My first experience with Rebecca Makkai was an accidental one. I was in Minneapolis for the AWP Conference in 2014 and I had just sat down for a panel titled “Art of the Encounter” because Chinelo Okparanta was sitting as a panelist and hers was the only name I recognized. Alas, Okparanta was unable to attend, and Chicago-based author, Rebecca Makkai was asked to fill in for her. The moderator, Arna Bontemps Hemenway, introduced her with an anecdote of listening to Makkai on audiobook while trying to pack before a move, which proved detrimental to his work as he constantly had to sit and listen to her words and allow himself to be enveloped by them. “Okay,” I thought, “She sounds like she must be pretty good.”
Since then, her books, The Borrower, Music for Wartime, and The Hundred-Year House have earned places among my favorite books due to their lyricism, speed, precision, and humor. Naturally, when I found out that Makkai would be reading at Women and Children First in Andersonville, I had to attend.
The reading took place on a rare, perfect summer night in Chicago. Makkai remarked during the reading that she was worried no one would show up because the weather was so nice, but a sizable crowd filled the comfortably small space. Makkai and Anna North, author of America Pacifica and most recently The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, read from underneath a wall of children’s books like Women in Science, A Family is a Family is a Family, and Her Highness Builds Robots. Most of the evening consisted of a conversation between North and Makkai centered around perception. North’s, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, is Sophie Stark’s story told by the people around her who all perceive her differently. Makkai shared an experience where she was walking with a visual artist who had to stop every few minutes to take in how the light was hitting an object. “By talking to other artists, you get to see how they see the world,” Makkai said.
At the beginning of her writing career, Makkai wrote the kinds of stories she thought she should: “gritty stories about people hanging around in alleys.” But as she grew as a writer and an artist, she found that she had to discover her own stories, the ones that she knew but no one else could see. As she wrote stories that were more and more familiar to her, her home, Chicago, presented itself as a setting. Though she’s moved her stories out of the alley, Makkai’s Chicago is one that is seemingly in a collective blind-spot. It’s Makkai’s perception that allows her stories to become uniquely hers. Where a passerby might only see shadows, she sees hope and tragedy and life. She is in love with this city, in part because of its history and the seemingly simple geography of it, but because it is a landscape populated with stories that have yet to be written. (Kenny Kelly/GTA)