Get angry. Get this book.

 

Before we moved to Chicago, my husband and I lived in Durban, South Africa. We loved to walk on the boardwalk that overlooked the Indian Ocean, admiring the people with their endless cultural origins and innumerable shades of skin pigment. South Africa is still working to overcome its history of inequity, but we glimpsed a bit of what the country strives to become: “The Rainbow Nation.”

We expected something similar in Chicago as we pedaled our bikes along the Lakefront path next to Lake Michigan. Instead, we witnessed two very separate groups of people along the shore: whites north of the Loop, people of color south of the Loop. Our adopted city felt more segregated that the land of apartheid.

howlongtrailerBut one aspect, unfortunately, was similar: violence. Day after summer day, I read headlines about teens killed over gang territory and children dying in the crossfire. I was shocked at how complacent Chicagoans seemed about the numbers of young people dying from the violence — the highest in the country. But after months of headlines, I, too, became desensitized, feeling powerless to make any difference.

A few years later, as a graduate student in DePaul’s Writing and Publishing program, I got involved in a project led by Professor Miles Harvey. Almost 90 students participated in this oral history project, fanning out across the city interviewing those who have been directly impacted by youth violence. I spent hours interviewing Juan Pitts and his wife, the Rev. Dr. Willa Pitts. The Pitts’ and I sat for hours in a south side restaurant, where they shared the story of their marriage, the many children they cared for as foster parents, and the horror of losing two of their teenage sons to gun violence within two weeks of each other.

My class ended, but I couldn’t let go of the project. I helped Miles begin work with the staff at Steppenwolf Theatre to create a play from these narratives.  At first, I couldn’t fathom how these many stories — gathered from young and old, parents and siblings, gang members and healers all across Chicago — could coalesce into a coherent work. They did, beautifully. You can learn more about the play “How Long Will I Cry?” here.

And now, the book of the same name is out, in print and available for free through DePaul. I am haunted by the stories in this book, not just because of their loss and sadness, but also because of their dreams and resiliency. These stories depict far more than headlines; they allow readers to connect to other people and experience the universality of love, pain, doubt, and faith.

I played a small part in a large effort to touch people across Chicago and beyond. To care about the people behind those headlines and the neighborhoods never visited. To remain angry enough to demand the killing stops.

Watch the book trailer above. Visit the site, click on “Get the book,” and request as many copies as you can share. Stay angry.

 

On writing…

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In the past, I wrote to solve social ills. I wrote to educate the world. I wrote to pay the rent. Through it all, I wrote without a clue as to why, really, I bothered

imagesputting pen to paper at all.

My relationship with writing was like a bad romance: I did all the taking, and blamed writing for failing to fulfill me. Time and time again, I abandoned writing for more interesting passions. Travel became a regular lover. Writing would always be there when I returned, standing in baggage claim with that irksome grin that meant: “You know we’re meant to be together.”

I think I’ve gotten it all backwards. Writers should cut their teeth on their own messy lives first, gnawing at their fears and fantasies until they can spit out something useful. Truths eventually emerge, giving the writer all the ingredients she needs for some serious cooking. I hated cooking, by the way, until I wanted to feed others.

Truth is, I can’t even say what my work will be a year from now. And I don’t care. I care about mending that bad romance. I care about going back to the beginning, cooking up some tasty food and inviting my destiny to dinner. What matters to me most is figuring out why, really, I bother putting pen to paper at all.

All I know is this: I write because I don’t understand.

I don’t understand, not fully, how family shapes a person. I can’t recall the type of liquor swirling in my dad’s glass each night, or whether my first son was asleep or awake when we finally left the NICU. I write to fill in such details. I write to make sense of love and obligation. I write to acknowledge the personal, but also to discover the universal. Joan Didion talks about noticing the snakes in life, so that they don’t come back to bite you later. I write to find the snakes.

I don’t understand injustice. When I was nine, my teacher told me about Canadian hunters who clubbed baby seals to death for their pristine white fur. Outraged, I envisioned myself standing on the deck of a Greenpeace ship, urging the world to protect these doe-eyed innocents. I grew up, and never saved a seal. I did become a newspaper reporter, and wrote about all kinds of injustice. I will always believe in the power of stories to outrage, influence, improve. I expect my writing will continue to highlight doe-eyed innocents, of one kind or another.

I don’t understand anything, really, until I write it down. I am beginning to see that the craft of writing, when taken seriously, provides a richness and clarity unavailable to me in any other form. And that, for now, is enough to bother putting pen to paper at all.