I spend a lot of my life throwing words at the wall—at voids, at syllabai, at hate or despair or loathing. Please understand, I want to say, but since I’m a librarian I don’t. I merely suggest. I’ve curated booklists about immigration and migration; I’ve written about borders crossing countries and people, about islands gobbled up by empire. I live with chronic illness, always worse in the summer; I don’t much know what else to do. In less than twenty-four hours the United States has seen two acts of white supremacist violence; we’ve already seen politicians rush to discuss “mental health,” which would tell us—if we hadn’t already known—that both shooters are white.
I’ve spent much of the day reading other people’s words: Eve Ewing‘s, the NAACP’s, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s, Charles M. Blow‘s, Ibram X. Kendi‘s, Mona Eltahawy‘s, LeVar Burton‘s, and Well-Read Black Girl‘s, and those of so many other great public intellectuals. I’ve thought about the kids I serve, and the city that formed me. As the news rolled in last night, I was reading Remy Kanazi’s Before the Next Bomb Drops, both for my students—they deserve a librarian who will educate herself about what their families live in Palestine—and as my day three of the Sealey Challenge, and each word was, I think, harder to read than the one before, because the next bomb—or the next bullet, anyway—was falling as I read. I don’t know what I’m doing, or how, or where to turn, and so, once again, I’ll throw words into the void, along with my own suggestions for books about where we are and how the hell we got here, and Ibram X. Kendi’s excellent list.
We have to do better: as a country, as a people. We have to stop using the past as a template, and recognize it for its horror, and work towards something better.
One hundred years ago today, a teenage boy out to cool off drifted over an invisible line in the water, just off a beach just north of the neighborhood where I grew up. Most of us can’t see lines in the water, unless it’s the line that marks the sandbank, or where the water gets deeper. Nothing else is visible. It wasn’t visible to Eugene Williams, either, and it shouldn’t have mattered. But he died because he drifted across that invisible (and unofficial) line, from the side of the water allowed to African Americans onto the side allotted to white people, and Chicago plunged into a hell of white supremacist violence: the race riots of 1919.
I knew next to nothing about the Red Summer of ’19 until I stumbled across it while researching something very different. (It worked its way into that particular piece, and has worked its way into many others, and, should they ever make it to publication, I will fight for it to stay, even if only as a mention of this ghost of Chicago history.) If I knew so little, when I grew up in a household where the ghosts of our past walked among us, then I guessed others—or at least, many of Chicago’s white residents—probably knew even less. And, whether we remember or not, whether we believe ourselves touched by its bloody hands or not, the race riots of 1919 reach out through the years, staining us, marking us and marking our city.
This year’s overall Coretta Scott King Award winner—and then Chicago sociologist and poet Eve Ewing’s new book of poetry—threw another reality into the mix: not only do few people know about the race riots of 1919, but there are only three books whose subject headings are “Chicago Race Riot, Chicago, Ill., 1919″—and of those three, only two focus entirely on that subject line. (The other one’s great too, and you should check it out.) The lack of written representation—or, at least, of monograph representation—seems more than an oversight, at least to me. After all, if we can pretend it never happened, we can push it away into the midden heap of history, never facing the ways it marked—and continues to mark—all of us here.
1919 was an ugly year. (2019 shares that with it, to be sure.) It was a year in which then-President Woodrow Wilson overturned Japan’s suggested anti-discrimination clause in the League of Nation’s charter.1 It was the year of the Red Summer, of race riots across the country. Chicago’s African American community was stuffed to overflowing into what was then known as the Black Belt, neighborhoods around the one where I grew up. It was a year of labor unrest—all years are years of labor unrest, unfortunately: management loves to put its foot on labor’s back—and a time of fear, one war ended, the flu of 1918 still lurking just over there. (It was also the year the 19th Amendment passed, though full ratification wouldn’t come until August 18, 1920.) We don’t talk, a hell of a lot, about 1919. The war was over, the flu pandemic was (mostly) over; the twenties weren’t yet here. It’s a forgotten year.
I’d guess it’s an intentional, structural forgetting. I’d argue that it is flagrantly unethical, not to know: that the past is ever here, and not going anywhere, and if we are to keep from repeating its mistakes, we must own up to it, and acknowledge it, and understand it. We should remember—and, frankly, honor—the young World War I veterans who served their country, asked for something better, and defended their homes and their families during the Race Riots.2 We should remember that kid who was trying to cool off in Lake Michigan—and remember him not just as the catalyst of a Race Riot, but as a young man with hopes and dreams and friends.
Turning away from the past—pretending it isn’t there, denying that it lives in the present, insisting that we are not, indeed, borne backwards—has never stopped it from leeching into the present. I was eight years old during the murderous heat wave of 1995: I remember the deaths, and I remember who died. Is that not, in its way, a hearkening back to the horrors of 1919? Is that not another thing with which we must reckon? And the reckoning, as these summers grow hotter, must come now. Hot summer days bring nothing good, in my city, from the 1919 Race Riots to the deaths of ’95 and the gun violence3 that comes with the heat. That legacy—horror tied to heat tied to Chicago—is one we all must confront.
I’d like to believe we’re headed somewhere better: we have a mayor who’s shaping up (I hope, at least!) to be incredible, and we’re definitely Somebody’s least favorite city, which is always a good place to be. (The more that one hates us, the more we must be doing something right.) But we’ve got to look our bleak past straight in the face, or we’ll never be able to overcome it. We’ve got to fight for equity, for public schools in non-white neighborhoods—because, golly, did the last mayor ever close a lot of them. We need a Chicago with equity and access and decency for all, and I really don’t think we can achieve that without looking our past full in the eye.
“‘Beware the Yellow Peril and Behold the Black Plague’: The Internalization of White Supremacy and Its Critiques, Chicago 1919” by Nicholas Wisseman, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 2010. JSTOR
Selected subject terms (so you, too, can search your catalog)
“Chicago Race Riot, Chicago, Ill., 1919”
1 Wisseman, Nicholas. “‘Beware the Yellow Peril and Behold the Black Plague’: The Internalization of White Supremacy and Its Critiques, Chicago 1919.” 43.
2 See “‘Our Changed Attitude’: Armed Defense and the New Negro in the 1919 Chicago Race Riot” by Jonathan Coit and “From News to History: Robert Abbott and Carl Sandburg Read the 1919 Chicago Riot” by C.K. Doreski, among others
The Americans with Disabilities Act is twenty-nine years old today, just a couple years younger than me. (Okay, more like three and a half years younger, but whatever.) It’s a strange and bittersweet birthday: I’m eternally grateful for the ADA, and for what it (in theory) affords me, and others like me…and I’m terrified that its protections, like protections for people ranging from U.S. citizens to the environment, will soon speed away as we careen into the past, our country a car racing a thousand miles an hour into the hellscapes of yesteryear.
In a normal year—a year without kids in cages on U.S. soil or American citizens detained by ICE without due process or constant attacks on women or take your pick of others—I’d have set out extensive research for you, here: learn more about what it means to be disabled, I’d say; explore the ways in which we are, and learn why the ADA is so all-fire important. But I’ll be honest: I’m tired, this year, and I don’t really have the energy—especially as I work on something to mark the 1919 Race Riots here in Chicago, far too hidden for far too long—to set aside the kind of work I should. Maybe that will come next year; maybe it will be a few years hence. I don’t know.
I am often deeply ashamed, looking at spaces I inhabit with some modicum of ease, that we design little or nothing for those among us in wheelchairs. It’s an absurd thing to overlook: from wheelchairs to walkers, from strollers to canes, not everyone gets around with their own two feet and nothing else. (When my knees are at their worst, I make it by clinging to the wall—and I should probably carry a cane.) Our aisles should be wider, our spaces designed for more than just the tallest and the most able. I struggle to read small fonts, an issue which goes far beyond my glasses (and yes, they are the right prescription, thank you kindly): it’s another element of my misfiring brain.
A larger font—not even that much larger—makes my world infinitely easier, and means that I actually understand what I see on the first try, rather than reading a sentence over and over until I finally figure out what those combinations of words actually mean. One would think a larger font would be easy—and yet, from my institutional websites to far too many of the scholarly texts I read, fonts seem to be small, smaller, and smallest, a litany that, on a good day, reduces my reading comprehension and gives me headaches. (On a really bad day, I’ll have to set it aside altogether.)
But we’re not in an era in which accommodations are met with delight. As someone with an invisible disability (or more than one, if one counts knees-wrists-heart-painpainpain), I slide just off the radar, avoiding some of the worst of the slingshots—except not really. I’ve been the inspirational disabled person (it’s offensive, don’t ever do it). I’ve been the Not Really Disabled Person: that’s offensive, too, and also hurtful: my perfect grades, my academic excellence, my work now, none of it means that my mind doesn’t misfire, that I don’t walk away from a day at work so drained that all I can do is curl up at home, often too tired to process speech in a crowd at all. And, even though I have no paperwork, it being too dear for my family back in the day and likely too dear for me now, I am still luckier than most: my race, my ability to slide along unseen, pave over the world for me.
It’s hard to know quite how to celebrate a milestone like the ADA. It’s an incredible piece of legislation, and I am afraid, every day, that soon it will disappear, too. I’ve even wondered if perhaps it’s better not to have paperwork, since I will (one assumes) be harder to track down. So I guess I’ll end it this way: please, celebrate the ADA! Celebrate that people with disabilities are actually able to live—and please, fight for it! Fight not just for the Americans with Disabilities Act, and all the myriad things it entails, but for something better. Fight for a world in which having wheelchair ramps and functional elevators feels like a total duh obvs moment. Fight for a world where universal design is accepted, and people like me aren’t told that using a larger font shows that we’re childish and unintelligent. Fight for a world where our assistive technologies are understood and accepted.
Fight for a world that includes all of us. We’ve always been here, those of us with invisible disabilities and those with visible. We are not new; we are not a recent addition to the world’s population. We have always been here, and we deserve a world that sees us as human, and allows us the same rights to participate as anyone else.
very selected things other people have written about disability (that I found through collection development)
very selected things other folks have written about dyslexia
Chandrasaekaran, B., Hornickel, J., Skoe, E., Nicol, T., & Kraus, N. (2009). Content-dependent encoding in the human auditory brainstem relates to hearing speech in noise: Implications for developmental dyslexia. Neuron, 64(3), 311-319. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2009.10.006
Olofsson, A., Ahl, A., & Taube, K. (2012). Learning and study strategies in university students with dyslexia: Implications for teaching. Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 47, 1184-1193. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.06.798
Rello, L., & Baeza-Yates, R. (2013). Good fonts for dyslexics. ASSETS ’13: Proceedings of the 15thInternational ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Access ability, article 14. DOI 10.1145/2513383.2513447
Rello, L., Pielot, M., Marcos, M.C., & Carlini, R. (2013). Size matters (spacing not): 18 points for a dyslexic-friendly Wikipedia. WPA ’13: Proceedings of the 10thAnnual Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility, article 17. DOI 10.1145/2461121.2461125
Richlan, F., Kronbichler, M., & Wimmer, H. (2013). Structural abnormalities in the dyslexic brain: A meta-analysis of voxel-based morphometrystudies. Human Brain Mapping, 34, 3055-3065. DOI: 10.1002/hbm.22127
In this season of disasters, I’ve noticed something interesting: my review of/rant about the 2013 Venezuelan-Spanish film Libertador, about Simón Bolívar and his liberation of South America, is getting traction. Like, a LOT of traction. (To be fair, it always gets a goodly amount, but this is WAY MORE.)
I think this may have something to do with the new TV series on Netflix, Bolívar. And here’s the thing—I am so stoked to watch Bolívar! I really am! I think it’ll hit all my buttons, with swords and action and history and stuff. I love that sort of thing. But I haven’t watched it yet! So this is still a review of the 2013 Venezuelan-Spanish production of Libertador, starring Édgar Ramírez’s stirring speeches and a bunch of other folks too. When I finally watch Bolívar, you can bet I’ll be chronicling each and every episode, right here. 🙂
I am (usually) a literary and historical purist with a masochistic yen for watching adaptions. So, when the 2013 Venezuelan-Spanish film Libertador came out (translated into English as Liberator, though even Wikipedia has an English-language article called “Libertadores” about these guys), I knew I had to see it. I mean, it’s about Simón Bolívar, and even though he and his pals mark the end of the colonial (outside Puerto Rico and a few other places), they are also a sort of liminal space between republics and colonies–and, of course, I’ve read Bolívar’s letters. A lot. I think I even had Carta de Jamaica (Letter from Jamaica, available online in Spanish and English translation) memorized for a while.
So Pride is almost done, which means it’s time for me to finally get out the booklist I’ve been working on, now and again, for months! (It’s sort of embarrassing how long I’ve been half-working on this, but oh well: summer is not my season.) Nearly every book included here is an #ownvoices narrative; there are a few exceptions, including Becky Albertalli’s works—and I have them here because of the folks who’ve suggested them to me. Not every book is happy: some are downright sad, or frightening, or depressing, but I’ve tried to go with ones that showcase hope all the same. I’m also aiming, here, for a sampling of the vast diversity of the LGBTQIA experience. These are, of course, just a very few of the amazing works out there—get started here, as it were, and work your way outward and onward, into the amazing arrays of literature out there waiting to be read.
Julián doesn’t know what Abuela will think when she sees him dressing up like the beautiful mermaids on the bus in Jessica Love’s beautiful, Stonewall Award-winning Julián is a Mermaid—but it turns out they have a trip to the parade in their future! (In addition to being an incredibly charming celebration of family, identity, and love, in my seven-word Goodreads review, it’s a celebration of the beauty of every body. Which is a big deal.) A bunny finds friendship and love—despite the disapproving Stink Bug—in A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. (This genuinely is a kid’s book, by the way: it is sweet, tender, and a gentle homage to love and friendship in all varieties.) When a prince and a knight work together to defeat an evil dragon, friendship becomes love in Prince & Knight, while a maiden and a princess meet at a ball in Maiden & Princess. A girl and her two daddys learn words in the board book Baby’s First Words, then follow a librarian through his day in Tinyville Town: I’m a Librarian.
Considered unlucky because she was born during a hurricane, Caroline’s luck begins to change when a new girl comes to town, and together, they search for Caroline’s missing mother, discovering their own powers as they go inKacen Callender’s Hurricane Child. When the tornado that destroys her house blows her notebook filled with drawings of girls holding hands out into the world, Ivy starts getting pages of it in her locker…and Ivy hopes that the new girl was the one who found it in Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World. George and her best friend Kelly come up with a plan to save the day (and let George be who she is) when George’s teacher says she can’t play Charlotte in the school play because she’s a boy in Alex Gino’s George. As his brother blackmails him, threatening to out him to his entire school, Alan has to prove to his brother, his father, and himself that he’s got what it takes to fly in Alan Cole is Not a Coward. The two dads, four adopted brothers, and assorted animal friends of the Fletcher family take on the world in The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher and The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island.
In Brandy Colbert’s Little & Lion, a bisexual teen—Little—must confront her own mistakes as her brother Lion’s bipolar disorder spirals out of control. Alice has to save the world—and her mentor—in A Blade So Black, while loner Ari’s life begins to change when he meets dreamer Dante in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Hard-edged Ronan, who pulls worlds out of dreams (sometimes more than he can control), contends with the love he has yet to speak in The Dream Thieves, a saga that continues throughout the four books of The Raven Boys cycle. (There’s more Ronan coming, too.) Marin must confront old grief and loneliness when her friend Mabel comes to visit in We Are Okay, while Moss, balancing old anger and grief (his father was murdered years ago by a cop, and he’s being treated like a criminal in his own town), must decide whether to give in to fear and hate—or to realize that Anger is a Gift. A trip to visit his mother’s family in Iran—and the boy next door—start changing the world for clinically depressed Star Trek aficionado Darius in Darius the Great Is Not Okay, while Simon, out to his family but not yet to his school, copes with blackmail and and unknown, letter-writing crush in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. (You can also watch the rom-com version, if you’re in the mood for it.)
His grand tour’s supposed to be his final hurrah, but Monty’s nursing secrets—including a crush on his best friend, Percy—and that world tour turns different in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice & Virtue. Alice, mourning the end of her relationship with her girlfriend (she dumped her when she found out that Alice is asexual), doesn’t except to fall for Takumi, her knight in shining library badge, in Let’s Talk About Love. The Sawkill Girls cope with a monstrous secret and their own loves and friendships. (This one is dark fantasy/horror; it’s also an incredibly moving portrait of loving female friendships.) Amanda’s got a secret she’s desperate to keep, but as she starts to fall for Grant, she worries that her secret—that she used to be Andrew, at her old school—will destroy her chances of happiness in If I Was Your Girl. When Will Grayson and Will Grayson collide while waiting for a train, their lives change in Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Reeling from his baby sister’s suicide, Shane draws strength from his best friend, David—but as tragedies mount, he must make difficult decisions about his future in Fire Song. Miel, born of a water tower, and Sam, who hangs moons, confront danger, secrets, and the past while they fight for a future in When the Moon Was Ours.
