by Kaitlyn Halper
Hilbert College held its sixth annual Hilbert Reads even on Tuesday, October 16. The book chosen, The Lightless Sky, follows author Gulwali Passerlay on a twelve-month, 12,000-mile journey as a refugee, traveling from his home in Afghanistan to England to escape death. I had the opportunity to join the book committee in welcoming Passerlay to Hilbert, and was able to sit in on a round table discussion and dinner with him, before the actual event.
Passerlay’s visit to Hilbert began with a round table discussion on “small acts of kindness”, a huge theme throughout his book. Passerlay discussed how people throughout the book gave him “small things that went a long way.” He spoke about the media today and how it is not positive. He urged those in attendance to “not underestimate kindness” saying it was an “important tool.” He continued by saying we have a “moral duty to help” and that “love is the key.” He pointed out that “language is a barrier”, but “kindness is a universal language.” He also spoke about learning and how “learning is easy, unlearning is difficult.” Dr. Amy Smith, who is on the committee that picked the book, told the group a story about a homeless person she met while on a service trip to Washington D.C. Someone asked him “How can I help?” to which he said, “acknowledge me and act like I’m a person.” Jeff Papia, of campus ministry, connected small acts of kindness to St. Francis, recounting with the story of the leper saying the lepers “ugliness was skin deep, not soul deep.” Students shared personal stories of their past problems, and how small acts of kindness has helped them. Dr. Smith ended the discussion with the quote a “comfort zone is a great place, but nothing grows there.
Next was a dinner with Passerlay, his wife, and the committee. Passerlay told us about getting stuck in customs and getting a boot put on his car while in New York City. He asked the committee about the process to pick the Hilbert Reads book and commented on how good the food was (it was delicious). He also spoke about his book being published in six languages, saying that in France it is tilted “I Am Gulwali”. It is published by the same company that published “I am Malala.”
Lastly, Passerlay spoke to in Swan Auditorium at the Hilbert Reads event itself. He told the story to the room, mentioning that he had not seen his mom in twelve years, and that he “missed her very much.” After there was a short question and answer period where participants could write a question on an index card to be asked to Passerlay, followed by a book signing and photo opt in West Herr Atrium.
After the event I spoke with Dr. Amy Smith, on what she thought about the event and Passerlay.
The Scribe: How many books were in this year’s finalists?
Amy Smith: I think the committee read five different books. So the way that it works to give you the big picture stuff, each committee member reads books that they believe would be appropriate to include. Then we have a meeting and people bring their suggestions to the meeting, normally we end up with more then we can actually read so based on descriptions of the books and what the person who brought it forward says about it we then try to narrow it down to four or five books where we all read them. Then we do another vote where we pick the final book.
TS: How many people are on the board that picks the book?
AS: So, it has fluctuated a lot between last year and this year because many people on the committee have left. It used to be a fairly small committee, but now it has grown due to more people interested. Right now, there are nine people on the committee.
TS: Why was The Lightless Sky chosen?
AS: The story is a relevant issue, although when we picked the book it was not as big of a topic as it is in the United States, so we actually selected a book over a year ago. That was before all the things at the border, before the separation of children from their families. I think people liked the book because it talked about an important issue and we like to have books of first-person perspective, although that is not a requirement. The refugee issue may not be something students can personally relate to, some of the other themes having to do with family, connections to the Franciscan values, remaining hopeful, and the connection of Franciscan to Islam with Francis meeting the Sultan, we thought it would be interesting for students to learn about Islam as well. And it’s a good story.
TS: What was your favorite book from the past six years? Why?
AS: This is a tough one. I’ve liked them all. I think they’ve all been good choices but for different reasons so I’m not sure I can say my favorite, but I will say one of my favorites was the book by Jerry McGill, Dear Marcus. I just think it is a really good story about forgiveness, about coming to terms with your life and what could be very substantial changes to your life. I also like the way it was written, him writing letters to the person who shot him.
TS: What did you think of Passerlay in person?
AS: I thought he was neat. He is a very outgoing guy, which I had a sense from email exchanges. Its hard for me, he is still a really young guy compared to other people and that is hard to remember when he is speaking and what he has been through. I think it is always a neat experience to meet the author and see if they fit the picture in your head.
TS: What was your favorite presentation from the past six years?
AS: I thought the one last year, the Picking Cotton authors was a very powerful presentation. I did not like a lot of it, particularly her, was a retelling of the book but she did it in such a dramatic way that it was really captivating. The very first Hilbert Read author, Conor Grennan was very personable and friendly and easygoing, so I liked his as well.
TS: You get to know these people personally, which author did you like the best personality wise?
AS: So Conor Grennan we did not do a dinner with him, so I did not have a lot of interaction with him. Neil White who was our second author we didn’t do a dinner with him, but then the other ones we did. I liked Jerry McGill, he was a neat guy and has interesting stories to tell. And I think Gulwali was very engaging as well. He was very open about his personal life and his marriage, which was nice.
TS: I know you can’t give book titles, but can you give any hints about next years finalists?
AS: I guess I can say that we are considering novel which would be new, we haven’t done that before. We are also considering a book in which the story that is told is not from the person that wrote it, so it’s not an autobiography. All of them deal with themes and issues that are significant and fit or work with the majors here at Hilbert, or some of the issues that college students are facing.