Immigrant, Refugee Writers Share What It Means To Be American In New Exhibit At American Writers Museum

Keith Johnson
November 23, 2019 - 5:00 pm

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Author Vu Tran met his father when he was 5 years old. It was five years after his mother fled Vietnam in 1975 at the end of the war while his father, a South Vietnamese pilot, was fighting for the U.S.

In 1980, Tran — an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Creative Writing — moved to Oklahoma with his father and started a new life as an American. He said that experience heavily shaped him as a writer and is part of his cultural identity.

"That experience of newness and strangeness is something everyone knows," Tran said. "When you look at the immigrant experience through that lens, it will resonate and people realize, 'Oh, we all go through this.'"

Tran is one of more than 30 refugee and immigrant writers sharing their work and life experiences in a new exhibit at the American Writers Museum called "My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today" which opened Nov. 21 and runs through May 2021.

The interactive exhibit explores the influence of modern immigrant and refugee writing on U.S. culture, history and people's daily lives and features acclaimed local, national and global authors reflecting on what it really means to be American. Aside from Tran, local writer and Northwestern professor Juan Martinez shares his story in the exhibit as well as a few other Chicago authors.

Martinez, a Columbian American writer, has a new book out called "Best Worst American: Stories" a compilation of short fictional stories that represent exile, identity and displacement minorities face.

Tran's debut novel "Dragonfish" is on the New York Times Notable Book list and dramatizes how the violence of war moves past the battlefield in time and place and how it sits with those affected by it.

Vu Tran
Vu Tran is part of the new exhibit at the American Writers Museum "My America" that opened Nov. 21. (American Writers Museum)

Museum president Carey Cranston said they put a lot of content into the "My America" exhibit. With 12 screens, 12 different themes and long interviews cut into short segments, one could spend hours immersed in the 120 clips that highlight language, culture, duality, writing and more.

"There is probably five hours of video content if people are in the room watching every piece of multimedia that's involved," Cranston told WBBM. "We found that it's very engaging so people make a personal connection with these writers and hear their stories."

He said the stories presented in the exhibit are important in the present day and let writers tell their own unique stories that do not reflect only one immigrant experience.

“The importance of immigrant and refugee writers in the last two decades is illustrated by the level of recognition their works continue to achieve," he said.

Diane Guerrero, best known for her roles on "Orange Is the New Black" and "Jane the Virgin" will speak at the museum in early 2020 to share her new memoir "My Family, Divided: One Girl's Journey of Home, Loss, and Hope." Guerrero tells the story of her family’s deportation back to Colombia while she was in high school and the devastation, heartbreak and resilience that ensued.

Her visit is part of the exhibit's program series, which will bring numerous featured writers in the exhibit to the museum through the end of this year into 2020.