It’s worth noting that it has been fifty years since the Stonewall Uprisings, which were led by two trans women of color: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson (they’re now getting a statue). Fifty years is not, when it comes down to the wire, very long at all. It’s been even less since DOMA fell, and my uncles, along with many others, were legally able to be married. But when I say it hasn’t been all that long since Stonewall, and what came before it: well, it really hasn’t. The Lavender Scare, another life-ruining facet of McCarthyism, was in the ’50s, and is discussed here by The Nib. People have lived their truths for far longer, as evidenced by the story of pioneering surgeon Dr. Barry.
Casimir Pulaski, Revolutionary War hero (and big-time hero here in Chicago, which didn’t exist when he was plying his trade), waslikelyintersex. (He lived his truth, and his life, as a man.) There were drag balls during the Civil War; there was a gay resistance during the Holocaust, including Gad Beck. Oh, and another of the men who helped us win our independence—Baron von Steuben, who whipped our troops (probably including my forebears) into shape—was an openly gay man—or, at any rate, pretty open for the era. There’s nothing new under the sun, which I thought was from Moonstruck but appears to be from Ecclesiastes 1:9 instead, and people have been living themselves and their truths in whatever way they could for a long, long time. Much as my country has never been a white one, nor has it been a straight one, something driven home by men like Pulaski and von Steuben.
In August—early August, I think, unless it’s early-mid—I will have been a full-time academic librarian for a full year. In early May, however, I completed my first full academic year as a full-time academic librarian (and liaison to like half the school), and, as anyone in academe knows, the academic year is really the way we measure the world. So here I am, an all-new (sort of) orchid purple stripe in my hair, measuring out my year and my years to come, now that I’ve finally achieved that coveted full-time job.
I guess it’s been both better and worse than I anticipated. (I’m not an optimist, after all.) I love the work I do—I believe that equitable access to (good) information is a human right, and it’s one of the reasons I went to library school in the first place. I mean, it’s a boots on the ground style field, one where—despite the strictures of white supremacy which underpin so much of the field—I can work directly with communities and individuals to claim data and information as their own. That’s a really, really big deal, to me as a person, and, I believe, to us as a nation. I’m also pretty sure it’s why people want to shut public libraries so badly: because God forbid that the hoi polloi should have access to information, amirite? (Or, for that matter, to entertainment: I’ve gotten the impression that we the low income are supposed to suffer, because that’s how we know we’re bad for not being rich.) Best of all (kind of) is that fact that I’m no longer so afraid of instruction sessions that I have panic attacks before I give them. Panic sucks. It is nice not to have quite so much of it relating to my job.
The worst is a bit more multifaceted. There are parts I won’t discuss—they aren’t anyone’s business but my own—but parts I absolutely will. One facet is simple: librarianship is half job, half calling—and that latter part can make it rife for underpaid, misunderstood, undervalued labor. The Man is more likely to exploit those who love their jobs than those who don’t, apparently, and as someone who always assumes the worst is coming and who is by nature fairly cold and fairly calculating, it’s something I think about a lot—usually right after I say I love what I do! And then I think oh God I shouldn’t give The Man any ideas, should I? But here we are, in our world rife with exploitation of labor, particularly that of women and of men of color. I love my job and my profession’s half calling, so I must bear it always in mind.
I’ve never liked the sun—it’s too bright, I’m light sensitive, I’m pretty sure my DNA remembers the North and, like, I can’t do bright light—but I’ve found out, after spending eight hours a day chilling with a computer (under lights!), and then working on my own projects at home, that computers are killers for me. This year, for the first time, I spent like a bazillion extra dollars on blue light filters for my glasses. They’re a long shot from perfect, but they help a lot. (It also bugs me that they’re out of reach expensive for most people, even though, like, everyone has to work with screens.) So, in the part of me that my brothers call Emma Goldman (not a compliment, but I pretend it is), I’m plotting a long-haul fight: for better blue-light protection for lower-income workers, whose eyes are just as destroyed as mine when they’re stuck in front of screens all the damn time, and who can’t afford protection.
I’m not entirely sure why I thought this would happen, but I was pretty convinced that getting settled into my work as a full-time academic librarian would mean my brain would also settle down, a little, and I wouldn’t be dealing with quite so many misfires. Maybe it was a moment of blatant and unfamiliar optimism? But whatever it was, I was wrong. I wrote about it back in February, and hoped it would get better. It hasn’t. At this point, I wonder if it’s just the way life is going to be for me, from here on. It probably isn’t the worst thing in the world—I’m a librarian, for God’s sake, I don’t even deal with database renewals (we have a wonderful person who does that and whose brain is not one giant misfire), and twisting up a search string is hardly on a par with, say, screwing up the nuclear launch codes. It isn’t that big a deal, in the scheme of things.
But for me—small, petty, terrible—it’s a really big deal. I can’t understand why something I thought I had more or less under control is spinning out and taking over my world, one twisted letter and misplaced word and incomprehensible party at a time. I thought, well, hell, I’ll get through finals—which are stressful even if you’re not taking them or even grading them, they give off an aura of horror hard to fathom if you’re not there—and it’ll get better for the summer. I was wrong there, too. In fact, I was so wrong that, as I’ve discovered, taking time off, wallowing in books, doing nothing, running around Chicago—none of it makes it better. It’s just here.
I don’t think it’s going to get better. I don’t know quite how I feel about that, beyond a little scared and a little confused. I thought I had this under control, I thought I could deal with living with no accommodations; I thought I knew what I was doing. But I don’t, and I’m not sure I can, and I don’t think I ever will. Dyslexia’s an essential part of my identity, but my workplace doesn’t officially know I’m dyslexic—never mind that I’ve presented on it a couple of times—and I’ve tried really hard to keep it that way, although I’ve told some people and I’m pretty sure some of my students have figured it out for themselves. It’s weird and scary, not having the right to accommodations for this thing that makes my brain misfire so often. As long as I can hide, it’s usually easier just to pretend I can’t spell.
When I daydream about publishing something Popular and, somehow, making a living off words, I think about making one character or more learning disabled, in every single piece I write—but that’s also a strange and depressing requirement, not least because it’s frustrating and scary to live with, even if you mostly live with it pretty well. I’m also incredibly aware how fortunate I am, even as my synapses do whatever the hell they’re doing: I’m a white woman; I grew up middle class (until my father lost his job); my family was Good Family, on both sides, and I can—and do—perform that identity, even though I didn’t make it back into the middle class until I started my job last August.
Similarly, I live now. The now isn’t very good—and it’s actually started backsliding, from what I have noticed, and from discussions I’ve had with other folks with both visible and invisible disabilities—but it’s a hell of a lot better than the back then, or the good old days, which were never very good for most of the population. There are even, occasionally, people whose minds are similar to mine in the books I pick up. There still aren’t many, and they still mostly live in genre fiction, and people still get mad and say that including people who aren’t Average White Folks is an act of political violence committed against readers, or something. But it’s still so much better than the Good Old Days.
So I’ve come through a year. I no longer have panic attacks before an instruction session. (I can also walk into work without panicking, but that’s another story for another day.) I’m calmer (which is saying something; I’m not a calm person, so my calmer isn’t great, but it’s something); my blood pressure is lower. Toxic workplaces can take a hell of a toll. I have a chance to work with students striving for something better, and help them learn to locate and work with data and information—and how to assess their sources and read responsibly, which will never be a fait accompli but rather a work in progress. I’ve even started, painfully slowly, to query for Lengthy Manuscript 1. Dyslexia, that part of my identity which misfires and twists words and makes it hard for me to understand what’s being said in a crowd, is here and going to be here, no matter what I do or where I go. It’s the fullness of my identity, the who and the how of me; it’s the words I have to re-type fifteen times before I can get letters and words in their proper places. And I guess I wish I didn’t have to hide, even as I know I almost certainly always will.
Young People’s Literature (which anyone can read!)
Did you know that there are Jewish communities in Latin America? (I’ve found that a lot of folks don’t think about the fact that European immigrants get around, or, for that matter, that the Sephardi were Iberian, too.) Ruthie Mizrahi, the semi-autobiographical heroine of Ruth Behar’s Pura Belpré award-winning novel Lucky Broken Girl, is already coping with a lot—she’s a Jewish Cuban immigrant in New York City, and, poor thing, she’s a tween—when she’s badly injured in a car accident, discovering how friends, neighbors, and art can help survival—even when one’s stuck in a full body cast.
David Da-Wei Horowitz, meanwhile, is trying to survive possible nuclear war and make it through his bar mitzvah and make both his Jewish and Chinese grandparents happy in Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan Long Shang’s This Is Just A Test. In Laura Amy Schlitz’s multiple award winningThe Hired Girl, Joan Skraggs learns about herself, the world, and all the things she can do in it as she works as a maid for a Jewish family in Baltimore. Katherine Weinstein, searching for courage and acceptance and dreaming of romance and adventure, watches as her school integrates and the world changes around her in Carol Solomon’s 1960s-set Imagining Katherine. A chance encounter on a stranded elevator during a Brooklyn blackout, meanwhile, leads to forbidden love as Devorah and Jax carve out secret meetings, risking everything to be together in Like No Other by Una LaMarche.
Follow author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Amy June Bates into the world of composer Moshe Cotel, who loves the sounds of his busy urban neighborhood—and the little cat, Ketzel, he finds and brings home, where together they compose music in Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed. Follow Gittel, who has to go on alone when her mother’s held back by the health inspector, as she tries to find her family in New York City in Newman and Bates’ 2019 picture book based on Newman’s grandmother’s life, Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story. Step into the life of a young immigrant who’d become an American musical treasure with Leslie Kimmelman and David Gardner’s picture book biography Write On, Irving Berlin!
As Oskar, fleeing Kristallnacht for safety with an aunt he doesn’t know, navigates New York City, New Yorkers offer him kindnesses, welcoming him to his new world in Oskar and the Eight Blessings by writers Richard and Tanya Simon and illustrator Mark Siegel. Looking for a gentle introduction to Hanukkah? Check out All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Paul Zelinsky. (It was the 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award winner for younger readers, too.) Want to introduce the High Holy Days (and also interfaith interactions)? Read Jane Breskin Zalben and Mehrdokht Amini’s lovely A Moon for Moe and Mo, following two boys from Flatbush in New York City as they meet and become friends during Moe’s Rosh Hashanah and Mo’s Ramadan.
Little league shortstop Jacob must decide whether or not to play on Yom Kippur in Yom Kippur Shortstop, written by David Adler, illustrated by André Ceolin, and inspired by Sandy Kofax. In the mood for a tall tale? Follow Big Sam as he digs out the Grand Canyon to make his Rosh Hashanah challah, then cleans up his mess, in Big Sam: A Rosh Hashanah Tall Tale, written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Jim Starr. Mrs. Goldman always knits hats for everyone, from the neighbors to her little dog, but no one’s knit a hat for her—so Sophia knits one for her, even though knitting’s ever so hard, in Michelle Edwards and G. Brian Karas’ A Hat for Mrs. Goldman.
novels for big people
The Holocaust looms large over Jewish literary output, and, though it takes place only partially in the U.S., as Art Spielgelman contends with life as the child of survivors, I will include Maus here—for, in 2019, as there are once again chants of blood and soil, remembering the horrors of the past is essential. This, in turn, leads to another work: a Jewish American kid from Newark witnesses the descent of America into fascism after Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency in Philip Roth’s horrifying alternative history The Plot Against America. Travel to another impossible (but probably all too possible) America as 75-year-old Sarah Steinway, survivor of a catastrophic flood, waits out the waters in her San Francisco Bay treehouse in Mary E. Carter’s award-winningI, Sarah Steinway.
Twentysomething black Orthodox rabbi Ariel Samson, contending with a dying congregation, a quest for love, structural racism (and antisemitism), and accidental viral internet fame, must find out whether he’s strong enough to re-evaluate everything in MaNishtana’s semi-autobiographical, award-winning novel Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi. (You may also enjoy MaNishtana’s memoir, or “not-autobiography,” Thoughts from a Unicorn.) When Maud takes in her mother Bea, Bea’s replica of the Bayeux Tapestry leads Maud—and her pregnant daughter Rosie—into histories they never knew, in search of Maud’s unknown father and Bea’s past, in Deborah Gaal’s The Dream Stitcher.
Explore life in New York City through an old Yiddish advice column in Liana Finck’s graphic novel A Bintel Brief, while in Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, 1960s Chicago tween Karen Reyes tries to solve the murder of her neighbor, a Holocaust survivor, discovering how the past, the present, and the political all converge. Jacob Rappaport balances faith, family, and loyalty as he is sent first to assassinate his own uncle, a Confederate, and then to woo a Jewish Confederate spy in Dara Horn’s All Other Nights. Two sisters, fighting sexism and antisemitism in New York City’s Lower East Side, fight for their own American Dreams in Leela Corman’s graphic novel Unterzakhn.
Determined to fight for cause and country, Rachel designed herself as a man and joined Washington’s army—but the past catches up to her when she arrests her husband (who thought she was dead) as a probably Loyalist spy in Rose Lerner’s novella Promised Land. (It’s available as a free-standing book; you can also find it as part of the collection Hamilton’s Battalion: A Trio of Romances, featuring for-real-really-good novellas by Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Tessa Dare.) Two mythical creatures in turn-of-the-last-century New York City—a golem and a jinni—meet and fall in love in Helene Wecker’s luminous The Golem and the Jinni, exploring culture, faith, and place along the way.
I have, once again, left out an awful lot of authors. I’ve tried (not always successfully) to avoid capital-l Literary Fiction (I mean, Roth is here, but only once, and only for a dystopia), and to provide works that might actually be fun to read. (Not that Maus is fun, exactly, but it is a graphic novel.) There is so much more out there than what I’ve put here, and I am by no means an expert (on anything, really: I just know how to find information, because I have a degree in it, by God): seek out more, because it’s there, and it’s marvelous.
I’ll loop back to Mrs. Maisel to close this off: just read, please!
Back when Renée Rosen’s What the Lady Wants first came out, I dutifully tried to read it. I enjoy Rosen’s work (usually); I’m a huge fan of historical Chicago; I try to support local Chicago area creators. (Helloooooo Sonali Dev, Samira Ahmed, Celia Pérez, Erika Sánchez, et al.) I didn’t make it through. I can’t remember exactly why I stopped, just that everyone annoyed me and I was done. I’ve given it another shot, of late—like, I actually managed to read that sucker—and I am now full sure of two things: I can’t stand it, and every character in it, from our heroine, Dell, to our pseudo-hero, Marsh (aka Marshall Field), is garbage. Want to see the historical one percent, folks? Here they are, as unappealing as one might imagine!
I’m a union girl. I’ve joked, in the past, that Carl the Commie had ten kids (or seven, I’d have to go count) in order to create more foot soldiers for the war on capitalism, and, while it skipped a generation or two, I’ve certainly done my part. My mother’s been a union member for going on sixty years; I’ve been an officer in two different unions, including a relatively radical teachers’ union (of which I’m very proud) and a more moderate municipal one. My brother E is a staunch member of his teachers’ union; my father led an ultimately failed unionizing drive at the hospital where he worked. (He’d have been unbelievably better off if it had been successful.) We are, not to put too fine a point on it, precisely the sort of people dear old Marsh would have liked to see dead. And, because we bring our many and varied identities to everything we read and everything we do, I can’t set aside my existence as a Millennial, or my life as a union member and organizer, when I read about Marshall Field and his mistress, Delia Caton Field, née Spencer.
So, obviously, I bring my experiences and my belief system to “Marsh” plotting the slaughter of innocent men after the Haymarket—because God forbid that progressives, or Germans, have any shot at justice in America. (It should be noted, of course, that blood is thicker than water and family is all and, yeah, those German labor activists? Way closer to home than you might think.) The novel itself is at times clunky and awkward, a homage to people too awful to be celebrated, no matter what glories they may have achieved. I often struggle to understand what the hell Rosen’s heroines see in their love interests—I think this was worst, for me, in White Collar Girl, where I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Jordan was into Fiancé or love interest—and I guess I did not have that issue, so much, with Dell and “Marsh”: they were both dreadful, so I guess I filed it away as They Deserve Each Other (Ugh). I had more trouble filing aside what I know—and think—of the people who meandered through.
