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Reviews Wed Sep 09 2009
In 1999, the literary magazine Granta published their first issue devoted solely to the authors of one specific city. For the publication that was founded by a group of Cambridge University students in 1889, London was an appropriate choice for this foray. Ten years later, the magazine is doing it again and it's no surprise to us that the choice for their second city would be our Second City: Chicago. Granta 108: "Chicago" collects poetry, fiction, essays and photography by Chicago authors and artists, illustrating their experiences living in the city and depicting what it means to experience the life of the city itself. To this end, they've brought together some of our brightest and most recognized literary stars, studded with some lesser known names, and mixed them with others extolling the merits of the city's subjects. The result is a variegated portrait that, if, as some of these writers will show, we cannot or should not always be proud of Chicago, we have every right to proudly champion as the product of Chicago's rich literary tradition.
Starting off the collection is not a native Chicagoan, but one who has come from the outside and adopted Chicago as his home, as many of the city's residents have done. Here, Bosnian-born Aleksandar Hemon explains how a visit to a Chicago friend resulted in his unexpected prolonged stay as his home country broke into war. However, Hemon's essay is not so much about his plight as a displaced Bosnian, but about how the Uptown soccer games he became involved in welcomed him, and the entire host of ex-patriots stretching from as close as Mexico to as far as Africa, as part of one team. It is about how the seriousness of the game forged a sense of belonging where he previously did not belong, the physical, immediate presence of mind the sport demanded and "the instant you were completely connected with the world around you." In a reversal of Hemon's position is a piece by Sandra Cisneros, a native Chicagoan who has left and now calls Texas her home. Cisneros's essay is an offering to the mother who felt trapped in her marriage, trapped as a mother of seven and was misunderstood by her family. Cisneros credits her literary pursuit to her mother, a woman who was only able to live revive her dreams by regular visits to the city's museums and free concerts and by getting lost in the novels she borrowed from the public library. In Cisneros's family, the library was heaven and the family kitchen was hell; it is no surprise where the author chose to lead her life.
These authors, along with the strength and renown of Richard Powers, Stuart Dybek and Nelson Algren, provide a sturdy platform for less familiar authors to make a sweeping introduction. Bei Dao, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, contributes a piece bringing attention to the Zhou brothers, two creatively ambitious Chinese-born Chicago artists whose accomplishments include a live painting for the opening ceremony of the 2000 World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Ethopian-born novelist Dinaw Mengestu recounts his return to Chicago after learning of his father's cancer diagnosis. Having believed he made a clean break from the city after leaving for school in New York, Mengestu's subsequent return forces him to later realize the pull that Chicago will always have, writing that "Chicago still seems to me like the very heart of the heartland, for reasons having nothing to do with geography and nothing to do with size." Likewise, Maria Venegas, currently at work on her first novel, relates the journey from Chicago to be with her father in Mexico where he had escaped after a murder threatened his life and the safety of his family. These narratives work as a sort of ode to Chicago as a home: they are as much about leaving one's home city as they are about finding a home in the city itself.
There remains an interesting juxtaposition between these essays, a fight between the Chicago we want everyone to know and the Chicago that truly exists. Where English and Humanities Professor Elaine Showalter and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka write on those we might call heroes - Jane Addams and Barack Obama, respectively - and Neil Steinberg provides an inside look to our notorious political troubles - a Chicago we, perhaps begrudgingly, but openly accept as our own - photographer Camilo José Vergara and author Alex Kotlowitz take this opportunity not to puff up the collective pride-filled chest of the city, but to deliberately air our dirty laundry. To them, Chicago belongs to the unknowns - the neighborhoods not on tours, the uncelebrated side of a world-class city. Vergara's photo essay shows forty years of regular visits to the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Green, some of city's most impoverished, segregated and crime-filled areas. His piece shows how a city can undergo monumental changes over time and yet stay remarkably the same. Kotlowitz focuses on a similar theme, telling the story of an immigrant family torn apart by the gang violence that resulted in the death of their teenaged son. Many of us will have in our recent memories the death of sixteen-year-old student Blair Holt, a gang-related shooting that made for days of news, but Kotlowitz reminds us that for some, these sorts of events are not news but part of everyday life. Together, Vergara and Kotlowitz give the world a view of Chicago that we would not want everyone to see, a Chicago that many of us refuse to see ourselves, but it is a view that is imperative for to us to see if change is ever to occur and for that their work must be commended.
What this issue of Granta shows is that Chicago is a city rife with contradictions. It is a land made beautiful by the lake and towering skyscrapers and less so by crumbling homes and crime-stricken neighborhoods. It a place that opens its arms to immigrants the world over, yet cannot promise to keep safe those who call its limits home. It is a city that can inspire monumental aspirations and crush dreams. But, as George Saunders intones here, this is our city. For better or for worse, it contains everything we could ever desire and Granta superbly does everything to make that known.
Granta 108: "Chicago" will be published and available for purchase on September 22. A week-long celebration of the issue will occur in various venues in the city starting on Monday, September 14; check back with our events sidebar to get the details on each one.