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Book Club Wed Nov 09 2011

In Case You Missed It: Jonathan Franzen and Isabel Wilkerson Speak on the Heartland

The Tribune's Heartland Prize for fiction and non-fiction is for work that conveys the spirit of the Midwest. It isn't an easy riddle, because the essence of this place we live is often stamped by its very lack of character. Some writers are apt in displaying the complicated matters that inject life amongst the cornfields with a haunting reticence that lacks the banality of other attempts. This year's award recipients, Jonathan Franzen and Isabel Wilkerson, spoke to a packed auditorium on The University of Illinois at Chicago campus Sunday as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. In a conversation lead by the Tribune's Literary Editor, Elizabeth Taylor, the two spoke with these literary feats in mind.

Franzen, who was born in Webster, Illinois, was recognized for his book Freedom, which tells the story of the Berglund Family in St. Paul, Minnesota. Husband and wife arrive in their swiftly gentrifying neighborhood with the expectation that their transference will lead to a refashioning of their identities. That prospect is designed by imagined views of the Midwest that suggest neighborliness and simplicity. While the shifts are profound, as they'd hoped, the deleterious results are wholly unanticipated.

"The Midwest is an idea that exists in duality with the coasts, and especially the East," Franzen said. "The boundaries themselves are in dispute. Freedom is the story of a New York Girl going to the Midwest to be renewed, with unforeseen consequences."

Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, for which she conducted 1,200 interviews, discusses the relocation of African-Americans from the South beginning during World War 1. On Sunday, Wilkerson described the migration as an agent of change that reformulated the trajectory of history for the entire country.

"Migration changed American culture as we know it," Wilkerson said. "Toni Morrison wouldn't have had the opportunity to go into a library if her parents hadn't taken her out of Alabama where it would have been illegal. This story is an American story, a universal story of longing and fortitude."

Through these works belong to vastly different genres, they each examine the inextricable bond between identity and place, and the common human inclination to merge the idea of home with a proactive reshaping of the self.

"Place is everything," Wilkerson said. "On their way of going they start to become the place they're going to adopt. That's where you meld the idea of identity with what you hope to be."

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Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

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