Way back when, in undergrad, I was a double major: art history (emphasis architecture) and Spanish. In part because of my professor, in part because of my own interests, I leaned towards civic and commercial architecture. (I quite literally had a class with this title, but I was going in that direction anyway.) I know about Potter Palmer, and George Pullman; I know Gustavus Swift, and Philip Armour; I know Field and the Glessners. And, as a result, I know that they were, almost to a man, despicable. Pullman was buried in concrete and under railroad ties, so we labor activists couldn’t dig him up—but, as my professor always pointed out, really we were the winners: there’s no way the old bastard will rise again, not from under all that iron. (As far as revolting rich people go, Potter Palmer was probably one of the less abhorrent.) Our conservative local rag, The Chicago Tribune, plays its own occasionally starring role: it is (and has always been) management’s paper, and it is no different here. Are you a moderately violent, unrepentant asshole of a manager? Wanted to find yourself excused and even celebrated? Head on over to the Trib! You’ll be good to go.
It’s a bit awkward, as a Chicago and labor history buff and a labor activist, to celebrate the Fields of the world. They did, to be sure, do their part, but at the end of the day they’d be nothing at all without the workers they so abused. (Abuse of workers is a running theme in the book: Marsh is a stringent perfectionist; Marsh demands the best; Marsh fires anyone who wants a raise. It could have been explored a bit more, I think, because clearly Marsh was an abusive, classist asshole—and, I guess, so was dear Aunt Dell.) I find it a lot easier to sympathize with the working women of Sin in the Second City than I do with the poor little rich women of What the Lady Wants, who somehow have to cough up the money for trips to Paris to buy dozens of clothes because God forbid they be seen in anything less.
In a way, What the Lady Wants is a great reminder to me, to problematize, and to explore what a given character can’t see. It is also, and most simply, a reminder that I can’t set aside my lived experiences when I pick up a book. If it’s about Chicago’s one percent, even the historical one percenters, the chances are pretty good that I’ll hate their goddamn guts. I’ve long been fond of complicated characters, (fictional) people with all the flaws and follies and heroics of nonfictional humans—for we are such petty creatures, really, and when we can achieve glory, our smallness makes it the greater. (I’ve talked about this in relation to Notre Dame de Paris—and I’ve been told that my bleak worldview is a Catholic trait.) When I write my complicated characters, I need to remember to give them redeeming traits—and, when I make them fundamentally decent, I need to remember their flaws. (Perfection is obnoxious, and also fundamentally unreal: humans are never perfect.)
Renée Rosen is, most of the time, a lot of fun to read: I started with Dollface back in 2013 or 2014, which I enjoyed, and have solidly read through her oeuvre. But What the Lady Wants is inherently frustrating, at least when one is a labor activist from a line of people active in organized labor. (I can picture her “Marsh” personally throttling my forebear, Carl Helke, who had to come across the pond because von Bismarck wasn’t a big fan of communist labor agitators, either.) I prefer novels that dig intensely into characters, sometimes even over the span of a few days: a multiple-year-spread is frustrating at best, because of my personality. (Although I have read some that were quite well done, so this isn’t exactly a Caitlin Truth Universally Acknowledged or anything like that.) I’m a millennial; I have two Master’s degrees, and, though I’m fortunate enough to work a full-time job (with benefits! it’s a unicorn!) that I love, I’m still in the same financial rut as most of my peers. Reading about the careless wealth and the abject vileness of Chicago’s long-dead ruling class is hardly comforting, in times like these. Instead, as I slog through their superiority and their cluelessness, I am reminded of that saying that maybe came from Rousseau and maybe not: the poor have to eat something.
Today in Caitlin Continues to Avoid Juana Inés, I watched Netflix’s adaption of Jenny Han‘s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before—and, to my surprise, I love it so much. It’s the best thing ever! Or at least the best teenage rom-com ever. (And now I can say I’ve finally watched it, since I neither read it nor watched it before this booklist!)
I empathize more than I’d thought I would with awkward teenage Lara Jean. Like, I had a lot more in common with her (ahem awkward love letters, thank God most of mine never got anywhere) than I might wish to admit—though she is, unquestionably, way more popular than I ever was. (I’m far more popular and on fleek now as a 32-year-old librarian than I ever was as a teenager. I am still neither particularly cool nor particularly on fleek; I just don’t really give a damn anymore.) And, as someone who once spoke baby Korean—because all my friends did—it was particularly affecting to see an interracial family presented as normal. (Right down to Kitty whining about their dad’s attempts at Korean food.)
And what a normal family it is, too (despite the mansion). The family dynamic in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is incredible. The family relationships are real, and believable (points for the attempted sibling murders there, very relatable—I especially loved Margot demanding the unicorn). The father-daughter(s) dynamic is also probably the healthiest one I’ve seen on screen in ages. The sex talk is terrific (best part: the giant megapack of condoms). Chris’s lecture about male gynecologists is pretty rad, and also something I’m pretty sure I did. (I got nastier and sneakier about it as I got older, but I didn’t stop.)
I don’t often get to see family relationships portrayed in any kind of healthful light on screen—I mean, think Juana Inés for an example there, ranging from Leonor Carreto to Juana Inés’s futzed-up family life, or think Marvel’s The Runaways, where the nicest parents are actually just as whacked out as all the rest of the cult—and it’s really exciting to see a family portrayed, at least for the length of time of the film, as a functioning, screwed up, deeply loving whole—albeit a whole that is missing its heart, in the form of the girls’ late mother, Eve Song. (This is probably one of the best-done dead mother tropes I’ve seen, but: ugh, dead mothers. On the bright side: a mostly competent, loving single father is a definite win.) I’d love to see more films with tough girls (Chris is hella tough) and dreamers and loving families, because we surely don’t get those enough.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before isn’t perfect. I mean, honestly, I’m pretty sure Margot looks older than I, and she’s not only supposed to be 18 but is played by an actress two years my junior. So that’s a bit off. On the other hand, the brutal verbal beat downs between our main characters and their nemeses are, unfortunately, all too real: we’ve all been there, especially those of us who were way low on the pecking order. (I mean, I was so low I didn’t even register, so I learned to look blank and pretend I didn’t hear anything or anyone.) But it is, I think, one of the best movies I’ve watched in a while, deeply satisfying even to a 30something cynic, a beautiful image of teen horror (I mean, beautiful now that I am so not a teenager anymore, thank God) and of the love of family and of friends. I wish that more films were allowed such depth, even in the heart of their bubblegum mansions.
So, in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’m presenting an #ownvoices booklist. The books here represent a wide range of people—Asia is a massive continent, stuffed full of countries, cultures, and ways of being, from China to Pakistan and beyond—and have been written for a wide range of ages and reading preferences. (I am, for what it’s worth, not focusing on literary fiction, although I’ll include some; there are a lot of tremendous lists on the #litfic side, so I’m going for something closer to pleasure reading.) Everything I’ve got here is own voices, written by Asian Americans or Asians living in America: so, in other words, these books are by and about Asian and Pacific Americans. I’m also including some additional resources, which is what I’d do if I were putting this sort of list together for work—so, down below, you’ll find some Asian American and Pacific American cultural organizations and book awards, too.
The Books (fiction in all varieties)
Lara Jean, up there in my gif, will start us off: have you read any of Jenny Han‘s books? (if you know a teenager, you’ve probably at least seen them.) To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a great place to start—and it’s a charming rom-com on Netflix!—but there are so many more. Read Bao Phi and Thi Bui’s award-winning A Different Pond for an exploration of growing up Vietnamese American in Minnesota—and for Bui’s gorgeous art, coupled with Phi’s words. Strive for the magic of education with Malala Yousafazi and Kerascoët’s Malala’s Magic Pencil, winner of several awards.
Explore rom-coms—and love among people who aren’t neurotypical—with novelist Helen Hoang. Economatrician Stella Lane, more comfortable with numbers and algorithms than with people, hires escort Michael Phan to remedy her problems with the opposite sex—but the practical arrangement changes to something very different in The Kiss Quotient. Michael’s cousin Khai discovers he doesn’t have a stone heart after all when his mother brings Esme from Vietnam into his life inThe Bride Test—but emotions are so much more complicated than taxes, and Esme, who falls in love with Khai during their summer together, must decide how much she’s willing to put on the line. Assumptions crumble as neurosurgeon Trisha Raje and chef DJ Caine get to know each other—but they’ll have to deal with the past if there’s any hope of a future in Sonali Dev’s Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, the start of a new series. Looking for more rom-coms? You might enjoy Ruby Lang‘s Practice Perfect series! (She has a new series in the pipes, by the way, so if you enjoy her writing—or if medical series aren’t your thing, but you like her work—you’re in luck.) Prefer your romance a bit, well, darker? Try Alisha Rai, whose romance novels—including the Forbidden Hearts series—are dark, intense, and intelligent.
In Misa Sugiura’s forthcoming This Time Will Be Different, CJ’s world implodes—and she finds something worth fighting for—when her mother decides to sell her family’s flower shop to the family of the people who screwed over her grandparents when they were interred. (Sugiura’s It’s Not Like It’s a Secret won the 2018 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Teens.) In Adib Khorram’s award-winning Darius the Great Is Not Okay, teenage nerd Darius copes with depression, love, and life between cultures as his family embarks on their first family voyage to his mother’s native Iran.
Want something more chick-lit style? Check out Sandhya Menon’s Dimple & Rishi series, starting with When Dimple Met Rishi, and explore the Indian American experience with a good side of teen life. Continually frustrated in love, Desi Lee tries applying life lessons from Korean drama towards her real-world life in Maurene Goo’s I Believe in a Thing Called Love, while Mia and Jake, sick of their mothers’ interfering ways, plot to get them off their backs forever in Jenn P. Nguyen’s Fake It Till You Break It. You’ve definitely heard of K-pop, whether or not you listen to it—now, follow along as Korean American K-pop sensation Lucky, on a desperate quest for hamburgers, and Korean American Jack, sneaking around for his tabloid job, with no clue who Lucky is, stumble into each other—and whole new worlds—in Goo’s May 2019 release, Somewhere Only We Know.
The U.S. has never been a white country—that’s only an ugly figment of white supremacist imaginations—and Asians have been here a long, long time. (For that matter, we took over a lot of Pacific islands—remember Hawaii? And Guam?) In Stacey Lee‘s Under a Painted Sky, two girls—Samantha and Annamae—disguise themselves as boys (Sammy and Andy) and take to the Oregon Trail, fleeing slavery—Annamae—and tragedy (Samantha). Then travel to 1906 San Francisco, as Mercy Wong, clawing her way towards a brighter future despite the racism of the other girls at her exclusive school, must work to ensure her own survival—as well as her classmates’—after an earthquake destroys their world in Outrun the Moon. World War II and the internment of innocent Japanese Americans destroys lives and friendships in Lisa See’s China Dolls.
Travel through generations of a Hawaiian family in Kiana Davenport’s The Shark Dialogues, then travel generations of Bengali American women’s lives and secrets in Mitali Perkins’ You Bring the Distant Near. Ready for a(nother) TBR? Jo Kuan, lady’s maid to a cruel mistress by day, columnist by night, tumbles into the crosshairs of society—and a notorious criminal—when she uses her column to attack racism and sexism in Lee’s forthcoming The Downstairs Girl. Vietnamese American Thanhhà Lai, who came to the U.S. as a refugee following the war, tells the autobiographical story of Hà and her family as they flee their homeland for Alabama as Saigon falls around them in the multiple-award winning Inside Out & Back Again. It’s years after the war in Listen, Slowly, and California girl Mai isn’t happy at all that she’s going to Vietnam with her grandmother for the summer—but once there, she’ll have to learn to balance worlds as her grandmother hunts for long-buried truths.
Lai’s forthcoming Butterfly Yellow, meanwhile, follows Hang as she comes to the United States, hunting for the brother torn out of her arms in Vietnam. In Uma Krishnaswami’s Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, it’s 1945, and Indian-Mexican American Maria Singh really wants to play softball—but she’s going to have to find a way to deal with prejudice and hate in the face of war as her parents try to shield their kids and keep the farm. Henry, middle-aged and Chinese American, searches for traces of his childhood friend, a Japanese American girl, in Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, while in Songs of Willow Frost, the (supposedly) orphaned William Eng and his friend Charlotte escape their orphanage to track down the actress William knows is his mother, going by another name. And did you know that sometimes kids got, well, auctioned off? When Chinese American Ernest is auctioned off, he lands in a brothel, where he finds friendship and love, in Ford’s Love and Other Consolation Prizes.
Delve into Hawaii with the short stories of Kristiana Kahakauwila’s This Is Paradise; explore the Vietnamese diaspora with those in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees. (You might also like The Sympathizer: a spy tale, and a tale of Vietnam and of the United States.) Explore the past—and the world of superheroes—with graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang‘s The Shadow Hero, as mild-mannered Hank, who only ever wanted to run his dad’s grocery store and stay out of the way, ends up a world- (or at least neighborhood-) saving superhero after his mom, who got saved by another superhero, decides that is her only son’s path in life. Join a 1970s middle-schooler born in Iran and transported to California as she copes with middle school, moving a lot, and the Iranian Revolution in Firoozeh Dumas’ It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel.
Looking for something, well, a whole lot younger? Second-grader Yasmin copes with the horrors and joys of being, well, a second-grader in the series of the same name by Saadia Faruqi and Hatem Aly (Aly’s illustrations are adorable). There’s a whole series, but I’d suggest starting with Meet Yasmin! (Which I’ve read.) It’s sweet and very age-appropriate, exploring culture and second-grade adventures—including scary ones, like not being able to see one’s mommy—without ever once talking down to its little readers. There’s even an Urdu dictionary and Pakistan facts (all age-appropriate, in nice big font) at the back. Valencia, Kaori, and Gen must rescue their friend Virgil and his pet guinea pig when a “prank” lands them at the bottom of a well in Erin Entrada Kelly’s Newbery-winning Hello, Universe.
Kelly’s Blackbird Fly, meanwhile, follows Filipina immigrant Apple as she tries to escape the horrors of middle-grade unpopularity with a guitar—and the new friends she’s making along the way. In Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, Mia manages the front desk of the motel her parents clean, while trying to dodge mean Mr. Yao, who owns it, hiding the fact that her parents are helping (and hiding) other immigrants, and working to follow her dreams and become a writer. I’m not entirely sure that this one is set in America, but it’s so lovely it deserves its spot here: in Julie Kim’s beautiful graphic novel Where’s Halmoni?, two young folks hunting for their grandmother (Halmoni), who wasn’t in the house when they got home from school, step out a traditional Korean door into a world they’ve never seen before and travel through worlds of Korean folklore and myth. In Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s picture book Drawn Together, a Thai American boy and his grandfather find a common language through art.
Amina struggles to navigate cultures, worlds, and the hells of middle school in Hena Khan’s Amina’s Voice, while in Khan’s forthcoming More to the Story, middle schooler Jameela balances a desire for fame—middle-school journalism fame, that is—with doing the right thing. (Middle school is tough, man. And high school is hell.) In need of another early chapter book series? Follow the adventures—and misadventures—of Debbie Michiko Florence‘s Jasmine Toguchi, an 8-year-old Japanese American! Jasmine’s adventures start in Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen, and continue through the series. A magic pashmina allows Priyanka to travel from her home in the U.S. to the India she’s never known in Nidhi Chananai’s award-winning graphic novel, Pashmina. Explore Chinese American identity—and racism, including that of the model minority stereotype—with graphic novelist Yang’s award-winning American Born Chinese, funny and sad and definitely not just for teens.
Now that I have bombarded you with far too many words, I’ll finish off with just a few more: these books, though all are #ownvoices and all feature Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, are only a small sampling of the incredible works out there. (For instance, I’ve mostly overlooked more literary fiction, including Celeste Ng.) I have not included any fantasy—or, at any rate, any fantasy not explicitly set in the United States, featuring Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders. (Though you might want to check out Heidi Heilig there.) And I’ve left off books set primarily outside the U.S., ranging from Sonali Dev’s Bollywood series to Soniah Kamal’s amazing Unmarriageable. So think of this as a starting place—and head out and explore.
Six years ago today, I walked across the stage at the University of Illinois’ FoellingerAuditorium, complete with a newly minted Master’s in Spanish (emphasis colonial Latin American and Siglo de Oro/Medieval Spanish literature, interest area masculinities, theoretical positioning postcolonial). Two years and a few days later, I walked across another stage, this time for my Master’s of Science in Library and Information Science. (I didn’t like that ceremony very much.) Today, in 2019, at the very end of Teacher Appreciation Week, I walked the commencement lines once more, this time as librarian.
