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I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life. Reading was my refuge as a young girl who often felt like an outsider—an immigrant kid, unsporty, artsy… Books connected me to characters with similar experiences, exposed me to new adventures, and provided the perfect escape. Television and the playground never stood a chance next to a good book.

However, does being a lifelong bookworm and working writer breed readers?

I regularly read to my young children, made family inspo trips to the bookstore, and gifted books for birthdays and holidays. Not to mention publishing three novels where they were mentioned in the acknowledgments, including one dedicated to them! But once the smartphone era kicked in, I faced heavy competition from social media, YouTube, and Netflix. My kids' interests seemed more visual than literary. They loved book-to-screen adaptations like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Percy Jackson but did not seek out the source material. Along with their rigorous high school courseloads and reading assignments, I understood they might want to detox with sports, music, or a series. Nevertheless, I did wonder if I had given birth to bibliophobes? Did my writerly moodiness turn them off books? Surely, I wasn’t alone in observing that Gen Z (those born in the mid-90s to early-mid 2000s) seemed to have a lukewarm relationship with reading.

I was surprised to learn that what I had noticed in my children—and heard anecdotally from other parents—did not correspond with the data. According to a December 2022 Wattpad report, 55% of Gen Z respondents read once a week or more, 40% read every day, and 79% choose books based on diversity and representation. While 67% read for fun on their phones, they still have a romantic affinity to physical print books and proudly support independent bookstores, libraries, and indie authors. Add BookTok, where they discover and share new titles—generating bestsellers by Colleen Hoover and Emily Henry—and Gen Z put my critique to shame.

Scratching my head, I wondered what was going on with my kids.

Well, it seems like it was a question of timing.

My daughter, Yasmine, graduated from college last year. She studied at a university with an intense Core Curriculum and wholeheartedly embraced the literary and philosophical texts, producing essays and reflections on everything from The Odyssey to The Souls of Black Folk. Once Yasmine began working full-time, she realized she missed the intellectual stimulation. She also wanted relief from her devices and sought a diversion besides screen scrolling for her daily subway ride and lunch break. Following a friend’s suggestion, she read My Year of Rest and Relaxation and then followed up with Nightbitch.

I’ve read neither, but I enjoyed hearing her impassioned take on these buzzy titles. It was obvious to me she had caught the book bug, so I lent her one of my recent favorites, Yellowface. She tore through it, and I wanted to do a happy dance when she remarked that she finally understood my author angst. It took a work of fiction for my struggles to be finally seen! I passed along The Idea of You, and we obsessed over this steamy love story. I couldn’t stop—wouldn’t stop— pressing a new book between her palms or secretly packing The Guest and Cleopatra and Frankenstein into her suitcase. For Christmas, I went into full library-mom mode and curated a gift set with contemporary titles from Zadie Smith and Sally Rooney, among other stellar authors. Many of these novels center on young adults (Gen Zs like Yasmine and millennials) finding their way in life. I love it when Yasmine sends me photos of herself with a book or tells me about her progress. I even sent her to a recent launch event for Tia Williams’ A Love Song for Ricki Wilde and wasn’t surprised when she came back gushing after sharing a few words and a photo with the author. That’s the wondrous alchemy of books.

I encouraged Yasmine to form a Book Club with her college friends; she loved the idea. Who doesn’t like talking over wine and cheese? But more importantly, a reading group fosters candor and connection. Over the years, I’ve had some of the most profound conversations at my various book clubs. Our enthusiasm for reading and a desire for deeper discussions outside the quotidian cracked our protective shells, enabling us to open up in a safe literary space.

I'm relishing this new book bond with my daughter. It has added another dimension to our close relationship, and we can discuss these stories from different perspectives based on our ages and personal experiences. I also think it will make her a stronger beta reader for my future novels, haha! Kidding aside, books are magic because they are not judgemental. They patiently wait for us to come to them. They don’t care if it takes months or years. Books can be the most powerful when they’re read when we need them most, not when we are pressured to read them. Reading invites us to slow down and absorb rather than mindlessly devour content. Words on a page spark our imagination and let us join the story as we interpret the characters and themes.

As for my son, he’s busy with statistics and finance classes, but I couldn’t help gifting him narrative non-fiction books by Michael Lewis, Walter Isaacson, Ben Mezrich, and Daymond John. The complicated characters and business drama sometimes surpass fiction! But there’s no obligation; he may read them now, later, or discover other titles. However, I’m confident that the magnetic pull of reading-for-pleasure will subtly work its spell...





Do you remember when you first learned how to read? That transformative light bulb moment when you recognized the letters and could sound out the words intelligibly? When the words that emerged from your tiny lips represented something you understood? When the sequence of words taught you something new or transported you to another place? And how about when you learned how to write? Your little fingers grasping a pencil and forming letters? It felt like magic!

Or, at least, it did to me.

I was never a sporty kid. I was also a bit shy and never quite felt part of “the gang.” So, when I learned to read at five, a whole new universe opened for me. So much so that I preferred to escape in a book rather than play outside at recess with my classmates. The local library became my second home, and I checked out at least a dozen books at a time. Judy Blume was my favorite author. As a teenager, I devoured magazines and read the New York Times every day, discovering new people, places, and things. My imagination ran wild, and I began writing poems, short stories, and eventually a novel or two or three or four!

The ability to read and write made this all possible. It’s probably a skill that all of us in this room are very fortunate—and privileged—to take for granted. However, literacy challenges persist around the globe. For example, the pandemic disrupted education and learning opportunities for many, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized groups. Seven hundred sixty-three million adults and young people still lack basic literacy skills. Two-thirds of them are women.

Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997-2006), once said:

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”

Annan gave this speech on International Literacy Day in 1997. Still, the number I shared with you shows that we still have a long way to go in achieving the global commitment of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities by 2030, as stated in the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) of the United Nations.

This year’s International Literacy Day theme, “Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies,” highlights literacy’s importance in addressing the challenges of our rapidly changing world, such as climate change, digital transformation, health crises, and social inequalities.

Here are some other interesting facts. The literacy rate of a country is the percentage of people aged 15 who can read and write. Many of us in this room are foreigners who moved to Sweden and learned to read, write, and speak the language, giving us invaluable advantages professionally and personally in this society. Literacy is a priority in Sweden, which boasts a 99% literacy rate. However, two of our Nordic neighbors, Finland and Norway, have achieved 100%, so we can still improve 😊! With the immigration and integration challenges facing Sweden, Swedish-language literacy is more important than ever to foster inclusion and open the doors of opportunity for newcomers.

It should be noted that European countries have the highest literacy rates, while sub-Saharan Africa (Niger 19%) and the Middle East (Afghanistan 38%) have the lowest literacy rates. Poverty, lack of access to education, and cultural norms prioritizing traditional practices over formal education contribute to this disparity. Educational systems are also underfunded and understaffed, leading to a shortage of qualified teachers and limited resources for students. Countries facing political instability and conflict hinder their ability to provide education for their citizens. Low literacy rates have significant global ramifications in addition to social and economic consequences, hampering a country's progress and restricting individuals’ ability to access better-paying jobs, participate fully in society, and make informed decisions about their health and well-being.

Literacy is often thought of in its most simplistic sense—the ability to read and write. But literacy is so much more than that. It also involves understanding, analyzing, using, and engaging with information. These are critical skills in the age of increasing economic competition, dwindling resources, climate change, and rapidly evolving technology such as AI.

The benefits of literacy cannot be overstated. It lifts individuals out of poverty and enriches their lives. It creates opportunities for people to develop skills to help them provide for themselves and their families. Literacy also improves the development of the wider community, facilitates employment, and allows the wider economy and society to thrive. It encourages free speech and protects democracy. Moreover, it reduces infant mortality rates and directly affects an individual’s physical and mental health.

Perhaps most relevant to the IWIB community, being literate empowers women and girls, breaking the cycle of illiteracy and improving self-esteem, enabling them to become economically productive and independent. A mother’s reading level is the highest predictor of their child’s future academic success, outweighing family or neighborhood income factors. Women’s literacy is a counterpoint to the socio-economic challenges that might otherwise curb academic potential.

I want to finish by reiterating that LITERACY IS A FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT. It empowers individuals, communities, and societies to achieve their goals and aspirations. Furthermore, literacy cannot be taken away from you; it can be improved but never removed. Literacy is our unique superpower!

· Please share your memories of learning how to read and/or what literacy means to you.

· What are some challenges to literacy in the age of smartphones and technology?

· Please share your thoughts about what we can do individually and as a society to

promote literacy.

Four years ago, I sat in our cottage in the Stockholm archipelago, reflecting on the fact my daughter, Yasmine, would be going away to college in New York. It felt bittersweet, but I was grateful she and I had such a close relationship. I then began thinking about mother-daughter relationships in general. I was very attached to my mother, and we spoke almost daily—even when I moved to Stockholm. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn't all perfect; we had our misunderstandings. Likewise, Yasmine and I often bickered, especially during those fraught teen years. Still, our love and special bond were never in doubt. But what about those complicated—even dysfunctional—mother/daughter relationships?

An idea began to form in my mind about just such a dynamic—a single mother who is late to maturity and her precocious eighteen-year-old daughter. As the characters of Linn and Zoë Holmgren began to take shape, I wanted to infuse some familiar elements. I placed them on a fictional Swedish island similar to mine and added a dose of Norse mythology to thicken the plot. Finally, I turned inward and wrote about something else close to home: an interracial relationship between Swedish Linn and a charismatic Haitian American she meets after a one-night stand at a music festival. A significant part of the narrative would center on the experiences of their bi-racial Swedish/American/Haitian daughter, Zoë.

To write as authentically as possible about Zoë’s perspective, I had lengthy conversations with Yasmine—asking her everything from choosing Zoë’s name to Gen Z slang. I completed a large portion of the first draft during the early months of the pandemic. However, the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, rattled my already fragile psyche. A long-overdue racial reckoning took root in the United States and spread worldwide. Sweden was not immune. Demonstrations in solidarity with Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement occurred at Sergels Torg, a large public square in central Stockholm. Discussions about racism, discrimination, racial profiling, police brutality, and microaggressions came to the fore.

From my own experience as a Black woman who has lived in both the United States and Sweden, I have faced less blatant prejudice here. Nevertheless, I’ve also brushed aside uncomfortable incidents to keep the peace and preserve my mental health. However, my daughter bravely penned an Instagram post detailing her experiences with racial ignorance and unconscious bias in Sweden. Her account and the amplification of indignities faced by people of color introduced a sense of urgency to something I had been tip-toeing around. Namely, Zoë’s feeling of racial otherness; her search for identity and acceptance. In the wake of an inexplicable tragedy and a world coming apart at the seams, I saw the emotional honesty that had eluded me.

Writing Sommaren på Nornö enabled me to confront issues I had wrestled with for years. Given my personal background, I wanted to feature an underrepresented voice in Swedish fiction and portray that world through her specific lens. I also wanted to explore the universal theme of feeling like an outsider in a society that encourages conformity. The updated English edition, A Norn in Bloom, taught me to be fearless and to focus on what I wanted to convey rather than what was comfortable. Although I created the characters and circumstances, it sometimes felt as though Linn and Zoë were real and driving the action forward. Luckily, I'm not done with them yet. Stay tuned!

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