I was delighted to get my hands on an ARC of one of the most anticipated releases of 2020, The Beauty of Your Face by Chicago’s very own Sahar Mustafah, thanks to Third Coast Review.
On top of her exceptional writing–this is one of the most suspenseful and vivid literary works I’ve ever read–Mustafah’s debut accomplishes a stupendous task of cultural understanding. Hailing from the southwestern suburbs, I knew there was an Arab-American population, but not much about them–let alone how similar their immigrant stories were to all of Chicago’s.
Check out my full review here. I’m looking forward to Mustafah’s future work, and I’m hoping it includes a cookbook!
“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 Reviewhere.
“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 Executionis the perfect pocket-sized, passive-aggressive gift for that one relative who doesn’t quite get why they’re racist; The Fuguefor 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.
Year-end shout-out post dedicated to local Chicago arts publication, Third Coast Review, for supporting the Chicago arts community, and trusting me as a new contributor this year.
In January 2019, a friend referred me to literary editor Dan Kelly, and soon after I was pitching interviews with Chicago authors (or authors who write about Chicago). It became an excellent excuse to get coffee and talk nerdy with Chicago’s literary finest, including Brahm Stoker nominee Julia Fine, Hugo Finalist Alec Nevala-Lee, and accidentally-infamousTJ Martinson, not to mention my personal Chicago literary hero Gint Aras (interview forthcoming). Each author left me agape with more quoteable quotes than I could fit on a page, and each was exceptionally gracious and generous with their time and wisdom. Many thanks and happy writing to each of them in 2020.
This past fall I also began contributing book reviews as well, which you can check out here and here.
Writing about the city, and chatting with writers who share this cityscape has transformed the way I look at both my home and my work. Check out the Best of 2019 as curated by Dan Kelly here.
I’m currently open to book review and interview requests. If you are a Chicago writer and interested in a review / interview for an upcoming release–or just for fun–please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via email terry dot galvan dot writer at gmail dot com, or Twitter @TerryGalvanChi.
The talented and charismatic Julia Fine was kind enough to spend an afternoon with me discussing her debut What Should Be Wild. Julia’s an erudite champion of the Chicago literary community, and her novel entwines a profound femme coming-of-age story with wild magic. I’ll be following Julia’s career closely as she blazes into genre-bending and empowering feminist philosophy.
Check out the transcript of our conversation here and pick up What Should Be Wild at your favorite local bookstore or public library.