Since 2013, Eastern Mennonite University has selected a Common Read. Last year, that announcement concluded with some excitement: Just Mercy author and civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson gave the Commencement address in May and received the university’s second honorary doctorate.
This year, EMU’s Common Read is also groundbreaking. The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, an Oakland-based author and illustrator, is the first time a graphic novel has been selected.
The book, based on Bui’s family experiences in the Vietnam War and after immigration to the United States, was a national bestseller and has collected multiple awards. It was the finalist for the 2017 National Book Critics Circle and the American Library Association’s 2018 Notable Books Selection.
More recently, the novel was among the National Education Association’s Big Read selections for 2020 and 2021 academic years.
“The Intellectual Life Committee wanted to feature the issues, history, and culture of Asian Americans in this year’s Common Read,” said Jennifer Ulrich, technical services librarian and committee member. “This is an interesting and informative telling of the Vietnam War, the history that led up to the conflict and the life story of the author and her family in the context of the war and as refugees. It covers topics of family, trauma, race and immigration.”
Ulrich says the graphic novel is a growing genre for the telling of fiction and nonfiction stories. “It’s another way to interact with the story through the artwork,” she said.
Professors teaching in diverse fields at EMU have integrated the book into their syllabi: several writing classes are using it, as well as courses in young adult literature, cinema and visual communication theory, and a history course on colonialism, Ulrich added.
A University Colloquium event Oct. 26 at 4 p.m. in Lehman Auditorium focuses on the medium: “Storytelling through Graphic Novels and Memoirs” with panelists and professors Steven Johnson, Kevin Seidel and Mary Anne Zehr.
In spring 2023, the keynote address at EMU’s Academic and Creative Excellence Festival (ACE) will be from Luisa A. Igloria, a Filipina American poet and current Poet Laureate of Virginia, Ulrich said.
In 2019, EMU hosted poet, theologian and conflict mediator Pádraig Ó Tuama, who visited virtually and provided multiple opportunities for engagement across campus. [Click the link to view recordings.] Also on campus were Emmi Itäranta, author of Searching for Water (Teos, 2012) and Emily Raboteau, author of Searching for Zion: the Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (Grove Press, 2013).
Past selections include Exit West by Moshin Hamid (Riverhead, 2017) Callings by Dave Isay with Maya Millett (Penguin, 2017), Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Random House, 2015), and The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicolas Carr (W.W. Norton and Co., 2010).