“My earliest memory of myself is of my sister. My earliest understanding of my world comes from three women—my mother, grandmother, and aunt.”
In her new memoir Three Girls From Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Story of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood, Dawn Turner turns her journalistic eye toward her own story, one she weaves as inextricable from that of her younger sister, Kim, and her best friend, Debra, as they come of age in the 1970s, their early adolescence marked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent evolution of a civil rights movement in progress.
On September 11, Turner will open the Printers Row Lit Fest in conversation with fellow former Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich to discuss her new book.
In Turner’s capacity as a local journalist (and novelist), she has frequently participated in Lit Fest programming as an interviewer. This year, in becoming the subject of her own reporting, she’ll also become the interviewee, a welcome departure for the award-winning writer.
“It’s such an honor just to be a part of the festival, but then to be opening it, this is something I couldn’t even . . . I hadn’t imagined, I couldn’t have designed it,” she said.
There are zero printers left in the Chicago neighborhood once heralded as the printing hub of America’s midwest. And after last year’s fest was postponed due to COVID-19, its return this year makes it only the second fest that will take place in the Printers Row of today, where the neighborhood’s northernmost border was renamed as Ida B. Wells Drive in 2019.
The renaming is meant to honor Wells’s contributions to the civil rights and women’s rights movements during her lifetime, as well as her time spent living in Chicago, specifically in Bronzeville, the same neighborhood that Turner brings alive with such careful detail in her memoir.
In Three Girls From Bronzeville, Turner examines how her own life turned out so markedly different from that of her younger sister, Kim (now deceased) and her best friend, Debra, who was formerly incarcerated, and the role that place had in their respective fates. At the center of Turner’s meticulous emotional excavation of personal memory is a social study of consequences and the long-term effects of choices both personal and preordained by systemic inequity.
“The part of me that is the journalist, I thought that I could write this book and it was going to be so easy because I was going to detach,” she said. “From the beginning, I planned to call up the hundreds and hundreds of pages of court documents regarding my best friend’s imprisonment, and I knew that I was going to go through journals and interview tons of people to make sure that I had different moments rendered correctly, but I guess what I hadn’t anticipated was just the deep emotional excavation that I would say probably any memoir requires, because if you’re writing about loss, if you’re writing about pain and tragedy, then you have to go beyond the document.”
Turner said that, to some degree, she thinks anyone writing a memoir has to be a bit delusional, and at least approach the project with the intention of being objective, even about deeply personal memories.
“Memory is fallible, and not only is it fallible, but sometimes, even from the very beginning, at its root there’s some deception there, someone tells the story that he or she knows isn’t true and it’s just perpetuated,” she said. “You have to check everything,” invoking that age-old journalist adage, the one that suggests to fact-check your mother when she says she loves you (the application of which is all the more ironic when writing a familial memoir).
Ida B. Wells features quietly but persistently in the landscape of Three Girls From Bronzeville, which takes place in and around the Chicago housing projects named after Wells, a community located just a few blocks from where Wells herself owned a home from 1919 to 1929. Wells’s former presence in Turner’s neighborhood is always apparent to the Turner we meet as a young girl, who lived in the Lawless Gardens apartment complex, a multi-building site directly across the street from the Ida B. Wells housing project.
In the first Lawless Gardens apartment where Turner and her family live, “the living room windows faced west and looked out onto the rear parking lot, behind which was a cluster of nineteenth-century brownstones and graystones. One had been owned by Ida B. Wells herself,” Turner recounts. Furthermore, Turner’s beloved third-grade teacher, Mrs. Rebecca “Becky” Love, “resided with her husband in a lovely brown-brick house on the same block as the graystone once owned by Ida B. Wells. During the school year, Mrs. Love walked down 35th Street to her classroom at Doolittle Elementary.”
Just as her existence permeates the pages of Turner’s memoir (and memory), Ida B. Wells’s legacy is present throughout the fest’s programming oeuvre, which highlights diverse voices and perspectives overall, including conversations with Pulitzer Prize winner Marcia Chatelain (Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America); Pulitzer Prize finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award winner Amy Stanley (Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World); and Reuben Jonathan Miller (Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration). Michelle Duster, Wells’s great-granddaughter, will be present to talk about her celebratory biography, Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells on September 12.
“The whole idea of sisterhood is one of the things in my book—sisterhood and friendship,” Turner said. “Clearly that sisterhood can transcend race, but there is a shorthand among Black women. I loved listening to my mother and my grandmother and my aunt . . . just how they would converse. They were clearly in the present, but also planted in the past when they needed to be. Sisterhood among Black women is incredibly powerful and that is a theme that’s running throughout the festival.”
Three Girls From Bronzeville: a Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood
Out in September 2021 from Simon & Schuster, simonandschuster.com
This year’s fest concludes with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead, this year’s festival headliner, in conversation about his yet-to-be-released book, Harlem Shuffle, which Turner herself is looking forward to attending.
“I love walking around [Lit Fest] and just being part of that community of people who love books,” she said. “Part of the weekend is just being present with a lot of people who love reading and love books and just kind of dropping in. That’s what I’ve done over the years, really finding the unexpected.”
With the 2019 festival being postponed, this year’s organizers were able to put together a program that was diverse not only in terms of color, but release year (books featured at this weekend’s festival include releases from 2019 onward), press size, fiction versus nonfiction, award winners, long- and short-listers, said Javier Ramirez, the program director of this year’s festival.
“We really were looking not only at the social climate, but the political climate a bit,” Ramirez said. “But the ethos behind Printers Row is for people to find something they’ve never read before.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post said that Debra is currently incarcerated, but she was released from prison in 2019. The Chicago Reader regrets the error.
Printers Row Lit Fest Sat 9/11 and Sun 9/12, 10 AM-6 PM. Turner’s conversation with Mary Schmich takes place on Saturday at 10:15 AM. Printers Row, S. Dearborn from Ida B. Wells to Polk, printersrowlitfest.org, free, all-ages