Chicago-based writer Luis Alberto Urrea says a rocking chair that once belonged to his father reminds him of his Mexican roots. He and his friends would laugh, he recalls, because the chair would rock on its own sometimes. Moroccan-born writer Laila Lalami wears a charm called a hamsa around her neck to remind of her culture. She explains that it is “a talisman who protects the wearer from the evil eye.” Lalami says this charm once belonged to her mother.
In compelling first-person videos, Urrea and Lalami each talk about a personal object that ties them to their cultural roots as part of an exhibit, “My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today,” that opened Thursday at the American Writers Museum in Chicago’s Loop.
The show features living 31 novelists, poets, journalists, graphic novelists and other writers who have immigrated to the United States or currently live here as refugees. Visitors may interact with the exhibit by selecting a writer on a touchscreen to launch a video interview, in which the artist talks about his or her experience as an immigrant on themes such as language, process and community.
“We aren’t necessarily making any political statement,” said Carey Cranston, the museum’s president. “But we know [immigration is] an important part of American writing and its history and its impact on our culture because it’s who we are.”
Cranston said museum leaders and advisors have wanted to create an exhibit on this topic since the museum opened in 2017. But, he added, they recognized what an enormous task that would be. “Immediately, our team of advisors gave us a list of almost 85 target writers that we thought we could go after to try and get interviews,” Cranston explained.
“We decided to focus on modern, immigrant writers simply because the breadth is too large,” Cranston said, adding that “modern” is defined as alive and writing today. Ultimately, the museum narrowed the list to 31 writers.
Despite asking the writers questions on the same themes, Cranston said he and the curators uncovered a wide range of experiences. The Korean-American writer R.O. Kwon “brought up the fact that she didn’t realize being Asian-American made her minority” while growing up in San Francisco.
Japensese-American Joe Ide grew up in the Compton neighborhood in Los Angeles, a predominantly African American neighborhood, and that upbringing features heavily in his books, Cranston noted.
On the theme of language, Laila Lalami, whose latest book, The Other Americans, is nominated for a National Book Award, talked about attending a French school while growing up in Morocco. Initially she wrote in that language, but stopped, she said, because “it felt like the language of the colonial oppressor.” When she moved to the U.S. to study, she began writing in English.
One of the questions the writers answered was what it means to be “American.” Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizers, says it’s about accepting immigrants as multi-dimensional. “To be proud of who we are and to also recognize what we have done wrong, and to believe we should be able to address these flaws, these failures, and make ourselves better,” Nguyen explains in his video interview.
Iranian-born writer Dina Nayeri can relate to that pressure to be extraordinary, and how it initially kept her from pursuing a career as a writer. Nayeri explained that living as a refugee in the United States made her “so obsessed with security and American acceptance and being an exceptional sort of American.” For her that meant getting into a top university and pursuing a career that seemed more stable and conventional than being a professional writer.
Nayeri said in her late 20s she finally realized “everything will be fine. No one is going to throw me back into a refugee camp.” She said it was only then that she could acknowledge she wanted to tell stories and write.
My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today is open through May 2021 at the American Writers Museum, 180 N. Michigan Ave.
Carrie Shepherd is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @cshepherd.