Common Book Initiative: An Interview with Dr. Raja Bhattar

On Monday, April 22nd at 6:00PM, the Common Book Initiative and International House will host Thi Biu, award-winning author of The Best We Could Do, for a conversation of her graphic novel. The novel details the author and her family's journey from Vietnam to the United States as part of the wave of the refugees in the 1970s. Global Voices Metcalf Intern Renee Wehrle conducted an interview with Dr. Raja Bhattar, Assistant Vice Provost and Executive Director of the Center for Identity + Inclusion about the Common Book Initiative and the upcoming Common Book Event at International House. 


Global Voices: Can you provide any background information on why the common book initiative came to be and what its mission and goals are?

Dr. Bhattar: Really the Common Book Initiative was started to think about building community on campus in different ways. We were especially thinking about how we build community through shared experiences with various people across campus and across student and faculty networks. Because we are such a large campus, sometimes it’s hard to find something bigger [to connect with] when you’re in a division or department. The goal was to create a shared experience that does capture the essence of what it means to be part of the UChicago community. The Common Book Initiative allows people to engage on an individual level by reading the book. People can also engage on an interpersonal level and build community with other people across campus by talking to those outside of their normal circles. In essence, we created an opportunity for people to engage and to have a common language. If a student from Booth, the Divinity School, and SSA are sitting together, they don’t have much in common because their curricula and content are so different. The common book allows people to sit together and say “Oh! You read the book. What did you think of [it],” and a shared language with those who may be outside of their typical circles.


Global Voices: How does the book that you chose, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, contribute to achieving that mission?

Dr. Bhattar: I’m so excited that this is our inaugural book because I think it highlights the importance of building community and what it means to have a shared universal experience of living life. I think that Thi Bui is a powerful story teller. This particular graphic novel really captures her family’s journey from Vietnam to the US as people in the 70s, and while some of us may not have that experience, the way she starts and ends the book by talking about giving birth to her child-- and then tracing back the family lineage and understanding not only her own upbringing but going further and thinking about how her parents were brought up there with the different traumas they carried, the experience of trauma that they bring-- it’s just beautiful. On just a personal level, it allowed me to learn about my parents’ and family members’ past. We thought it would be a great resource. We want communication on campus to be not just “What do you do on campus?” and instead to be “Hey, what’s your story?” I think that having this personal story, particularly with the way the images are set up, it works well. We as a campus love reading, and we have a lot of reading to do, so we wanted to make sure it was something that was accessible to people. People have different learning styles, and so we challenged the ways we think of knowledge by using a graphic novel. For example, someone told me in the last five months that this is the first graphic novel they had ever read, and that they never thought that graphic novels could be so engaging. Another person pointed out that people can read it without speaking English and can pick up a lot of emotional experiences just from the way the images are drawn. I think that’s really beautiful, the way Thi writes the book. Also for us, it was important to have more diverse voices on campus and different perspectives that may not typically be part of our educational curricula so that we could have deeper and broader conversations about what it means to be a citizen of the world that we live in right now, especially given all of the issues that are happening.


Global Voices: It sounds like you succeeded in doing that pretty well. Because you’re the Center for Identity and Inclusion, you mentioned earlier developing a value of compassion. What other sorts of values do you consider necessary to develop on our campus?

Dr. Bhattar: I think definitely building community is necessary. We as a campus have some of the best and brightest minds in the world, so we need to figure out how to foster a sense of inclusion and belonging. That’s something I’m always thinking about in the work that we do. I also consider ways to make this campus feel accessible to everyone, as well as how we complicate the stories and the narratives that we share-- and the voices that we hear-- to decide what that knowledge looks like. Representation is just really important. I think for me as a queer person of color, representation is really important. I’m always looking for where our people are and how we show up in spaces, so that [they] see that there are multiple people that look like us and have the same identity and shared experiences as us. The fact that this book is by an Asian-American woman author is really powerful to complicate the way that we think about race in Chicago, especially what it means to be on the South Side. Our goal as educators is to always get in conversations that continue to make us think about how we engage on campus at a local level, but to also always think about these broader global issues that are happening. The book does that, and part of our work as educators is to always continue to foster a sense of creativity and curiosity in the work that we do and in the students that we work with.


Global Voices: What should audience members be looking forward to in terms of the lecture and the book signing?

Dr. Bhattar: Thi Bui is really excited to come to campus and be a capstone to our year-long journey with the Common Book. We launched the Common Book in November. We were expecting about 150 people, and we had almost 350 people show up. We were just super excited that it was so successful. Since then, we’ve had about 7 different distribution sites across campus, including the law school, the business school, lab school, med center, and the BSD. So many people have gotten engaged with it, and we’ve had about a dozen different discussions across campus in which people have come together to talk about the book. More importantly, they’re talking about their own life stories, how they connect with the story, and what it means to them. I think Thi Bui will talk a lot about her personal journey and her story and why she chose to write the book, as well as why she chose to write a graphic novel. I think she’ll also share about the impact that writing this story has had on her and her family. We’ll also share some insights about why it’s important to continue to foster spaces where stories are told about diverse perspectives in order to develop empathy and compassion for each other while embracing the brilliance and knowledge that we bring to the table. The book signing will be a chance to engage with Thi Bui and [interact with other readers].


Global Voices: Is there anything else that you think people ought to know about this initiative that we haven't talked about?

Dr. Bhattar: The weekend that Thi is here, we’re going to be launching an opportunity for anyone on campus to nominate a book for next year’s Common Book selection. Our goal is that every year we’ll have a different common book and a different topic that will be addressed. If people have ideas on books that they feel are accessible to broad groups of people that will tell a universal story and will address the current political and inclusion issues in the world, [we urge people to nominate them]! We also hope the book will be relatable to our campus community. It’s a pretty easy online application. Then we’ll have a community of students, staff, and faculty select the book for next year, so sometime this summer, we’ll announce that book and then start the process all over again.


Global Voices: That is super cool. I really appreciate that you took the time to talk today!

Dr. Bhattar: Thank you!


This interview has been edited for clarity.

This program was co-sponsored by the International House Global Voices Program, the Center for Identity + Inclusion, Office of the Provost, Common Book Initiative, and Panasia.