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A Chicago Writer Comes Home to Northwestern

August 22, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Stuart Dybek, widely recognized as the living American writer most identified with Chicago, is in a sense returning home with his appointment as the first Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University. Northwestern's Evanston campus is only a few miles from Chicago, the home of Dybek's richly imagined South Side boyhood neighborhood, which he captures with so much heart and hilarity. 

In the newly created position of Distinguished Writer in Residence, Dybek will teach an advanced writing workshop in the fall and part of the winter quarter and a literature course for undergraduates in the fall. 

Dybek's latest book of short stories, “I Sailed with Magellan,” was named a New York Times notable book of the year, a Chicago Tribune best book of the year and a 2005 notable book of the American Library Association. His earlier collection of short stories, “The Coast of Chicago,” was the 2004 selection of the “One Book One Chicago,” program, sponsored by the Chicago Public Library, in essence a citywide book club.

“'I Sailed with Magellan' is a delight to read and at the same time a marvel of fictional technique and substance,” said Reginald Gibbons, professor of English and classics and the director of the Center for the Writing Arts. “Again Dybek takes the very ordinary life of a few people in humble circumstances in Chicago and shows how very far from ordinary they are.”

“Streets in Their Own Ink,” Dybek's latest book of poetry, shares the virtues of his fiction, but in a “more compact, intensely significant way,” Gibbons added. “The settings and human figures are indelibly distinct and convincing, the human situations are compelling and the writing is concise and at the same time exuberant with metaphor and detail.”

In both books, Dybek continues to fill in his Chicago landscape of factories, viaducts and boarded-up storefronts with lively rhythms and unforgettable imagery. As usual, his protagonists run the city's streets, crossing all kinds of boundaries, including the nearly mythical divides between the north and south sides of Chicago. His characters often skirt or fuel the dangers of the streets, and Dybek brings their experiences alive with extraordinary language, authenticity and humor. “Dybek's fictional voice is always double,” Gibbons said, “which is one reason it is so memorable. His writing has a retrospective quality that is completely persuasive in capturing the mentality of youth, and, at the same time, it is filled with insights and implications that only an adult is capable of appreciating.”

In a chapter from “I Sailed With Magellan,” titled “Orchids,” his characters get stopped by Evanston police during a wild romp in a souped-up car that takes them from junkyards on Chicago's South Side to a tony North Shore suburb. It is easy to imagine how that story, one of Dybek's typical blends of hard reality and poetic imagery, will resonate for Northwestern students as they interact with Dybek in an Evanston classroom, not far from where the fictionalized police encounter took place.

Dybek will join Northwestern's nationally renowned English Major in Writing for undergraduates. The faculty includes Gibbons, a poet, fiction writer, translator, literary critic and former editor of TriQuarterly, the literary journal published by Northwestern; Mary Kinzie, a poet, critic and a professor of English, who founded the English Major in Writing many years ago; and John Keene, a distinguished African American writer of both poetry and fiction. The faculty also includes both visiting professors and short-term visitors who each year come to campus and spend several days meeting with the advanced writing workshop, actively engaging with individual students and giving public readings and lectures.

”We are very much looking forward to the presence of Stuart, who will be teaching and writing here, if not in, then at least very near the hometown that he has portrayed so brilliantly,” Gibbons said.

Dybek attempted to describe the Chicago tradition of writing in a response to a question he was asked in 2001 when he was a writer in residence at Northwestern's Center for the Writing Arts. “As a generalization, I'd hazard emotion,” Dybek said. “Feeling is something you risk as a Chicago writer, and there is a sense of heart to many of the stories. A lot of where that heart is coming from is an understanding of class, which, of course, is connected to immigration and assimilation. It's a rare element in American writing.”

Before joining the Northwestern faculty, Dybek was a professor of English at Western Michigan University, where he built up its MFA program.

Dybek's writing also includes another collection of short fiction, “Childhood and Other Neighborhoods” as well as an earlier volume of poetry, “Brass Knuckles.” His writing has been frequently anthologized and has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthy, Harper's, Poetry, The Paris Review and TriQuarterly.

Among the many honors he has received for his work are a PEN/Bernard Malamud Prize, a Whiting Writers' Award, several O. Henry Prizes, a Lannan Prize and a Pushcart Prize.

Topics: People