Spokane is fortunate to frequently play host to some great authors. Between readings at Auntie's Bookstore and events at local colleges, we see a lot more architects of the written word than many cities our size.
Each year Whitworth College's Endowed English Readings can be counted on to add to that literary landscape by bringing a nationally recognized author to campus for readings, workshops and classroom visits. This program has played host to recent visits by writers including Donald Hall, David James Duncan and Adrienne Rich.
This year's author may not be a household name, but with 18 books to his credit and awards from such prestigious organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundations, Scott Russell Sanders definitely warrants a closer look.
"He was recommended to me by [Whitworth professor] Pam Parker," explains Doug Sugano, Professor of English at Whitworth. "She heard him read when she was in the Midwest." Sanders' work covers a wide spectrum of genres, including children's books, novels, essays, stories and personal narratives. In fact, his visit includes an evening reading on Friday, as well as a Saturday morning reading focused on his work for children. But it is Sanders' recurring themes of environment, place and connection that made him a great candidate for Whitworth's program.
"We're interested in bringing not only writers with a national reputation, but writers with integrity," explains Sugano. "If you look at both his children's and adult books, you see the same sort of themes running through them."
In fact, most adults will find the Saturday morning reading just as insightful and enjoyable as the kids. "The [children's books] are coming out of his same concerns for the environment," says Sugano. "They're trying to introduce children to ecological issues on a level they can understand, but adults and parents will certainly enjoy it, too."
In spite of the popularity of his children's books, it is Sanders' essays which have garnered the most attention, and his most recent collections include the same sense of humble discovery and sincerity that have marked all his writing.
Hunting for Hope, published in 1998, focuses on healing and renewal, while The Force of Spirit (2000) explores the sacred in the commonplace. Both books have a lot to say to post 9-11 readers about healing and being grounded in the here and now. "He's deeply concerned about the places he lives," explains Sugano. "But he's not saying we close our eyes to the events of the world. He's saying in spite of what's going on in the world, we have to find some sort of contentment where we are and preserve that, too... He's not writing about the typical issues; he writes about people finding their place in the world and being okay with where that is."
The fact that Sanders has received so much acclaim for his work as an essayist is encouraging to Sugano. "In the U.S. there's some renewed interest in essayists. I think it's healthy," says Sugano. "All the glitzy media gets the first-hand attention. Seeing a shift of attention to writing shows that people aren't satisfied with just that glitz."
Although Sanders' religious perspective appears to tend more towards a pan-spiritual philosophy than traditional Christian doctrine, Sugano explains that the two are not in conflict when it comes to bringing authors to campus. "One of the things we try to do here is invite some diversity in that aspect, but also invite people who are sympathetic to the mission of the college." Certainly Sanders' messages of social justice, community and conscience will resonate with the Whitworth community and beyond.
Sanders, who lives in Bloomington, Ind., is often compared to authors such as Wendell Berry, David James Duncan, Barry Lopez and Rick Bass, but Sugano emphasizes that his voice is all his own. "Those are good comparisons," agrees Sugano. "He's got this voice, it is different. In our department there's always interest in looking at unique American voices that haven't been heard yet. One thing we really admire in our authors is authentic voice, and Sanders certainly has one."