By Jennifer Krisch
Zakes Mda is having a very good year.
Already an internationally acclaimed, award-winning author for his previous works, Mda's work is gaining even more global attention for his latest novel, "Cion." The book, which has been widely reviewed, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and the 2008 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for the Best Book in the Africa region.
Closer to home, a book selection team recently chose "Cion" for the university's Common Reading Project for the next two academic years.
Sherrie Gradin, director of the Center for Writing Excellence, said the group received more than 150 book nominations for the project. Mda wasn't even certain his book had been nominated and was thrilled when told of the selection.
"I was only just told it was selected," he said. "I didn't know it was from over 150 nominations. Of course, I was over the moon."
Offices across campus worked together to develop the Common Reading Project in 2002 as a way to promote critical thinking among incoming freshmen. They saw the value in first-year students sharing a common experience and engaging in dialogue in a way that could facilitate friendships and make the transition to college a little easier.
This year’s book selection team, made up of 12 faculty members from across the university, outlined several criteria it wanted the books to meet. "Cion" fit the bill on all counts.
"We asked for nominations from the Ohio University community and asked them to include campus authors if they felt some of our own people had a book they felt would work," Gradin said. "All of us felt ‘Cion’ was a wonderful read and a good connection to the area. Not just to Athens, but to Appalachia as well, and for its historical value."
Susan Sarnoff, chair of the Department of Social Work, said the team hoped books by authors with ties to Athens and the university would be nominated, though she stresses that was not a necessity. The team found its dream nomination in "Cion" -- a novel based in Athens and written by a faculty member. Ironically, "Cion" is the first of Mda's books to be based in the United States.
Sarnoff believes students will respond enthusiastically to the novel, specifically because of the location.
"How often can you find a book about a small town in Ohio that has an international flavor?" Sarnoff said. "Besides, it starts out in Athens on Halloween. Even if I meet people who know nothing about Athens, they've heard about Halloween here. I think it will suck students right in."
"Cion" follows Toloki, a professional mourner from South Africa introduced in Mda's first novel, "Ways of Dying," as he travels to America and is taken in by a family in the Kilvert area of Athens County. As Toloki learns the family's ancestry, Mda introduces a parallel story of two young boys who escape slavery in Virginia and follow maps secretly woven into quilts to guide them to the Ohio River and freedom.
"One of the reasons I liked the book so much is because it takes place in Athens," said Dan West, the John A. Cassesse Director of Forensics in the School of Communication Studies. "It provides a lot of local history, and I think it's great also because the students can meet the author and interact with him as they read and study the book. I think that opportunity brings the book to life."
West will incorporate "Cion" into the curriculum of his public speaking courses because the manner in which the story is told fits perfectly within two categories of required study -- personal narrative and support for argument. He also hopes that Mda will give lectures on the book to allow students to fulfill another class requirement -- evaluation of an outside speaker.
Mda, a creative writing professor in the English department, said he would be happy to participate however needed for the Common Reading Project.
Decisions on how the book will be utilized as a teaching tool within the Common Reading Project have not been finalized.
"We're trying to move forward with a curriculum integration model," Gradin said. "It is an evolving program, and we are always open to ways we can do it better."
One way may be the rebirth of book clubs, which would allow students and faculty to discuss the book in greater detail. At the program's inception, book discussions were held in residence halls and elsewhere.
"We would urge people all over campus to create spaces to have discussions about the book," Gradin said. "We would definitely welcome that."
Regardless of how the project plays out, many people already are talking about the book. Sarnoff has loaned her coveted copy to faculty and students alike.
"It's just a fabulous book," she said. "It has that feeling you get when you are reading a really good book -- you just don't want it to end."
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