Stephine Hunt recommended Hala Alyan’s novel The Arsonists’ City to the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle shortly before 2021’s Bryant Day ceremony.
“I recommended it with the theme of home and shelter in mind, particularly because The Arsonists’ City is all about a family who’s navigating meanings of home in different parts of the globe,” said Hunt, manager of the CLSC Octagon. “As the father figure of this book is trying to sell their family home in Beirut, in Lebanon, these family stories come together.”
Alyan’s novel traces the different paths of this particular family as they grow up and “how they have all come to know this home in Beirut,” Hunt said.
“Something that really struck me was how, very simply, the idea of home brought the family together and yet caused ruptures, and how they’re consistently trying to understand what it means to deal with unrest: unrest in political ways, unrest in personal ways,” she said. “… They moved to America because of unrest in Syria and Lebanon.”
Hunt said that ultimately, she wants Chautauquans and CLSC readers alike to not take the concept of home for granted.
“Collaboratively, this book and Evicted, by Matthew Desmond, are forcing us to look at our lives through a lens of, ‘What does home mean? What does having a household mean? What does it mean for safety, in particular?’ ” she said. “How do we start to examine the ways that we assume home contains certain experiences for many of us? Not all people call the shelter they live in home.”
Alyan’s The Arsonists’ City is one of two Week Seven CLSC selections; while an in-person was canceled, the Department of Education is working to confirm a virtual CHQ Assembly event with Alyan this fall. Sony Ton-Aime — Chautauqua’s Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts — encouraged Chautauquans to read it, in part because it still counts on the CLSC and Guild of the Seven Seals reading lists.
Ton-Aime said that when it came time to select a book to fit the Week Seven theme of “More than Shelter: Redefining the American Home,” The Arsonists’ City fit perfectly.
“For us, we were thinking about what it means to be home, and especially those who have left their home countries and home cities,” he said. “I was so curious about the family in the book, the Nasr family, and what they call home. Is it Beirut? Where do we call home?”
For a week like this, the goal is to strengthen understanding of others experiencing the loss of their homes, Ton-Aime said.
“I’m so excited for everyone to read this novel and experience the Nasr family’s story for themselves,” he said.