The page-turners

In books and in pictures, our literary history lives on thanks to these ink-stained artists.
WRITE ON From left, Obejas, Hemon, Dybek, Kotlowitz, Meno.
By TOC Staff Photographs by Chris Strong |

Achy Obejas


With acclaimed novels, a Pulitzer and two Lambda Literary Awards, Cuban-born Obejas is one of the leading voices in the Latina, gay and literary communities. In ’87, she covered the scramble to elect a new mayor after the death of Harold Washington. Cops were not letting anyone in or out of City Hall, and things got desperate. “We dropped some sort of rope or line out of the window and somebody had gotten us fried chicken. And we hauled it up. We had this insane feast of fried chicken at five in the morning while the mayor was being elected.”—Jonathan Messinger

Obejas’s next novel will be published by Akashic Books in spring 2009.


Stuart Dybek


The poet and short-story master recalls his quintessential Chicago moment, which brings to mind his first story collection, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods: He was practicing Willie Mays’s famous over-the-shoulder catch on the 25th Street playground when he finally re-created it to rob a buddy of an extra-base hit. “Five people saw it,” he says. “But I’ve never forgotten that moment. There was that little pebble baseball field that your whole life was lived out on—there were all your buds, there was baseball, there was boyhood.”—Jonathan Messinger

Dybek is working on a book of poems set in the Caribbean.


Joe Meno


With four novels, two short story collections and a Nelson Algren Literary Award at the age of 34, Meno has experienced no shortage of success, but that Midwestern respect for modesty remains intact. In his eyes, it’s local artists like Cody Hudson and jazz musician Ken Vandermark who “say a lot about art in the city…. What they are doing is so innovative and accessible…. There’s no way to look at [Hudson’s] paintings or design work or listen to [Vandermark’s] music and not feel you’re in the most vibrant city in the world.”—Jessica Herman

Meno’s next novel, The Great Perhaps, comes out in May from Norton.


Aleksandar Hemon


When the MacArthur Foundation awarded the novelist its “genius” grant in 2004, it was really just telling us all what we already knew. The Bosnian-born writer came to Chicago in 1992 with a less-than-working knowledge of English. By 1995, he had published his first story in English, and by 2002, he’d published two books. If books could have Oscar buzz, his newest, The Lazarus Project, would, thanks to its gorgeous language and fascinating take on the immigrant experience. “Immigration is the most important fact of contemporary times,” Hemon says. “It’s a profound change, the extent of immigration these days. The world is changing, and those who do not understand that are those who are often running for office or running newspapers.”—Jonathan Messinger

Hemon’s new book of short stories will be published in 2009.


Alex Kotlowitz


Everyone knew Chicago’s public-housing system was broken, but it took consummate journalist Kotlowitz to humanize the issue with his seminal 1991 book, There Are No Children Here. He sums up his understanding of Chicago this way: “There’s this restaurant on the West Side [called] MacArthur’s. A number of years ago, I was trying to spend some time with MacArthur Alexander, the gentleman who owns it. At one point, the guy who ran the kitchen, a guy named Cornbread, came and sat down next to me. And for me, this is Chicago: Here was a guy who had run with the gangs, been involved in drugs, had served time for attempted murder…and he decides he’s just had enough of this life. He goes to the only person he knows who might believe in him, and it’s MacArthur. Cornbread becomes the manager of the kitchen and is the guy who handles all the cash at the end of the day for this restaurant… The city’s a place that believes in second chances.”—Jonathan Messinger

Kotlowitz is a writer-in-residence at Northwestern University.