New Exhibit on Immigrant Writers at Chicago’s American Writer’s Museum

The immigrant experience in America has always been fraught with complexity. Those who arrive to our shores in search of a better life bring with them a diverse array of skills, backgrounds, and perspectives. But all too often, immigrants are portrayed as a monolith, their stories lost in a sea of sound bites that reduce them to topics of political debate as opposed to individuals with dreams and aspirations. A new exhibit running through May 2021 at Chicago’s American Writer’s Museum hopes to change that with a multifaceted, interactive display that traces the unique experiences of dozens of immigrant and refugee writers.

“My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today” features interviews with 31 writers, all of whom provided an intricate glimpse into how their respective journeys as immigrants shaped their creative process. Museum visitors are invited to listen to the authors describe their stories, backgrounds, and inspirations via ten touchscreens that are divided into themes, such as “community” or “influences.” Some of the narratives are humorous, such as IranianAmerican author Dina Nayeri as she describes how “I love you” in her native language translates to “I want to eat your liver” in English; others are more sobering, including NigerianAmerican writer Akwaeke Emezi’s assertion that “I have not known a life in which I have not been othered in some way across multiple axes.”

Such a wide range of perspectives has been an integral part of the exhibit from its inception a year and a half ago, explains museum president Cary Cranston in a recent interview with The Chicago Tribune. “The idea was there would be a lot of different voices, so people would be able to find themselves and hear different stories … we’re not telling their stories, [the authors are] telling us.” Cranston explains that one of the most important aspects of the exhibit is the chance for visitors to write their own migrant experiences on cards that mimic luggage tags and leave them behind for other visitors to view. “The [tags] let them acknowledge what their family story is: Did they come for family? Opportunity? Refuge? Or by force as slaves? Or was there some other reason?”

Vu Tran, director of undergraduate studies in creative writing at the University of Chicago and an emigre from Vietnam, echos the importance of spotlighting immigrant writers for new generations to discover. “Our students are not only interested in a wider range of writers and topics, but they insist on it … they’re forcing not just my white colleagues, but myself to ask the question: Who should I teach and how should I teach it?” He also hopes the appeal of the exhibit will extend beyond academia and offer viewers from all backgrounds, whether they’re immigrants or not, an exercise in empathy. “… There are versions of this experience in everyone’s life … whether it’s as simple as moving to another city or growing up somewhere where you feel different from anybody else, it’s a very similar kind of experience … I think an exhibit like this can show that to a lot of people who would otherwise not think that way.” [See American Writers Museum Exhibit Dives into the Modern Immigrant and Refugee Experience in America by Darcel Rockett, Chicago Tribune, 29.Jan.2020.]


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