This January, UCF will celebrate The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the debut novel of African journalist and MacArthur Foundation Fellow Dinaw Mengestu. Events include an art exhibition, play, book clubs, lectures, artist talks and book signing. Woven throughout these events is the goal of revitalizing reading as a shared community initiative.

UCF, in collaboration with the Seminole Public Library, received a grant to host the NEA Big Read in Orlando. An initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest, the NEA Big Read “broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.” UCF is one of 75 nonprofit organizations to receive an NEA Big Read grant to host a community reading.

“We are delighted to have received such a prestigious grant,” said project director Keri Watson, assistant professor of art history at UCF. “With this grant, we join a select few ‘repeat readers’ who have received the grant more than once.” In 2017, UCF celebrated John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath, and in 2016 honored Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears follows the story of Sepha Stephanos, an immigrant living in Washington, D.C., who finds himself stuck between his identity as an Ethiopian and his identity as an American immigrant. Through his struggles with his failing grocery store and introspective dialogues, Sepha must find a way to move forward in life without forgetting his roots. The New York Times reviewed: “What more potent setting is there than Washington for a novel about the architecture of hope and memory?” The novel has won several awards such as The Guardian First Book Prize, listed as one of The New York Times Notable Books of 2007, National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35”, and Seattle Reads Selection of 2008.

Mengestu is an Ethiopian immigrant who escaped a communist revolution to Illinois in the 1970s. He went on to graduate from Georgetown University and Columbia University before traveling throughout sub-Saharan Africa as a journalist. His writing focuses on the lives of those in war-torn areas such as Sudan, Uganda and Congo. As immigration continues to be passionately debated throughout the world, UCF’s Big Read programming highlights individuals’ stories and the effects of displacement.

Activities for the Big Read at UCF kick off Jan. 8 with a book distribution for the UCF community at the John C. Hitt Library and an exhibit at the UCF Art Gallery entitled Finding Home: The Global Refugee Crisis. On Jan. 16, poet, journalist, biographer and literary critic Obi Nwakanma will read in the gallery from his latest collection of poetry. Mengestu will hold a reading and book signing in the gallery Jan. 18. Theatre UCF’s production of David Edgar’s play Pentecost opens Jan. 26 and runs through Feb. 4. Internationally renowned artist Hiwa K will discuss his work featured in the gallery exhibition in an artist talk Feb. 1. Seminole County Public Library will also have book clubs and a “Welcome to the Neighborhood”-themed program for its K-5th grade Library Explorers Clubs. Through the NEA Big Read we are bringing contemporary works to communities across the country, helping us better understand the diverse voices and perspectives that come with it,” said NEA chairman Jane Chu. “These 75 organizations have developed unique plans to celebrate these works, including numerous opportunities for exploration and conversation.”

The Big Read supports organizations across the country in developing communitywide reading programs that encourage reading and participation by diverse audiences. Organizations selected to participate in The Big Read receive a grant, access to online training resources and opportunities, and educational and promotional materials designed to support widespread community involvement.

The NEA inaugurated The Big Read as a pilot project in 2006 with 10 communities featuring four books. The Big Read continues to expand to include more communities and additional books. To date, more than 1,100 grants have been awarded to communities in the United States to host Big Reads since the program’s national launch.

To learn more about the NEA Big Read, visit