In the chaotic and often overwhelming world of publishing, I like to think there’s a subtle looking out for each other that happens among women writers. Even if you don’t know each other extremely well, there’s a rope that binds us, a safety net, a hand up, a knotted protection spell that’s always in the works. Of course, that’s not always the case, but I’d like to think we work in service to words and in service to each other. Though, Erika L. Sánchez and I have only met once or twice, I have been watching her exceptional career rise to new heights for some time. First I was a fan of her poems in the 2017 release of Lessons on Expulsion, and then I became a fan of her young adult fiction with her book I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter which was both a National Book Award Finalist and a New York Times Bestseller. In the interview that follows, the two of us finally had the opportunity to exchange our thoughts about, not only the nitty gritty of the writing process, but also how one navigates the joys and challenges of a living a life wholeheartedly dedicated to words. —Ada
Ada Limón: Erika, it’s such a pleasure to get the chance to talk to you here. I’ve been watching you and reading you for some time now. You are a star! Your young adult novel I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is just a year old and still doing so well (deservedly!). You’re traveling a great deal and speaking and reading all over the country. I’m positive you and I have passed each other in various airports at some point or another. Because we’re friends on social media, I just saw a picture of you with Judy Blume. Oh the company you keep. This might be a strange question to begin with, but the caretaker in me wants to ask you, how are you holding up? All of this attention for the work is always welcome, but it isn’t always easy. You’ve become a real icon and leader for young Latinx writers—how are you juggling your public persona and your personal life?
Erika Sánchez: Thank you for your kind words. It’s been such a surreal experience. I’m very grateful for the attention my books have received. When you publish, you hope for the best, but you just never know how your work will do out in the world. Part of the reason I wrote these books was because young Latinx women are rarely allowed to tell their stories. I grew up reading almost exclusively white texts. Thank goodness for Sandra Cisneros. Reading The House on Mango Street in high school was the first time I ever really saw myself in a book. I felt so invisible for most of my life, that it’s sometimes hard to believe that people actually care about what I have to say now. I’ve participated in many events, talks, and readings in the last year and a half. The picture you reference was from the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner where I received the 21st Century Award. My entire family was there and I got to meet two of my heroes. It was such an amazing night. I feel a great deal of responsibility with this new visibility. I use the platform to speak out about immigration, sexual assault, mental health, and racism, and to encourage young women of color to pursue their passions. Sometimes this work is exhausting, but I’m really grateful that I get to do this. When I’m not teaching or traveling, I’m usually at home recharging. I spend a lot of time reading in bed with my cat. I’m an introvert by nature, so I need a lot of time alone after my events.
This current administration and the consequent xenophobia is completely horrifying, but I see a definite shift in the literary world. People of color and LGBTQ folks are publishing books and winning major prizes. I can hardly keep up , which I find so exciting. I just saw you on the cover for Poets & Writers! How amazing is that? I see The Carrying everywhere and it also deserves all the attention it’s gotten. It’s truly stunning. I feel really haunted by it. The way you write about the female body is so devastating that I had to put the book down at times. Though I love writing more than anything, I know that the process of it can be so emotionally taxing. There are times that I even feel it physically. There’s an essay I’ve been avoiding for this very reason. I’d also like to know how you take care of yourself. How do you write about grief and stay healthy? How do you find that balance? And is there any advice you can offer women writers who tackle these kinds of difficult issues?
AL: Thank you, Erika. I am so thrilled to see you getting the
attention you and your writing deserves. It does my heart good. And the work
you are doing is important on many levels so I’m glad to hear you are able to
rest and recharge when you can. I agree that the act of writing is a physical
thing. It can be healthy to purge dark things, but it can also excavate old and
new suffering that needs to be attended to. The body can’t always keep up.
While I was working on The Carrying, my body was hurting quite a bit, my
vertigo was intense, and I had an overall feeling of sickness most of the time.
I feel better now and no one is entirely sure why, but the body is a mystery.
What’s interesting for me is that, regardless of how I’m feeling physically, I
really do feel my best when I am writing, it’s a place to be free, to be in the
body and the mind in a new way, to remember what being free looks like and
feels like. The best advice I can offer anyone is to do the work, but also not
to force it, not to drag it out kicking and screaming. Sometimes we sit down to
write the hard stuff, to burn shit down, to light it up and make our words a
bomb. Those explosions of rage and sorrow can be powerful, but we also have to
remember to be tender and kind to ourselves. That we are allowed happiness too.
A sense of peace. If we intend to own our suffering, we must also own our
power, our peace.
Do you find the process of writing freeing? Or does
it feel like incredibly hard work at times? I’d love to hear more about your
writing process and how you shift between both your poems and your prose?
ES: Writing is what makes me feel the most connected to the world.
It’s an act of survival, because if I don’t do it, I literally feel like I’m
going to die. That’s not exaggeration. It’s freeing in the sense that I’m able
to take suffering and transform it into something beautiful. That’s the goal,
at least. Though I do love the act of writing, it is definitely work. As I
mentioned before, it’s physically taxing. Sometimes I get short of breath and
can’t sit still. I feel the grief in my body. I pace a lot and talk to myself.