Graduations have always been strange and emotional for me: I cried today (the speaker, a bishop emeritus, was very good); I’ve nearly always gotten depressed at my own. (I’d say it’s seasonal, except my first was in December.) I was as disheartened as ever, going into my first Master’s graduation ceremony, and maybe even a little more. You see, much as I felt that librarianship would end up being the right path, the pragmatic path—much as I excel at it, for here at least there is no point in false modesty, and I am a very good librarian—Latin American literature of the colonial era, mixed with some Siglo de Oro literature and some Medieval literature from the Iberian Peninsula, is my passion. So, heading into that ceremony, I was awash in grief, not excitement.
We were lined up by last name, and degree; we all knew each other, or knew of each other, from the faculty who marched ahead of us to the undergrads graduating with us. It’s a small world, the Foreign Language Building, and it still feels more like home than the library school ever did. We were piped in, a bagpiper walking ahead of the faculty, and I guess right then my day started getting better. The band played a bunch of fight songs, well, but none of us—not the grads, not the undergrads—had a clue of any of the words, and spent the whole time poking each other and giggling. (I think one of the professors was singing along, but I mean the guy could have been singing profanity for all we knew.)
When I walked across the stage, the undergrads erupted, screaming and cheering—for me. After, one of my by-then former students (from a composition class, not one of the grammar classes I was unqualified to teach) told me I was one of the best teachers she’d had. A bevvy of undergrads I knew from restaurants and stores congratulated me, telling me they knew me because I talked to them. I’m still amazed, six years later. I never considered myself a good teacher; I never really thought I touched anyone’s life, except for the lives I hovered over, briefly, as a member of our grievance committee. But I had, and in return, they’ve touched my own. (It was especially shocking when I was told, recently, that one of my former students—I wish I knew who—had told someone my mother knows that I had been a wonderful instructor.)
Finals are an emotional hellscape even when one isn’t taking (or giving) them. Despite always seeing the worst around every corner, I’m incredibly good at talking other people down, and I spend a large chunk of every finals—and every midterm season, and every thesis draft—assuring other people that it’s going to be fine and they’re going marvelously. It’s no small emotional feat, perhaps especially for someone who always anticipates the worst. (There is a lot of emotional energy invested in the outreach I do, too, but that’s another story.) I’m still amazed that anyone manages the energy to decorate their mortarboards—but there’s always adrenaline.
Six years ago, I discovered that I’d actually made enough of a difference to get cheered, wildly, when I crossed the stage. (I look with great fondness, now, on the screamers in the stands. I’m probably the only one who does.) Today I watched people with whom I’ve worked cross the stage, and learned that I am the Sweetest Librarian. (Thank God nobody realizes what a bleak worldview I have, or how my humor, like every service worker’s, is bleak and dark.) I think today was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed walking to that swelling piece of Land of Hope and Glory—and, I mean, it’s a lot more fun (for me) walking as the librarian than as the graduate. It’s also incredibly special watching one’s students cross the stage—not least because they, unlike some students, got there by sheer grit and determination, often working two or three jobs, digging in and refusing to give up.
Since I’m staff now, I even stepped outside my comfort zone and circulated through the crowds in the reception. I mean, I hate crowds—easier to work in smaller groups—but I figure it’s my job, just as it’s my job to walk out of my way so I can talk to more students. I congratulated, and wished luck, and said nothing at all about the worst that’s just over yonder. (Nobody from the South or West Sides needs to be told that the Worst Is Out There: they already know.) I don’t know that I’ll ever be back where they were, today: grad school came close, more than once, to the breaking of me, and though I would love the chance to formally study the literature I love, it will probably continue to be a study undertaken in my free time. I don’t want to repeat those terrifying days when I thought I might lose my ability to read, and I can’t face years running on three or four hours of sleep a night, every night. (Similarly, MFAs are hella expensive.)
But I’m here, in academe. My job is to help people find what they’re looking for, and to teach information literacy, and guide towards good sources, and good research techniques. But it’s also to offer support, and, if requested, even guidance. It’s to be there, and to be safe and comfortable, and to successfully cover up my bleaker, nastier tendencies. It is, sometimes, a reminder that I’ve made it in the face of everyone who thought I was too stupid to get anywhere at all.
And every now and then it’s my job to revel in the successes of those with whom I’ve worked. I am not much of a reveler—I prefer plotting in the darkness—but those days are marvelous all the same.
It’s Ramadan, in a year already marked by tragedy; my day job is finding people stuff to read, whether it’s for fun or for research, and so, this first day of Ramadan (and final day of Children’s Book Week!), I’ve dug through some of my collection materials, and turned up a booklist. Representation is essential—we all deserve to see ourselves in what we read. It’s equally important that those of us from different worlds, other backgrounds, sundry religions, have the chance to read diverse materials, and see our world as it is, and not in some strange whitewashed vision. So, perforce, I gather here selected books—largely for young people, because read now, read forever—that touch on Ramadan and on Islam.
Every once in a long while, Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan coincide. Jane Breskin Zalben and Mehrdokht Amini build their lovely picture book A Moon for Moe and Moaround these shared holidays, as Moses (Moe) and Mohammed (Mo), both of Flatbrush, meet at a grocery store and become friends while one celebrates Rosh Hashanah and the other Ramadan. (Given the rise in both anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate crimes, in the U.S. and abroad, this sweet little picture book seems especially important.)
Want something your kid will definitely know as you learn about Ramadan? Hena Khan’s got you covered: in It’s Ramadan, Curious George!, follow that most famous monkey as he celebrates Ramadan with his friend Kareem. For a slightly older kid, who’s curious about what Ramadan and Eid entail, try Khan and Julie Paschkis’ The Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story. Looking for a book that celebrates heritage and faith while also acknowledging the world’s issues? (Which are, of course, more obviously now than ever.) Try Mark Gonzales’s Yo Soy Muslim, lovingly illustrated by Amini. Want another general exploration of faith in picture book form? Khan and Aaliya Jaleel’s Under My Hijab might be what you’re after.
When I write about my childhood literacies (which were usually a lot stronger in visual areas than in print ones, since I was functionally illiterate for a long time), I generally talk about Shakespeare: what his words meant (and mean) to me, what it was like learning to read on the index to our copy of the Complete Works, and then on Much Ado About Nothing. I don’t actually talk that much about children’s books, and that’s a pity, because children’s books have been foundational in my life, from Thee, Hannah! and every one of Brinton Turkle‘s Obadiah books to scads of picture books and middle grade novels—and I still love them, falling back on them for love and joy.
Children’s literature is inexorably linked to my familial DNA: my father’s family was littered with teachers and librarians (and scientists who checked in on what their small relations were reading), and my maternal grandmother, Marion Fuller Archer, was in her era a relatively popular children’s author: she wrote historical fiction, and her people were almost always either very good or very bad. (If they were very bad, they usually had a Conversion Moment—not religious, she was, after all, a Quaker, and that wasn’t a done thing—and became Pretty Good by the end: to wit, Sarah Jane, the most obnoxiously Very Bad of her heroines.) Wisconsin’s children’s choice award, the Golden Archer, is—you guessed it—named for my grandmother. (A rough equivalent here in Illinois would be the Caudill, except we also have the Monarch, the Bluestem, and—of course—the Lincoln. One of Minnesota’s, meanwhile, is named for one of my all-time favorite authors. Oh, andCreepy Pair of Underwear!won readers’ choice awards in both Illinois and Wisconsin!)
My mother, an excellent driver presumably since she first picked up keys, drove her all over the state of Wisconsin for her research. My grandmother was a very sweet woman, and one who identified my learning disability when I was a toddler, giving my mother advanced warning and, thus, extra time—but, for all her sweetness and love, the polar opposite, as it were, of my paternal grandmother, hard and angry, whose stories centered around blood and vengeance, my maternal grandmother casts a long shadow. But, though children’s literature is tied so close to my grandmother, there is no shadow there.
Today is the very end of this hundredth annual Children’s Books Week, which this year had the theme Read Now, Read Forever. It is, perforce, the perfect time to reflect on some of what literature written for young people meant (and means) to me. I’ve always been drawn to poetry, from back when I was a tiny thing to the present, as I sit with a pile of Haymarket poetry around me; the picture book Yonder retains a special place in my heart, because I so loved the cadence of the words. I read—or, rather, Mom read to me—the entirety of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series—and did you know she was a libertarian?—which, of course, means I know exactly what people are talking about, when they discuss the casual (and no so casual) racism inherent in her work. But Laura was a creature of the rural west, and, well, I’m not. I’m a creature of the South Side of Chicago, and of a small rough manufacturing town in Wisconsin, and I prefer my heroines to live in the city, like me.
Maud Hart Lovelace, born in Mankato, Minnesota, wrote an incredible series of books known today as the Betsy-Tacy books. While my fellows were growing up with Harry Potter (I couldn’t read him then, he was too popular), I was growing up with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. I wanted to be like Julia Ray, suave and a heart-breaker, but I probably fell a lot closer to Emily. (I definitely wasn’t popular enough to be Betsy.) I’ve thought a lot about Betsy as I’ve watched ongoing issues with racism and xenophobia and representation in children’s literature: Laura is casually racist, at best, while Betsy, who lived near an area of Deep Valley (fictionalized Mankato) known as Little Syria, grows up in a household where she’s frequently reminded that the people of Little Syria came here for the same reason as her ancestors, and is encouraged to befriend the people who lived there. A long shot from perfect, of course, but those novels came closer to acknowledging the world in which I lived than, I think, any other piece of classic children’s literature.
Now, in 2019, we’re actually talking about diversity in children’s literature, and it’s too exciting for words. As a white woman I can see people who look like me (Betsy’s a pretty good example of that, actually); I see dyslexics a lot less often. The amazing Yuyi Morales created this year’s poster, celebrating, in her vibrant art, young readers of all races. (If you haven’t, yet, you should check out Dreamers.) We Need Diverse Books to fight for representative books for our young folks. As I work to build a children’s collection for the future educators I serve in my day job, I am able to draw from a tremendous wealth of diverse works, including books like the charming Julián is a Mermaid or the tender Alma and How She Got Her Name (which is actually longer than mine!), the sharp and heartbreaking I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter and the elegant The Stuff of Stars, which won Euka Holmes this year’s Coretta Scott King Award in illustration. I know how much it mattered to me, to see myself in print when I first encountered dyslexics; I know I cried, when I watched Luke Cage and saw the barbershops I’d known, growing up.
I want other kids—other adults—to see themselves on their pages, to know that they are known, and seen, and celebrated. I want those simple joys which are, I guess, not simple at all. (I mean, there’s definitely a reason I put out a list of diverse award winners every year.) Shakespeare and the writers of the early modern catapulted me into my teen years and then my life as an adult: they are, I think, the mark of Caitlin as a woman, more than the piles of Haymarket books or the depressing sociologies and histories and gender studies. (Oscar Wilde was right, I guess.) But children’s books set the stage of my childhood, the bright lights and the magic and the swirling worlds that could be. (I still remember being furious when what’s his name told Meg that she was hot without her glasses in A Wrinkle in Time: I am not a forgiving soul.)
My mother read aloud to me, endlessly, diligently, despite whatever despair she must have felt at my equally endless illiteracy: now, despite my own occasional stumbles with literacy, I love reading aloud to others. (Poetry is best, I think, but picture books are also wonderful.) She read Bunnicula, which is now turning 40: I loved it! Chester was a maniac genius! I was afraid of everything in the world, but, for whatever reason, I wasn’t afraid of that! (Jane-Emily, on the other hand, scared the hell out of me. Ghost stories get me.) I’m pretty sure, thinking about it, that children’s books, which their fluidity of genre (and of so much else), helped shape my own confused views of genre. Certainly I learned, well and young, that kids’ books aren’t all fluff: they cover some pretty intense subjects, too. (For one classic example: Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder covers a hurricane.)
It’s Children’s Book Week’s 100th Anniversary, and I guess I’m here to tell you that children’s books are tremendous, wonderful things, and always have been. (I went to Boston once! Literally the only things I remember are the swan boats and the statue of McCloskey’s ducks! And I picked a lot of blueberries, but I never saw any damn bears there!) Picture books (and a lot of early readers, like Meet Yasmin!or Elephant and Piggie‘s various adventures) are really meant to be shared: so do yourself a favor, and share them! (I love sharing them so much that pretty much every friend of mine who has a child is guaranteed a shipment of carefully selected representative books, including one or two to grow on.) Read them to yourself—they are beautiful things, and sometimes very funny—and share them with a small person, if you have any handy. Enjoy the young adult novels, where so much is happening; check out the middle grade, also happening. Celebrate the joy of reading, today and tomorrow: because, as this year’s theme tells us, Read now, read forever.
Books about Books and Articles and More About Children’s Book Week
It’s May Day in a turbulent year. We’ve seen large-scale actions here in the suburb where I currently reside: around half of our high school students walked out on April 30th in protest of ongoing racism (at a school, mind, that is nearly 70% African-American). Charter school teachers in Chicago will walk out May 4. The Chicago Symphony’s strike has just ended (and in case you’re wondering, it’s pretty clear that the board is ghastly). We are, as we have been before, in an era of unbridled management—and of increasing militancy among labor. I guess one could even say we’ve been here before: we called it the era of the Robber Barons, the Gilded Age, the Progressive Age, and a lot of people fought and died for our eight-hour day and our weekends and our right to breaks and to safe environments.
Back in the day, someone must have assumed that a cost of living adjustment would be normal, too. They’re not, anymore: wages are stagnant, and we’re told to leave our jobs for different (probably not greener) pastures if we want a raise. CEOs, of course, make more than 350 times what their employees bring home—and said employees probably can’t make ends meet. (But why worry about them? Until they unionize and get militant, anyway.) Abigail Disney has pushed back at Disney’s CEO (he makes over 1,000 times as much as his employees, and God knows how that’s fair or right). My generation, everybody’s current least-favorite, generally gets called entitled for asking for raises and living wages and debt relief and health care and housing and, like, humane working conditions with work-life balance, how dare we ask for the things for which our great-great grandparents once fought and died! Which is, no doubt, why we are joining unions in droves. Oh, and militancy is totally back: we’re hitting the picket lines, from true-blue Chicago into deep red states.
This isn’t a great year, to be a worker or a person: I won’t pretend otherwise. (I will obnoxiously point out, however, that Marie Antoinette never said let them eat cake—it’s just another example of blaming women for things we’ve never even done.) The last time our wealth inequality was so sharply, well, not equal, our world was a violent and terrifying place—not so different, I guess, from the United States of 2019. We’ve been here before, which isn’t particularly comforting when one knows the history of said “before.” But here it is, International Worker’s Day. Wages in America are stagnant at best; there are, apparently, no raises, not even cost of living adjustments. We’re entitled for fighting back, though that’s better than what happened to strikers in Chicago on Memorial Day of 1937. We pulled out of this morass once before, but it’d be awful nice if we could learn from the past, rather than repeating it
Curious about the before? Here are some labor histories (and lists):
Today was pretty disgusting in Chicago and its environs—that late-season snow basically flooded us all out, and I laughed so hard I pretty much cried, because like what else are you gonna do?—but it was, in all, a terrific day for me: my friend S and I went to a delightful little café (Café 53, which is on 53rd Street, as is right and proper), and then to a book launch at the Smart Museum of Art. The Smart has always had, in case you’re wondering, an incredible collection; I grew up walking to it, almost as often as I did to the Oriental Institute. I lived, after all, maybe a six minute walk from the Smart (if you walked slowly), and a fifteen minute (very slow) walk to the Oriental Institute. We were very small nerds, and we loved our museums.
As a librarian, and as someone who writes about Chicago (primarily the South Side, that being very much my world), I’m incredibly excited to see work coming out about the cultural contributions of the people who make Chicago what it is. There has been, for far too long, a denial and a silencing of these South and West Side communities of color, and of the artists and intellectuals from those communities whose work should be more widely known. There’s far more to say about the structural racism and classism that has made many of the artists discussed in Art for People’s Sake and The Time Is Now! (and, for that matter, currently on display in Solidary & Solitary and Smart to the Core) less well-known than, say, the Hairy Who? or other pioneering artists of the ’60s and ’70s.
