BY MADELEINE THOMPSON
In keeping with its nickname as the “people's house,” Gracie Mansion will play host to a public club for New Yorkers who love to read. One such New Yorker is the city's first lady, Chirlane McCray, herself a writer and poet, who will sponsor and moderate the book club alongside various prominent authors. The first event will be held at Gracie on May 17, with 100 lucky lottery winners attending in person and an unlimited number of additional spectators watching on the first lady's YouTube channel and posing questions via social media.
Gabrielle Fialkoff, a senior adviser to the mayor and director of the mayor's Office of Strategic Partnerships, said the idea was a collaborative effort between McCray, Tracy K. Smith, a poet and recent addition to the Gracie Mansion Conservancy Board of Advisers, and James Hannaham, whose book “Delicious Foods” won the 2016 Pen/Faulkner fiction prize and who will moderate the first discussion.
“One of the thoughts that was on the first lady's mind and my mind was 'How do we bring more New Yorkers into Gracie Mansion?'” Fialkoff said. “If not physically over the threshold, because of course the family lives there, how to connect virtually ... how to encourage dialogue and conversations about our most important issues of the day.”
The theme for the book club's inaugural year, which will cover six books, is “envisioning distant neighbors.” The topic has been a focus of the first lady's and is also the theme of an art exhibit on display at Gracie that she helped curate. Fialkoff described McCray as being “very involved” in the book club's planning, just as she was with the art exhibit. Though not as hot of a ticket as “Hamilton,” those entering the book club lottery will likely have significant competition, as roughly 400 people had signed up as of last week, Fialkoff said.
Paul Gunther, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy's executive director, likened McCray's interest in untold stories and immigrant communities to first lady Michelle Obama's focus on nutrition and exercise. “[McCray's] priorities are mental health, etcetera, but in the cultural field she's a poet and a writer,” Gunther said. “It's about the character and the values of those inhabiting [Gracie Mansion] and maintaining it as the people's house. ... I think if we succeed it's going to build a diverse community that gathers under the Gracie embrace, and the first lady's vision to learn, read, share and discuss new fiction that relates especially to distant neighbors.” The book selection will consist mostly of newer fiction written by New York-based authors, at least during the first year, Gunther said.
The first book on the schedule is Tanwi Nandini Islam's debut novel “Bright Lines,” which the author described as a “love letter” to Brooklyn and an earlier time in her own life. Set in 2003, the summer of a record-breaking blackout in New York City, “Bright Lines,” which was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction's 2015 First Novel Prize, explores themes of gender identity, sexuality and family.
“There's a tragic thing that happens that kind of takes the family out of Brooklyn to Bangladesh where they kind of have to reckon with the family falling apart,” Islam said. “There's a lot of layers to it.”
That particular time and place are special to Islam, who moved to Brooklyn after graduating from college. She now lives in Williamsburg, where she once ran into McCray while the latter was campaigning for her husband, then-mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. “I'm such a huge fan of hers,” Islam said. “I just went up to her and went 'we're so excited to have you guys running,' so to have her pick the novel was kind of mind-blowing, years later. It's something that's such an honor and says a lot about the kind of conversations she's trying to create among people who live in the city.”
Islam will participate in the discussion on May 17 in front of the lottery-winning attendees, and hopes her novel “resonate[s] with people who are going through change and coming of age.” The ticket lottery for the first book club closes May 4. Readers can participate virtually by signing up at the Gracie Mansion site.