Barrie Jean Borich is an associate professor of creative writing and publishing at DePaul University, where she edits Slag Glass City, a digital journal of “urban essay arts.” Her most recent book, Apocalypse, Darling, is “set in the steel mill regions of Chicago and in Northwest Indiana,” and “tells the story of the industrial heartland that produced the steel that made American cities — while also being one of the most toxic environmental sites in the world.” It’s a fascinating, haunting book about a part of Chicagoland that most people ignore, even when they’re driving through it on I-90.
How did you wind up in Chicago?
I was born in Chicago, on the far southside, and I grew up here. My parents and their whole generation of extended family were also born on the southside of Chicago. I grew up crossing and re-crossing the far southeast side borders—parts of the city and first-ring industrial suburbs that many on the north side, where I live now, have never seen.
So how did my family wind up in Chicago? I’ve written a memoir (my previous book—Body Geographic) largely on that topic, in that my family story is a common Chicago tale of early 20th century migration to the industrial city. In my case, it has an extra spin because I see my own and many other American LGBTQ stories as another kind of immigration narrative.
But how did I wind up in Chicago today? I did leave for many years, living and working in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I returned six years ago to take a teaching job in the Creative Writing and MA in Writing and Publishing program at DePaul University. I had long wanted to come back, so the job at DePaul has been dream-fulfilling for me.
What are you reading right now?
I am always reading many things at once, often related to what I am teaching. My Spring classes at DePaul all focus on memoir writing, so I am re-reading Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and also studying three other contemporary memoirs I will be discussing with my students this spring: Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s The Currency of Light, Kao Kalia Yang’s The Song Poet, and Rigoberto Gonzalez’s brand-new memoir about brotherhood, What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth. Personally, the book I’ve just started and am the most excited about is Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering.
Of all the books you could have written, how and why did you settle on this one?
I don’t feel I had a great deal of choice about writing Apocalypse, Darling when I did. I was working hard at another at the time this one pushed to the front of my attention. However, as has happened again and again in my experience as a writer, I ended up writing what I could not turn away from. On the surface, the urgent calling was to write the story of a compellingly difficult family wedding, but on a deeper level what pulled at me was the imprint of place, particularly the parts of Chicago and northwest Indiana marked by the decline of the steel industry. My work is usually driven by a question, and my always pressing question about postindustrial landscapes has to do with the common Chicago concern with remediation, taken to a figurative level. I wonder if we can ever recover from the toxicity of the past, and I wonder how we live with inherited damage.
Why I chose to publish this book at this time is perhaps more to the point. I sat on versions of this manuscript for some time, seeking publishers now and then, but repeatedly I felt the time was just not right, and so I put the pages away again. But then Trump was elected and suddenly the inheritance of toxic history and the question of whether or not we can forgive the patriarchal father seemed extraordinarily timely, and that’s when I sent the manuscript to the editor who had acquired my previous book. She accepted the book for publication within a couple of weeks, to head off the new literary nonfiction series, Machete, as a part of the literary imprint (Mad Creek Books) she was about to launch at Ohio State University Press.
What is your favorite book about (or set in) Chicago?
So many people disagree with me on this one—and of course I have a long list of favorites—but I carry a deep and particular love for Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Those early passages of Carrie Meeber entering the city to remake her life are embedded deeply in me, and represent so much of my own experience of the link between desire and cities.
What under-appreciated Chicago-based writer (past or present) do you wish everyone would read?
Peggy Shinner’s essays are beautiful, smart, complex, and completely Chicago-made. Her book, You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body, is exquisite. She should be read and discussed as one of the definitive essayists of our time.
Where do you usually write? Do you have any favorite public writing spaces in Chicago?
I am a big-time public writer and I have a few favorite spots. I live in Edgewater and my spouse and I, by choice, are car-free, so I tend to work best within walking distance. I like Zanzibar and Nookies, both of which are close to my home and are generous with their electricity, and I also work very well in the Growling Rabbit on Broadway, especially if my favorite barista is working. When I’m in the Loop there’s a few places I haunt, but I particularly love Lavazza Kafenio, an Italian coffee shop on Washington.
What forthcoming books from Chicago-based writers are you excited about?
I am looking forward to reading Jenny Boully’s essays in Betwixt-and-Between, which has just come out from Coffee House Press, and I am also keenly interested in Eve Ewing’s coming book Ghosts in the School Yard, about the school closings on Chicago’s south side.
Ohio State University Press
Published January 2018
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.