When I wrote the bulk of my novel, I was recovering from one of the worst
depressions of my life and working an incredibly stressful full-time job as a
public relations strategist. I’d write all day for work then work on my novel
all evening. Whenever I had a free moment, I wrote. I felt possessed by it. It
really helped me heal. Poetry is very different for me. It requires much more
time and silence. There are poems that take me years to finish. They usually
come in pieces. I began the earliest poem in Lessons on Expulsion when I was a senior in college, so it was about a decade of
Sometimes I wish I were the kind of writer who wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and gets to work, but I don’t operate that way at all. I’m not a morning person and I’m pretty unstructured. Writing is the center of my life so it informs everything I do. I think about it always—when I’m running, cooking, shopping for groceries, or performing any mundane task. That’s why I carry a notebook and pen with me at all times. You never know when inspiration is going to strike. I write in bed, on airplanes, at the coffeeshop. I’m also constantly reading, which, of course, is central to the process. I just finished A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande and it blew me away.
There is so much quiet yet searing beauty throughout your collection. You take what might be considered mundane and make it sing. There’s a description of a dead animal that made me gasp. That’s what I love most about Emily Dickinson. She found so much wonder and never even left her bedroom. I kept wondering about your influences in this book. Who were your spirit guides? Who do we see in The Carrying? This is your fifth collection, so how have your literary models evolved?
AL: Oh Erika, I feel the same, I wish I was as disciplined as some
folks to write at certain times of day or for a certain number of hours, or to
plunge deeply into something even when life is calling on you. I tend to be
similar in my work, there are long moments of silence and then suddenly I am
writing more than I ever have without realizing it. The Carrying does
have quite a lot of dead animals in it doesn’t it? I laugh that the all my poor
poetry animals are always dying or already dead in my poems. Except my dog, my
dog will always live forever no matter what reality tries to tell me.
Let’s see, who is in my book? I think there is a great deal of Lucille Clifton in my book, that way she could be straight forward and searing at the same time. I think also of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and her honesty and courage in that book. Of course Lucille Clifton and Marie Howe were my teachers so their influence is with me. When I’m really writing, it’s often hard for me read poetry, I tend to read novels and non-fiction because I’m such a mimic, if I read a great deal of poetry, I’ll try to copy it! My biggest influence might have been Natalie Diaz since she and I were writing poems back and forth during this time (four of mine are in the book).
I know that I still suffer a great deal from self
doubt. There are mornings that I get up and think everything I’ve written is
horrible. I usually can claw myself back into a place where I acknowledge the
good work that I’ve done (and sometimes I really love my own poems!), but you
are who you are regardless of success. Do you think success has changed you in
any way; do you think it has changed your writing?
ES: I think hating your work is part of being a writer,
unfortunately. I have those days, too. I expect a lot from myself, and if I don’t
meet my standards or expectations, I can be quite brutal. Then there are times
in which I can appreciate what I’ve created, and that is such a gift. Sometimes
I look at my books and think to myself, I made these! And it blows my
mind that strangers all over the country are reading them.
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and I struggled for many years before I got any significant recognition, so it’s been a long journey. I’m so grateful for all the attention my work has received because there were times I seriously doubted myself and my life choices. I didn’t have many role models. I didn’t know any professional women as I was growing up. I do think success has helped my confidence. I’ve always been very outspoken, but knowing that people actually care about what I think now makes me bolder. Might as well use whatever influence I have to try to dismantle systems of oppression. I’m tired of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism—essentially, hatred in all of its forms. We are constantly faced with hate crimes now. This presidency has given people permission to act upon their ignorance and fear, and it’s truly terrifying. I’m not entirely sure what to do, but I know I won’t shut up about it.
Also, I’ve spent a lot of my life either poor or broke, so it’s such a relief to have financial stability. I can buy myself things without falling into a spiral of guilt now. I live the way I want, and I know what a gift that is, particularly as a woman of color. The women who came before me weren’t even allowed to read or write. They weren’t permitted to move freely or live alone. They were expected to get married and be cared for by their husbands. I have traveled all over and I live by myself. “A room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf encouraged. Though I would eventually like a partner, I have really appreciated the time I’ve had to myself.
You also live a life centered on literature. You
travel quite a bit and are very prolific. What has your writing provided for
you, especially as a woman?
it wildly lucky that we can have a life centered around our writing? I feel
grateful about it every day. When I was a kid, I could never really imagine a
“dream job.” I mean, I thought about jobs, but nothing sounded like
what I really wanted to do, which was to stay home and write and read and think
of things and then go out and talk to people about the things that I had
written. I assumed a job like that didn’t really exist. How could it? Because
my mother was an artist, and my stepfather was a writer, I had a model of a
creative life. But they also both waited tables. I always assumed if you wanted
to be a creative person then you also had to wait tables, or have some other
job that took the majority of your time (and energy). Or you worked in education
like my father. Who was amazing and inspiring as an elementary school principal
and as an administrator of instruction, but had very little time to write, play
the guitar, very little time to himself.
It wasn’t until 2010 when I became a full-time writer. I worked
for magazines for 12 years before that. And even “full-time writer”
is somewhat of a misnomer. I travel and teach and speak at universities. Like
you, I’m on the road a lot, but when I’m home, I’m fully home and my time is
very much my own. I am still amazed that I make my living through my creative
work. I’m also to the point now where I am able to say no to things. I think,
as women, we are convinced or guilted into thinking that we should give our
time, dedicate our time, donate our time. We get guilted and shamed into saying
yes to waving our speaking fees or yes to writing work that doesn’t pay. I’ve
just now started giving myself permission to say no. It feels powerful,
marvelous, like taking all my clothes off and running through a field, saying
no is a party, it’s like magical weapon, a tool I never thought I’d have access
to. This way, I get to say a big fat enthusiastic YES to my writing.
