‘We are all a multiplicity’
American Writers Museum exhibit dives into modern immigrant, refugee experience in US
In “My America: Immigrant & Refugee Writers Today,” a multimedia exhibit that opened recently and runs through May 2021, contemporary writers from around the nation talk about the influence of immigrant and refugee writing on American culture.
The American Writers Museum’s rotating gallery space, while small, currently holds the works of 31 authors and 10 touch screens that take visitors through 4 1⁄2 hours of content about the refugee and immigrant experience in the United States — through their own words.
Writers were interviewed for almost an hour on camera about their writing processes and how their backgrounds influence their work. The result: Visitors can go to any one screen — designated by such themes as “othering,” “influences,” and “community” — and choose from any one of the more than 10 writers to listen to or read about the author’s perspective.
The stories are poignant, funny and real, contributing to an enriched literary landscape.
For example, Iranian American author Dina Nayeri shares her thoughts on duality: “We are all a multiplicity. We’re not just two of anything.” She goes on to share how in her writing she tries to translate her native language into
“So for example,” she said, “in Farsi, the actual phrase for I love you is I want to eat your liver (laughs).”
And when Akwaeke Emezi, a Nigerian American, talks about her journey as a writer, she refers to herself as living in “liminal spaces” — a transitional space that exists between what was and what’s next.
“I spent so long in that placeless space trying to figure out where I could fit that what eventually happened was that I let go of the idea of belonging anywhere at all,” she said. “It was immensely freeing to understand that … I have not known a life in which I have not been othered in some way across multiple axes.
“All my bios say that I’m based in liminal spaces. That is a space I am comfortable in.”
The featured writers — which range from artists in their early 20s to their late 60s — include Edwidge Danticat, poet Jenny Xie, Jose Olivarez, screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos Rojas, Ngozi Ukazu, and graphic artist and writer Jerome Walford. The process started a year-and-a-half ago, according to museum President Carey Cranston, and was guided in content and structure by the participating authors.
“Twelve interviews on each screen … there’s a huge amount of content,” he said. “The idea was there would be a lot of different voices, so people would be able to find themselves and hear different stories. One of the things about the exhibit is it’s very interactive …. We’re not telling their stories; they’re telling us.”
As one walks to the exhibit space through the museum, notable American writers who are immigrants or children of immigrants, are tagged with a “My America: Immigrant & Refugee Writers Today” sticker to show that nearly every writer is connected to a migration experience.
Visitors are encouraged to share their stories of migration on cards that look like luggage tags and leave them for other visitors to read.
“The stamps let them acknowledge what their family story is: Did they come for family? Opportunity? Refuge? Or by force (as slaves)? Or was there some other reason?” Carey said.
Vu Tran, University of Chicago director of undergraduate studies in creative writing who emigrated from Vietnam with his family at 5, and Juan Martinez, assistant professor of English at Northwestern University who came to America by way of Colombia at 16, are part of the exhibit.
“For me, I grew up reading a lot of American authors, a lot of science fiction,” Martinez said. “But it took me a long time to realize that there’s a wider diet of literature out there and that there were people who kind of shared the experience of not quite being from here while being from here.”
Vu, a friend of Martinez, said projects like “My America” help to expand readers’ “interests and who you engage with in an artistic culture.”
“This has been part of a slow process of expanding my reading — and reading not only my fellow Vietnamese American writers but as many writers of color as I can,” he said. “And teaching them too.
“Our students are not only interested in a wider range of writers and topics, but they insist on it. I felt more passive when I was young — I kind of just swallowed what my teachers were telling me about the cannon. And I really didn’t question it, but now my students are.
“They’re forcing not just my white colleagues but myself to ask the question: Who should I teach and how should I teach it?”
Vu, a Hyde Park resident and first-time author with his book “Dragonfish,” hopes people engage with the exhibit, no matter their background.
“I hope they see themselves in it … that there are versions of this experience in everyone’s life,” he said. “Just reach back into your own family history to find it or just reach for the time you went to college and felt like there was no one like you once you got there.
“Whether it’s as simple as moving to another city or growing up somewhere where you feel different from anybody else, it’s a very similar kind of experience. That experience, to me, seems to be a universal one. I think an exhibit like this can show that to a lot of people who would otherwise not think that way. That’s what I hope.”
Martinez, an Edgewater resident and author of “Best Worst American: Stories,” said he thinks it’s important that museum visitors see the ways in which writers wrestle with their experiences, the difficult task of writing and how they go about it.
“Maybe along the way, we can make it a little less mysterious,” Martinez said, “To let people know that ‘hey, you can do this.’ It just takes a lot of reading and writing.”
Vu said writing, for a lot of people, can be scary. He finds that a lot of his students are “implicitly asking me for permission to write.”
“I think it’s especially true when you’re an immigrant and your parents did all this stuff to survive and help you prosper,” Vu said. “Maybe an exhibit like this, a young, aspiring writer comes in and says, ‘Oh, this is my permission.’ It would be odd to have an American Writers Museum and not have an exhibit on immigrant/refugee writers. It’s so important to the whole notion of being an American.”
“My America: Immigrant & Refugee Writers Today,” runs through May 2021 at the American Writers Museum, 180 N. Michigan Ave. For details, visit americanwriters museum.org.
Vu Tran and Juan Martinez, participants in the “My America: Immigrant & Refugee Writers Today,” hope the American Writers Museum exhibit inspires a new generation.