No matter how “unsexy” his stories are, Alex Kotlowitz is committed to telling them honestly.
“I tell stories, which are, to be unsexy about it, based in fact,” said Kotlowitz, whose book Never a City So Real is the One Book One Northwestern selection for the 2012 to 2013 year.
In the keynote address of Northwestern’s One Book program Wednesday, Kotlowitz spoke to a nearly full Ryan Auditorium in the Technological Institute about his 30 years of experience as an author, a journalist and, most centrally, a storyteller.
Kotlowitz — a cool, collected and poetic speaker — captivated the predominantly adult audience with a repertoire of anecdotes and some genuine gems about his trade.
“I relish journeying into places and to spend time with people who otherwise might go unnoticed, to hear stories never before spoken, to simply hang out with what Studs [Terkel] called ‘the et ceteras of the world,’” he said.
In keeping with his own words, Never a City So Real is an authentic Kotlowitzian creation — a collection of stories from Chicago outsiders “trying to nudge this city and by extension, the country, to a better place.”
Kotlowitz recounted memorable interviews from Never a City So Real and the rest of his career, with people like Milton Reed, a mural painter in the Chicago projects, and Fanny Clonch, who spent most of her orphaned childhood in Morocco as a household slave. Kotlowitz accompanied these stories with audio and video components, providing a means for the audience to further connect with his interviewees.
“The reason why people tell these stories is because we simply ask,” Kotlowitz said, later adding, “We need to start listening. We need to start believing. What could be more basic than speaking of our experiences, and more basic than listening?”
Among the student minority present at the address was Weinberg sophomore Allison Ortega, who read both Never a City So Real and There Are No ChildrenHere, Kotlowitz’s other book about public housing in Chicago.
“As someone who likes his books and is an English person, I really enjoyed [the talk], and I think it’s a really cool program that Northwestern does,” she said.
Impress your friends by dropping the following journalistic pearls of wisdom, courtesy of Alex Kotlowitz:
- “Empathy is the centripetal force of storytelling; it’s the centripetal force of community.”
- “Listening is not always a passive exercise; it’s a push and pull.”
- “The very act of telling stories is an act of hope.”
- “Stories inform the present, and help sculpt the future.”
- “As Atticus says to Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, ‘In order to understand a man, you need to be able to crawl into his skin.’”