tracy, the board and The Book Ends group realized that we had students from those countries just eight miles up the road," at IUP.

"Understanding different cultures and religions has never been more important than today. We all thought both groups had much to learn from the novels, movies, discussions and each other," Palaski said.

The group has been examining other cultures through literary works and sharing that insight with the local community.

"In this age of increased globalization, I think it's valuable to connect with our fellow humans from other countries," Lassiter said. "Politically, economically. and especially humanistically, we can't afford to remain unaware or insensitive. Literature -- and in this case, particularly postcolonial literature -- gives us insight into the history and culture of different regions and what we can do with that knowledge in the 21st century. It offers us a starting point for holding these very important conversations. We can learn from each other."

Lassiter said a grant received through IUP's College of Humanities and Social Sciences covers the cost of books on postcolonial topics for the library's collection, rental of films the Community Connections group screens and refreshments served at its meetings. The group is working with the Burrell Township Library in an effort to provide participants with their own copy of the books they discuss.

The group members make suggestions on the literary works to be selected.

"We limit the choices to those featuring an international story, either fiction or nonfiction," Palaski said.

Lassiter said selections also have been based on the library's ability to obtain the titles.

"Marjane Satrapi's 'Persepolis' was selected in part because it is a graphic novel form," offering participants "a quick read," Lassiter said. "Others were chosen because of limited funding, and many of the IUP grad students already owned copies of the books in question. We take into consideration the interests and concerns of both community members and the students in making our selections. Ultimately, we discuss it as a group before deciding to proceed with a particular title."

The group discussed the book and film "Persepolis," the coming-of-age story of an outspoken Iranian girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution.

"It shows what Iranians' life was like before the revolution and how that life changed afterward," Lassiter said. "Satrapi's portrayal of people, including her own family, buying rock music, having parties, and going dancing dispels the myth that Iran has always been a fundamentalist country.

"So, that's an important idea for readers to take away, but to separate out the religious and political aspects, it has to do with how this young girl makes her way in a foreign land -- in this case, Europe -- and struggles with acceptance -- by others and of herself. It's a great text because it lends itself to all sorts of conversations."

The group has also viewed and discussed the Academy Award-nominated short film "Binta and the Great Idea."

The film offers a view of Western culture from the perspective of people living in the lesser-developed nation of Senegal. It also depicts the education of girls, which Lassiter said is an important and recurring theme in texts examined by the group.

"I suggested this film because it presents several of the key issues we hope to address," Lassiter said. "How do other cultures work as a community to resolve their problems• What do those cultures do that we in the West can learn from• How can we help them in a way that takes their cultural values into consideration?"

Despite the film's serious topic, Palaski said the group found it to be entertaining.

"We had a fairly even mixture of international students, Book Ends members and community members attending," Palaski said. "The film, although a serious subject, was quite humorous, and we all laughed together. It was a very congenial group, and that led to an interesting discussion."

The book the group will discuss next is "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson. It features a man's story of going to Afghanistan to build schools.

The next meeting of the Community Connections book group is set for 3-5 p.m. Sunday at the Homer-Center Public Library, 6 N. Main St., Homer City. The public is welcome to join in the session.

For additional information, call Palaski at 724-479-3616.

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