Speaking of, I have one last question for you and then I’ll let
you get back to your busy life and your exceptional writing. It’s been such a
pleasure talking to you and spending time with you here on the page. Before we
go, is there any advice you’d like to offer to a writer who is starting out?
an admirer of your work, it’s been so great getting to know you better. Advice
for the youngsters… That’s a great question, one I get asked a lot. I always
tell them that they should only pursue a career in writing if they absolutely
love it. You have to take great pleasure in both reading and writing for it to
be worth it. (Personally, it never felt like a choice to me. I believed it was
the only thing that would ever make me happy.) It’s just such a hard career
that I really wouldn’t pursue it otherwise. (Of course, you can always
“write on the side” of whatever else you’re doing.) Also, make
friends with rejection. Not everyone is going to like your work, and that’s ok.
You can’t please the entire world. No matter what you do, there will be people
who don’t agree with what you’re doing. I’ve been rejected so many times, but I
kept going because I truly believed in my work.
I also like what you said about saying no. I totally agree. We’re
often expected to work for free. I did when I was younger, but those days are
over. I volunteer my time or resources for worthy causes when I think it’s
necessary, but I still need to make a living and my time is valuable. I worked
really hard to get to this point and no one is going to make me feel guilty
about being compensated for my labor.
Lastly, I think it’s so important to build community. You have to
support other writers. The act of writing can be lonely, but then spending time
with my fellow weirdos makes it all worth it. I’m grateful to have met so many incredible
people doing this work. This is the life I’ve always wanted.
you for your generosity, Erika. What a perfect place to end: on a living a life
that we have always wanted. Now, let’s go write.
Towards the end of each year I do one of those anonymous surveys where I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each book. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years or so, and the results are remarkably consistent: most students read most, but rarely all, of each book. About 15 percent read every single word of every single thing, some of it twice. These the kids who would read the contents list of a 7-11 freezer if told, the same students who tend to sit in the front row and take the kind of notes that end up in the Smithsonian. Another 15 percent admit to struggling to even open the books, but would gladly read the 7-11 freezer list because of its novelty value and the refreshing lack of obfuscating adjectives and modifiers. The 70 percent of students in the middle make up the dominant percentage, the ones who often leave little notes, not quite apologia, but regretful explanations about wishing that they had more time to do all the reading because they would have liked to, that they did most of it, that what they read of The Great Gatsby was really good but what with other homework, and athletics, and Uncle Steve’s birthday dinner, and the cousin in Jersey with leukemia, and x not yet having said anything about prom…well, there was a lot to think about.
All this at three separate independent schools in different parts of California. Like I said, remarkably consistent results, and results that translate across gender, race, and socioeconomic status. In terms of the not-highly-rigorous breakdown of those not-highly-rigorous statistics you get about 70 percent of the students reading about 70 percent of the material 70 percent of the time. All of which sounds terrific, except that most of the time, most of the 70 percent, and even some of the 15 percent taking Smithsonian-esque notes, see words rather than read them. For most high-school students, the act of “reading” recalls the soft glow of something done at night, before bed, in jim-jams with a cup of hot cocoa—the equivalent of night-time elevator music. Or, if not that, they’re “reading” on the bus, in the car, while standing outside class two minutes before the bell. And, at best, gaining an understanding of situation and context: who did what or said what to whom and where at what time in what kind of weather. Seeing words but not really reading them, a marriage without contact.
I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it. Who, what, when, and where, of course, are essential. You gotta figure out who’s sleeping with whom before you ask why. There’s a brother involved? What? No. Wait! They’re on a train? If that part’s hazy, the next stop becomes SparkNotes and PinkMonkey, and you might as well hand out the 7-11 freezer list. But how to truly turn them off? Ask them to annotate. The a-word: to add notes to (a text or diagram) giving explanation or comment. To say they “hate” it not strong enough. The most common disclaimers being about how it takes them out of the story, how if they stop they can’t remember what happened, that it takes too long, that it’s not enjoyable anymore. I’ve had students tell me, with genuine feeling, that reading’s been ruined for them—forever. Well, yes, if “reading” is that thing they do at bedtime with that cup of cocoa, and if that’s the thing ruined forever, then, no, I’m not sorry. How many students do trig curled up in bed without a pen or pencil?
So the task has to be to get them to see reading as something a little more combative, which is not to undermine scanning and context. I love scanning and context, reading for the sheer drama of turning the page, for the drama of occupation, of escape—especially on a beach, or hungover, or sitting in 24E on a flight without a functioning TV. But in a high-school English class, the skill of reading as an intimate, assertive thing stands as the thing I’m more interested in—the premise being that if reading were less of a spectator sport maybe we’d inhabit a world better informed, more critical—and critical in a reflective rather than a reactive sense—a world shaped more collectively by thoughtfulness, by magnanimity.
