As part of the Chicago Writers Association’s “CWA Presents…” series, Toya Wolfe, author of “Last Summer on State Street” and graduated from Columbia in 2015 with an MFA in creative writing, took the stage with her former instructor Eric Charles May, author of “Bedrock Faith” and Associate Professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing.
Wolfe and May’s joint interview, hosted by CWA board member Sandy Colbert, covered many topics, including the real-life inspiration behind their novels and how Chicago South Side communities are represented in the media. The event was held Sept. 10 at Ferguson Hall, 600 S. Michigan Ave.
As the Chronicle reports, May’s “Bedrock Faith” was chosen as the One Book, One Chicago 2021 anniversary selection. Wolfe’s debut novel, “Last Summer on State Street,” was named Publishers‘ Best Book of the Summer. Weekly, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Tribune and many more, according to the Barnes and Noble website.
While both novels are set in Chicago, “Bedrock Faith” and “Last Summer on State Street” highlight several differences and commonalities about life in black communities on the South Side across their stories.
In writing “Bedrock Faith,” May said he wanted to delve into a particular black middle class that is conspicuously absent from American literature: stories about a neighborhood in which the worst aspects of racism are not a defining characteristic of daily life.
“I wanted to write a story where overt white racism doesn’t drive the drama,” May said at the event, “which is by no means a denial of that, just that African-American life is as nuanced as any other culture.”
May told Morgan Park where he grew up and was the inspiration for the book.
This contrasts with the old Robert Taylor Homes in Bronzeville, where Wolfe grew up and where “Last Summer on State Street” takes place.
“It’s like you’re breathing, and there are police,” Wolfe said.
At the event, Wolfe explained that South Side stories shouldn’t be homogenized.
“I have a very specific version of the south side,” Wolfe said. “Eric’s South Side is different from mine. Michelle Obama’s South Side is different. Lena Waithe’s South Side is different.
Wolfe’s South Side specifically explores the inner lives of four black girls in 1999.
“When you grow up as a little girl, you are always told what to do, how to be, how to sit, what to wear… I had the opportunity to give these girls thoughts and feelings and to tell you actually let them hear,” Wolfe said.
May has stated in literature, news, and mainstream media that Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods are often locked in narratives centered on violence. He said diverse stories are written but don’t get much attention or airplay because Hollywood needs to appeal to a larger audience attracted by a lower common denominator.
May added that the lower common denominator is often violent.
Wolfe said TV Writers‘ Rooms tell stories of Chicago from the perspective of people who don’t know what the city is really like.
“A lot of it is written by people who didn’t live in Chicago and don’t know what it’s like to walk on those sidewalks,” Wolfe said.
May said that ultimately writing stories about the distinct experiences of specific people results in stories with high emotional impact that appeal to a wider audience.
“When you dive deep into the specific, you access the universal,” May said. “Even though we may never live in the projects… we all know what fear feels like. We all know what confusion looks like.
Wolfe agreed with May and said that although people today often want to emphasize their differences, they have more in common than they think.
“At the end of the day, people want to raise their families,” Wolfe said. “They want to have fun. Regardless of your religious tradition, you want to try to get closer to God. This stuff, it’s universal.