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A Hill of writers in a City of Literature

Seattle has long been recognized as a music town. We have plenty of big names to point to, and there’s even a city government office devoted to promoting Seattle’s music scene. But a new designation from an arm of the United Nations might upend that narrative. UNESCO on October 31st declared Seattle to be a City of Literature.

“This designation allows us to tell a story about the city that maybe you don’t know,” said Stesha Brandon, who was part of the nonprofit that coordinated the effort.

The drive began in 2014, and led to a failed application in 2015 before the successful application this year. A successful application shows the city has a rich variety of literary activities, including book stores, an active library system, publishing, literary events and programs, and more.

One place the almost certainly worked in Seattle’s favor is Capitol Hill’s own Hugo House. Hugo House had been involved in some part of the application, and the organization is excited about the city receiving the designation, in part because it shows that we’re a city that should be better recognized for its wordsmiths.

“I think it’s important for anyone in the region to know what our strengths are,” said Tree Swenson, executive director of Hugo House. “We have a vast cultural resource in the literary community.”

The designation, Swenson said, might help make Seattle more of a literary destination.

“I think this will draw people here nationally, as well as internationally,” she said.

Brandon explained that being a city of literature could help open doors to other cities globally. There are 28 cities of literature in UNSECO’s network. Iowa City, Iowa is the only other one in the U.S. Beyond literature, places can be recognized as a city of crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, media arts, and music. In total, there 180 cities in 72 countries, which are part of the Creative Cities Network. The program began in 2004. The designation is permanent, and there is no funding attached to it.

The most obvious connections will be within the literature network. Brandon said that if, for example, someone wanted to put together a writer’s conference and invite people from Edinburgh, Baghdad or Barcelona – other Cities of Literature – they will have the contacts in those cities to make the process simpler. Conversely, it may be easier for Seattle-based writers to tap into those resources and be invited to other places.

“People in the literary community will be able to connect to that network,” Brandon said.

There may be more, less publicly visible benefits. A Seattle-based publisher or bookstore might be able to access into the knowledge of publishers and booksellers in other cities to discover new best practices. Beyond the purely literary, Brandon said there could be cross-disciplinary work. Songs need lyrics, creating opportunities for literary and musical cities to work together. Similarly, films need screenplays, creating opportunities for Seattle to partner with cities of film. But there’s some less obvious pairings, such as high-quality food writing, matching with a city of gastronomy, Brandon noted.

Brandon said she’d like to be able to include those different types of writing, not just fiction and poetry, but narrative nonfiction, journalism, and more. She said the application had even noted the contributions of the oral traditions of the native tribes in the area.

“We’re not trying to be snooty,” she said.

In the more immediate future, the newest City of Literature’s citizens could see some programs. Seattle is working on an exchange with New Zealand that might bring a writer from that county here in the next year or two. They are also planning sessions on privilege and implicit bias as it relates to the literary community, and she’s heard about projects around sustainable development which might find an audience here.

Hugo House, which is temporarily located at 1021 Columbia, will also soon be able to play a larger role in Seattle’s legacy as a literature city. Its new writing center will open in the mixed-use building currently under construction at the site of its longtime home on 11th Ave. The new center will include six classrooms, offices, two performance spaces, and space for writers to write.

Meanwhile, someone has to figure out who will be in charge of this City of Literature. The designation came about a week before Election Day, so the city government wasn’t really in much of a position to discuss the program. In many cities, Brandon said, the city’s office which handles cultural issues manages the program. So Seattle will have to decide if it wants to follow that model, or continue allow the nonprofit to administer it.

Brandon said she understands the new mayor will have much more pressing issues to deal with after the election, but she hopes to be able to try and sort it out early next year.

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