We recently caught up with Chicago native Ben Austen to talk about his essay “No One Knows You're a Dog” from our Spring 2018 issue. A journalist and the author of High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, Austen spoke to us about the avenues of truth found in dualities—the common impulses between the journalistic and the personal, the constancy of change in Chicago, and the great Chicago writers who render honestly the city's history and brutality.
SR: You're a journalist who has written on a wide array of subjects, from the history of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects to the French tennis star Gael Monfils to the insolvency of NFL players. What different challenges did writing this personal essay present from your daytime job?
Austen: There’s obviously a big difference between recreating scenes from other people’s lives and ones from your own life. I love the interviewing process. I love learning about other people, drawing them out, arriving at moments of discovery and revelation. There’s also the thrill of trying to solve the puzzle of how those pieces of biography fit together in a narrative I can tell. I’ve got no illusions: those football players, Gael Monfils, the residents of Cabrini-Green whose lives fill my book High-Risers—they’re all profoundly more interesting than I am. Which is probably why I’m most comfortable in my own skin, most purposeful, when I’m out on a reporting trip and observing, jotting notes on just about everything, as if I’m a camera with the aperture always open.
But it’s also a lot of work relying on other people to get the story straight. What time of day was it when you gathered behind the middle school? Who was standing next to you? What were they wearing? Were you anxious or afraid? So there’s something freeing (if also daunting) about telling your own story, relying on your own memory, regardless (or because) of how unreliable it is. I had more leeway in this personal essay to jump around, to free-associate and examine each moment on the page from multiple vantage points. But I’ll add, too, that much of the writing process is the same. It’s all storytelling.
SR: “No One Knows You’re a Dog” is ostensibly about two people who, reunited on Facebook, have competing memories of a childhood experience with bullying and try to arrive at an agreed upon reality of what happened so that they can be friends. While writing it, though, I was wondering what you came to think it was about—what, that is, you came to understand was its subject?
Austen: There’s an incredible moment in which I recount an incident from third grade to the person who, on Facebook, reached out to say I bullied him as a child. I call him “Ethan” in the essay; he’s a rabbi now, and the incident I describe doesn’t really involve me. I’m just an observer. We’re in the park with our third-grade class and Ethan is afraid of a dog. He tells me that my memory is surprisingly accurate, that it makes him feel seen.Then Ethan recites a prayer of thanks, as if, as you say in the question, we have arrived at an agreed upon reality.
But here’s why the moment was so revealing. Ethan contacts me a month later to say he delivered a sermon to his congregation about our exhilarating exchange. The sermon proves so successful that he writes it down and publishes it. In the version he tells, I recount an incident from our childhood in which I admit, in vivid detail, to a specific act of bullying.
That to me is what the essay is largely about. Not the ways that realities converge through shared memories and stories. Not a coming together to arrive at truth. But possibly the opposite. I realized I wanted to explore in the essay the ways that we construct our realities and identities through the stories we tell about ourselves. We hold fast to those stories even as we know they’ve been distorted (or forgotten) as they make their way through the multiple prisms of time and subjectivity. That seemed like a fun idea to unpack while also creating a space where storytelling, identity, and morality intersected in interesting ways.
SR: Like Saul Bellow, you’re an American writer, Chicago born. But you’re also a writer whose subject is often Chicago, and I’d love to hear what sort of light delving into your childhood memories of the city shone on Chicago’s present. Your essay’s evocations of the place, of its anthropology, of what it was like to be a young person there and then, are so remarkable. Does that South Side of your childhood still exist?
Austen: True story. In my day-to-day life in Chicago, I often sigh deeply and say, “I love this fucked-up city.” As Sandburg or Algren or more recently the local singer-songwriter-poet Jamila Woods have depicted it, Chicago is brutal, bruising, racist . . . and majestic, nurturing, and endlessly fascinating. My neighborhood on the South Side, over the course of little more than a hundred years, was alternately German, English, Irish, Jewish, and African American. Just a few decades before all that there were Potawatomi villages there. My family arrived shortly after the area flipped from predominantly white to black. We were a white family moving into a home that would have been out of our price range elsewhere. In the last decade or so, the neighborhood as a whole has become significantly poorer. It currently has the city’s highest percentage of families renting with Section 8 vouchers. But there are now hopes—and fears—that the construction of the Obama Presidential Center nearby will change that. That steady churn, the constant state of flux, is really the story of Chicago—and maybe most American cities. “Put the city up; tear the city down; / put it up again; let us find a city,” Carl Sandburg writes in the poem “The Windy City.” As a writer myself, yes, I want that to be my topic. Chicago in all its ceaseless glory and failure.
I will try to use the Bellow part of your question as a blurb. The Sewanee Review proclaims Austen “like Saul Bellow.” I recently re-read Humboldt’s Gift. I loved it. The book is, among many things, a romp through Chicago, from the heights of a luxury condo down to the demimonde. But I have to say that Bellow, for all his superhuman powers of observation, his Nobelist gift for language, isn’t really interested in inhabiting people unlike himself, or fully imagining the parts of Chicago where he doesn’t normally tread. The “other,” the distant neighborhood, these are used as plot devices, as a way to put a certain kind pressure on his white, intellectual, male characters. That’s not the kind of writing I’m trying to do.
There’s a fantastic personal essay called “Mr. Bellow’s Planet” by Brent Staples, who won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for his work at the New York Times. (The stand-alone essay is a chapter in Staples’s memoir Parallel Time.) In it, Staples writes about coming to the University of Chicago for graduate school and moving to Hyde Park, with its starkly defined boundaries of race and class. Because people see him—a young black man—and cower in fear, believing they are about to mugged, Staples comes to take on the identity of a mugger. It’s like a chapter in Invisible Man, the racism and alienation both driving him mad and infusing him with a kind of power. Staples sets his sights on Bellow. He waits outside the great man’s apartment, stalking, creeping in the shadows. But he is also stalking Bellow as an aspiring writer. If Bellow can’t really see the black neighborhoods that surround Hyde Park, if he depicts black men in his fiction only as sexual signifiers there to play upon the psyche of white characters, then Staples will write those omitted scenes. He’ll render the people and spaces in their complicated glory and failure. He essentially out-writes Bellow. It’s brilliant. Along with, say, the work of Eula Biss, it’s as good a Chicago personal essay as there is, and I aspire to that.