But annotate what, students ask? A fair question. And the place to begin is questions, the questions that come after the who, what, when, and where have been answered. Why questions—about place, about character, about motives…about the weather. Questions that pick at the story’s fabric in ways that enhance that fabric as opposed to designing a new one. So, for instance, after reading the first couple of pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out loud in class, students invariably ask questions about why the novel’s named after Gatsby, about what makes him great, if his father gave him any other advice than the part about not all the people in the world having had the advantages he’s had. About how come the narrator doesn’t know the name for a seismograph. Interesting enough questions, but dead ends, as a couple of the students put it (though at least two of their classmates are adamant that we need to pursue the seismograph thing) because they depend either on plot that hasn’t happened yet or hearsay. Better the question that at least allows for the possibility of an answer through what’s already there rather than depending upon the goose chase of the imagination. So when Nick Carraway says that “[R]eserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” it might benefit us to ask why? Why “hope” as opposed to something else? Why infinite? And what might this tell us about Nick Carraway’s temperament? Questions that allow us to begin to work out the kind of world Nick Carraway lives in and how that world might interact with ours. The kinds of questions that unnerve what’s in front of us, that give us something to hold onto in terms of plot while, simultaneously, digging a little deeper into that plot.
They want to know how many they need. A ball of string question. And I tell them not to go all gung-ho and answer the questions, but to let them sit for a while, the idea being to try and read from inside the story rather than from inside a predetermined perspective. Virginia Woolf calls it the art of delaying dictation: “If we could banish all [such] preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” Even in novels, to delay that impulse, that reflex, as long as possible, allowing the piece itself a chance to stand, at least for a moment, outside the moment of presumption. The questions more important, paradoxically, than the answers. It sounds all back to front, but getting students to trust, first and foremost, their own ability to ask questions rather than a teacher’s executive ability to provide answers leads, again, to the kind of critical, reflective impulse our world so desperately need. It allows students access to a way of thinking, a means for seeing, long after they’ve forgotten if affect works primarily as a verb or a noun, or how many suitors Odysseus slays in the great hall.
Which brings up the question of quantity. If the ability to read, and think, critically is the primary currency secondary education needs to invest in, then the disfigured mathematical percentage of how many students read how much becomes less important. I’m not sure it really matters if students read all of The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The House on Mango Street, Macbeth, etc. Of course it’s nice if they do, and it’s nice if they go out into the world with a complex sense of Gatsby’s dream, of Janie’s epiphany, of Esperanza’s journey, Macbeth’s predicament, etc., but I think it’s more important that they know what reading looks like, that they know it as an act of meaningful aggression. We’re not in the business of creating English majors, nice as it would be to fill the world with such people. But until Birnam Wood do come unto Dunsinane, I’ll take empathetic, critical thinkers as a stop-gap. Reading in high school is not about, or shouldn’t be about, numbers of pages; it should be about a way of thinking, a way of seeing. For that, we can focus on certain passages, the certain, crucial passages that most books build to—the golden bricks. As teachers, we can fill in the rest of the building. It’s the skill of reading itself that’s the important thing, perhaps the only thing.
That said, they can’t be forced. It tends to work to begin small—maybe one annotation every two pages, but a real one. Not underlining or highlighting—that’s not annotating, that’s underlining or highlighting. Annotating is where there’s something highlighted or underlined and accompanied by a note working out why said moment was underlined or highlighted. Why questions: about reserving judgments and infinite hope. So, one every two pages. And we agree to it as a class. If one person doesn’t do it, we all do jumping jacks. Not literally, though I wish, just like I wish I could pull off having class outside and using saxophones and live macaws as props. In place of jumping jacks, a two-minute free write on some contemporary event, like a wardrobe malfunction.
And this is where the larger picture begins to coalesce—the significance of developing a skill through reading that translates into larger worlds, a skill learned in a safe space where poor judgment comes without real consequences, except intellectual ones. The point being that the consequences aren’t human. They’re judgments about characters experiencing pain, triumph, sadness, joy, hurt, and so on, but we can get them wrong and little changes. Getting people wrong in the real world, of course, comes with real consequences, sometimes tragic. The skill of delaying judgment, at least categorically, until sufficient questions are in play stands so powerfully at the center of empathy. To return to Virginia Woolf’s point: if reading can teach us how to begin to push preconceptions about fictional characters further aside (“banish” seems overly hopeful), then reading perhaps serves as a model for a similar push in response to people in the world, and not just those that enter our interpersonal spaces, but also the persons in the worlds outside ours—the cultural, social, and political worlds so often represented in binary ways in the media. To effectively annotate and read the fictional worlds of Jay Gatsby, Janie Crawford, Esperanza, Macbeth, et. al. allows students, ultimately, to be able to do the same for hurricanes, race riots, economic policies, state of the union speeches, even wardrobe malfunctions—but to do so from a place that begins with witness, a place that works aggressively to keep preconceptions at bay—questions not answers. This what real reading can accomplish—an aggressive stance, a flak jacket, that stands as a condition, ironically, for more empathy. Romanticized? Maybe—actually, not even maybe. But still essential.
The other part of this resides in stillness. To be still, to hover, inside a piece of literature requires students stopping for moments at a time within the characters and their fates, their worlds. Annotations force them into that space, if only for a moment, alongside a partial stepping back from the worlds circumscribed by their own egos: the teaching of reading as the teaching of stillness, a kind of meditative, cognitive moment where students develop the ability to be intellectually still in a world so often pushing their intellects to move at breakneck speed from moment to moment, a constant shuffling of information, their minds the photons inside the Hadron collider moving at a searing pace. And this is crucial no matter where students go to school, no matter what the classroom: English and History, Science, Math, Art, Foreign Language, Metalwork, etc. Students need to know how to undermine and dismantle the spectacles surrounding them, and how to slow each spectacle down in turn in order to better see the axles turning inside of it. Critical reading is where that stillness begins. Annotations in the margins of Macbeth or a set of scribbled-on sticky notes in Their Eyes Were Watching God are the beginning points of interpreting their worlds, the ones screeching past them without brakes.