This hegemonic art world was, of course, mentioned, although I guess I felt it was also a bit of the elephant in the room. (Someone asked about pricing of the art: how, as it were, are you making sure you’re paying fair price for historically undervalued art?—and as a musician’s daughter, and a writer, I am so very glad that someone asked such a question at all, because too often we try, genteelly, to pretend that money doesn’t enter into the equation—and it does. It very much does.) I will also say that the question and answer segment of the launch made me think, once again, of one of the things we discussed at the Information Literacy Summit: our social locations, and how they influence what we see and how we see it. (And how we as white people—maybe particularly we liberal white women, in whose name so many people of color have been tortured—interact with the work of people of color, and how we must actively work not to appropriate it.)
My social location? Well, in a nutshell: of northern European descent, learning disabled, descended from planters and overseers and Irish revolutionaries and lawless Prussians, educated from an educated family, still able to perform middle to upper class even if my family fell out of it a long time ago now. Because my disabilities—from learning to constant pain–are invisible, I carry a lot of privilege. (Most people have no idea that my brain is always misfiring.) I also spend a hell of a lot of time thinking about what my face (pale as the dead) and my background and my ability to perform an acceptable (albeit leftwing) white womanhood means, both for me and for the people with whom I work. (Mostly I try to use my face and shared ethnicity with people as a force for, you know, furthering understanding, and have you read any of these amazing books yet? Totally suggest them! So fascinating!)
So, I don’t know, I think if I were ever presenting such a work, I’d start off by acknowledging my particular social location, because it does influence who I am, and what I see, and how I understand and interact with the world. But, holy cow, I am so excited to have my hands on Art for People’s Sake, as a South Sider, as a librarian, as a Chicagoan, as someone who writes about the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago. The artists Zorach discusses, and the Smart has begun to showcase, helped make Chicago what it is—and certainly brought a hell of a lot of beauty to our city. It is so long past time that we finally begin to celebrate them for their importance, and their centrality, to what makes Chicago great.
It’s World Book Day! (I had to verify that this was actually a thing, because it totally sounds like something somebody like me would have made up as an excuse for a good booklist, but it’s legit and has been a thing since 1995, or 1996.) The date honors some of our greatest writers’ lives, on or around the day of their deaths: William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (the Quijote guy) and el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (he was bapitized Gómez Suárez de Figuera, but literally nobody calls him that). Shakespeare is tied into the very fibers of my self, and I’ve written about him and his works—and what they mean to me—before. Cervantes is hugely important and I’ve never made it through the Quijote and refuse to feel guilty for that omission. And el Inca? I’ve read the Comentarios Reales, and they’re incredible.
Copyright is a mouthful and a half—and it’s really important—but I will point out that I’ve got my work here under a creative commons 4.0 license: I’m a librarian, and it seems to me that (at leas here) I should practice what I (sometimes) preach. If you have a print-based disability, or a vision impairment (or know someone who fits into either category—and you can pretend you do, even if you don’t, because I have a print-based disability), then you might be excited to hear about the Treaty of Marrakesh, which will enable us to make more material available through talking books—and not just for folks in the U.S. or the UK, either. But I’m not going to focus on copyright today, not even on the Treaty of Marakkesh.
Instead, I thought I’d celebrate some of the books that have passed through my hands, either physically or metaphorically, from countries around the globe. Some of them have marked me; some of them I’ve held only long enough to get them into my patron’s hands. But they are all worth reading. I’ll start with Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, the tangled, triumphant, heartbreaking story of generations of families, profoundly intertwined, in Turkey and the United States. (It’s also an amazing trip to Istanbul.) From Turkey travel well across the world to Pakistan, with Soniah Kamal’s homage to Jane Austen (and Pakistan’s women and girls), Unmarriageable. Travel to an India of secrets and lies and long-standing loves in Sonali Dev’s A Distant Heart—and, if you enjoy it, check out Dev’s entire Bollywood series.
Travel to the heart of western literature—I mean, really, really west—to the walled land of Dinétah, post-apocalyptic survivor of the floods and home of Diné monsterslayer and general superhero-level badass Maggie Hoskie, in Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World series, starting with Trail of Lightning. Travel the agony and ecstasy of teenage life—and the dangers of a world of xenophobia—with Michael and Mina, one born in Australia to anti-immigrant parents, the other an immigrant to Australia herself, in Randa Abdel-Fattah’s The Lines We Cross. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve suggested it a few times before.) Visit Iran—or several Irans—beginning with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and her Embroideries. Darius copes with depression, Star Trek, and a first trip to his mother’s native Iran in Darius the Great Is Not Okay, an award-winner by Adib Khorram.
You’ve visited the west—now, travel to the fading days of the caliphates of Spain with G. Willow Wilson’s heartbreaking, beautiful The Bird King, the tale of two close friends who flee the Alhambra—and the Inquisition—and strike out for parts unknown. Visit an alternate America filled with gods and their rage in P. Djèlí Clark’s The Black God’s Drums. Walk the streets of Chicago—and of Mexico—with rebellious Julia in Erika Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, then travel to an America with which you may not be familiar in Whitney Gardner’s celebration of Deaf culture—and also taggers—You’re Welcome, Universe. Let Oyinakan Braithwaite take you to Nigeria as you’ve never seen it before—and also to a pair of ride-or-die sisters—with My Sister, the Serial Killer. (And Roxane Gay says it’s “well worth a read“!) Edwidge Danticat’s short story collection Krik? Krak!, meanwhile, takes readers from the United States to Haiti and back again, while Ibi Zoboi’s American Street follows Haitian Fab through an unknown America.
Walk the streets of Old Havana, and drop into contemporary Havana, laden with secrets and fears, in Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana. In the mood for magical realism? Try Daína Chaviano’s ode to Cuba and Cubans, The Island of Eternal Love (La isla de los amores infinitos). Step into the Cuban diaspora as Ruthie, reigning hopscotch queen and newly confident in English, is bedridden after a horrific crash in Ruth Behar’s semiautobiographical novel Lucky Broken Girl, a Pura Belpré winner, then visit very different Dominican diasporas with Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel in verse, The Poet X(it’s basically won all the awards). Travel between Nigeria and the United States in two very different novels: Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah and Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater. Cameroonian immigrants must decide whether to stay or go when the recession hits in Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, while a secret sends shock waves through two teens’ lives in Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil. Explore the lives of immigrant and first-generation Americans in poetry with Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come For Us, José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal, and Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion.
It is, for a very little while, still World Book Day here in Chicago—still a day to celebrate Shakespeare, and Cervantes, and el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. What better day than today, therefore, to start reading the world? For these are only a very few of the remarkable works that can take you on that grand tour.
We are such small creatures, in stature and time and inclination, so drawn to the petty even when we manage glory. It makes our glories more glorious, makes more absurd the attempts to pretend that our heroes were anything but flawed. I was drawn to architecture history for my own small reasons: I love architecture, and architecture history is a lot racier than one might expect: it might not be Manet and Morisot, but that’s not for cleanness, just for different takes on the same block.
Stone endures, and I need to believe that Notre Dame de Paris will endure, too, or my heart will shatter. Emmanuel Macron promises rebuilding; we are told that all is not lost, that parts of the building remain: the walls, built with such love by generations of stonemasons, their lives and talents dedicated to Notre Dame, still stand. I’ve imagined lead running down the walls, glass shattering, all the years of work of unknown artists smashing to bits in the flames: stained glass is almost unbearably fragile. The altar, however, remains, at least in part.
Notre Dame de Paris, like Notre Dame de Chartres, like Kaliasa Temple, was built in service of God (or of a god), but for me it has always stood as a reminder of how very high we can reach, when we manage to work together: how grand, how big, how beautiful, how enduring. The people who funded it and who built it (and, in some cases, died in the building)—the generations of artists and patrons and clergy—were as small and as petty and as human as every one of us. Their individual pieces may have been small—a glazier here, a mason there, a water hauler over here—but they came together, and forged something enduring, something magnificent, that brought their country together for nearly a thousand years.
Those unknown artisans built Notre-Dame to endure, and it does, surviving, altar intact, in the face of catastrophe. It has been serenaded, and mourned, and will be mourned a long time to come, even as it rises once again. Tomorrow—and the sun—will show damage more fully. Notre-Dame de Paris, like the Gothic cathedrals throughout Europe, is a marvel of engineering and artistry. It’s a place of God, and, once, of commerce as well, making it a perfect example of humanity’s tangled motivations, our glories and our pettiness. Lurid architects drew me to architecture history, but the coalescence of the sacred and the profane exemplified by the world around a medieval cathedral brought me to western sacred architecture—and to the rise of civil and commercial architecture, the buildings which have set and defined my life.
I don’t know what to say, or how to properly mourn for a building that means so much to me, though I’ve never had the chance (or the money) to see it in person. And so I’ll say all I can: that the artisans who built it, over the years, created a masterpiece out of small and petty pieces, a fragment of glory that has soared over the years and whose stones will, God willing and the Seine don’t rise, continue to soar for many years to com.
I was displaced when I was fourteen. It was a very elegant, bloodless displacement, the sort of thing done in the shadows; I suppose it barely counts as a displacement, but I certainly felt—feel—displaced. My family’s move from Hyde Park to the suburbs was less a matter of desire—does anyone actually want to go to the suburbs?—than of necessity: the University was doing a grand job of pushing its lower-paid professional staff (including the people who ran its labs) out of Hyde Park. Their suggestion was that we move south or west, helping expand their gentrification plan. We moved to the ‘burbs instead.
Hyde Park, I have been told, has changed immensely in the years since we left. I still want to go home, though there’s not really a home to which to return: the buildings in which I grew up have both been torn down, and the people I knew and loved have, in many cases, scattered to the winds. I have no idea if the University is happy with the destruction they have wrought. Certainly I am not. Even if the bulk of the neighborhood remains as vibrant and tight-knit as ever, my corner of it was destroyed years ago. I could say that we were too tight, too small, too cohesive, despite the transient students: that we, like Old Paris, had to go before we started another commune. (We were much more prone to writing petitions than blocking roads.) But I doubt the University ever really spared us a thought. We had no value, and neither did the buildings that made up our worlds.
My childhood displacement always looms large, but the plans for Lincoln Yards—just approved, and with more than twenty years of TIF funding to boot, because the plans alone just aren’t destructive enough—have brought it ever more sharply into focus. The plans for Lincoln Yards, as Blair Kamin has repeatedly discussed, verge on the grotesque. And, though the developers promise affordable housing in their megadevelopment, I doubt their visions of affordability have much in common with my own. (I’m looking at housing now that I have a job, and stumbled across one infuriating listing for affordable condos—at only $180,000.) The future Lincoln Yards might now be a morass, but there are neighborhoods surrounding it—communities like the one where I grew up, and from which I was pushed. What will those communities lose, as what Wicker Park businessman Robert Gomez describes as Schaumburg is dropped into their midst?
Lincoln Yards would drop in near a bar—the Hideout—that is described as the sort of neighborhood bar we had in our supposedly dry precinct when I was a kid. I never went to Jimmy’s—now Woodlawn Tap—but everybody knew it, whether or not they were regulars, and they knew all of us. Earlier iterations included changes to Hideout and other venues, and now that they’ve got the green light for the project itself, who is to say those prior iterations won’t find some way to pop up again? We’ve traditionally been called the city of neighborhoods, and while I suppose many other cities are also comprised of neighborhoods, we are very much a place of enclaves. Side of town (and baseball team) along with neighborhood and train line define our lives and our alliances, color my understanding of the city and of the world.
Lincoln Yards, as it lumbers right now, appears determined to create a monstrous void: a huge, towering span, to be sure, but a void all the same, one that teeters, as Kamin notes, on the verge of nothingness. It’s a vast sea of money into which Chicago taxpayers will be pouring their own money, at a time when the city could desperately use its funds for itself. Meanwhile, this gleeful trashing of neighborhood character—this lifeless suburban development plunked near Lincoln Park—comes at a time as urbanites are once again trying to lay claim to their own space.
We’re a city of enclaves, of neighborhoods, all of them surprisingly small: we know our neighbors. It’s hard not to run into someone I know—or someone who knows my mother, or my father, or one of my brothers—when I head into the city. The city is ours, in the end: it will never belong to the developers, no matter how large their TIF districts, no matter how shining and glorious their promises. One would think the changes on Chicago’s City Council would be evidence enough of that. Lincoln Yards looks ghastly, from an architectural standpoint (do better, SOM! you’re our people!), and from a communal one. Lincoln Yards scares me, I’ll confess it, and it brings me back to the darkness of being pushed out, displaced from the only world I really knew. It is sure to cause displacement in its development. But Chicago’s a hell of a lot stronger than a developer, or a TIF district. Somehow, in the end, Lincoln Yards will turn into a neighborhood its developers never envisioned—and, I would guess, it too will march towards the right to the city.
On the first Friday of April, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2019 Information Literacy Summit, hosted by Moraine Valley Community College and put on by Moraine and DePaul together. It was amazing, and I was very happy, which is probably in part because my mentor/hero—the amazing Dr. Nicole Cooke—presented the keynote and because my friend K from grad school (who is way fancier than I am now, to be sure—special collections folks are fancy, I think, don’t you?) was there, and I got to hang out with her. So I was as happy as an information literacy clam, but, in the midst of a lot of amazing socializing, I also got a lot of incredible information. This is a bit of a terrifying time to be teaching about information literacy, and, while we weren’t exactly able to walk away feeling like it’s better (because it’s not!), we did walk out of Moraine Valley at the end of the day with concrete ideas and approaches for working with information and its iterations.
Because, boy, are there are a lot of iterations of information. Dr. Cooke’s keynote was “The Dark Side of Information Behavior,” and there are a lot of dark sides, too. I’m always glad to hear Dr. Cooke speak—she’s a genius, and a brilliant speaker, and you ought to go hear her, if you’ve the chance (and an interest in information literacy or the ways people seek and interact with information, which is endlessly interesting for anyone who works with, you know, people)—but, as someone whose day job involves information, gathering more information about people and information isn’t just fascinating, it’s essential. The difference between misinformation (false information) and disinformation (purposely false) and malinformation (think doxxing or revenge porn or other “information” manufactured to cause harm) is no small deal, when one works with information and information/media literacy in our post-truth (or emotional reaction to information) era.
Among the intensive information about information, Dr. Cooke also stressed the human: it’s essential that we remember the emotional aspects of information, because, in the end, that determines almost everything. Emotional responses, she reminds us, can override almost everything, in almost everyone. (To give an example of my own: I tend to despise emotional appeals. I also detest overly emotional language. Both will make me shut off entirely—and I often have to remind myself that whomever it is spouting hysterical words is on my side, they’re just annoying and not communicating in ways I would prefer. For all I know, this is actually correlated to that whole liberal brain structure thing, just brought out in an obnoxious way.) I won’t try, here, to synopsis the talk: I will, however, say that Dr. Cooke wrote this report about the state of misdis information (and information literacy), and it’s a great place to go to learn a lot more both about the history of misinformation and its kin as well as ways in which we can work towards an information literacy that acknowledge emotion. (Oh, and you can also check out her slides, which are a great example of slide design.)
Picking sessions, at a conference like the Information Literacy Summit, is always painful: there are, invariably, multiple things to which one would really like to go, all at the same be-damned time. So I picked carefully, trying to choose those which would give me tools I could put to use in the classroom tomorrow, or, in my case, the following week. I’m sure all the sessions I missed would also have provided me such tools, but I am very lucky that those I was able to attend did, indeed, leave me with ideas for improving my own information literacy work. From “There’s Wisdom in the Room” (handouts here) I gathered pointers for engaging a class during a one-off instruction session, as well as a plethora of tips and tricks for maintaining a classroom that follows CPR: communicate, participate, and respect. (The session began with each librarian positioning herself in her particular social location.) Perhaps most helpful of all, the librarians presenting—Dasha Maye, Amanda Sprott-Goldson, and Heidi Syler—created a website, Inclusive Pedagogy for Library Instruction, filled with even more tips and tricks and available to anyone with an internet connection.
“Adopt, Adapt, and Improve: An Instruction Librarian Development Program You Can Implement TODAY* (*More or Less)” was fantastic, and also a little depressing. I mean, it’s basically what I would have wanted, before I plunged into library instruction—and it’s a lot more useful, I think, than the instruction class I took back in library school. (I also took instruction in my Spanish Master’s, but that’s neither here nor there.) I won’t be training anyone in the next few days, but it gave me a lot of ideas for training myself—and, for what it’s worth, I came away with additional ideas for strengthening my own instruction. It was, in other words, a total #win. (Oh, and the course is available on a creative commons license!)
