The day of the Chicago Book Expo was cold. Brutally cold. The Nov. 21 morning started with a light snowfall, and by noon it was difficult to see through the white mass of swirling snowflakes. But dedicated bibliophiles stuffed their hands in mittens, burrowed into oversized coats and ventured toward the promise of knowledge and new papery friends.
More than 100 authors, printing presses and literary nonprofit organizations set up tables in Columbia College’s 1104 Center, with 19 programs running throughout the day, including author readings, discussions and workshops. The eager (yet frigid) literary lovers ranged from students with woven beanies and thick-rimmed glasses, to laid-back writers toting multiple bags. One older gentleman sported a jean jacket and custom rain-protector on his cowboy hat.
The books were even more diverse than the patrons. This year, the expo was stockpiled with unique narratives from extraordinary writers. The PHOENIX caught up with some local authors and compiled a list of books that aim to ignite social justice conversations and warm your feminist heart this winter.
Gaybash by David Jay Collins
Collins’ debut novel follows Matt Tompkins, a quiet gay man who seldom breaks the rules. Regularly uncomfortable and timid, he admires his handsome and outgoing friend Greg. When Matt is confronted by two attackers in an alley in Boystown, he attempts to imitate Greg and makes a surprising choice. This quick decision propels the rest of the novel.
“I haven’t seen characters like this in the genre of fiction,” said Collins, who self-published the paperback novel in June 2015. “I wanted to see a character like Matt, who is shy and reserved and not really living his life to the fullest, break out of that.”
The novel’s title hints at some of the real-world problems the LGBTQ community faces, and it features intense bullying and hate speech scenes. Set in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, Gaybash expounds on identities and delves into what happens when we confront insecurities.
In the early 1900s, America lingered between two World Wars, and the population coped with Prohibition and the Great Depression. It was especially hard for Estella Reynolds, an 8-year-old African American living in a segregated Mississippi town. The Road from Money, published in October 2014 by Outskirts Press, unravels a tale of exploitation and discrimination as Estella fights for her education under the strain of Jim Crow laws.
Boyd, a Chicago native, said he based the story on his grandmother, who relayed her experiences to family members.
“I depended on going back in time and thinking about what my grandmother said, [what] my aunts and uncles had told me,” said Boyd. “I found that I had a very wonderful book … full of the Great Depression, the Great Migration … also moonshine and lynchings and love.”
In The Road from Money, Boyd explores America’s weaknesses and a girl’s will to combat them.
Thoughts of a Fried Chicken Watermelon Woman by Karen Ford
Thoughts of a Fried Chicken Watermelon Woman, published in May 2014 by TotalRecall Publications,
is anything but bland. Ford discusses pop culture topics such as the underlying beauty of the TV series The Real Housewives of Atlanta and the lack of diversity in People Magazine’s Most Beautiful People issue. The experienced journalist of 20 years also delves into controversial subjects such as her unabashed abortion stance and the dehumanizing process of traveling to the unemployment office.
“I want [readers] to think and then I want them to debate. I want them to discuss,” said Ford. “Once we start to think then we’ll start to recognize that we are much more alike than we are different, and there are things we can do as a society to change the things that are unjust.”
Ford makes it clear that the book is “one Black woman’s thoughts on issues of the day” and that her words may make readers scream, cry or laugh.
Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead by Christian Picciolini
Romantic Violence, published in April 2015 by Goldmill Group, is an uncomfortable account of Picciolini’s transition from a well-loved kid in the Chicago suburbs to a leader of the radical skinhead movement in the 1980s. He was kicked out of four high schools, attended KKK rallies and opened a record store that stocked white power music. Now the co-founder of the nonprofit Life After Hate and an award-winning television producer, Picciolini shares his transformation story.
“I think a lot of authors will say this, that writing a memoir or autobiography is very therapeutic and cathartic,” said Picciolini. “It really forced me to remember things and process things that I had kind of pushed down for 20 years. I did want to write it in a very direct way.”
The resulting novel is a raw and disturbing account of a man who once stood on the other side of justice.