Drumbeat: An Interview with the Mountains & Plains AFS Book Club!

Drumbeat: An Interview with the Mountains & Plains AFS Book Club!

Sarah Yancey, Mary Porterfield, Bonnie Duyff, and Cathy Ishida share their motivations for starting an AFS Book Club, and how it’s going! They hope this serves as inspiration for other area teams and regions to start their own book clubs or other types of virtual gatherings to share resources for intercultural learning.

How did the book club start? What inspired you?

Cathy: The book club started with an email invitation that former AFS staff, Laura Pierson (Organizational Development Specialist, Mountains and Plains/Western Lakes Regions) sent on May 6, 2020. Amidst the pandemic and traumatic return of AFSers to their home countries, the book club was a way to keep volunteers connected, active, and “continue the exchange of intercultural ideas”. I enjoy reading and tend to read global literature and thought it would be an enjoyable way to connect with fellow-minded AFS volunteers. We could travel together through book discussions.

How did you initially connect with each other and how did AFS play a part in that?

Sarah: Cathy Ishida whom I knew from an AFS project in Japan invited me to join knowing Mary Porterfield would be part of the group; I thought it would be fun to connect with other AFS volunteers I already knew. I knew suggested names of volunteers I knew who might be interested.

Cathy: After a planning meeting with AFS staff person Laura and Mary Porterfield, we three endeavored to invite other Mountains and Plains Region volunteers whom we knew. We held an introductory meeting with interested volunteers in which goals and parameters were established.

What makes your group unique?

Sarah: Shared passion for intercultural learning

Bonnie: Focus … The intention to select books for the purpose of better cultural understanding gives this book club a focus. As a group, we have personal interests in understanding different cultures and their histories. This focus also expands our awareness and knowledge as AFS volunteers to the cultures and countries that our exchange students go to or come from. (My other book club focuses on food-focused memoir or fiction – and this focus has also made it successful.)

Cathy: What makes this book group unique is the application of AFS experiences and values. Making connections to aspect of the book in discussion, members will share an anecdote about hosted students’ experiences in their US communities, and consider, with new cultural information we learned from the book, about how our hosted students or students going abroad negotiate their intercultural experiences.

What are you learning from each other?

Bonnie: Everyone brings different insights and experiences to any book  in our case, our AFS experiences, our other personal experiences, and our career/professional expertise. That deepens our “book talk.”   Beyond that, the relationships each of us has had with our AFS kids and volunteers are usually woven into the discussion, book talk, giving more meaning to the book, broadening our AFS experience, and providing an opportunity to better know one another.

Cathy: We are sharing both our intercultural knowledge and skills, our professional knowledge, and some personal experiences.

Mary: I am learning that everyone approaches a book in a slightly different manner—enjoying and learning very differently as one progresses through a book. This is my first “official” book club so I’m learning how members seriously analyze the structure, etc.

What types of books do you usually select? Does this inform us a bit about the group itself?

Sarah: We intentionally select books that reflect different cultures/regions of the world.

Bonnie: So far, fiction, with books that allow us to unpack cultural issues, similarities and differences  … and perhaps books with histories that help inform us about how cultures have emerged or how people have dealt with outcomes of their cultural/national histories. So far, we have selected another part of the world or culture for each book. Does this inform us a bit about the group itself? This defines the group.

Cathy: In our introductory meeting, there was more interest in novels, especially historical fiction. There was such a wide variety of titles recommended that Laura selected Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy by Frances Mayes for our first book. Even though the group in general was not overly excited about this book, we had a good discussion and have read five books since: Apeirogon; Friend: A Novel From North Korea; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures; Kintu; and A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel. Our group isn’t just satisfied with reading the book, we usually share supplemental articles, videos, and internet research to stimulate discussion and learn more about the culture and history we are reading about.

Mary: We are working our way around the world: Italy, Israel/Palestine, North Korea, Vietnam/California, Uganda, Spain/Chile. Next we’re off to India with “A Burning”.

Do you feel more engaged as an AFS volunteer/ambassador because of the book club?

Bonnie: At a time when we need to be socially distanced and unable to have our many in-person connections to AFS volunteers, the book club offers a way to keep connected. Thanks to Zoom! And it has been nice to connect with those in other area teams and to get to know them in ways other than AFS volunteer work. This book club has been a regular event to look forward to.

Cathy: I renew my volunteer credentials each year but I’m not consistently active locally. This is the second national/regional initiative that I’ve been pleased to be a part of and feel that I have specific skills and experiences that are valuable to the AFS endeavor.

Mary: We had a new member join this past week and she was excited to find an AFS connection to volunteers as she has moved recently to an area where there isn’t an active AFS group.

If someone were to want to recreate this type of group in their area, what advice would you give them?

Sarah: You just need one or two dedicated organizers to get it going.

Bonnie: I think focus of some kind contributes to the success of a book club. And it has helped us sort through the many remarkable book titles available to readers.

Cathy: We have Mary P. keeping us organized in terms of reminders. Someone researching and reading about potential books and updating a shared google list is important as well. We only meet once every 6-8 weeks because people are busy and a book a month might be too much. It’s a small enough group that we can keep discussion (and preparation) casual. Yet of course, we welcome new members!

Mary: Having a database with many books listed has been very helpful in making our selections.

Do you think you will continue the book club into the future? How do you think it will evolve?

Sarah: Possibly will continue because we seem to have a group of dedicated readers!!

Bonnie: Hope so. Scheduling/time might become a challenge for some as other activities again demand time; hope not. Perhaps book clubs could become part of what AFS does for adult volunteers, returnees … and perhaps with Zoom, we could involve volunteers in other countries. For example, it would be so interesting since our book club is reading a book with both Spanish and Chilean histories (by Isabelle Allende) to include a guest attendee from those countries to share their perspectives on the historical issues presented in the book.

Cathy: I hope this will continue post pandemic. It encourages me to read and explore intercultural ideas and cultures around the world. I wonder if we will see participant alumni or host families get involved or have similar book groups.

Sarah Yancy, Bonnie Duyff, Cathy Ishida, and Mary Porterfield

View the book club’s reading recommendations here!