International Literacy Day

September 8: Today is International Literacy Day, as first proclaimed by UNESCO forty-five years ago. Recognizing that women comprise two thirds of the 776 million adults worldwide who are still unable to read and write, UNESCO has directed this year’s campaign towards “The Power of Women’s Literacy.” Accordingly, there is an emphasis on female empowerment in the six literacy initiatives—in Cape Verde, Nepal, Germany, Egypt, Colombia, and Malawi—which have received prizes and citations from UNESCO this year.

Nadine Gordimer is one of many international writers who has contributed to the UNESCO literacy anthology, Alphabet of Hope. Her essay advocating for the survival of book culture begins biblically, with “In the beginning was the Word…”; it ends with this plea:

First it became the book of the movie.

Now it is the book of the website.

Don’t let it happen.

Margaret Atwood is especially active in the double cause of literacy and feminism. In her foreword to Marilyn French’s four-volume From Eve to Dawn, A History of Women in the World, Atwood wonders if women around the world have time to acquire the literacy and other skills they need, given the apparent course of “Earth Titanic.” But she, too, is represented in UNESCO’s Alphabet of Hope, her contribution a description of her involvement in “Somebody’s Daughter,” an ongoing literacy project among the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. Many of the women are victims of dislocation or abuse, all are “cultural orphans” in the sense that they have been allowed to grow up without either old or new traditions and skills, literacy included. At the annual two-week summer camp the women learn traditional Inuit sewing and take their first steps in writing—not dissimilar survival skills, explains Atwood:

We had three expert hunters with us, to help with the site, to provide food, and to defend our camp. They bagged a caribou, which was skinned and cut up immediately; some of it became caribou stew, some was soon to be turned into mittens and kamiks; nothing would be wasted. …The next day the women met with the elders and teachers in a large round communal tent, where they received the skins they would work on. “What do you want to make?” they were asked by the elders, in Inuktituk. Then, “Who is it for?” (Sizes vary according to age, patterns according to gender.) This question—”Who is it for?”—gave [us] a thread to follow. During our first writing session, we said that writing, like sewing, took one thing and made it into another; and that writing, like sewing, was always for someone, even if that someone was yourself in a future form.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.