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American Writers Museum
Photograph: Courtesy American Writers Museum

Spreading the word at the inaugural American Writers Festival

This new event from the American Writers Museum welcomes literary luminaries like Joy Harjo, Jacqueline Woodson and Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Written by
Lindsay Eanet
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This weekend, you can catch some of the biggest names in literature, comedy and TV writing in-person and virtually in Chicago—and all for free. 

On Sunday, May 15, the American Writers Museum celebrates its inaugural American Writers Festival, featuring discussion panels, conversations, book signings and other activities celebrating the breadth and diversity of American writing. 

American Writers Museum President Carey Cranston says the festival was born out of a desire to celebrate the museum’s fifth anniversary in Chicago, surviving and weathering two years of the COVID-19 pandemic by having a day where they packed the house with writers of all kinds. And it’s not just a packed house, but a packed itinerary, featuring more than 75 contemporary authors, artists and playwrights across four stages. In addition to the in-person component, guests can also catch a few special presentations virtually, including a conversation between Maxine Hong Kingston and Viet Thanh Nguyen and an interview with screenwriter and The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin on his stage adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird.

“When you go to a book festival, it’s kind of this giant booster shot of inspiration as a reader,” says local author Rebecca Makkai (The Great Believers), who is participating in two events at the festival. “You get into a reading habit, then you kind of fall out of it. Going to a festival like this, first of all, you’re going to find a ton of amazing books, and this enthusiasm of being around other readers, and other writers, being with people who are pumped up around new writing.” 

Cranston says the American Writers Museum worked with a variety of local partners to bring the festival and its programming to life, including the Poetry Foundation, Chicago Public Library and the Newberry Library. The lineup, which kicks off with a conversation with Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, runs the gamut across genre and style to include sci-fi authors, youth poets, children’s authors, comic artists, comedy writers and programs for families. 

When you go to a book festival, it’s kind of this giant booster shot of inspiration as a reader.

Chicago writers will be well represented at the event, including journalist Natalie Y. Moore speaking with actor and director J. Nicole Brooks about her timely new play, The Billboard, about a fictional Black women-led abortion clinic in Englewood and its fight with a City Council candidate via provocative warring billboards; Sara Paretsky will discuss Overboard, the latest in her popular V.I. Warshawski mystery series, and Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! host Peter Sagal will moderate a stacked panel on American comedy writing. 

“Before I had books out, I didn’t particularly understand what a vibrant, current literary scene Chicago has,” Makkai says. “People would talk about Chicago literature when I was growing up, this sense of these giants that were maybe long gone like Nelson Algren or unapproachably huge like Gwendolyn Brooks. I wasn’t aware, until I got into this literary world myself, of the enormity and the diversity of what we have going on now.”

Among the works being showcased at the festival is Growing Up Chicago, a new collection of coming-of-age stories showcasing the diversity of the city and the experiences of the people who call it home, including new writing from local heavy-hitters like Makkai, Erika Sánchez, Nnedi Okorafor, Stuart Dybek, Charles Johnson, George Saunders and Luis Alberto Urrea. Makkai and fellow contributor Daiva Markelis will discuss the anthology Sunday with editor Lauren DeJulio Bell.

What makes a “Chicago author,” according to Makkai? Living in Chicago—and that’s about it. Chicago is a large, diverse city, and the literary scene includes lifelong city-dwellers, transplants, people who were born outside the U.S. and a generally wide range of experiences, voices and perspectives. Well, that and a general “no bullshit” attitude, she adds—local writers are supportive of one another.

“One of the things I’ve always loved about Chicago’s literary and arts scenes is there’s no established ethos, there’s no established in-crowd, there’s no sense of ‘This is the way we do things,’” Makkai says. “As long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, everyone's going to be excited about you and your work.”