“Visual Thinking Strategies and ACRL’s Framework: How to Encourage Research Confidence in Undergraduates” was a hell of a lot of fun (ruminate! said the librarian, waving her hands over her head like a gleeful rain cloud). It was also a lot of useful information, from ways to incorporate cultural heritage (the presentation was by a librarian and a curator) into our information and media literacy—because yes, visual literacy is essential, and always has been—to ways to empower students through engaging and even entertaining research queries. I’m an art person: I scored as high (or, rather, as low) as possible on Pantene’s color identification test; I have a degree in art history (I mean, I got that because of the scandals, but whatever). Discussing the use of visual images as research aid and inspiration was a joy—and also, I think, a really great idea, and something I could, in a computer lab and with the right class, use to rather grand effect myself.
“Not Tolerating Intolerance: Unpacking Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom” forced a reckoning, among everyone. It was also cleverly set up: the presenters (a librarian and a media studies professor) spoke for maybe half the time—and then had us work in groups. Many of us use critical pedagogy, in one form or another. Many of us work in distinctly different environments than the one discussed by the presenters: I, for instance, am in a very urban space, filled with my fellow very urban people; we are, for the most part, varying shades of blue in our blue state. We are still careful, or at least most of us are: I, for instance, have frequently told classes exactly what my politics are—but, unless they research postcolonial theory, and the theorists I’ve told them are my wheelhorses, they probably won’t have a clue.
When I stuck around for the post-conference unconference (I think they called it a meetup?), I carried over some of the ideas we had discussed in Unpacking Critical Pedagogy, as well as my ongoing frustration with the ways in which education continues to envision the (non-activist) student of the 1960s and ’70s, rather than the working, often commuting student of today. “We need to meet students where they are, rather than where we’d like them to be,” as was said repeatedly in our discussion, and it’s a thing which drives me mad, but is also a topic for another rant. Similarly—and also to be furthered elsewhere—I continue to wonder if I do my students a disservice when I do not adequately discuss the ways in which Google, which is powerful and wonderful and terrible, actually functions. I mean, tomorrow, when they’ve all graduated, they won’t be using my databases anymore.
Conferences are a strange thing, for me. Crowds terrify me, and new people terrify me, and working a crowd often makes me sick. On the other hand, professional discourse is invigorating, and once I find a friend—in this case, an actual, real friend—I am fine, even with the crowds. This particular conference was small enough to be manageable, even for someone as introverted as I; it was also large enough to be magnificent. And, in the midst of our terrifying landscape of mis-dis-mal and propaganda and alternative facts, it was awfully nice to see the ways in which we can turn tables and encourage information literacy—and to talk to others fighting the same often uphill battle. It’s good, sometimes, not to be alone.
a few of the times i’ve talked about being a librarian, just because
I mean, I guess somebody does. Maybe. Or maybe somebody just thinks that they’re going to get other people hyped up. I have no clue. All I know is: I had to listen to another one of them today, and I hate all motivational speakers. Maybe this is because my philosophy in life is The Worst Is Coming™, or maybe it’s that I tend to respond negatively to emotional appeals (give me DATA, damn it!). Maybe it’s the general sense of immense privilege, which makes me consider the French Revolution. Maybe it’s none of the above. I really don’t know.
Presumably someone out there actually likes motivational speakers, or at least assumes that they’ll be motivating—otherwise, one assumes that they would never get hired. (I mean, I hope they wouldn’t.) What does motivate me might be a little warped, I’ll admit that: after all, I still think that Carl Hiassen’s Expect the Worst is hilarious, exceptionally sage advice, and also inspiring. (Maybe even motivating!) Tell me the worst is coming—which I already tend to assume—and I guess I might actually be motivated to deal with it, rather than sit in a dark corner of my office and hope no one notices me. But stand someone up to tell me to smile a lot and believe in the best, and you’ve lost me. I’ll read the news while mocking the speaker and grousing about my dues paying for this damn garbage.
It might just be me—that’s a definite chance—but both of the motivational speakers I’ve had to sit through for library conferences have been at least moderately offensive, and quite dripping with privilege. I suppose it’s great to be that cocksure and that fiscally safe. I wouldn’t know, being a woman with an invisible disability and a lot of pain and not much money. The last one—who was definitely dripping with money—sticks out for mocking Hindu mudras. (I almost stood up to scream at him then and there, but I figured that shrieking wouldn’t help my case. I did say, when asked for feedback, that his speech was painfully offensive and an atrocious use of our money.)
Today’s speaker talked a talk, I guess—a slyly racist, openly classist, very privileged talk. (Also the speaker is one of those sods who talks to you in elevators as you try to avoid eye contact.) I spent a decent chunk of today’s motivational speaker reading the news; during the rest of the conference, I took around ten pages of notes, all on my cell phone when my wrists hurt too much to keep on writing by hand. (Our motivational speaker would have disapproved: after all, I apparently can’t type and pay attention at the same time. Joke’s on you, Motivational Speaker Bro.) I didn’t want motivation, though. I wanted down and dirty information, and data, and tools with which to arm myself in the face of what may come.
People like motivational speakers, I assume, or they wouldn’t get hired. (I think they’re a waste of money, personally.) Maybe it’s the bleak outlook, or some slight piece of truth in thepseudoscienceknownasMyersBriggs, or the pseudoscience known as the Sorting Hat (and its scientific quiz, now a science paper), but I’m far more likely to b demotivated than motivated by someone sent in to inspire me. Today, at least, I mocked the speaker, and plotted comments on the feedback forms, and took ten pages of notes (because the other sessions were actually really good!), and then finished off the day with a trip to the polls. The least motivating, and least useful, part of my day? That would be the motivational speaker—and I’m pretty sure it clocked in at even more useless than the time I spent in traffic jams.
Work actions have a way of bringing out the worst, and the best, of humanity. As the Chicago Symphony musicians’ strike drags on, we have seen far too much of the worst—snark and vitriol and a whole lot of profound ignorance about what it means, and takes, to be a musician on the highest level in the world. We’ve also seen good: other musicians, professional and student alike, stopping by to throw in their support; other performers and creatives throwing theirs in; patrons trying to educate the public about why the strike is happening, and why it’s necessary. My relationship to the strike is, by nature, different: as a musician’s daughter, I’m watching it on tenterhooks, worried for the musicians’ livelioods—and worried about what will come on down to us.
Like most other musicians, the Chicago Symphony musicians are members of the American Federation of Musicians. Chicago’s local, for those wondering, is in the Haymarket, resting, one assumes, on the long-ago blood of martyrs. Their contract is one of those to set the standard for Chicago (and American) musicians, whether or not they are symphony members themselves. My mother is a freelancer, which is pretty common in music. There are tiers among freelancers, and she’s all the way at the top—or what’s often called symphony scale. (So-named because these freelancers are symphony-fringe musicians.) Pay scale for CSO musicians has an immediate impact on her ability to pay her bills. Similarly, if the board can yank world-class musicians’ pensions, well, every single one of us creatives out here, from musicians and actors to writers and dancers and artists, is also at risk.
Musicians are, in many ways, a lot like elite athletes: their jobs are physically demanding and unrelenting, they cause injuries and chronic pain, and people often don’t take them seriously. (Unlike elite athletes, your average musician, particularly in an organization like the CSO or Lyric, has at least a master’s in music performance—and music is an expensive major, clocking in with engineering’s tuition at UIUC and with higher costs per credit hour at DePaul and Roosevelt, among others.) Musicians often share athletes’ doctors, though surgeries acceptable for a pitcher are not precise enough for a musician’s extreme requirements. And, while an athlete will probably retire by 35 or 40, a musician at 35 is just getting going—their career will continue for another thirty years or more. That’s a lot more years to accumulate injuries, which include hearing loss (it’s a huge issue in classical and jazz music too), tendinitis, carpal tunnel, and a host of injuries both horrifying and mundane. Hell, by the time that musician is in their sixties (or younger), they probably even need special glasses to read their music.
Creative fields seem to draw a particular brand of scorn: I’d love to do that, people say, it’d be so much fun! It’s offensive on a profound level, and ignorant on the same. The last time someone said it to me, I said, then practice until your hands run blood and you’ll be partway there. A musician doesn’t leave the gig at the concert hall, not ever. They put hours a day, every day, into practice—and, as Howard Reichwrites for the Chicago Tribune, they’ve been doing it nearly all their lives. I’ve watched many a musician wipe blood off their fingerboard before dealing with their shredded hands, because they are merely the custodian of that instrument, and they don’t want the blood to set.
Maintenance of their instrument is expensive and precise: humidity must be held in careful check; temperatures must be maintained; direct light must not hit the instrument, for one is only the custodian, and the instrument must live on. For a string player—and it’s strings I know—there are bows to be rehaired (at least $100 a bow, usually more), and rehaired often, if one performs as much as the CSO. There are strings to be replaced—a full set runs to a few hundred dollars, at the lowest. (They won’t last that long, either.) A good case to protect that instrument will run to the thousands. Music itself—sheet music, books of music, études, scores—music is expensive, and essential.
Transportation will always run higher, as not all vehicles can handle the musician’s instrument, music, and stands (though I know from experience that the tiny but mighty Honda Fit will handle multiple basses and celli and about 75 pounds of music). Hands bleed, fingers and lips crack; injuries come and go and grow worse. (Hands must also be protected: singers wear scarves; string musicians wear gloves, and often wear no jewelry at all on their left—fingering—hands.) Days off are curtailed: one cannot go without practice, or one will lose one’s skill. And, of course, those days off never match up with other people’s: your nights, your weekends, your holidays, those belong to the job, and always will. Those hours on stage are the shimmering, black-clad culmination of blood and tears and years of work and physical and emotional labor more intense than anyone might ever think.
The board of the Chicago Symphony evidently has no respect for, and no understanding of, the work that the musicians do. Without those performers, all of whom are at the very pinnacle of the music world—and all of whom get there, and stay there, by bleeding on their finger boards (or the equivalent in percussion and winds)—there is no Symphony. There is no orchestral Chicago Sound. Riccardo Muti knows this: that’s why he stands with his musicians. (So does Nancy Pelosi, known badass.) The board evidently does not.
Taking a stand to support the musicians of the Chicago Symphony (and the musicians of Lyric Opera) is a stand for fairness and equitable arts contracts, but it’s about more than that. It’s about taking a stand for the freelancers and the creatives whose ability to live rides on the back of the CSO getting a fair contract. It’s about acknowledging that the blood and tears and labor behind every note played has value—intangible value, it’s true, because nothing the board might cough up will ever really come close to its true value. A stand for the musicians of the CSO, and their right to equitable pay and a fair pension, is a stand for every worker in the arts and creative industries in this country.
other folks talk about the strike & music & musician
I don’t find the campaign particularly funny, but plenty of my friends think it’s hilarious. I’ve gotten texts and messages and photos, generally accompanied by comments that it’ll be rad when I buy a condo and move home to Hyde Park. I’ve been tempted to do word-by-word take-downs of its absurdity—the fitness center we can’t afford, the ice rink that’s almost always inaccessible, the ten million golf courses about which I couldn’t care less, and which are distinctly not a draw for my country club– and golf-murdering generation. And this is aimed at us, and, well, I guess I’d like to see this town make some repairs, as it were, before trying to hook us in at all.
I have a lot of issues with last year’s “snark[y]” comics, and I already know I’ll have a bunch with this year’s animations. I mean, it’s basically a guarantee. Last year’s were weirdly into gentrifiers, which is, honestly, super gross. I guess this suburb is looking for a certain type of millennial? (Lest we forget: gentrification pushes people out, and causes a ton of issues.) My guess is that this year‘s will also be problematic—and, of course, that they will delve into outright lies. (And, speaking of perception: Chicago Public School outcomes are actually pretty damn good.) The avocado bit, and the happy grocery store time, are confounding (and irritating, if your fuse is as short as mine). But I think one of the campaign’s most glaring lies is also one of its simplest, and most oft-repeated: that this suburb is walkable.
I grew up in a walkable neighborhood: you can get pretty much anywhere, and do pretty much anything, on foot in Hyde Park. Best of all, you’re never the only person walking—a stark difference from suburban life. I run to rage—I figured out a few years ago that the overwhelming emotion with which I live is, indeed, anger (which enabled me to try to figure out how to deal with always being angry)—and so I’ve alternated between red-hot rage and simmering fury and abject confusion. I don’t like lies, and this town is so hard to walk that it’s difficult to imagine where those claims even originated. Thanks to Walk Score, it’s super easy to figure out that, indeed, this suburb isn’t remotely walkable—and parts of it (including the part where we ended up buying) are even less. Evanston, on the other hand, scores as very walkable, as does Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, Ukrainian Village, West Town, and the South Loop. (If you’re interested in the history of Walk Score, Slate has a great article about it, from 2012.)
The oft-repeated claims of walkability in this suburb infuriate me. I’ve done my walking here: I had a miserable summer, of heat and humidity, when I had to walk two miles along one of the busiest streets in town—one without any shade at all, mind—to my job. It was loud, dirty, and dangerous, the sidewalk right on the road. There are two railroad crossings in town; there are a paucity of crosswalks and of lights. Where I grew up, one had one’s choice of pedestrian crossings—underpasses and bridges alike—to get over the tracks to the lakefront. Here, there’s no choice at all, especially if one happens to be on foot. So, if one of my fellow millennials looks past the atrocity of the marketing campaign and comes here, I hope they don’t expect to walk. Like, anywhere.
On the other hand, there are ways—if this suburb wanted to invest in them—to make walkability a bit more of a reality. And, let’s face it: if any community wants to nab my generation, which would prefer a car-optional life, well, walkability—real walkability, not the fraudulent claims made by some unnamed suburbs—will be necessary. Given our disastrous climate situation, that’s for the best anyway. We could have more crosswalks, and better sidewalks (and could install sidewalks where there are none at all). We could invest in pedestrian train crossings, which would make this town a lot more pleasant to walk.
Pedestrian deaths are rising, a horrific bell tolling the danger of our distinctly non-walkable streets. At the same time, increasing taxes on gas—and mileage—will end up hurting those who have the least money to pay, much like the ongoing Yellow Vest protests in France. Increased public transit can help make our streets safer, but so can better design. We are in pretty desperate need of design changes here—more important, I’d argue, than thousands of dollars on an absurd and made-to-be-mocked run of ads, more important than a science center essentially down the street (or the Electric line) from two of the world‘s great science museums.
As absurd as it may seem, I grew up in a different world, albeit one that is all of twenty or so miles northeast. I was accustomed to a different style of being; I was used to demanding truth, justice, and the American Way, while being told that it wasn’t really the American Way, we just pretended that it was, but it was our moral and ethical obligation to make it be the American Way in truth. I mean, my friends and I were so used to our parents signing petitions and showing up at our alderperson’s doors (first Toni Preckwinkle, in my memory, and then Leslie Hariston, for whom I campaigned), that we ourselves signed petitions and tried to show up to let our elected officials know what we thought. We knew everyone, and were known; we wandered in and out of University buildings (where we were known), and, even now, my mother’s contacts have been known to tip her off when I am walking down Michigan Avenue, or heading up north. I also grew up in a place where I could—and did—walk pretty much everywhere.
I’ll probably always have a car—I am, after all, a musician’s daughter, and my family is flung far and wide across the Midwest, and my family’s River House (on a small highway in Wisconsin) and its accompanying 150 years of graves in the local cemetery is pretty much inaccessible without one. But I’d much prefer to live a life where I only had to drive occasionally, and where most errands could be accomplished on foot. I’d feel much safer in a place where I wasn’t the only pedestrian. I’d like to see these issues change out here, and see a renewed emphasis upon infrastructure to enable pedestrians to get safely from one side of the tracks to the other. At this point, I can’t say I have much hope for any such change.
Part of this suburb’s advertising shtick is expense: save money here, as well as time, they trumpet. When my family moved to the sticks, it was overpriced but less expensive than the city. It’s now even more overpriced—and, to be blunt, I can buy something of equal or greater value for a similar price at home in Hyde Park. I won’t have a lawn with that, but I’m deathly allergic to grass and have been since I was six months old, so I can’t do a hell of a lot with an expanse of it anyway. (Besides, lawns are pretty terrible and totally unsustainable for our environment.) In Hyde Park, my car would cost a lot more—and I really do have to have it—and laundry would likely be more of a pain in the neck. But you know something? I’d be able to walk for almost everything, and I’d never be the only person on the sidewalks.