Image Credit: Pixels.
It makes little sense to come up with another list of “best” Chicago books. To select a “top” 10 (or 20 or 1,000) has always seemed arbitrary and destined for accusations of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole, even in a city built on a foundation of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole.
Fairly or unfairly, Chicago often serves as a general proxy for American cities. Love or hate this idea of ostensible representativeness (most Chicagoans kind of just roll their eyes), to embrace it can prove helpful in one respect: looking at ambition, failed policies, immigration, founding myths, and contemporary life in Chicago, you find resonance elsewhere in America. When thinking through issues confronted by American cities today (and maybe always) — unequal distribution of resources, violent policing, persistent de facto segregation, administrative corruption, privatization of public services, neoliberal coddling of gentrification, fallout from decades of environmental degradation, and others — Chicago serves as a vital case study.
The local commentariat here works itself into spitting rages whenever any outsider — especially if that outsider bears a New York Times business card — parachutes into the Loop for 36 hours to explain Chi-Town (seriously, stop it: no one here calls it that) to the rest of the world. So, designed as a “Chicago 101” syllabus, these books serve as starting points rather than final judgments. They place Chicago at the center of ideas about city life, in some case pressing back on prevailing narratives about American urbanism. Instead of best Chicago books, this selection focuses on books that use a Chicago-centric perspective to address challenges that other places similarly confront.
And given that I’m leaving town this fall and casting my lot with the outsiders when I transplant to — I cringe, really, it feels like betrayal — Brooklyn, I wanted to get this thing together before the movers arrive. Much is missing: I chose not to focus on novels because so many others have done so, and poetry is almost entirely absent. Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg were not on this list because they are prerequisites for the list. But with the excuses that I don’t intend on completeness and the movers at the gates, I hope it’s acceptable to leave gaps that conversation might fill.
1. “It Really Wasn’t Much of a Place at All.”
Dominic A. Pacyga opens Chicago: A Biography, his sweeping history of the Midwest’s largest city, with Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. The priest and explorer first came upon a portage between the Chicago and Illinois Rivers in 1673. To build a canal here would be to connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, creating the largest inland waterway in the world and facilitating transportation from New York Harbor to the Mississippi along the entire midsection of the continent.
There’s a lot in between and after, and the last page of Pacyga’s book makes it to Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. That Pacyga covers so much — from the fire that destroyed one third of Chicago in 1871, to the city’s subsequent explosive growth (Chicago had a 1.7 million residents by 1900), to the Haymarket riot, to the 1968 DNC — should give a sense of the book’s scope. With so much terrain to cover, it comes as little surprise that even major events get relatively little space. Pacyga does, however, provide an especially detailed account of labor upheavals that characterized Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, providing context for understanding the city’s pushback against the rampant capitalism for which it earned its reputation.
Chicago: A Biography represents an essential starting point, primarily because it tracks the evolution of the city from a mucky swamp to a “global city.”
2. “Natural Advantages”
William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Donald Miller’s City of the Century both present meticulously detailed and conceptually riveting pictures of Chicago in the 1800’s — a century of incredible expansion. Chicago’s founding hustlers (to borrow Nelson Algren’s term for his fellow Chicagoans) proclaimed as early as the 1830’s that a marsh named for stinking onions by indigenous people, seated aside gloriously fertile grasslands on the shores of an inland ocean, would one day represent “the most important point in the great west.” By the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the climax of Chicago’s ascendant century, that destiny had been realized.
Cronon and Miller interrogate the stakes of this transformation, asking about the lives it altered and about the enduring epistemic shifts that Chicago’s rise implied for the United States. Chicago transformed America’s relationship with the West and with capital itself, producing not only a vast urban expanse but also structuring what we would come to understand as “rural,” “suburban,” and “hinterland.” Cronon helps us understand how the city transformed goods into abstract commodities, reshaping our relationship to the food we buy and the environment we consume. He shows how rail transit didn’t just connect distant places, but rather restructured our very understanding of space and time. In notable contrast, Miller’s history dives into the enormous cast of characters that built Chicago and chronicled its rise. City of the Century’s meticulous characterization of the “hustlers” that poured concrete into Chicago’s foundations provides singular descriptions of this cast’s influence on the city’s trajectory.
3.“High Strung, Contagious Enthusiasm”
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City has become standard literary fare for newcomers to Chicago, and one will often find multiple copies in a transplant’s household. Larson dramatizes the planning of the aforementioned World’s Columbian Exposition, which marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. Planning required construction of an enormous classical-inspired city in Jackson Park on the South Side, involving many of the city’s (and nation’s) architectural and economic leaders, and marking Chicago’s global coming-out party.
Lurking in the crowds, H.H. Holmes — the book’s eponymous devil — became one of America’s first serial killers. He committed scores of murders silently throughout the fair, the urban anonymity afforded him by the crowds facilitating his crimes. Larson’s book has become important, not just as a document that depicts this contradiction between glorious spectacle and urban underbelly, but also because his romanticized vision of Chicago squares with how the city still views the fair. Its spectacle (and specter) looms large in Chicago’s self-conception.
