Northwestern professor Reginald Gibbons began Thursday evening’s One Book One Northwestern speaker panel with his recipe for writing essentials: a language, an imagination, a place, an angle of viewing the world and an audience. Each of these components set the stage for the night’s theme of identity.
Moderated by Gibbons in the McTrib Forum, the panel included Mexican-American multi-genre writer Ana Castillo, Bosnian-American fiction writer Aleksandar Hemon and Vietnamese-American writer Bich Minh Nguyen.
These three distinct writers brought with them three distinct perspectives perhaps best illustrated by their views on Chicago.
Nguyen, who has only lived in Chicago for a few years, drew upon her childhood in Michigan to describe her view of the city.
“It’s the fantasy dream land — the big city. I guess that’s how it is in the Midwest,” Nguyen said. “It just seemed like a place where great things could surely happen.”
Hemon compared the genuineness of Chicagoans to New Yorkers, who he described as having a “self-congratulating quality of just being there.”
Castillo took perhaps the most grounded view of the Chicago, describing it as “about as real as it gets.”
“It was very, very unapologetically divided, you knew where you belonged,” Castillo said, adding that it was a “city where when you cross the viaduct, you’re on your own.”
Nguyen noted the importance of identity for a writer, especially for ethnic writers in America.
“When you write, you can pretend that there is no audience. And that maybe is the best way to write,” Nguyen said. “Whenever we read a text by an ethnic writer, we have to start thinking about it in terms of what does this represent and their ethnic experience in America. In a way I don’t want to be conscious of that.”
Hemon said he sees a writer’s identity as less of a factor than Nguyen does.
“To operate in a society, you have to assume an identity and pursue this identity for the rest of your life,” Hemon said. “My privilege as a writer is can assume multiple identities.”
Medill senior Fabiano Leal, a student embassador for One Book One Northwestern, said he believes personal identity is an essential and appropriate context to look at Chicago.
“Just like any major city, it’s a city that’s trying to accommodate for so many different cultures,” Leal said. “It’s important to think about an identity because it’s essentially the amalgamation of all those different cultures.”