Writing from the ground up
The cover article by Chicago writer Alex Kotlowitz, “Suddenly, a Terrorist?”, in the March 20 New York Times Magazine, is about a small-town Michigan restaurant owner, Ibrahim Parlak, who had been minding his own business, making friends, and raising a family for 13 years until July 29, when the federal government arrested him as a suspected terrorist. It turns out the arrest was for something that happened in his native Turkey while Parlak was part of the Kurdish resistance movement before he received political asylum in the United States in 1991. His many friends were dumbfounded by the turn of events.
“How is it that two groups of individuals — Parlak’s small-town friends and the U.S. government — can look at one man, at one case, at one situation, and come to such disparate conclusions?” Kotlowitz writes. “Are his friends so close to him that they can’t see what might have been ugliness in his past? Or is the government so intent on proving that it’s tough on terrorism that it has lost its moral bearing?”
The author doesn’t answer the question directly, but he provides enough detail so that by the end of the long article, readers have a good idea of what happened. After 9/11, the government essentially changed the rules. The same actions that made Parlak a freedom fighter in the eyes of the government in 1991 make him a terrorist now. The resulting injustice is understandable, believable, and outrageous.
The magazine piece is a good example of what Kotlowitz calls storytelling “from the ground up,” the technique he employed so well in his acclaimed 1991 book, There Are No Children Here, which details two years in the lives of Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, young brothers growing up amid the violence of the Chicago housing projects. He interviews the unrich and unfamous, people who have never had their stories told before. Lately Kotlowitz has told more stories of Chicago street people in Never a City So Real (Crown, 2004). Here we tour abandoned steelyards with 64-year-old Ed Sadlowski, “Oil Can Eddie,” who in 1976 was in the national spotlight as a reform candidate for president of the United Steelworkers union and who still makes sure his union buddies get their pension checks on time. In another chapter we meet Brenda and Millie, inseparable old girlfriends who share a job checking up on the welfare of young mothers and handing out diapers. “In a sense, they’re professional busybodies,” Kotlowitz writes. They enjoy introducing their writer friend — and, by proxy, his readers — to neighborhood eateries and to the everyday kindnesses that pass among the characters who inhabit Chicago’s West Side.
Earlier this month, Kotlowitz came to Springfield as keynote speaker of the Illinois Authors Book Fair, where he described his attempts to tell stories along the margins of life and talked about why telling them quietly reveals larger truths more effectively than does being shrill. And he explained why Illinois is the best place for him to live and write.
“There’s too much shouting going on,” Kotlowitz says of the current state of media affairs. “Too much of current journalism is shoot-from-the hip, loud writing with an attitude. This is the voice of writers who don’t get out much. There’s something unengaged about it.”
Many journalists and nonfiction authors, perhaps most of them, have an agenda of social reform. I ask Kotlowitz whether “telling the stories of people who don’t otherwise get their stories told” is enough to bring about social change. “I don’t think I’m going to change the world,” he replies, “but the power of story is the ability to reveal lives very different from our own. My work may take people to places they otherwise wouldn’t venture to go. It may open some eyes and inform the conversation.”
The unpretentious Midwest, as a region of calm between the noisy, status-seeking coasts, may be the best place for a writer who wants to explore large themes such as poverty and race through quiet stories of real people. This is, after all, “the heart of the heart of America,” one writer says. Writer and poet Dan Guillory, who lives in Findlay, calls Illinois “the physical and spiritual center of the country.” Twenty years ago, Kotlowitz adopted Chicago as his home. From there, he says, “you can see all the fissures in the landscape. It is a good perch from which to see America’s heart and soul.”