In addition to the Growing Up Chicago discussion, Makkai will also be interviewing a debut author whose work she’s excited about, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, who penned the acclaimed short story collection My Monticello and the novella of the same name. In the title novella, a diverse group of neighbors in Charlottesville, Virginia—led by Da’Naisha, a young Black descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings—take refuge in Jefferson’s plantation home at Monticello to flee violent white supremacists and ecological disaster.

“It’s a post-apocalyptic tale done in a way we haven’t heard before,” Makkai says.

With the rise of censorship and banning of books on certain subjects (primarily those written by or discussing the experiences of marginalized people), festival partners the American Library Association will lead a conversation called “The Slippery Slope of Censorship: What You Can Do to Preserve Your Community’s Freedom to Read.”

“That is a big part of who we are as an institution for writers and supportive of writers, and when you start to see so much happening with people trying to curtail free speech or ban certain types of writing and activity, that’s something we want to try and address,” Cranston says.

The issue of banning books in schools and libraries also hits home for comic artist Archie Bongiovanni, who will be at the festival discussing their new work, History Comics: The Stonewall Riots, a graphic novel about the watershed moment of the American LGBTQ rights movement designed for younger readers, with Windy City Times editor Andrew Davis. 

Bongiovanni says that they hope their talk illustrates how comics can be a powerful tool for accessibility and education for readers of all ages. The medium allows for characters, stories and even jokes to make a powerful moment of history feel approachable, and for readers to have a sense of what it looked like when the police first entered the Stonewall Inn, the expressions on everyone’s faces and what it looks like to show people resisting.

“As humans, we're drawn to emotions,” Bongiovanni says. “We’re drawn to seeing how people work things out, how they’re experiencing it and how they’re feeling. Comics draw us in at this empathetic level. And they’re fun to look at; they’re fun to flip through.” 

Bongiovanni says they hope guests leave their talk more aware that youth can handle reading about tough topics and complex moments of history, and are motivated to stay informed about issues around book banning or censoring of work by marginalized authors in schools or libraries in their communities.

“Book banning of marginalized creators and authors is a form of attack on those creators and those identities,” Bongiovanni says. “By removing books that talk about queer subjects is such a disservice to the patrons of that library, the students in that school, and that removal doesn’t stop anything from happening. It doesn’t stop queer kids from being queer. It just makes it that much harder.”

Admission to the American Writers Museum is free the day of the festival and the following Monday, and it will be an opportunity to catch two temporary exhibits before they depart: Ray Bradbury: Inextinguishable, about the life and work of the Fahrenheit 451 author, and My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today

Up next after the fest, the American Writers Museum is preparing to open its next curated exhibit, Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice, which will explore racial injustice in America through the work of Black American writers between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. The curation team is led by Harvard scholar Keidrick Roy, Northwestern professor and author Dr. Ivy Wilson and Chicago writers Natalie Moore and Nate Marshall. 

Dark Testament will encompass three gallery spaces, and Cranston says the museum has commissioned four local artists to create portraits of 16 of the featured writers, and will use augmented reality so that guests can pick up their phone, scan the portrait and gain more insight into the piece and the author. The exhibit will also feature an online component along with a special online exhibit on the life and legacy of activist Pauli Murray, as well as in-person and virtual programs with contemporary Black authors throughout 2022 and 2023, and curricula and activities for middle school and high school students locally and nationwide.

For now, Cranston hopes this weekend’s festival will get people excited about writing and the power of writing.

“What I usually try to point out to people is if you write, you’re an author and that gives you some level of authority,” Cranston says. “It allows you to shape your own narrative and tell your own story. It’s not that everybody has to be a famous published writer, but writing is something we all do, whether it’s posting on Facebook or writing an email. We all write and it’s important to think about it, especially in a country that was founded on the written word.” 

The American Writers Festival takes place Sunday, May 15 from 10am–6pm at the American Writers Museum, 180 N Michigan Ave, and the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E Washington St. The event is free and open to the public; American Writers Museum admission is free Sunday and Monday, May 16. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination and face masks are required, and several of the programs will be virtual. Visit the American Writers Festival website for the full schedule.

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