National Book Award winner McCann to discuss courage, storytelling for ILS



Colum McCann is all about bringing people together, no matter what seemingly insurmountable obstacles might exist.

He’s done so most recently in his February 2020 novel Apeirogon, which in mathematics means a polygon with a countably infinite number of sides. In his novel, it’s the story of one Palestinian, Bassam Aramin, and one Israeli, Rami Elhanan — men taught to hate each other who instead form a friendship over grief: Both of their daughters were killed in conflict over the Holy Land.

“When they learn of each other’s stories, they recognize the loss that connects them,” reads a Penguin Random House synopsis. “Together they attempt to use their grief as a weapon for peace — and with their one small act, start to permeate what has for generations seemed an impermeable conflict.”

McCann will speak at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24 in the Amphitheater for his lecture, titled “Resilience: The Life You Find in Your Stories,” part of Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Resilience.”

While a fictional novel, Aramin and Elhanan are two real people that McCann met through his organization, Narrative 4.

“Narrative 4 is a global nonprofit story exchange organization, fronted by artists and teachers and activists, using storytelling to change the world,” McCann said.

McCann, inspired by the men’s ability to see themselves in each other, wanted to tell their story. 

Apeirogon … uses their real-life stories to begin another — one that crosses centuries and continents, stitching together time, art, history, nature and politics in a tale both heartbreaking and hopeful,” according to the synopsis. “The result is an ambitious novel created out of a universe of fictional and nonfictional material, with these fathers’ moving story at its heart.”

McCann hopes readers listen to the story of the men’s friendship, and how it was formed despite growing up on opposite sides of the conflict that took their daughters’ lives. 

“I hope that people will listen to their message that we don’t have to love one another across differences, or even like one another, but we better learn to understand each other,” McCann said. “Otherwise, as Bassam says, we will all meet each other six feet below ground.”

Narrative 4 has produced other success stories, McCann said. A recent program brought together high school students from the Bronx with ones from rural Appalachia, which he described as mostly Black, urban, left-wing kids with white, rural, right-wing kids. 

“Some of the young people admitted that they were nervous to the point of being unable to talk at first,” he said. “But when they began telling stories to one another — and then telling those stories back to their partners — the fear faded, their imaginations expanded and they began to see the world in an altogether different way.”

He also mentioned a current program in the Joe Slovo township of South Africa, where kids initiated a “Trash to Treasure” program to clean up neighborhoods. 

“All of this came from the courageous act of listening,” he said. 

McCann also wrote Let the Great World Spin, a novel that earned him the 2009 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2011 International Dublin Literary Award, one of the highest paid literary awards in the world. 

His 2013 novel, TransAtlantic, brought comparisons to Michael Ondaatje and Toni Morrison. Apeirogon is longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Carnegie Medal. 

For today’s lecture, McCann wants to talk about courage alongside resilience.

“I also want to talk about the art of storytelling and how important it is for us to understand one another in an increasingly atomized world,” he said.

Telling stories about what happens when people observe the complexity and difficulty of their lives keeps McCann going each day, he said.

He described the men from Apeirogon as courageous and empathetic.

“There is a line from an ancient Arabic poem: ‘Is there any hope that this desolation can bring us solace?’ ” McCann said. “They are the hope.”

Tags : ApeirogonColum McCanncourageinterfaith lecture previewinterfaith lecture seriesnational book awardResilienceStorytelling

The author Max Zambrano

Max Zambrano is a recent Western Kentucky University graduate in his first season at Chautauqua. At WKU, he served as editor-in-chief of the Talisman magazine and website, majored in political science and minored in journalism writing. Max has traveled to Australia and Morocco, and he hopes to visit all 50 states (28 to go). This summer, he will report on interfaith lectures and sacred song services. Let him know if you want to play backgammon on Bestor Plaza.