Atrocity in Cambodia. Devastation in New Orleans. Revolution in the Middle East. The Chicago office of Human Rights Watch recently started a book club to get people to engage in discussion about places and countries such as these where the international organization commonly documents human rights abuses.
This is no ordinary book club. Members, who meet every six weeks, read a piece of fiction or nonfiction and Human Rights Watch reports on the book's setting. Much of the discussion focuses on the interplay between the book and the report, which prompts a comparison of fiction and reality.
"Sometimes the book and the work of reporting match up nicely, and other times we look at where they differ," said Jobi Petersen Cates, director of the Chicago office. "We read Nathan Englander's 'The Ministry of Special Cases' about the (people who) disappeared in Argentina in the late '70s, and we were able to read a report on the country from a decade ago and look at current articles to compare the novel to what actually happened and what is still going on."
On a recent Friday afternoon, seven people gathered in the small Human Rights Watch office to discuss Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun," a nonfiction book that chronicles Abdulrahman Zeitoun's survival in the tumultuous days following Hurricane Katrina and his subsequent mistaken arrest and imprisonment.
The conversation moved from opinions on the text to discussions on the role race played in the hurricane's aftermath. Members talked about the meaning of having a home, and debated the government's response and the helpfulness of organizations such as Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation. Club members were passionate about their beliefs but remained respectful.
Bill Kaplan, a first-time attendee, said he enjoyed the variation and candor.
"We spent time on the book, but then we started talking about other things in society and government, like how we handle issues of poverty and racism," Kaplan said. "Any time you can read anything that starts a conversation and gets people thinking about things, I think that is important."
The organization founded the club in the hope that a piece of literature could provide an easy way to discuss human rights abuses.
"Reading a novel is a way to enter an issue," Cates said. "Getting your average Chicagoan to focus on human rights issues in Zimbabwe, for example, is really hard to do. We thought a great way to get people to engage with Zimbabwe would be through a discussion of a related book, in this case "The Hairdresser of Harare" by Tendai Huchu. It's not hard core human rights reporting, but it paints a picture of what it was like to live in that place, at that time."
Club co-leader Kathryn Clarke chose "Zeitoun," which was the club's first book set in the United States and its first piece of nonfiction. She said her daughter, a New Orleans resident, encouraged her to read the book.
"When I read the book, I thought I could be reading this about any developing country," she said. "I found it really tragic and shameful that it went on in our country."
"It's hard to read about your own country and feel such shame," said Renée Mechanic, senior coordinator of the Chicago office. "I prefer to feel proud of the work that the American government does, but it's important to educate yourself about the stuff that goes on in your own country, so it was an important pick for us."
Cates said the book club has inspired her to think more about how reality is retold in literature. She is especially interested in reading the novels that will tackle upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Arab Spring "is the most dramatic change in power since the Cold War," she said. "I am excited to see what kind of literature comes out of it. Right now it's an awful, terrible situation, but there are creative people over there who will write about it in a beautiful, moving and poignant way."
Courtney Crowder covers the local literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
The Human Rights Watch book club will discuss "Anatomy of a Disappearance" by Hisham Matar on Nov. 16. The meeting starts at 5 p.m. Call 312-828-9100.