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Stories helped me grow up without racial prejudice.

In the forties, when I was little, my dad would tell me stories at bedtime. His characters were Inky and Licorice; they lived in my all-white world, and we had the same adventures. Without giving these little boys a label, I knew, perhaps by their names, that they were darker skinned than I. That made no difference to me. They became my imaginary friends.

In the sixties, when I moved to Chicago, I had no idea why my neighbors were upset about Martin Luther King wanting to march in our neighborhood. Call me naïve, but I was surprised and befuddled with their anger.

I recalled these memories recently when I attended Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest, the largest Lit Fest between the coasts of the U.S.  As several authors described their projects or books, I clearly saw the role of stories as educating us about differences and, thereby, helping us overcome prejudices of many kinds.

IMG_2276Carol LaChapelle, writing teacher and author of Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories, emphasized that each of our stories touches on the “universal story of what it means to be human.” In our stories, we will find themes in common, even though we all are different.

Chitra Banergee Divakaruni, latest book  Oleander Girl , described her new book as a hero’s journey from India to the America. Her book addresses how we live with difference.

Elizabeth Berg, latest book Tapestry of Fortunes, described her protagonist to be a woman “of a certain age.” She said there’s a resistance in the publishing world against women of her (older) age, and she’s ignoring it.

The N4 (Narrative 4) group, Sting, Colum McCann, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Charles Miles, explained this new project from their own experiences of being different. By having kids from different cultures share their stories, they plan to fulfill their motto of engendering “fearless hope through radical empathy.”

For example, Sting talked about giving “voice to the disenfranchised…the unvoiced, the etcetera’s.” McCann plans to match inner city Chicago kids with inner city kids from Belfast. By doing so, “We can radically change the world.” When these kids from opposing countries meet up later on ,they will remember each others’ stories and “not pull the trigger.”

So, just in these few examples, I saw the power of stories to educate, to show universality among humans, and to learn empathy toward each other. A powerful way to erase prejudices.

In the tile photo gallery below, walk along with me to the Lit Fest, past skyscrapers and into the row upon row of books, magazines, comics, and more. Allow yourself a nostalgic moment as you read titles from your past.

The Lit Fest is also a fun opportunity to meet publishers. In my meandering of several blocks of displays, I met Mike O’Mary, founder of Dream of Things: Distinctive Voices, Meaningful Books. An author himself, he also publishes other people’s work.  IMG_2272I was attracted to the print quality and layout of Mike’s books, including their clean-looking and eye-catching covers.

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I was also attracted to Mike’s honest writing. Here’s an excerpt from his story, “Christmas at the Carl Sandburg Mall” (Wise Men and Other Stories, 2009):

“December 1977. Galesburg, Illinois. I wasn’t doing very well in college. The academic affairs committee suggested that I take some time off. At first I declined their offer, but they politely informed me that if I didn’t take some time off voluntarily, they would make the decision for me. All of a sudden, a little time off didn’t sound so bad. I soon found myself looking for a job at the Carl Sandburg Mall, out near the freeway bypass on the north end of town.

“The Carl Sandburg Mall. What would he say if he were alive today? (The fog comes/on little cat feet./It sits looking over the Carol Sandburg Mall/shudders in revulsion/and moves on.)” (p. 37)

I think every reader can feel the universality here. We’ve each had a setback of some kind and can identify with Mike’s unasked-for time off. And the need to find a job. I have, for sure, and it only makes me want to read more of Mike’s experience.

And, I know I’ll remember him when I want to publish another book, a collection of my best blog posts, or who knows what else may roll off my desk in the future.

Plan to hang out next year at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. Mark your calendars for the first weekend in June.

See what prejudices you can address. Maybe even a far-fetched one in which you think your city’s pizza is better than ours!

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