Getting ‘Graphic!’ at the Chicago Humanities Festival | Festival | Chicago Reader

Getting ‘Graphic!’ at the Chicago Humanities Festival 

A preview of four talks this weekend

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click to enlarge A spread from The Best We Could Do

A spread from The Best We Could Do

Thi Bui

"Graphic Novels and Identity"

Sat 4/28, 1 PM, Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan, chicagohumanities.org, $20, $15 members, $10 students and teachers.

T hi Bui was just three years old when her family escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, but her graphic memoir The Best We Could Do delves deep into the history of the war that divided her home country, often from the perspective of her parents and grandparents. In telling the story of her childhood in the U.S. and, later, the birth of her son, Bui explores her relationship with her mother and father, reflecting on how their experiences shaped them as individuals. For this event, local artist and educator Patricia Nguyen joins Bui for a conversation about "the journey from refugee to citizen in a moment of travel bans and border walls." But before that, Bui talked with me about the art of the comic memoir. —Julia Thiel


You learned to draw comics to create your memoir—that seems like an unusual approach.

I teach in an MFA in Comics program now [at California College of the Arts], and it is the worst thing when someone brand-new to the medium wants to embark on a really big, long project. I tell people: It's possible, clearly, but you have to be a little crazy. Or a lot crazy.

What made you decide to tell your story through comics?

I had sort of failed at a few other ways to do it. I was an art major and learned to draw the more traditional fine-arts way. I can bang out a really good copy of a Michelangelo drawing, but it's not very useful for drawing comics. I had to learn a way of drawing that's much more symbolic, cartoony. Exactly the opposite of what they're trying to teach you in art school.

How did you learn?

I didn't take any classes. I'd already done two masters, and I was going to die before I went back to school for anything. I read a lot of comics and took inspiration from other people's work.

How much detail did you know about the history of Vietnam before writing the book?

I had to research a lot. I did a lot of visual research into hairstyles, clothing, buildings. I really love flora and fauna. I spent way more time looking up the shape of bushes than you might expect. I wanted to get those visual details right.

I didn't give time to stereotypes about Vietnamese people. They made me so angry that I only spent two panels on them. That way I saved a lot of real estate in the rest of the book for fully human representations of Vietnamese people. The small details of what life was like here [in the U.S. after her family immigrated]: the furnishings in our home, our clothes, the way we slept in one room, those kind of details.

What's your next project?

It was supposed to be about climate change in Vietnam, but as of last week I'm going to first do a shorter book about Southeast Asian deportations. It's posing the question, how did all these people who came here as refugees end up in mass incarceration and detention and deportation?

click to enlarge Amy Kaufman - COLIN DOUGLAS GRAY
  • Amy Kaufman
  • Colin Douglas Gray

"Bachelor Nation: Our Obsession With Reality TV"

Sat 4/28, 3 PM, Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan, chicagohumanities.org, $20, $15 members, $10 students and teachers.

F or nearly two decades romantics (or maybe sadists) across the country have obsessed over watching beautiful single men and women date multiple other single women and men on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette . At first it was easy to forget that behind all the skydiving adventures and candlelit dinners there were camera people and producers. Now, in a time of heightened awareness of the inner workings of reality television, the magic is seemingly gone, yet the shows' audience keeps growing. Los
Angeles-based entertainment journalist Amy Kaufman's new book Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America's Favorite Guilty Pleasure uncovers the darkest "unauthorized" secrets about what goes on behind the scenes while exploring the reasons people keep watching the franchise. She'll be discussing it at the Chicago Humanities Fest with Ali Barthwell, the recapper for Vulture.

"Every year it's more and more baffling that we're still into [the show], but we are," Kaufman says. She continues to watch every week even after learning some of the more unsavory details of the production process. "When it feels to me more authentic, those are the moments I like," she continues. "To get to see people grapple with their emotions in the state, that is the ultimate voyeurism for me, but also what makes me relate to them and feel less alone in the world."

Spurred by a quest to discover how much of Lifetime's fictional behind-the-scenes drama UnReal was true to life, Kaufman spoke to past contestants and producers about their
experiences on the show. In her book she reveals a world of bribery, brainwashing, and menstrual-cycle tracking to keep emotions and drama high. The idea of a fairy tale is pushed onto contestants and viewers alike, which Kaufman says feeds the prince-and-princess narratives introduced to us as children. It's what makes the world keep watching and what makes contestants continue to sign up for the show—ell, that and a social-media sponsorship, if their Instagrams are any indication.

