Last April the author Kim Brooks had a book launch party in Andersonville for her novel The Houseguest. There was a reading at Women & Children First and then drinks up the street at the Brixton, where people stayed chatting about books until 1 AM. Brooks and three other local writers, Zoe Zolbrod, Rebecca Makkai, and Aleksandar Hemon, wondered if there was a way to replicate the energy of that night and generate more interest in the city’s literary community. They began planning a series of events with the owners of the bookstore and local bars.
Then the election happened.
Almost immediately, Sarah Hollenbeck, one of the owners of Women & Children First, noticed a change around the bookstore. One of the first events post-election was an author reading by Jessica Luther from her book Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape. “It was necessary information,” Hollenbeck says, “but it made us feel terrible. We had elected an accused rapist. This was our life now. No one felt hopeful.”
At the end of November, the bookstore hosted its feminist craft circle. Sixty people showed up to knit bright pink pussyhats for protesters to wear at the January Women’s March on Washington and talk about why they were there. “It was a very different tone,” Hollenbeck says. “This was an event around an activity and community-building. The book event was around horrific reality that feels insurmountable. There needs to be a balance between learning and feeling inspired to tackle issues head-on.”
The four writers felt this need for balance as well and proposed a change to their reading series: instead of promoting individual authors, they’d invite writers and community activists to discuss the intersection of books and politics. As Makkai puts it, “In other countries, writers and artists are considered public intellectuals. Here we often only talk publicly about our work, our process. But if there was ever a time for us to engage in important political conversation, this is it.”
The event, they decided, would be called The Conversation. Each month’s conversation will have a particular theme, accompanied by readings of short passages that relate to that theme. Afterwards, the readers and audience will migrate to a nearby bar or restaurant to continue talking.
The first month of the Conversation, however, will be a discussion between Hemon, Eula Biss, Coya Paz, and Monica Trinidad about using art to resist the new administration, followed by a gathering at Las Manos Gallery around the corner on Foster that will benefit the Chicago Literary Alliance. February’s discussion will center on civil disobedience and feature ACLU senior counsel Rebecca Glenberg and labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan.
“It’s been fascinating to watch the transformation,” Hollenbeck says. “We met at the Hopleaf for a planning meeting soon after the election. There was a deep sadness. We all cried several times. There was a sense of deep loss. But at the end of the night, Kim said this was the best she’d felt in weeks. She said, ‘There are people grieving alongside me, but we’re doing something about it.” v