BLK FMNNST Loaner Library not your average book club

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NORTH ADAMS — At their core, book clubs are about intimacy. In small groups, lit lovers often hole up in bars, libraries and homes, sharing stories, drinks, food. Sometimes, they even talk about the book.

That's why the initial meeting of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's BLK FMNNST Loaner Library book club on Sept. 26 was, at first glance, a tad jarring. Gathering in the spacious Building 6 Prow, a group that eventually swelled to more than two dozen formed a wide circle to discuss Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower." After meandering through an institution that has housed numerous acclaimed performances and exhibits over the years, bookish ticketholders could be forgiven for feeling a hint of stage fright.

Yet, what ensued wasn't a series of stammering remarks or a cacophony of cross-talk but a fluid, poignant discussion of Butler's prescient 1993 science fiction novel that approached topics — empathy, climate change, privilege — loftier than the industrial ceiling above. Facilitated by Gwendolyn VanSant, the CEO of event co-sponsor Multicultural BRIDGE, the far-reaching dialogue included members of that organization, Mass MoCA staff and residents of the Berkshires and beyond. While they brought diverse experiences to the circle, the attendees achieved a harmony familiar to veterans of smaller clubs.

"All of those people came together and really found a shared interest, a shared conversation," VanSant said during a Tuesday phone interview.

The impetus for the club's creation was Cauleen Smith's "We Already Have What We Need" exhibit at the North Adams museum. In one section of the show, 32 gouache and graphite works on paper mirror the covers of books that have inspired the filmmaker and visual artist. "BLK FMNNST Loaner Library 1989-2019" depicts, for example, Toni Morrison's "The Origin of Others" and Zora Neale Hurston's "Barracoon."

"It's really personal in the sense that they're just books that I'm really fond of, or that I think are really useful in terms of generating conversation," Smith said during a recent interview with The Eagle.

At the club's first meeting, participants introduced themselves before consulting handouts with compiled prompts and passages to spark discussion about the book's relationship to contemporary culture. Some of this conversation was carried out in small breakout groups.

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"I really believe in the circle format and giving everyone an opportunity to speak, so the larger the group, the more breakout, small groups we have," VanSant said, "and then [we come] back to the larger group so that everybody can embody and synthesize the information and experience."

VanSant said the museum approached her about leading a club related to Smith's exhibit because of VanSant's work at Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups and Education). The nonprofit is "dedicated to advancing equity and justice by promoting cultural competence, positive psychology, and mutual understanding and acceptance," according to its website. That mission meshed with Smith's art and the books.

"It's just something that resonates with racial justice and equality and social action," VanSant said.

Multicultural BRIDGE has used books and other texts as fodder for "community reads" before, VanSant said, but she drew from other community conversations as well to guide her facilitation. On Thursday, Nov. 7, and Thursday, Dec. 5, she will direct conversations about Christina Sharpe's "In the Wake: On Blackness and Being" and Kathleen Collins' "Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?," respectively. Sharpe's nonfiction work, "In the Wake," "uses the multiple meanings of 'the wake' — i.e. the movement of water behind a ship, a ritual for the dead, and a consciousness of injustice — to examine the lingering effects of slavery," according to the museum's website.

"I find it powerful that she's giving dimension and, in some ways, breathing life into these black slave bodies that we've only seen in the history books as, 'Oh, like, they were enslaved, beaten or dead,'" VanSant said. "She's talking about their living energy that, still, we're working with right now."

VanSant was pleased with the first group's engagement with Butler's text. Though some attendees hadn't read or finished the book, the desired connection between fiction and reality was made smoothly.

"I was impressed with the quality, interest and the willingness — there wasn't a lot of stretching people to relate it to today and what's required today," she said. "People were ready for that conversation."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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