By Isabel Taswell
In the months leading up to May 2015, several high school students from Bengaluru, India, and Seattle, Washington, were reading Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. On opposite sides of the globe, the students were deep in preparation for the first-ever global reading discussion. When the day of the discussion arrived, their teachers and coaches logged online and the young readers, nations apart, cheered in harmony. An hour-long discussion ensued: students exchanged names, stories, and literary reflections. For the short hour, the rooms—and the liminal technology-driven space in between—hummed with the energy of international walls coming down.
After spending years working as a software engineer for Microsoft, Vandana Nandan broke away from the corporate world to create The Globe Reads, an organization responsible for this global reading discussion. The Globe Reads (TGR) aims to “use literature to unmask stories from peoples’ lives and share them across the globe,” Nandan says. She calls TGR her “passion project,” especially now that her two sons, both of whom were influential in the genesis of this project, are in college. Nandan delights in sharing her passion project with her colleague, Saudamini Deshpande, since 2019. Like Nandan, Deshpande wants to use literature to build bridges around the world and “believes whole-heartedly” in the mission and vision of TGR.
Nandan, who grew up in Bengaluru before moving to Seattle to raise her children, has always been cognizant of the power of literature. In our interview, Nandan told me about her aunt, who dedicated her life to the two schools she started in Bengaluru where “books are prohibitively expensive.” When her sons outgrew their childhood books, Nandan would pack them into suitcases and bring them to her aunt’s school. She wanted to send books that had been donated or surplus library books from her local library to other schools in India as well, yet the exorbitant cost of transcontinental shipping put an end to this idea. Still determined to put stories in the hands of young people, Nandan began ordering books online for other schools in the region. All the while, she continued to wonder what else she could do to increase students’ access to literature. Eventually, Nandan’s practice of sending books evolved into a trans-continental literature discussion group. At the time, her sons, who grew up playing competitive squash, were volunteering with a squash club in Seattle that drew a diverse cross-section of young Seattleites. Nandan invited the squash club and a school in Bengaluru to the first global reading discussion. She describes the squash-club-turned-book-group as an “instant hit,” and she soon invited her sons’ schools and a couple of other schools in India to join.
The earliest iterations of the discussion group offered space for students to read books, but it wasn’t until Nandan asked readers about their own relationships with their grandparents while discussing Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that the discussion group transcended the bounds of academic discourse and entered the sphere of empathic engagement. “We are all a product of our soil and circumstance,” Nandan explains, as she recounts how the conversation transformed into one of compassion as students began sharing their experiences. “It’s pretty easy to judge people you don’t know, but the goal is to see a little deeper, to understand why someone is who they are based on the different opportunities a person has.”
TGR aims to break down cultural barriers and offer young people a window into other perspectives. Nandan told me, “We’re trying to help students understand that someone who’s sitting across the globe might have different stories and perspectives on similar topics and ideas.” The organization invites students into a space of global citizenship by intentionally selecting international literature. Past discussion groups have read works by authors, poets, and journalists such as Rabindranath Tagore, Maya Angelou, Khalil Gibran, and Malala Yousafzai. TGR aims to choose texts that support students in thinking about a more equitable world. Emphasizing the nuances of complex topics such as racial and socioeconomic justice, Nandan says, “We lean into topics such as race, religion, LGBTQIA+ studies, socioeconomics, free speech, and human rights. We shine a light on different issues with people who are on different sides.” Nandan sees these issues beyond a good-bad binary: “Not necessarily opposite sides,” she adds, “just different sides. There’s space for people to share their experiences. We are not telling anybody to be any way, we are just shining light everywhere.”
Nandan, who devoured Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters in her youth, recognizes the various lenses a reader brings to a story. She reflects deeply on the way her own values and experiences shaped her love for and understanding of Pride and Prejudice. To her, and to TGR, the perspective a reader brings to a text is paramount; discussions around the author’s intention can only come later. In particular, Nandan narrows in on a local, or communal, interpretation of a text: “in certain communities, there are different values. A lot of students in the same communities have similar stories and perspectives. This local and often communal interpretation leads to a powerful exchange of ideas between students when it’s shared in global discourse.” Nandan hopes that this exchange of ideas across continents and cultures will serve as a path towards forging a global community as connected interpersonally as it is technologically.
With a background in software engineering and an organization that relies on the Internet to enact change, Nandan has a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of the world. With the prevalent use of technology–which has only intensified during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic–information travels in the blink of an eye. “We are no longer just living in America,” Nandan says. “It is important to understand what it means to be a citizen of the globe where we are all responsible for the world and each other.”
To participate in a global reading discussion with TGR, teachers only need access to the Internet. Currently, TGR works with schools in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, and the United States. Nandan is always looking to grow and expand TGR into additional schools and countries around the world. TGR provides students with the necessary literature and resources, supports teachers in preparing their students for the conversation, and moderates every global reading discussion. As she smiles, Nandan’s eyes shine with hope: “These discussions,” she tells me, “start a glimmer of empathy, empowerment, awareness, and global citizenship.”
Vandana Nandan is a lover of stories beautifully told, on page and on celluloid. She has a Bachelor of Engineering in Computer Science. Before founding The Globe Reads, she worked at Microsoft Corporation, first as a Software Engineer and then as a Program Manager. After her years at Microsoft, she explored interests in writing and art while raising her children. Nandan spent a year studying Literary Fiction at the University of Washington and took numerous courses such as Creative Nonfiction and Sketching. She has been published in The Seattle Times. She was involved for a few years with Washington Education Squash Academy, a nonprofit that provides students from underserved communities with free academic tutoring and intensive training in the sport of squash, ensures high school graduation, and helps create new pathways to college. She currently sits on the board of University of Washington Libraries. This motley array of interests has fed into Nandan’s passion project, The Globe Reads. Nandan has watched it grow in gratifying ways.
Isabel Taswell (they/them) is an avid reader, writer, teacher, and learner based in New York City. They are committed to decolonizing education and believe in the power of children’s literature to affirm a child’s sense of self and commitment to community. Isabel received their B.A. in English-Psychology from Barnard College and their M.S. in Education from Bank Street College of Education. In their free time, Isabel enjoys climbing mountains, cooking meals, and jumping in puddles.