Celebrated author kicks off NEA Big Read Program

Author Luis Urrea

Author Luis Alberto Urrea Tuesday drew a crowd to the Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall for the Sept. 19 kickoff of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Big Read program. 

Urrea’s book, “Into the Beautiful North,” was selected as the focus of the Big Read program, which aims to engage diverse audiences and connect individuals and organizations through reading and sharing stories.

On Tuesday, Urrea delighted audience members with stories about growing up in Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego with an American mother and Mexican father.

“Our kitchen was the U.S, but our living room was Mexico,” Urrea said. “I was raised twice.”

Many of the characteristics of the places and people from his childhood feature prominently in “Into the Beautiful North.” Through his storytelling, audience members came to understand how Urrea’s perspective shaped characters in his novel.  

His main character, 19-year-old Nayeli, is based on a childhood acquaintance with whom Urrea keeps in contact. In the book, Nayeli and her friends — inspired by the film, “The Magnificent Seven” — journey to the U.S. to bring back her father and six other men to defend their village.

UA Little Rock English major Nathaniel Darbonne attended the event as extra credit for a class, and his friend, Anastacia Santa Cruz, a technical writing major, tagged along for fun.

“I loved the way he talked and the stories he told,” Cruz said. “I definitely want to read the book.”

The duality of his upbringing shaped not only Urrea’s life as an adult but also his professional writing. Frequently called a “border writer,” Urrea’s writings often involve around issues related to immigration, though as Urrea said, “Every town in America is a border town now.”  

Always the writer, Urrea was the first in his family to go to college. He is a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame and has written numerous works of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. He taught expository writing at Harvard from 1982 to 1990 and has held teaching positions at Massachusetts Bay Community College and the University of Colorado. Today, he teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is working on another book.

Urrea also said “Into the Beautiful North” had enjoyed “modest success,” but sales exploded once the NEA selected his book for the Big Read program.

Little Rock is among 75 communities nationwide participating in the NEA Big Read from September 2017 to June 2018. The NEA Big Read is presented in partnership with The Mexican Consulate, Little Rock School District, El Zocalo Immigrant Resource Center, The Clinton Center, Central Arkansas Library System, and UA-Pulaski Technical College.

The entire NEA Big Read program will run from Tuesday, Sept. 19, to Friday, Nov. 3, and feature presentations, book discussions, film screenings, and related arts programming.

Contributors for the kickoff event included the UA Little Rock William G. Cooper Jr. Honors Program in English, Arkansas Humanities Council, and UA Little Rock’s Ottenheimer Library, Division of Student Affairs, World Languages Department, Donaghey Scholars Program, History Department, Anthropology/Sociology Department, as well as KLRE/KUAR.

View a calendar of events for the NEA Big Read at ualr.at/bigread.

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