Despite being a die-hard fan, Kaufman acknowledges how far The Bachelor has to go to catch up with more progressive times. "I just want a more diverse group of people on the show that are more reflective of actual people in the world who are dating, not just in race and ethnicity but in body type and sexuality," Kaufman says. "I think there needs to be more public questioning of it because if we just keep watching, nothing's going to change." —Brianna Wellen

click to enlarge Harriet Tubman’s Raid, Beaufort County, South Carolina, 2012 - ANDREW LICHTENSTEIN
  • Harriet Tubman’s Raid, Beaufort County, South Carolina, 2012
  • Andrew Lichtenstein

"The Places of American Memory"

Sun 4/29, 4 PM, Chicago Athletic Association, 12 S. Michigan, chicagohumanities.org, $20, $15 members, $10 students and teachers.

H ow we should reckon with our collective history has long been one of the most fraught subjects in the national conversation, and it's gained still more importance in a time when the question of whether to remove Confederate statues from public spaces has led to thorny debates and deadly confrontations. It becomes clearer every day that William Faulkner was all too right when he said "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

But while memorials to long-dead Confederate leaders are perhaps the most visible sites of contested historical memory today, there are many others that remain unseen. Challenging this overlooking is the goal of Marked, Unmarked, Remembered, a collection by the photojournalist Andrew Lichtenstein with an introductory essay by his brother Alex, a historian. Their work seeks to shed light on events that have been left out of the national story, even as these issues continue to define political struggles today.

"So many Americans want to believe a set of comfortable myths about the country's past," says Alex, "myths that leave out or neglect the very violent history of dispossession, slavery, racial terror, and class conflict that have made up this country's history, [and] are probably its essence. We need a full and honest reckoning with that past right now."

The book explores important historical sites that remain relatively obscure, places like a ruined South Carolina slave cabin on the banks of the Combahee River, where Harriet Tubman led a Union brigade on a raid that freed 700 slaves. In some cases, official monuments often obscure more potent meanings, as at a Ford auto plant in Dearborn, Michigan, where there's a statue of Henry Ford but nothing to mark the dramatic labor unrest that shook the factory for years. In Forest Home Cemetery, not far outside Chicago, the Haymarket Martyrs' Memorial has become a pilgrimage site for those unwilling to forget the city's important history of class struggle.

"I always believed that the first step towards healing a deep wound is acknowledgement," Andrew Lichtenstein said in a 2012 speech.

Adds Alex now, "We are always looking for that kind of twilight space between remembering and forgetting, which is where historical meaning often resides." —Tanner Howard

click to enlarge Clemantine Wamariya - JULIA ZAVE
  • Clemantine Wamariya
  • Julia Zave

"War and What Comes After: A Conversation With Clemantine Wamariya"

Sun 4/29, 4 PM, Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan, chicagohumanities.org, $20, $15 members, $10 students and teachers.

Rwandan massacre survivor Clemantine Wamariya has recently told her extraordinary story in an eloquent memoir, The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, out this week. Cowritten by Elizabeth Weil, the book follows Wamariya's journey after she and her older sister, Claire—then ages six and 15—escape Rwanda's civil war with their lives but are forced to travel from refugee camp to refugee camp across seven African countries before finding asylum in Chicago in 2000.

The book opens with an account of Wamariya and Claire's appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where they were reunited with their parents; their sister, Claudette, whom they hadn't seen since she was two years old; and an eight-year-old brother who was apparently born after the family was separated. The reunion was a total surprise to the sisters, who'd had no contact with their family in Rwanda during their entire exodus out of Africa.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads captures Wamariya's personality. Wamariya describes her happy childhood in Kigali, where she was a "precocious snoop" while Claire was frugal and sensible. Despite their struggles, they maintain these characteristics in America: Wamariya keeps up a courageous, happy demeanor, while Claire supports them both by washing clothes. When they meet their family, Waimariya writes, "Claire remained frozen for a moment. So I, in my TV clothes and blown-out hair, ran toward my Oprah-produced family, arms outstretched."

Chicago holds an important place in the author's heart. "This is where my people are," she says. Her "people" include her adopted family, who provided her with a loving home in Kenilworth and a good education at New Trier High School and Yale.

"Whatever story you want to have begins when you decide it begins," Wamariya says. "[We need to] be able to look backwards and see the people who raised us, who mirror our passion, people who are able to fill in the path that we want to create, and ask ourselves, how do they get there? How did they create it?" —Jordannah Elizabeth


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