People read science fiction and fantasy as a form of escapism. They watch movies like “Star Wars” to get a break from real life. But not Dr. Eve Ewing.

Before she became interested in sociology, she consumed everything from “The Matrix” films to “The Street” by Ann Petry and Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” Social science was a different way to understand “what I learned about through visual art, through poetry and through fiction,” the author and sociologist told The Lily.

Eve Ewing. (Daniel Barlow)
Eve Ewing. (Daniel Barlow)

Ewing is an academic who researches the effects of racism and class on Chicago schoolchildren and education policy. She grew up in Chicago, and she has long sought the truth about her experiences, and that of many black kids like her.

Her new book, “Electric Arches,” is a collection of poems and short stories that explore race and identity in a more personal way.

“This book is about my life and maybe also your life,” Ewing writes in the introduction. “And it is about the places we invent. Every story in it is absolutely true. Some of the stories are from the past and some are from the future. In the future, every child in Chicago has food and a safe place to sleep, and mothers laugh all day and eat Popsicles.”

Throughout the book, Ewing offers an intimate look at the changing Chicago landscape through her eyes. She touches on mental health, too. The short story “Thursday Morning, Newbury Street” documents therapy sessions, and she talks about the emotional effects of racial microagressions. After her last in-person appointment with her therapist, her mother worries what will happen next:

“I won’t call her a convert,” Ewing writes. “She is not completely immune from the many forces that would convince black women that mental health is a farce at worst and a luxury at best.”

In several poems called [a re-telling], she begins by describing real-life experiences with racism but hand writes new endings.

In an interview with The Lily, Ewing spoke about her new book, black nerds and gentrification in Chicago. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Everdeen Mason: How did you come up with the idea for the [a re-telling] poems?

Eve Ewing: Whenever I woke up in the middle of the night with a bad dream, my mom would come and tell me, “What happened next? Tell me the end of the dream.”

I knew I wanted to write about these fairly traumatic, scary, racist incidents and I thought … coming up with alternate realities, thinking about the past and present and future. What would it be like to do a dream re-imagining? These incidents are really upsetting, so making a [quote-unquote] happy ending would be really disingenuous, but what would it be like to imagine something different?

EM: Are all these incidents things that happened to you?

EE:Yes, but at the same time, I try to assert what it means to make something true. That’s what makes sci-fi and fantasy and speculative fiction so great. I feel people who enjoy these genres, deep down, a little bitty part of you thinks it’s real. Deep down, you’re always waiting to open a wardrobe and find a magical world.

EM: What is it about those genres that you think appeals to black people?

EE: I think it’s that growing up in the era in which we did, you have to be a bit of a race bender in order to get around.

I was watching the trailer for Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and got so emotional. People have so many great conversations about representation, but no matter how much we talk about it on an intellectual front, I have no words for how deep in my spirit, about how moved I am seeing that little girl in the trailer.

EM: Who is your audience for this book?

EE: I hope that lots of people read the book. I’ve been really humbled by the early responses to the book. So many people say it made them cry. Every single person says a different poem is their favorite.

But the book is definitely written to a compendium, amalgamated version of my 14-, 15-, 16-year-old self. My envisioned audience is the aggregate between myself at this age and the young people I teach.

The cool thing about teaching middle school is that you meet when they’re 11 and stick with them until they’re 14, and if you keep in touch like I do with my students, you see them become teenagers and young adults. You see them grow up.

This book is for all of them.

EM: How do you take these ideas, which you’re also researching academically, and make them more abstract yet more emotionally honest?

EE: It’s less about something I try to do intentionally. These things are my obsessions 24 hours a day. I’m wrestling with these ideas every day and sometimes it wants to be a poem or a tweet or an essay or an op-ed.

EM: These poems and short stories are clearly very personal to your experience. Which poem in this collection feels most real to you in this moment?

EE:Whichever poem feels most real to me is the most recent I just wrote, and the most present in my mind are not in the book.

As for poems in the book … “Fullerton Avenue.” I’ve been spending a lot of time in the community of Logan Square where I don’t live any more. It’s very gentrified and very alienating to be here. I’ve been having all these emotions coming back as I do press for the book.

EM: This is very present for a lot of people in many major cities. People are feeling really displaced in gentrifying areas like D.C. or New York too. Can you tell me more about what you’re feeling?

EE: The people look different, the businesses are different, the things I thought would be there forever are gone.

I was driving down the street and they completely demolished things that I assumed would be there forever. It’s a new unfamiliar thing.

The way people talk about the neighborhood is very commodified. When I went to college at the University of Chicago, people had never heard of [Logan Square].

Now when I say where I’m from, people are like, “Oh, my friend just moved there.” The place I’ve grown up my whole life that used to socially signify one thing now signifies another thing.

I’m a time traveler from a neighborhood that doesn’t exist. That’s what I’m getting at in the book.

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