My relationship with the suburb to which my family moved is complex at best. There are wonderful people out here, and I’ve built a community, largely thanks to my union activities (that’s a great way to build community, in case you were wondering: stand together against the man). I remind people out here that rooting for the Cubs is treasonous (and yes, I do believe that, in case you’re wondering, and there are so many reasons why). I watch with horror as the library, the only safe space I had after we came out to this place, is made increasingly hostile to its own workers, and thus far less safe for my fellow antisocial depressives. It’s got a quaint and charming little downtown, and I hate both quaint and charming with a passion. (My friend V—a sociologist—says this is a thing, among us city dwellers.) It’s got a ton of bars—townie bars, fancy bars, jazzed-up bars, wine bars, you name it—and not a single independent coffee shop.
At the same time as this suburb courts my fellow millennials, it tells me—and has been telling me for years—that I don’t belong, and that there is no real space here for me. I’m really glad that we finally have a bookstore, but disappointed that it took so long to get one. And, as someone who doesn’t often drink (my excursions in alcohol have been sharing someone else’s mixed drink, thus far), the bars offer me little or nothing. I think the people of this town deserve so much better—including a town that can actually be walked. But as for me? If I had a child to raise, I think I would try my hardest to get home to Chicago, where that kid could grow up walking their neighborhood, knowing their neighbors, and safe in the knowledge that they were part of a community that knew them—and cared.
It’s almost impossible, after something like the mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, to know what to say. We’ve said it all before, over and over again; we’ve watched the ideologies of hate, so many of them sprung from the blood-stained soil of my country, wash across the world. The frequency, the guilt—because our society is guilty—make it even harder to find the right words. In a few days, I suppose I will scrounge up a booklist, focusing—because of how terrorists and terror cells like that of the Christchurch terrorists dehumanize other people—on humanity and its very quotidianness, on the ways in which all of us are the same. But today, I must think about hate speech, and about fighting words—because, at least here in my country, we do a poor job of acknowledging the danger of hate speech, which is inherently fighting words.
Fighting speech—words that directly incite violence—is supposed to be the threshold of our allowable speech. I’d argue that the Christchurch terrorist—and many men like him—have been radicalized by fighting words. We’ve seen this radicalization before: it happened in Nazi Germany, and used a hell of a lot of careful propaganda. Which we’re kind of seeing again now. We’ve watched a lot of generally white Americans get radicalized, over the years, and we’ve talked about it very little: they are, we claim, lone wolves. Never mind that there are no lone wolves, or that no one really works alone. (We’re told Christchurch Terrorist worked alone.)
The thing is, fighting words have radicalized every one of these terrorists, from the Charleston, South Carolina terrorist to the terrorists who marched—and murdered—in Charlottesville, Virginia; from the early days of the KKK to today’s Orange Menace-inspired terrorists (including the Christchurch terrorist). We need to talk about why we as a culture don’t call those terrorists “terrorists,” even though they are. We need to talk about the steady drumbeat of radicalization among white people in the United States, and we really need to talk about all those radicalized young white men, from the United States and beyond.
My country—land of my ancestors’ pride, for which they fought and built and strived—has done far more than its share in the creation and spread of white supremacist ideologies. (Let’s face it: it even allowed my Irish ancestors to be white, eventually, because that increased whiteness in the country.) Hitler himself studied our exercises in racism and genocide before embarking on his own. The Christchurch massacre is, as the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, another in a long line of white supremacist violence—this one tailor-made for our social media and internet-fed world.
I have no words, now or yesterday or tomorrow, for the atrocities spread by hate into the world. I am tired of watching good people die in the name of someone’s twisted hate. I am tired of stepping in front of those I serve at a look or a sneer, hoping that I hold enough value as a white woman to serve as a shield. Mine has always been a violent country, but it used to be one that strove towards something greater. Now, large segments of it charge headlong towards fascism and white supremacy. Fighting words are on the wind, spreading out over the world from our diseased corners of the internet, taking root on social media and shattering innocent lives.
True names hold power, as I’ve written before, and there is power in the naming. It is long past time that we acknowledge the hate speech and dehumanization that radicalizes these young white terrorists as fighting words. This cancerous hate will not be tamed by naming alone, but we must start there, and we must start now.
It’s International Women’s Day, and, in this strange and troubled year, I’m going to go back to basics and celebrate the whole reason for the season: working women, solidarity, and women’s labor. It’s a radical day, a day to honor radicals (because is not solidarity, at its heart, a radical concept?), and honor them—us—I will, today of all days. JSTOR and its kin JSTOR Daily1 have an incredible article about “The Socialist Roots of International Women’s Day,” which I do suggest if you’re interested in its history. Interested in reading about some working women? I’ve got that covered here.
Maybe you’re here less for the economics and more for the solidarity. Learn about a group of almost entirely Mexican women who struck—for two years!—and won (as my—now former—AFSCME rep always said, women know how to do solidarity) in Peter Shapiro’s Song of the Stubborn One Thousand: The Watsonville Canning Strike, 1985-1987. (They were striking the year I was born, in case you’re wondering.) Two years on strike is hellaciously hard—if you’ve never had to take a strike vote, or plan a strike, I can tell you it’s terrifying, as you plan to lead your people into deadly, uncharted waters, and also you know you’ve no choice—and these women held their ground, and held each other, which is what it’s all about, and they won, by God. And that’s #solidarity, and what International Women’s Day is really all about.
Maybe you’re in the mood for something more, well, fiction. NormaRae has some good solidarity and organizing work; Pride does too, although it’s not as good a fit for International Women’s Day as for, say, any other day celebrating labor. Iron Jawed Angels celebrates the women of America’s suffrage movement (and loosely acknowledges our shitty history of racism, and also has a shitty romance subplot, just fyi). Suffragette does the same for the English suffrage movement (though it’s a lot whiter than England was at the time). You can share women’s solidarity with your littles with books like Fanny Never Flinched, about the labor martyr Fannie Sellins, and Brave Girl, about Clara Lemlich’s first organizing experiences as a, well, little herself.
I have been, on a much smaller scale, a woman who organized. I’m proud of the work I’ve done; I think it helped, at least a little. It will also never be enough. But without the women who organized before me, from those who fought for my right to vote to those who fought for my right to my own medical decisions, and from those who stood together as workers to those who stood together as political allies, I could never have made it this far. On Inernational Women’s Day, of all days, we need to throw back the curtain, and acknowledge our radicals and our bleeding hearts and their frightening, tireless, often thankless work, as they stand together in the face of dread, and fight on.
Nothing, you see, improves, if we don’t stand together.
1 JSTOR and JSTOR Daily have amazing social media, by the way. You should check it out.
I think I do pretty well, most of the time, as a severely dyslexic adult hiding in plain sight without the paperwork that could get me accommodations. (I’m not sure I would get them even with it, to be sure, but it’d be there.) I look out for myself and try, from my own position of relative privilege, to advocate for others, which also doesn’t always work out. I know myself and my limits, and, for the most part, I’m pretty good at managing.
That “for the most part” is my key phrase, of course. I managed pretty well in college, although it took me longer to get through than it takes most. (I also graduated with a 4.0 back when there was nothing higher than a 4.0, so there’s that.) I made it through my graduate work with my lowest grades A-minuses, which I hated, but hell’s bells: I made it. I made it, without accommodations, without sleep, unknown and unseen even in a group. I made it. I thought I might lose my ability to read—and to comprehend—while I was finishing up my Master’s in Spanish, but I didn’t, and I made it through my exams, and I got that degree. (I’m prouder of it than you can probably imagine, too.)
In a way, my first Master’s was almost easier than my second. Don’t get me wrong: I was never afraid, during library school, that I’d lose my ability to read, or to understand what I was reading. (I thought that was a very real possibility when I was reading 800 pages a day for my exams, but, I mean, I passed!) Library school was alienating on a level I don’t think I had ever yet encountered, a pretty consistent reminder that I was wrong, and, most likely, broken. I already was pretty sure my body was broken—so, believe me, I didn’t need to hear that I was, too. I guess I thought that working would be, you know, better. As long as I stayed within the confines of what I know I can do, and do well, I’d be fine, right?
I was—obvs, I guess—wrong. I mean, I’m doing pretty well; I don’t think most people have any idea what’s wrong. But I sure do. It’s like an ache: I’m hiding in front of you, even as I turn around everything I try to type. I’m hiding here, but I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep it up, and I’m scared to death. What happens when I can’t do it any longer? I mean, do I even have to worry about that? I really have no clue. I’ve never been in quite this position before. (It’s my first full-time job! Is that why my brain’s going loopy?) Is this the point at which I finally go for testing (again) to see if I can get accommodations? It’s not really something I want to do: it’s a hell of a lot of money, and, in this space of screaming into the void, I’ll be honest: I compensate pretty damn well, most of the time. What if I’ve hidden my self away so completely that it is not even seen?
At first, I assumed that I was bollocksing up my words because I was tired, or stressed, or something. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case—or, at any rate, not the tired part, since I’m not tired all the time, just a lot of it. (Stress is pretty much my daily companion: I’m a high-stress kind of girl.) It is, however, excruciatingly stressful to continually twist letters and words, especially on a big screen during an information literacy session, or while I’m working one on one with a patron. I’ve almost blurted out to more than one patient student, I’m so sorry! It’s just that I’m dyslexic, please bear with me! but I stop myself just in time. They’re awfully kind (thus far), my students—but I can’t do that to them. And, let’s face it: some of them have probably already figured it out.
Whatever it is, whether my issue is simply that my old friend dyslexia is old and unpredictable (and a total dick, let’s face it), or that I’m under more stress than I might realize, or simply that I’m severely dyslexic and will never really be able to tuck it away, well, it’s there. It’s worse than it’s been in years. It flavors every word I write and every character I forge. It sends me to hide in genre fiction, filled with people with chronic pain and learning disabilities and font that’s big enough to actually read. It reminds me to pick and choose my words with great care, so I can better advocate for others and so I can, in a pinch, hide myself. I am still rather bad at accommodating myself, and still good at advocating for others—and, for all I know, this is really about my need to advocate for myself, which is not really a thing I know how to do.
And I guess that’s the long and short of it: As strange as the thing I know not, this riddle of my strange and tangled brain, this world I have not yet entirely learned how to manage. It were as possible for me to say that I know not. I really have no clue what’s going on, or quite how to manage my eager and strange brain as it misfires into my fingers. I know how to put together your search string, I really do—but by God, I can’t type it out. As I go along, into this new world, I’ll figure out how to manage—but, somehow, I have the feeling that it’ll come with a great deal more strange dyslexic errors than I had thought. Who would I be if it didn’t? Certainly not me.
The University of Chicago Folklore Society’s Folk Festival has been a part of the world (in its current form, at least) for fifty-nine years, this past Folk Fest being its fifty-ninth. (It began in the infancy of the American folk revival, a wee bit before my mother’s jug band days.) It’s been part of my life since I was a few months old. We went nearly every single year throughout my childhood and young adulthood, and then, between constant financial constraints and ongoing issues, we stayed away for a few years. This year, on a spur of the moment decision (not mine! I’m pretty pathologically incapable of doing anything spur of the moment!), we went back.
This year’s Saturday concert was, actually, fantastic. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, given some of the past few years. It even almost started on time! The Folk Festival, you see, is infamous for starting late—like, for starting an hour late, sometimes, or even more. Set changes take forever as the poor suckers roped into MCing stumble through some sort of awkward routine and everyone (including them) really wishes that Studs Terkel would rise from the grave to MC just one more Folk Fest. (This is so for real! WorldCat even has an entry for that first concert! I mean, you’re not gonna get it, because it’s at U of C, but it exists!) I was (pleasantly) amazed when our piper piped us in after only ten minutes, and not the customary half-hour. I mean, I have a thing about running on time. (I could claim it as the only thing I get from my German ancestors, except the only things I can reasonably trace to them, other than my own stocky frame, are moral ambiguity and a yen towards left-wing politics and unionism.)
This year’s bands were pretty tremendous. We started with an Irish duo—bohola—which included an incredibly sensitive accordion (one doesn’t usually think of accordions as sensitive) and a bouzar, which looked rather more like a guitar from the balcony. We segued into the Cajun band, which I worried about: I love Cajun music, with its pounding, hard-driving dance rhythms, its dismal lyrics and upbeat melodies, and I get pretty upset when the band sucks.
This band definitely did not suck: indeed, T’Monde was incredible, and blew it out of the park. They had that hard-driving Cajun sound, right down to the twang in their accents (and if you’ve never heard a good Cajun band, let me say this: it’s an unforgettable sound); they were the best Cajun band to come through since the days when the Pine Leaf Boys came through once a year or so. (It’s worth noting that Drew Simon is actually also in the Pine Leaf Boys: it’s a small world.) T’Monde was rather more versatile than the typical hard-driving Cajun band: we even had some happy songs (including one which, hilariously, had a sad melody to fit its happy lyrics!) and an achingly lovely unaccompanied ballad—not the sort of fare I’ve heard before from a Cajun band, and not to be missed.
It must have been intimidating to follow up T’Monde, but Steam Machine managed. I don’t much agree with their classification—what the hell is old-time, anyway? I will rant more on this anon—but I like bluegrass, and I adore banjo, and they had some good banjo and some good bluegrass. (I hate trucker hats, and all the dudes were wearing them, but that’s a personal thing on my part, and ’tis true that there’s often something at least slightly hokey in an ensemble’s attire—they are, I assume, going for the old hootenanny vibe, and maybe not quite getting it right.)
The piper piped us back in after intermission, and we got a ’20s and ’30s style jazz band: the Chicago-based Fat Babies, who are neither fat nor babies (they’re skinny white guys, mostly), and who are absolutely fantastic. I love the sounds of the ’20s and ’30s—or of the jazz, at any rate, not of the streets—and they brought that sound in glorious spades. As an old bassist, I most loved—of course—watching their bassist and bandleader, Beau Sample, who even used his bow. (My suggestion to them, of course, would be to join the damn union already: they’d find their pay scales much improved.) The Price Sisters finished us off: bluegrass, although softer than what I sometimes think of, when I think bluegrass, and with a fiddle and a mandolin (and a backing band) rather than the banjo that I always want, anywhere, everywhere, always. They are excellent, and it will be pretty rad to watch where they go. (I still want more banjo.)
So the fifty-ninth Folk Fest was a hit, at least for me. It was amazing and fabulous and a reminder of just how much I love roots music. It was also a mess, as it always is, in its selective acknowledgement of what constitutes American roots music. (And this is where I am honor-bound to remind my readers that I am a theoretical postcolonialist—by which I mean postcolonial theory is my theoretical positioning and the way I read and understand the world—and that will color everything you’re reading here and elsewhere.
The United States is not a white nor an English-speaking country. We acknowledge that latter part, at the Folk Festival, through Irish-language and French-language songs—but it’s not enough. As glad as I am, as the daughter of a Québécois-speaker and a Spanish speaker myself, to hear French spoken as an American roots tongue, well, I want more. Steam Machine’s Rina Rossi was the first person I have heard on the Mandel Hall stage to acknowledge that we’ve ripped music off, and I was glad to hear it finally said: those African-American railroad workers, in the case of the song Steam Machine was about to play, deserve to be remembered for their contribution. (Also, check out Steam Machine’s bassist, NokoseeFields, who also happens to be a champion fiddler; he’s a badass.)
But I hate that “old-time” classification. (It has an awful Wikipedia page, in case you’re curious.) Who owns the concept of “old-time”? Who has the right to claim it? What is old-time, anyway? Sometime yesterday? Is not all traditional or roots music, in its way, old-time? Or is none of it old time, since all of it is living? This is, of course, a fairly personal rant: but I would much rather hear that a band is playing traditional string band music, or bluegrass, or shanties, or whatever; I think old time is a terrible classification. (This could also be my inner librarian talking.) And, of course, as much as I love always having Irish music—and I do, believe me, I love Irish music—I want to see the roots music of my fellow Americans more accurately represented at this Folk Fest that should speak to all of us.
It seems almost absurd, in this here and now, that we should have to advocate for Mexican or Puerto Rican music to be included in an American folk festival. For that matter, I think that Chinese and East Indian and Pakistani and Korean and Nigerian and Kenyan folk music ought to be part of our roots music celebrations, because they are. And where is the Native American music? I don’t think I have ever seen a Native group perform, or at least, have not seen one since the Andean Raíses de los Andes came through, when I was maybe five, with their giant panpipes.
I love roots music; I love folk fest, and hootenannies, and people dancing in the halls and the aisles and on the stage and also on their chairs, because they have possibly had a bit too much to drink before they came. They are special places to me, and the University of Chicago’s tremendous Folk Festival has done its share to mold me and form me into the person I am today. And for that reason, I want to see it become even greater, and more accurately reflect this country that we all call home.