Where Larson spends time examining the drama among fair planners, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth presents an imaginative — and sparely, gorgeously rendered — view of the event’s history through a child’s eyes. An emotionally paralyzed man living in present-day Chicago, Jimmy attempts to reconnect with his father. In scenes from the 1800s, the monumental fair casts similar shadows over an inter-generational Corrigan family history. Ware depicts how the tendrils of Chicago’s past reach to its present in a city with a complicated history.
Jane Addams founded Hull-House in 1889, well before the Columbian Exposition’s electric lights flickered on. Her settlement house ultimately comprised an enormous complex of buildings in one of Chicago’s poorest immigrant neighborhoods. In Twenty Years at Hull House, one gets the sense of Addams’s determination to reformulate the way that cities treated the poor and immigrant classes — with dignity and a focus on individuals. She charted a course for services and advocacy for the poor that formed the foundation of social work and emphasized that communities matter in urban development.
Concurrently, Daniel Burnham — architect of the Columbian Exposition — moved on from the fair to create an urban plan that would transform Chicago and cement the city’s status as a global metropolis. Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago makes it clear that Burnham’s monumental visions leave a complicated legacy. Despite “sincere” hopes that “City Beautiful” concepts would ennoble the poor, the Plan of Chicago deserves criticism for overlooking conditions of daily life for those to whom Addams ministered. As much as it marks a culmination of optimism in city planning, it lays some of the foundation for abysmal policies that would haunt public housing in Chicago and in many other cities. Moreover, it marks a kind of opening chapter in “public-private partnerships” that govern contemporary efforts to encourage markets to solve urban problems.
5. Bigger Ambitions for Chicago-Born Novels
Native Son and The Adventures of Augie March belong at the heart of any serious conversation about Chicago novels (though I find Augie difficult to get through). The ambitions of Richard Wright and Saul Bellow in these two midcentury novels rise to the level of Chicago’s ambitions for itself. Their alternatingly devastating and ennobling investigations of individual agency and social determination in two unforgettable protagonists — Augie and Bigger Thomas — make them essential to an understanding of American ideas about selfhood, race, and ambition.
It can be easy to forget that these novels take place in Chicago; they belong to us all and not to any one city. “I am an American,” Augie declares right at his beginning. “Chicago born” comes only second, though it acts as validation of his Americanness. Upon reflection, one cannot imagine either novel taking place in any other American city — one of huge immigrant classes fragmented into neighborhoods bitterly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.
Reading these novels together with a spatial understanding of Chicago deepens one’s appreciation for how wide a gulf exists between the lives of their protagonists and the populations they represent. Augie and Bigger find themselves in Hyde Park, for example (which still boasts of its veneer of racial diversity relative to other neighborhoods), but their experiences there are utterly separate. From this smallest of details — the incongruity of lives despite physical proximity — emerges persistent truths about the structure of racial dynamics in American cities.
6. Making the Most of Migration
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s mammoth history of the Great Migration, won the 2015 Chicago Reader’s poll of “Greatest Chicago Book.” Chicago shares billing with LA and NYC as important destinations for those whose lives Wilkerson traces from the rural south to the urban north and west, but there can be no doubt that the Great Migration wrought indelible changes in the social fabric of every region in the United States from World War I through the 1970s; and in this story, Chicago plays a central role. Unwavering in her depictions of the political and physical violence of Jim Crow and nuanced in both her telling of personal stories and descriptions of broader effects of the migration on cities and people, Wilkerson’s book is the seminal text on the largest internal migration in American history.
Meanwhile, Adam Green’s Selling the Race provides an incisive contribution to conversations about how black Chicagoans carved a place for culture in modern America. Against prevailing narratives that cast black Americans (including many new migrants to Chicago) as victims of modernity, swept up by forces that looked to capitalize on anxieties of belonging, Green argues that they became powerful agents of cultural production. Examples from Mahalia Jackson to Ebony and Jet magazine (product of the Chicago-based Johnson Publications) present a rich picture of how much of black culture was generated and packaged for sale to wide audiences in Chicago.
7. Obsessions with the Ordinary
No city values the “ordinary” so dearly as Chicago. And if Studs Terkel stands as the everyman’s greatest champion, his Division Street America best ties the city’s affection for ordinariness to American identity. It would be a mistake to suggest that Terkel shilled the myth of a “city that works” (a term coined by Richard J. Daley). Rather, his no-nonsense portrayals of everyday Chicagoans — rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, racist, gay, jag-baggy, and others — coalesce to create this affecting hodgepodge. As Alex Kotlowitz (no slouch himself in the department of spotlighting and writing movingly about injustice in Chicago) has observed, there’s always Studs in the background — curious, probing, insisting, and asking questions that prompt often-ignored individuals to tell their stories.
Vivian Maier, whose recently discovered work also transacts in Chicago’s obsession with the ordinary, may outshine Terkel decades from now. She embodies the perfect female flâneur (or, as historian Lauren Elkin has rightly insisted, flâneuse). Maier spent most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, secretly capturing some 100,000 images on the city’s streets. The domestic nature of her work all but guaranteed invisibility, given chauvinistic structures of artistic production and labor valuation. But when John Maloof was researching the Northwest Side neighborhood of Portage Park in 2007, he came upon Maier’s forgotten images. He bought and disseminated them. Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found is a great introduction and Maier now belongs in discussions about great American street photographers. Hers is an utterly Chicago story.
