‘We are all a mul­ti­plic­ity’

Amer­i­can Writ­ers Mu­seum ex­hibit dives into modern im­mi­grant, refugee ex­pe­ri­ence in US

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Dar­cel Rock­ett drock­[email protected]­bune.com

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

West­ern­ized terms.

“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.

BRIAN CASSELLA/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Vu Tran and Juan Martinez, par­tic­i­pants in the “My Amer­ica: Im­mi­grant & Refugee Writ­ers To­day,” hope the Amer­i­can Writ­ers Mu­seum ex­hibit in­spires a new gen­er­a­tion.

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