And here’s to next year, and the sixtieth annual University of Chicago Folk Festival! I’m already excited.
Banjo Roots and Branches edited by Robert B. Winans (because you know you want to learn more about the banjo, including its African and Caribbean roots!)
I mean, Galentine’s Day isn’t real, but then neither is Valentine’s Day, right? And women’s friendships are incredibly important, and generally under-appreciated, at least in our pop culture. So here is a very short, and very last-minute, list of books celebrating women’s friendships for Galentine’s Day.
Follow two teenage girls as they leverage their creative work and make their school—and the world—hear their voices in Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan’s Watch Us Rise. Visit a world of old mysteries, hot cars, and hotter relationships with the three women whose friendship forms the bedrock base of Jennifer Crusie’s Fast Women. Claire LeGrand’s beautiful, biting Sawkill Girls will ake you to an island of horror, where only the strength and fire-forged friendship of three incredible young women will save their world—and their own lives. Whitney Gardner’s You’re Welcome, Universe is an own-voices narrative of the Deaf community—and also a beautiful portrait of a friendship between two intense young women. In the mood for romance? Sonali Dev’s Bollywood series consistently offers up close women’s friendships mixed in with hot heroes. Jasmine Guillroy‘s romances include friendships between women—and women’s friendships are treated as important and indeed essential components of their lives. Similarly, Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series doesn’t just feature hot (and royal) dudes: there are tight, lasting friendships, too, and they will get their due.
Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik’s re/imagining of Rumplestiltskin, takes its readers through magical worlds and very real antisemitism—but it also cleaves to the bonds of love, familiar and friend alike. Want the darker angles of women’s relationships? Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle doesn’t always tell the tale of friendship, but it does celebrate the ways in which women can—and will—work together to survive. (In many ways, it is similar to Salt to the Sea, though the latter is about teens.) Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear’s steampunk novel set in a brothel in an alternate Seattle, is built off the love and trust and friendship of women—particularly, in this case, of the sex workers in the brothel, and their collaborations with their madam. Liane Moriarity’s Big Little Lies—as well as the HBO series based on it—delve into women’s friendships as well as women’s secrets, and the ways in which our friends can keep us alive in the face of evil. Want one hell of a warped (but eternal!) friendship? Try Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer.
I am not an imposing person. I am slightly taller than the average American woman, but also built on a small frame; my hand’s are a child’s (they stopped growing when I was around eight). My voice is higher, and I look like someone my great-grandfather might have used behind the bar of his tavern: a dairy-fed, small-framed Wisconsin girl, who happens to be from Chicago. I believe, though my voice might be very small and though I might not describe myself as “nice,” in justice, and in fairness. I am also incredibly stubborn—I dig in, you see, and I won’t let go. (It isn’t always a positive thing, any more than being a perfectionist is actually positive.)
Eight years ago, when I was choosing graduate schools, I looked for academics, for funding, for compatibility—and for a place with a unionized workforce, one that would provide me with a safety net I knew I could not find elsewhere. I ended up at the University of Illinois for many reasons, but that unionized workforce was very much one of them. For my four years at the University of Illinois, including one contract fight, a lot of solidarity actions, and a year in which I wasn’t technically covered at all but still reaped peripheral benefits, I had that safety net. It’s a safety net that has seen my mother through hard times, and also good ones: there’s no one to fight for a freelance musician, if she doesn’t have the power of her union at her back, and my mother, unlike me, is nice. She’s been a member of the American Federation of Musicians for more than fifty years, since the ripe old age of fourteen. Soon enough, I’ll be a member of a writers’ guild—and, for more reasons than one, I look forward to that day.
Now, despite the surge in union busting and in union-crushing (which, may I point out, we’ve seen before? across the world, in very unpleasant places and by people who have gone down in history as terrible?), there remains power in the union—perhaps, even, more than ever before. They’re really afraid of the power of the people, banded together—perhaps because there’s no better check on a second Gilded Age than the union. I am a millennial1 (everyone’s favorite generation! like maybe even more favorite than the boomers!) as well as an unimposing and unimpressive person, and so, in addition to the unfriendly reactions I tend to garner for existing as a woman in space, I have had the dubious pleasure of having non-millennials generationsplain what my cohort and I want out of life, which, at least thus far, seems to have little or nothing to do with what most of us actually want. (I’m pretty sure the people who do this sort of thing never talk to us, hence the discrepancy.)
It was one of these generationsplainers, in fact, told me that my generation doesn’t like unions; we don’t, apparently, appreciate that unions will defend our elders (and, therefore, us, in another thirty or forty years), or that they’ve ensured that we will get pensions. I’m afraid this person got it a tad off: we are, as a generation, pretty supportive of organized labor. There’s evidence that we are organizing in huge numbers: in fact, last year, the largest increases in union membership were—you guessed it—from millennials and our junior cohorts, Gen Z (or whatever pejorative name will eventually come their way). Overall numbers are rising—and we are the tide. We’re unionizing new fronts, too: the Chicago Tribune, long-time bulwark of conservatism (and big fan of Daley and the police in ’68!), has recently recognized its employees’ union. (They really didn’t wanna recognize it—the Trib has long been hostile to organized labor, as evidenced in years’ worth of editorial content.)
It’s a long, hard fight in front of us, for fair treatment and fair pay and a seat at the table and a pension that will still be there, when my generation eventually retires—or, that is, if my generation is ever able to retire at all. But it’s a fight that’s been fought before, and that will be fought again, and, as it has been before and will be again, we’re in this one together. There’s power in a union, brothers and sisters. Without it, our voices are too small to be heard; they’ll be lost in the machines, or the scrape of chalk against the board, or the turnings of the plow. But together? Together, we have power.
Have you ever sung Solidarity Forever with a bunch of drunk union folks? If you haven’t, you really aren’t living!
1 I used to prefer Generation Y, which is what they called us before they hated us. But I refuse to let people who hate my generation describe us, and so I’ve taken to using millennial.
I grew up on stories about the 1960s and ’70s. Not the sanitized ones, the ones where flower children smoked weed and made love and everyone was happy: I never heard those at all, except an occasional aside about obnoxious losers who just wanted to get in the way. No, I heard about the blood and hell part of the ’60s and ’70s, the part where people were beaten and left for dead, where civil rights and anti-war activists knew the lash of the baton, where the cop was an enemy, never an ally. (I found out recently, when my beta reader read a first—or fifth—draft, that this was unusual among families of European descent. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized that, before.)
Those blood and bone stories of the 1960s and ’70s—and the knowledge that both my parents, including my liberal but distinctly non-activist scientist father,1 had been victims of police brutality—gave me a unique fascination with Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention, the one that got us a reputation the world ’round for brutality. In case you’re wondering, as a native South Sider, this reputation—which of course continues—drives me up a wall. No, we are no longer Al Capone’s town; no, you won’t immediately die if you set foot south of the river; yes, we are the city that hosted the 1968 Democratic Convention, and did you realize how bad it was that year everywhere?; no, we aren’t uncouth barbarians, though it’s true that we are a bit different—I figured that out in my four years on the academic job market, as I cycled around the country evidently wearing a neon pillbox that screamed SHE’S FROM CHICAGO!!
I don’t remember when I first read about the Walker Report, officially titled Rights in Conflict, but I do know that I ordered my first copy in 2012, just a few days over six years ago. The Walker Report is one of those life-changing books we all sometimes find, not because I did not know that there was such a thing as police brutality—I knew that really well—but because, I suppose, it was the right book at the right time, the right portrait of a time, and a place, a world I know very, very well. It could have been me, I always think, and, though I am infinitely more cautious than my mother,2 it could have been me. It’s formed the backbone of characters and of voices; it’s given me plot and art and trick, because, believe me, there is a wealth inside that little book.
The Walker Report is a masterpiece: a tight, taut story of brutality and of defiance, of young people trying desperately—and sometimes pig-headedly3—to make a more just country in the face of a violent and panicked reaction from their elders. I cried, and jeered, and wrote nasty comments in the margins, which is pretty much always what I do. (There’s a reason I buy a lot of my nonfiction, and it isn’t actually just because my public library makes me feel like death warmed over.) I wish it were still in print, and, some day not over the rainbow, I plan to own a few more copies, including one housed somewhere other than my home, in case of fire. (It’s an incredibly important little book, to me.)
Rights in Conflict is also, very much, from the perspective of the demonstrators, and, I mean, I think that’s pretty great. They deserved to have their story told, and their perspective seen. They may, in some cases, have been theatrical nutcases with mostly good intentions—I think Mike Royoko probably says it best, in this tribute to Abbie Hoffman, gone far too soon—but they were, for the most part, really not that dangerous. And the power behind my city turned on them, though they were our own. Because, let’s not kid ourselves: as both the Walker Report and Battleground Chicago acknowledge, a lot of those protestors were our own, our fellow Chicagoans—just, evidently, not from a Chicago that the police understood.
But there was another side to our story of brutality, and it was the pigs themselves. Frank Kusch’s Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention is an oral history of the convention, this one told by the police who worked it. It was a hard book for me to read, perhaps especially difficult in our current political situation; I wanted to pitch it straight out the window a few times, but contented myself with writing nasty comments in the margins. (It is covered in my handwriting, from tiptop edge down to the very bottom bleed, letters scrawling over each other in their hurry.)
There were moments that were, for me, pure hilarity (like when one of the cops quoted4 a Simon & Garfunkel song while complaining about hippies—despite the fact that Simon & Garfunkel were kinda hippies themselves), and moments that made me furious, and moments that raised up the ugly specter of my own nationalism, which always seems to rear its ugly head when someone says that I, and mine, are not real Americans, and should just leave. My ancestors made this fucking country, asshole, I always want to respond, which is not entirely true—the Southerners kinda tried to avoid doing much of anything—but, what the hell, they’ve sure been here a long, long time, and gotten a lot of blood on their hands—our hands—in the process, and what is a real American, anyway?
Battleground Chicago is a strange, horrifying tale to read in 2018 America, with its strident nostalgia harkening back to a day when, presumably, (white) men were men and everybody else knew their place, be it at home or somewhere behind the scenes, toiling away unseen (and under- or un- compensated) for others’ gain. But reading it also forced me to reckon with one of my household’s great political friends: the first Mayor Daley, Richard J., and his role as Boss during the 1968 police riot. Boss Daley is kind of a hero here, you see: he was good to us, as was the Machine, and it is remembered with fondness, and nostalgia, and even some love. Boss Daley believed that his Chicago locals should work, by God, and so they worked—and that included the musicians, which bought him support among a tough, and liberal, crowd.
But Boss Daley was also the villain of Battleground Chicago, at least to me. More than the cops themselves, who were bizarrely frightened of the hippies and yippies coming to town (“Never before had so many feared so much from so few,” to quote Mike Royko); more than my party’s bosses (Daley, of course, was among their number): my Boss Daley, who’d made it so that my mother worked in Chicago, because Chicago worked, by God, my Boss Daley—who was also the cops’ Boss Daley—expected his cops to go out there and beat the shit out of his own citizens, because nobody was gonna make him look weak.
Now, Battleground Chicago has its share of issues—in his review, David Farber points out that interviews years after the fact, such as those in Battleground, are rarely all that accurate. (He also describes the cops as “conservative white working class,” which, since they were Daley’s men, seems a little shaky to me, but I mean, he’s probably also right.) Whatever its flaws, Battleground Chicago is pretty great, for a writer like me. It’s cram-packed with horror, and also with the real (and often terrifying) ideas of real people who were, you know, really beating the shit out of people like me, back in the day. Daley as strongman? my notes say, and, I mean, that was definitely the gist of what I read, as much as it disturbed me.
But the Walker Report—which I think I’ve read, cover to cover, a minimum of six times, and probably much more—and Battleground Chicago are a long shot from the only books I’ve read about the 1960s in Chicago. (Incidentally, I have They Marched Into Sunlight, about the Dow police riots in Madison—my mother was there—as well as soldiers on the ground in Vietnam at the same time.) I have Farber’s Chicago ’68 on order; I picked up A Decisive Decade and, since I can’t find it, reordered Studs Terkel’s great (and depressing) Division Street: America; I’ve picked up two biographies of Boss Daley (Boss, of course, because it’s essential, and American Pharaoh, with its entertaining discussion of Why Irish Are Political Naturals5).
I own Bradford Lyttle’s6The Chicago Anti-Vietnam War Movement, an unnervingly informative little micro-press publication about the Chicagoans active in anti-war—and, often, civil rights—circles around the time of the ’68 Convention. In fact, that little book is a great reminder that the bulk of the people getting beat up that August 50 years ago were real Chicagoans—as well as a reminder of a now often-forgotten peace march shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King which devolved into another police riot. (In case you were feeling kindly about Boss Daley’s crew, I’d suggest reading that part of the book, if no other—and you can, by the bye, find it in at least some local libraries.)
Terkel’s Division Street: America is another of the books that, for me, defines the ’60s and Chicago and, also, the America that is, and was, and, most likely, will be. I read it first years ago, as an undergraduate at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.7 It was, to put it mildly, a book that stuck with me. I remember the incredible, and the horrible; I remember the Puerto Rican guy who was badly beaten by the police (and possibly jailed) for the crime of walking to work while Puerto Rican, his lamentation (but why?) echoing in my ears down the years since I read the interview. I remember the couple who tried to help desegregate their Evanston neighborhood, and the cop who was reading sociology in his spare time, and the Mexican who complained about Puerto Ricans. (If I recall, Irish were okay, which as an Irish American with Puerto Rican friends irritated me then, and irritates me now.)
Between Division Street: America, Battleground Chicago, and Rights in Conflict, one gets, if one will only listen, a pretty good portrait not only of Chicago and its different worlds but of the country itself. We might be special Chicago snowflakes, after all, but there are times when we really kinda do represent the country. They’re a reminder of what’s changed (a lot) and what hasn’t (far too much). The thing about the past is that, of course, Faulkner’s right, it’s not dead, and it’s not going anywhere, although we are, apparently, borne ceaselessly back. Battleground Chicago is a reminder that the attitudes that led to brutality vested on the backs of fellow Chicagoans remain alive and well, although Current Events would also prove that they’re still here.
In Chicago we always walk alongside the reminders of what we’ve been, and where we’ll go. We are, after all, Sandberg’s Stormy, husky, brawling city. The ’68 DNC hangs around, because of course it does: it pops up in memories and urban legends, and some of us grew up looking askance at the boys in blue, because we knew that it could have been us. One of our critics has written about Abbie Hoffman and improv; the BBC has run articles about our ’68 shame. Every time we’ve hosted anything of importance, I’ve crossed my fingers and toes and attempted to, à la Allen Ginsberg in ’68, somehow magically influence our police force—and our politicians—into behaving. (It doesn’t work, obviously, but sometimes our hostings have gone well, and for that I am glad. I want my city to show itself well to the world.)
Fifty years ago, as my country reeled from tragedy at home and abroad, my city went through hell, its own beating its own, racism and hate and resentment bleeding out into violence, encouraged by our own Boss Daley. Far too many supported what happened on the streets; even now, there are those who would defend what happened there, negating not only the Walker Report but, perhaps more crucially, what their own forces have said in Battleground Chicago. (Whoops.) And now it’s been fifty years, and in so many ways, it feels as if the convention happened yesterday, the plants still fresh as day in activists’ memories, the ugliness and the fear unfaded by time.
1 I believe the sum total of his activism was signing petitions for the release of Leonard Peltier.
2 She’s probably a Gryffindor, to use Harry Potter houses. I am very Slytherin.
3 Kind of literally: after all, don’t forget good old Pigasus, nominated for President by the Yippies.
4 Ken O’Connor quoted on page 158 of the paperback, in case you’re looking. Or, as my notes scrawled in the margins eloquently remind me: Simon & Garfunkel! lolololol
5 It’s on pages 37-39 of the hardcover edition, in case you’re interested in the authors’ explanations. Have a ball.
6 Incidentally, I also kind of know him. Used to go to Meeting with him. Was embarrassed by him. It’s a good book, though.
7 My feelings about my undergraduate alma mater are, to say the least, complex. Nonetheless, I am pretty proud that RU students have traditionally been front and center in civil rights and antiwar activism in Chicago.
Are you curious about additional resources? Here are some I’d suggest, delving into the convention, the era, and the policies that made it tick:
Rights in Conflict: The Walker Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence by Daniel Walker et al
If you’re real curious about what I’m reading, and remembering to tag, you can check out the books I’ve remembered to tag as “Chicago” on Goodreads, and the ones I’ve remembered to tag as “research.” (I’m not always great about remembering.)