8. Daley’s Siege
Richard J. Daley reigned over much of 20th-century Chicago. He ruled the city from 1955 until 1971, dominated Democratic Machine politics, and earned all of his enemies. Several books on this list describe Daley, and his complicated legacy plays out differently in their assessments. For this reason, I have left out of this list any Daley biographies.
Perhaps no account of Daley proves as brutal as Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In his run-up to descriptions of protests and Chicago police reprisals, Mailer writes, “Daley was no national politician, but a clansman.” The 1968 DNC, convened by Daley, proved a flashpoint in American political history. The chaos fragmented the Democratic Party nationally, and set the stage for Richard Nixon’s victory in November. In Mailer’s description of Chicago, his clear affection for the city makes it all the more heartbreaking (despite his intimations of inevitability) that the fractures of American society should appear on live television broadcasts from Michigan Avenue.
Algren-esque musings notwithstanding, Mailer remains a Chicago outsider. So it feels appropriate to add Chicagoan Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool to this list of books. Combining documentary footage of the convention protests with a fictional film, Wexler enlivens and deepens Mailer’s account. He depicts the tumult of 1968 like perhaps no other text from that stormy year. As a bonus, Medium Cool echoes experiments happening in documentary at places like Kartemquin films, which would go on to produce the now-canonical Chicago films Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters.
9. Out in Chicago
The most recently published addition to this list is Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout. In it, Stewart-Winter troubles the dominant narrative of 20th-century gay rights activism in the United States, which typically treats New York and San Francisco as the two central cities, often to the exclusion of the Midwest. He fills this narrative with a cacophonous history of LGBTQ culture and activism in Chicago, where firings, shakedowns, police bribes, and bar raids were just as much a part of life throughout the city as anywhere else.
Effective action depended ultimately on collaborations between gay rights and black civil rights groups, and the pursuit of delicate coalitions. Queer Clout traces the fits and starts of these collaborations and coalitions. Post-Orlando, Stewart-Winter’s discussion of the importance of gay bars for LGBTQ individuals — historically and presently — seems especially valuable. Bars served ground zero for exploitation by law enforcement, but also as meeting places and (most of the time) safe havens.
Stewart-Winter cautions against readily equating the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement; the layering of race, sexual orientation, and gender identification necessitates a more complicated picture. And his affecting description of unequal access to healthcare among Chicagoans affected by AIDS creates a devastating picture of failed policies. In a city divided between a black south and white north, lack of access to educational resources, preventive care, and treatment becomes a reminder of how segregation produces injustice that communities and policymakers must continue to fight to address.
10. Humboldt Park
To understand gentrification in Chicago, head to the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where protests against rising rents, tax hikes, and teardowns took place recently on the 606. This park, built on a former rail line, echoes efforts in other cities to erase industrial infrastructure from urban landscapes. Having whetted the appetite of developers, The 606 has accelerated the pace at which Humboldt Park is becoming unaffordable for longtime residents.
Sandra Cisneros grew up in Humboldt Park. Her beloved The House on Mango Street takes place in a similar fictional neighborhood. Traditional readings peg the novella as the coming-of-age story of Esperanza, a daughter of Mexican immigrants. Cisneros experiments with form — the book is a series of short vignettes — to explore Esperanza’s struggles with sexuality, national identity, class, and the Spanish language. The poetic language of these depictions alone makes an argument for the work’s importance.
To read Mango Street alongside Chris Ware’s Building Stories widens the lens through which readers can examine the relationship between individual and community identity. Ware’s unnamed protagonist, who loses a leg in a childhood accident, lives in Humboldt Park. Her story unfolds across 14 pamphlets, broadsheets, books, and other objects. Like Cisneros, Ware’s formal cartwheels advance conversations about identity. As with Cisneros, the book’s themes center on self-description — again, a disjointed and chronologically jumbled task (there’s no “right” way to read the book). He’s also interested in the evolving neighborhood, as the heroine moves away and revisits the three-flat in which so much life happens.
11. Whose City?
What does Chicago look like today? Natalie Moore’s The South Side, published last year, combines history and memoir to describe neighborhoods in the city that are too often represented in national news media in one-dimensional stories of gun violence. Her book draws productively from her own biography of a childhood in middle-class and largely black Chatham, and feels less concerned with comprehensiveness than with augmenting and correcting the record. As the current South Side reporter for the local NPR affiliate, Moore brings a great deal of connections and numerous voices to this project.
By contrast, Larry Bennett’s The Third City offers a picture of contemporary Chicago that seems at times too rosy in its assessment of the younger Richard M. Daley’s infrastructure investments (the book was published before the first term of Mayor Rahm “One Percent” Emanuel). Visions of Chicago as a global city — one that attracts entrepreneurs to ride the next wave of innovators was for a time called “Silicon Prairie” — ring with the optimism of the 19th century. It presents a picture of Chicago that has become popular among elected officials looking to attract private money and foreign tourists. This vision of Chicago’s third incarnation (a vision of privatization premised on the notion that a city’s chief ambition should be to attract capital to its core) looks like a new version of Burnham’s century-old Plan. It has fans elsewhere.
How to square this vision with the neighborhoods that sustain Chicago, and other cities, remains an unanswered question.
