“Education should be the antithesis to genocide. If you don’t agree with me, you’re an asshole.”
Chicago writer Gint Aras doesn’t sugar-coat things, and that’s exactly why I like him. Read more of our conversation about his latest release Relief by Execution for Third Coast Review here.
“Harvesting Trauma” was the title of the workshop at Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference where I met Gint. I was trepidatious about the content of this course, half-expecting someone to break down crying, half-expecting that person to be me. Imagine my surprise when the instructor turned out to be an enormous bald white man in his forties who looked more like a nightclub bouncer than a trauma counselor. But the force of Aras’ presence quickly transcended the physical into the psychosocial, as he guided us through exercises to reframe and validate our painful experiences while preserving the anonymity and privacy of fellow attendees. I walked out of the workshop feeling like my pain–everyone’s pain–was worth something, and Aras had put our feet on the path to wield it in the name of justice at best, catharsis at worst.
I’m vastly oversimplifying what Aras teaches–I recommend his workshops and blog to any and all writers–but that day I found the philosophical backbone I’d been searching high and low for, right here in my home city. I ran to pick up his novel The Fugue, and became an even bigger fan.
If you’ve ever been to Cicero, you know it’s a dystopia. In The Fugue, several generations of immigrants converge in this gloomy industrial corridor and wrestle with the emotional baggage they took with them over the border. The Fugue is Chicago’s Ulysses, but honestly way more exciting. Many characters are synesthetic, and wandering through my own city in their colorful, musical voices was truly magical. It was the first time I’d seen my native religion portrayed not as an Evil Empire bur rather as my people experience it in real life: a cornerstone of immigrant communities going through hell, inhabited by flawed but well-intended human beings, sometimes equipped for the challenges brought to their doorstep but very often not. It’s a comprehensive examination of the intersection of mental health, Catholicism, and the refugee experience–something everyone needs to read today.
I maintain that if The Fugue was set in Queens instead of Cicero, it’d be nominated for a Pulitzer. The workingclass, Catholic, immigrant Cicero Aras splashes onto the page in all its gritty glory–and its troubling underbelly of racism, addiction, and domestic abuse–is only a few stops away from the former sundown town where I grew up. His stark childhood observations of the city’s socioeconomic divisions, and adults’ terse, unsatisfying explanations of Why It Has To Be This Way, struck a chord in me, as I think they will with anyone trying desperately to be on the right side of history while reckoning with one’s own privilege and complicity in oppressive structures.
The Fugue (and/or Relief) ought to be required reading in Chicago area high schools, particularly in communities that take any pride in the “my grandfather came to America in 19xx and did y, and that’s why I’m proud of my family” narrative. Many of us don’t know how to reckon with our collective heritage of trauma, and instead of dealing with it productively we at times reinforce the very power structures that caused our families to flee their homelands.
Aras’ characters impressively walk the razor’s edge between oppressor and oppressed, abuser and abused, until you finally give up and realize that everyone is both at the same time.
Relief by Execution is the perfect pocket-sized, passive-aggressive gift for that one relative who doesn’t quite get why they’re racist; The Fugue for anyone who likes long books and Chicago, or has Weird Feelings About Catholicism. Check them out at your favorite local bookstore–Aras recommends The Book Table in Oak Park.