More than eighty people braved the icy temperatures Thursday night to attend “Language and Identity: A Chicago Writer’s Panel,” hosted by One Book, One Northwestern in conjunction with Global Languages Initiative and the Center for the Writing Arts. The panel guests were Ana Castillo, Aleksandar Hemon, and Bich Minh Nguyen, three local authors who spoke on how their upbringing, connection to Chicago, and the impact of those things on their art.
Most of the discussion centered on the use of language and the importance of languages to the ideas conveyed in a work. Ana Castillo, a writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, said specifically that direct translations of a work from one language to another were almost impossible. Languages of each culture were specific enough, she said, that in writing “in order to express the culture, you have to speak that way.”
All the writers emphasized Chicago’s varied cultural history and their experience with the city. Bich Minh Nguyen, who teaches fiction and non-fiction at Purdue University and has written a memoir and multiple works of fiction, described Chicago as the object of daydreams when she was a child. “Chicago was the great destination,” she said. “It was a place where great things surely happened.”
Her fellow panel speakers shared her fascination with the city; Aleksandar Hemon, author of Love and Obstacles: Stories and The Lazarus Project, spoke of how, in fiction writing, there was an innate exploration of reality and the consensus of what reality was. In his eyes, Chicago was a city where the consensus of reality was easy to trace and hard to hide. This perception of reality in particular affected his own work, since in fiction “distinguishing between fantasy and reality is key.”
Through the exploration of languages and ties to location, the subject of identity as expressed in language and art became a key factor in the discussion amongst the authors. Hemon regarded identity as a “layered” thing, one that changed and was revealed by the experience of the individual, and Nguyen regarded identity, particularly ethnic identity, as bearing an element of representation which at some points hindered and at others helped her writing process.
Castillo refused to speak on the subject, saying that she had received far too many inquiries about that element of her writing and that she was “tired of answering questions about [her] identity.”
For those in the audience, the relationship between language, art, and identity was a fascinating one, one worth the trip through frigid weather. Steve Weine, a professor of psychiatry at University of Illinois-Chicago whose focus of study is refugees and migrants, came to the panel as a friend of Aleksandar Hemon’s and a fan of his works. Though he wished that the discussion could have lasted longer, he was pleased by the entire panel and the topics, especially the experience of those of dual heritages.
“I’m interested in their whole social experience,” he said. “I find that literature teaches me about that experience in ways I can’t find anywhere else.”