12. There Are No Two Finer Words…
Among garrulous Chicagoans, most will grudgingly agree: we miss Hot Doug’s. Chicago treasure Doug Sohn’s sausage emporium was not only a celebration of encased meats, but equally a democratizing force on a desolate block on California Avenue in the Avondale neighborhood. One waited in line (often for more than an hour) whether one was Anthony Bourdain, Aziz Ansari, or even Doug’s dad. In Hot Doug’s, the coffee table book that cashed in on Doug’s decision to close the shop not long ago, local voices weigh in on The Line: when they waited, how long they waited for, who got engaged to whom while waiting, who had to rush to the hospital to deliver a baby, etc.
Doug reminded us all (always calling us “my friend”) that in Chicago, one waits in line like civilized people. The snow, cold, heat, wind, and rain be damned.
13. Coda: Next Steps
There’s so much more to read and through-lines to trace from Carl Sandburg to Gwendolyn Brooks to Aleksandar Hemon to Chance the Rapper. Those interested in extensive lists of Chicago novels should consult, all kidding aside, several best-of lists already out there. My favorite was published by the dearly departed local site Gapers Block, and it organizes novels by neighborhood. Chicago magazine published a fun list of new Chicago-centric reads for the summer. I’m excited to read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland. And Curbside Splendor Publishing (a local house) recently put out The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing, a history of one of the Northwest Side’s most-loved venues.
But now, it’s time to get to packing.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Let me ask you a question, my friends. When was the last time an American won the Nobel Prize? Do you know the answer? It was 1993, and it was an African-American woman! Nothing against African-American women, okay? African-American women, some of them, they’re gorgeous. Perfect 10s. But still, you gotta wonder: 23 years ago, and it was a black lady. Before that, you have to go back to 1976 – and it was a Jewish guy! Now, I love the Jewish people, and we all know the African Americans love me, but seriously, it tells you something when you have to go back to 1962 to find a real American Nobel Prize winner in Literature.
Our literature is slipping, folks. We’re losing our edge. It’s sad. It’s just so damn sad. You know why we’re slipping? Because our colleges are run by politically correct guilty white liberals who hate America. Oh my God, America’s college professors are so dumb. I could have been a professor, okay? Believe me, I’m a terrific teacher. People love it when I explain stuff to them. It’s a gift I have. But why would want to be a professor? Sure, I could sleep with some cute coeds. But think about it: Do you see many college professors married to supermodels? Do you see college professors with personal brands worth $5 billion. No, you don’t. And you know why? Because they’re so dumb.
You know how you can tell they’re dumb? From the books they teach. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The Interpreter of Maladies. The House on Mango Street. Anybody here read The House on Mango Street? I haven’t, either. I’m a businessman worth $10 billion. I don’t read books unless I wrote them, and even then I’m selective. But they’re teaching The House on Mango Street like crazy in English Departments across America – or at least they were in the 1990s, which just goes to show you how current my information is. The author of that book is Sandra Cisneros, who is, I believe, a Mexican. She was born in the United States, okay, but her parents are Mexican. So she’s Mexican. It doesn’t matter where you’re born, not if you’re black or brown. President Obama was born in Hawaii and his mother was a white woman, and yet the man’s Kenyan. It’s so obvious, if you think about it.
Anyway, there she is, this Sandra Cisneros, on college reading lists along with Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz and all these other foreigners, and THEY’RE TAKING JOBS FROM AMERICAN AUTHORS. Good, hard-working American authors like Jonathan Franzen and John Irving and Richard Ford. Time magazine, which is, to be honest with you, this close to losing its press credentials with me, but anyway, Time called Jonathan Franzen “The Great American Novelist.” “The Great American Novelist,” my friends, and he can’t get onto a university syllabus to save his life. He’s too “commercial,” they say. He doesn’t play nice with Oprah. And, oh yeah, they never say it because they’re too politically correct, but he’s too white. That’s the real problem with Jonathan Franzen. He’s too white, too male, and too straight. Sorry, Jonathan. Three strikes and you’re out.
We’re going to take back the Western canon, folks. We are going to build a big beautiful wall around books written by white people and we’re going to make the immigrants and the African-American writers pay for it. Foreign writers are eating our lunch right now. We used to dominate the world of letters. The Russians, the Chinese, even the French – they all read our books. We used to be feared and loved around the world. And now look at us. Look who’s winning Nobel prizes these days. Svetlana Alexievich? Patrick Modiano? Mo Yan? I mean, what the hell kind of name is Mo Yan? Is that a guy? A girl? Which bathroom does Mo Yan use in North Carolina? Hah! Ha! Ha! Ha! Damn, I’m funny. I’ve gotta tweet that. But this is serious stuff, folks. These foreign writers are winning the Nobel Prize year after year, and we’re letting it happen. They’re shlonging us and we’re so stupid and lazy and politically correct that we like getting shlonged!
Well, no more.
When I’m President, I’ll ban all books by immigrant writers until we can figure out what the hell is going on with the Western Canon. I’ll ban translations by foreign authors, too. We’ll ban so many books it’ll make your head spin, folks. We’ll empty out the university book stores! We’ll clear whole shelves from the library! We’ll fire all the politically correct professors who hate America! We’ll build piles of books as high as one of my big, beautiful, classy hotels, and we’ll burn them all to ashes!
And when we’re done, my fellow Americans, we will make the Western Canon great again.
(Hat tip to frequent Millions commenter Moe Murph, who supplied the headline for this piece.)