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Storytelling as an Act of Hope

One Book One Northwestern author Alex Kotlowitz extols the power of stories

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October 18, 2012 | by Wendy Leopold
Alex KotlowitzAlex KotlowitzAlex KotlowitzAlex Kotlowitz

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Celebrated Chicago author and filmmaker Alex Kotlowitz has always defined himself as a storyteller above all else.

He proved that again Wednesday when he delivered the keynote lecture on his book about Chicago, “Never a City So Real,” this year’s One Book One Northwestern selection. Kotlowitz, who teaches writing at Northwestern’s Center for the Writing Arts and at Medill, talked about the extraordinary power of stories in a wide-ranging discussion of the subjects of his book. 

He shared stories of the "outsiders" who inspired him and whose compelling stories probably would have otherwise remained untold.

“The very act of telling stories is an act of hope," he told the audience in Ryan Auditorium.

That is the reason, he added, that many of his subjects shared personal stories about the realities of their urban lives -- and why they emerge collectively as eloquent guides to the city’s heart and authenticity.

“In my mind Chicago is not just any American city,” Kotlowitz declared of his adopted hometown. “ It is the American city.”

In writing “Never a City So Real,” Kotlowitz was struck by how all the beauty and fissures of the American landscape —related to race, immigration, religion, class, politics, you name it — are reflected within Chicago's boundaries.

As a journalist, author, radio documentarian and filmmaker, he has become identified with a compassionate brand of storytelling that chronicles the harsh realities of urban life.

In his keynote, Kotlowitz talked of “just hanging out” with the two brothers featured in “There Are No Children Here" and listening carefully to their stories. His 1991 book about the two brothers growing up in a Chicago housing project sold more than a half million copies and sparked a national conversation about youth in poverty.

“Stories are how we make sense of the world and how we make sense of our own lives,” Kotlowitz told the audience of University and Evanston community members. And people often tell him their stories “not because of who I am but because no one’s ever asked them to recount their past or imagine their futures,” he said.

Because stories “inform the present and sculpt the future,” Kotlowitz urged caution in how we craft and interpret them. “We need to be open to having our assumptions challenged, poked and prodded,” he said. “We have to be careful that we don’t rewrite narratives to conform to how we think the world operates.”

To illustrate that, Kotlowitz told stories that might have ended one way but ended differently: of a girl enslaved who breaks free; of a near-death crack cocaine addict who turns her life around; of an incensed gang member who gives up his plans for vengeance for the chance to tell his story.

“Because you’re growing up poor on Chicago’s West Side doesn’t mean your story is the same as the person’s next door, or if you’re a drug addict that we know the shape of your narrative,” he said. “We speak in shorthand when we speak of gangbangers and thugs, of teenage moms and at-risk youth, of illegal immigrants and rednecks, or ex-felons and drug addicts.”

He called Chicago the perfect place to find and tell stories -- “a stew of contradictions” where one can explore the stories of the nation -- industrialization and deindustrialization, immigration, school reform and “the struggles of those living in poverty so profound and entrenched that it cuts across generations.”

For Kotlowitz, the key ingredient in good storytelling is empathy. “Stories affirm our own experiences and make us feel less alone,” he said. “They place us in the shoes of others and let us look at the world through the eyes of people whose lives may be different from our own. Empathy is the centripetal force of storytelling and of community. It’s what holds us together.”

One Book One Northwestern -- a community reading program sponsored by the Office of the President -- engages the campus in conversations around the One Book selection for an entire academic year. For a listing of upcoming book discussions, lectures, panels, film screenings and other events, visit the One Book website at http://www.northwestern.edu/onebook/ or call (847) 467-2294.