Posted Monday 24 October 2016
Author Matt Haig met with members of the local community – including guests at a local night shelter and students at the University of the Third Age (UA3) – to discuss the importance of books in bringing people together, as part of the University's Big Read initiative.
Haig's The Humans is this year's Kingston University Big Read novel and limited edition versions were given to guests at the Joel Community Services night shelter in Norbiton and made available to members of the Kingston branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A) as part of a move to expand the project beyond campus and into the wider community.
The night shelter offers a place to sleep, eat, socialise and emotional and practical support to people who are experiencing homelessness due to a range of circumstances, ranging from loss of employment, high housing costs to mental health difficulties and addition problems.
Dan Wheeler, who manages the night shelter, said that for the guests to be involved in wider community projects like the Big Read is of huge importance to them. "If you are without a home, the world just passes you by," he explained. "If you don't have a house, you're not part of anything, you're looked down on. Being invited to join in the Kingston University Big Read gives our guests a sense of belonging to the wider Kingston borough community, which is really important to them. It's also a big deal for the guests to be given a book and have the author come specifically talk to them; they feel a part of something, they feel connected."
As Haig spoke with the shelter's guests over a meal, he opened up about his own struggles with mental health - documented in his non-fiction book Reasons to Stay Alive - and talked about how he feels books can be transformative for both individuals and communities. "Stories are about change," he said. "When you read them you start to believe that change really can happen, that where you are at the start of your own story is not where you have to stay. Change is real, change is possible and that's what gives us hope.
Haig also discussed his novel, which explores themes of alienation in a new environment - particularly pertinent to students starting at university, or people going through big life changes like retirement or homelessness - with members of the Kingston U3A, University staff and students, and other members of the local community at an event held at the University's Penrhyn Road campus.
Linda Foreman, 66, a retired chartered engineer and technical project manager, and now a member of Kingston U3A, said how delighted the group's members were to be able to be involved in the Big Read. "Our members span generations, aged between 56 and 93 years, but being able to discuss a book with people of other ages and younger generations gives everyone a broader view and different perspectives, improving the experience for everyone," she said.
Now in its second year, the Kingston University Big Read was introduced to help create a sense of community among new students, who all received a special edition copy of the book before they arrived. Copies were also available to current students and staff and to other local residents through libraries.
Haig has been a supporter of the Big Read since he first found out that his novel had been shortlisted, as he has long believed that books are a great way of bringing people together and helping them feel part of a shared community. "The Kingston University Big Read and the events that I've been to at the University and the night shelter have been fantastic for me and show the power books have to get different communities of people together and open discussions, and I think with society as it is in 2016, we need more of that."
Find out more about the Kingston University Big Read