The Chicago Humanities Festival – Conversations with Michelle Zauner and Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel drawing
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The Chicago Humanities Festival has been connecting people and ideas to inform, inspire, and explore what it means to be human for 30 years. The programs are designed to be smart and entertaining and about ideas that matter. Ideas, are shaped so as to help audiences see the world differently.  I did experience “seeing the world differently” as two authors were in discussion.  Fortunately, the programs presented live are streamed allowing me the opportunity to watch the presentations at my convenience.

Over the past several years, the festival has grown from a one-day celebration of the humanities into a year-round festival of arts and ideas. There are more than 100 events annually, in venues across the Chicago area (from Evanston to Englewood, the Loop to the South Shore), including two festivals (Fall Festival, Spring Festival), and partnerships with the region’s most prestigious cultural institutions and universities. But during the pandemic, it is available online.

Michelle Zauner

The first interview was the conversation with Michelle Zauner (also known by her indie rockstar alias Japanese Breakfast) who in 2018 wrote the New Yorker article “Crying in H Mart” about losing her mother. Three years later this essay, which she describes as “the first chapter of the story that I want to tell about my mother,” has expanded into Zauner’s memoir—a story of food, family, and grief. Zauner comes to CHF to discuss growing up Korean American, becoming a musician, and remembering her mother. She was joined in conversation by New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino.

 While this conversation seemed almost flighty and a little giggly, there were deep truths about loss, being different, persevering as Michelle Zauner kept facing rejection after rejection and kept going.  In conversation she spoke of losing her aunt and her mother within two months giving her a sense of loss not only of these women that she loved dearly but of a disconnection with her Korean heritage.

Jia Tolentino, Crdit: Elena Mudd, (Interviewer of Michelle Zauner)

Jia Tolentino is an author in her own right and primarily a writer but, also an immigrant with a different culture.  Both women are young and very accomplished. Their discussion was homey and fascinating.

The festival is committed to eliminating barriers to participation related to age, income, race, and physical ability. To this end, the programs presented carefully and actively consider these factors (their topics, presenters, and areas of interest), the partners we engage with (from neighborhood organizations to universities to major cultural institutions), the program prices (the vast majority are under $20), and the accommodations and resources we offered to the audiences.

The next book discussion I watched was from the Elaine and Roger Haydock Humor Series with Alison Bechdel  and Nicole Eisenman sharing thoughts about the new book of cartoons by Alison Bechdel. “The Secret to Superhuman Strength”. It was described as, “ Comics and cultural superstar Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) comes to CHF to offer us a liberating life hack: the secret to superhuman strength is not six-pack abs. Bechdel would know—she’s spent six decades participating in a plethora of exercise fads and trends on a quest to improve herself. In this graphic memoir about her relationship with fitness, Bechdel talks with the artist Nicole Eisenman about the real secret to superhuman strength: appreciating the body and the life we already have.

Nicole Eisenman by Nathan Perkel, (interviewer of Bechdel)

Both women are from the East Coast, Bechdel from Vermont and Eisenman from Brooklyn.  They are both visual artists and they are both lesbians who met at an event shortly before the pandemic took over.  This was a special opportunity for them to interact and share their thought with an audience. 

Alison Bechdel with book

The discussion was freewheeling and covered many topics rather randomly. Eisenman expressed appreciation for the complexity of Bechdel’s drawings and asked about a possible gallery show.  The discussion moved into techniques in painting and drawing, the creative process, questions about what is success and thoughts about death.  In truth, I found some of this a bit confusing.

The festival offers wonderful opportunities, especially right now when many of the programs are free and streamed. More information about the Chicago Humanities Festival


Photos are courtesy of the Chicago Humanities Festival


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