August 11, 2019 by Grace Cooper

Salon Speaker: Alex Kotlowitz

What is Salon? Every month we bring a writer or artist into Cook County Jail Division 10 to share their work and have a conversation with published Alumni Authors. Salon Speakers discuss their writing process and engage with Authors through thought provoking and meaningful conversation – a learning experience is beneficial to all involved. We sit down with our guests and ask them about their experience at Salon, and how storytelling influences their work.

For September’s Salon brought in Alex Kotlowitz, a writer, journalist, and storyteller. He is the author of four books, including his most recent, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago. His other books include the national bestseller There Are No Children Here, which the New York Public Library selected as one of the 150 most important books of the twentieth century.

What specific feedback on your presentation/work from Authors stood out to you?

One is that they clearly have thought about this notion of telling stories, and so I think they were interested in a practical way helping get tips on how to best tell ones narrative and ones story. And I think the other part of it is there were some pointed and really important questions about whose place it is to tell whose story. And given that I’m an outsider in the stories that I tell I think one of the questions for me was a sort of questions or challenging my place in telling these stories, so I thought we had a really invigorating conversation about that. And I appreciated the fact that we had this conversation that had gone on for a bit and then a couple of guys that had read the chapter from my book kind of piped up and talked about the power that story had for them, and I remember one of them said he felt like Eddie was talking directly to him, that he forgot my place in the storytelling which I really appreciated. 

It’s interesting, some of them really stayed with me. There was that guy in the back with dreads, I noticed right away when he came in and sat in the back his hair was all in front of his face and by then end it was pulled to the back. Which for me was a kind of metaphor for that visit.

How did your experience with Salon match your expectations?

Well I guess having been in prisons before and talking about my work I’ve learned to expect some really high browed deeply thoughtful if not profound conversations, and I certainly found it amongst these men. I mean this was a younger crowd than I’m accustomed to because they’re all in there awaiting trial. Down in Statesville where these guys have been in for 20-30 years they’ve had a great deal of time to think about their own lives, to think about the world around them, these guys at the county for the most part were pretty young, mostly in their 20s. As a group they seemed more agitated than the guys I’m accustomed to at Danville or Statesville and I think in part because you know they’re all fighting their cases and there’s a kind of uncertainty of their future, and I get that. 

What was remarkable for me was that they were incredibly thoughtful about their own stories, their own lives their own journeys, and incredibly thoughtful about the world around them. They were asking me what I thought were really thoughtful questions. 

Did the experience influence, inspire, or enrich you as a writer?

That was the second time I spoke to incarcerated men that week. What I’ve been doing for the past four years is telling other people’s stories, and I feel that on some level that’s what I admire about ConTextos, is that you guys are giving people the tools to tell their own stories and I think that’s so essential and that was just reinforced in talking with these guys at the County.

Going off that, do you ever see yourself doing that work? Giving people the tools to tell their own stories?

I think I talked a little bit about my experience at Statesville two years ago working with incarcerated men and telling their stories about their prison cells, and it was such an invigorating experience that it’s something that I’d like to try to do again. I’m actually teaching a course at Statesville this winter on criminal justice writing. 

How does storytelling influence your written work?

It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve done from the very beginning – to tell stories. As I was mentioning to the guys, you tell stories for two reasons – to bring people places they haven’t otherwise been and to meet people they haven’t otherwise met and the other part is that storytelling makes us feel less alone. It gives credence to our personal and collective histories. And I’m sure for these men stories probably do both of those, they tell stories because they want to reach out to people who haven’t had the experience they’ve had, and on the other hand they tell stories because stories can save us, they feel less alone. They realize that they share the experiences of the guy in the cell next door. And that’s really important. 

What are you working on next?

If I only knew! I think as I mentioned to the guys there’s this compulsion as a writer at the moment to try to in some manner weigh in on these times, and the sort of dilemma of a book writer is one, whatever I’m gonna work on next isn’t gonna be done for a number of years, and for me the test of writing a book is you hope that it’ll feel just as resonant ten years from now as it does now. So thats what I’m trying to grapple with, the urgency of the moment and how fast things are moving, to try and find something to write about that both speaks to this moment in time – and I don’t just mean this moment on this day, but in this era – and will also feel as resonant 10 years from now. But we’re going through some pretty distressing, divisive times in this country and I think that like many I feel pretty disconnected with parts of this country and I’m trying to find a way to grapple with that. 

Interested in speaking at Salon? Contact Grace at grace@contextos.org

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