Interview: Don Evans, Sandra Cisneros, and the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

Even via Zoom, Don Evans is passionate about Chicago’s relationship with the written word. A writer, editor, and teacher, Evans is also the executive director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame (CLHOF). Founded in 2010, the CLHOF presents educational programming, literary exhibits and events, and presents their Fuller Award to an outstanding Chicago writer at the annual induction ceremony. This year’s event honors Chicago-born author Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street and others. The free event takes place virtually on March 13, at 7pm (register here). After an interview, Ms. Cisneros will participate in a Q and A session and deliver her acceptance speech.

I spoke with Evans about the event, the CLHOF, and their work with Chicago’s literary scene, past, present, and future.

Please tell me about yourself and your background.

I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago. So, born and raised in Chicago. First at 2819 North Maplewood where my grandpa had a two-flat. The first floor was always reserved for the broke-ass relatives—which was us—from 1965 to 1970. And then we moved into the Cragin neighborhood at 2255 North Leamington, and stayed there till high school. Then we moved out to Downers Grove. I went to undergraduate school at the University of Illinois, Champaign.

As a journalism major, I got my degree, and worked in newspapers for about six years. All the time living in Chicago. Wrigleyville, mostly. I took a fellowship to go to the Syracuse University MFA program for fiction writing and to study with Tobias Wolff and other great teachers. I spent three years there and then came back to Chicago.

My wife and I moved around a little bit. We returned to Chicago permanently and lived in Logan Square for a while, right on the boulevard, then settled in Oak Park.

Give me a general introduction to the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, how it started, your connection, and what you hoped to achieve with it.

It started as a project of the Chicago Writers Association, which is a small, nonprofit, and really tremendous group. Randy Richardson is the president, and Randy and I became friends working together on some projects. Before 2010, I was running a reading series at El Jardin, down a block from Wrigley Field on Clark Street. And that reading series transitioned into an anthology of literary work poetry, essays, stories, and so forth about the Chicago Cubs called Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year.

When the Chicago Writers Association got their nonprofit status and were looking to do all the things that were possible as an official nonprofit…he asked me to be on the board. And I agreed. They asked everybody to bring in a project that would benefit the Chicago writing community. I brought in the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, in part because I had been in London for three years, and while I was there, we were traveling around Europe.

We went to all the great cities, and it was a remarkable treasure trove of awareness for the literary history of each place. When you went to Dublin, they had the writers museum. In London they had a museum to Charles Dickens…Sherlock Holmes, statues in the park of Oscar Wilde. Everywhere you went through Europe, those countries preserved the places where the writers lived, where they worked. They put up plaques and statues and had places open to the public where you could learn about authors and honor them. And I got back to Chicago and there wasn’t much of that. It’s a great literary city, and there’s hundreds of world-class cultural and literary organizations, but none of them focused on the past. It was difficult to find any trace of somebody like Edna Ferber or Cyrus Colter…even somebody like Carl Sandburg.

And so, as a writer interested in other writers and the history of our literary heritage, I thought we ought to be doing more to honor and preserve and promote all the great work that has come out of our city. It became an enormous project, and it was successful. People were interested in what we were doing, and everything we did led to other aspects of the organization that made sense. After about four years…it seemed logical to branch out and become our own nonprofit because we needed to be our own entity. So that’s what we did.

Clearly, she’s a deeply deserving individual, but what aided in deciding to present the Fuller Award to Sandra Cisneros?

[It was] 2012 when we gave out the first Fuller Awards. We started in 2010, having an annual induction process, in which we selected only historical writers…by which I mean dead writers. And so that first class was Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow. Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lorraine Hansberry. And then from there, you can imagine, the Great Chicago writers who started to get inducted every year, Theodore Dreiser, Farrell, Sandburg and so forth and so on. We felt like this was the core of what we were doing, and it was the most important thing that the Chicago Hall of Fame was doing in those first couple years.

But even as we were doing it, we were involving so many people in ceremonies that were speakers or presenters or they would perform readings and, looking around, we saw that in Chicago, right now, we have so many incredible writers who have had long, incredible careers, who have contributed so much in terms of their body of work but also their contributions to our communities. We started talking about how it would be great if we were able to honor some of these writers, while they’re still around, so we can make it a community celebration.

So the first writer we honored was Gene Wolfe in 2012. And then Harry Mark Petrakis, in 2014. So the first one was at the Sanfilippo Estate, and then for Harry, we did it at the National Hellenic Museum. And then after that, it was Hakeem Madhubuti at the Poetry Center, and so forth and so on. The ceremonies attracted people from every aspect of the honorees’ lives, former students, colleagues, other writers, people in the community, in organizations that they had worked for, or taught at, or helped to found. All these people came together and showed their respect and gratitude on a night that was more about the community, and Chicagoans coming together. So that’s where it started.

That leads us to Sandra Cisneros. For both the induction process and the award, there’s a pretty stringent criteria and thorough vetting for our consideration of who we should give the awards to. The selection committee looks at their Chicago connections. How important is Chicago to who they are as a person and a writer? Is their body of work substantial? Is it a work that people are going to be reading and care about decades from now?

Sandra Cisneros meets all that criteria. [She] was really the top of the list. The House on Mango Street is, at this point almost required reading in middle schools and a book that has been influential throughout, of course Latina and Latino community, but also beyond that. It’s had a substantial impact on so many different lives in so many different ways.

And that’s just a small slice of what she has accomplished with her other books. She’s got 11 books and has written amazing poetry and a memoir that explores her Chicago time and her roots and her upbringing here. I mean, in short, Sandra Cisneros is not only one of our best writers, but one of the writers who’s had the greatest impact on the most people. For all those reasons, I think the selection committee was very excited to be able to invite her to accept the award, and even more excited that she was able and willing to do that.

What do we have to look forward to at the ceremony?

The thing that I’m most looking forward to is hearing Sandra’s acceptance speech, because I don’t know if you’ve seen her read or speak but she is a brilliant, charming, generous author, everywhere she goes. She enthralls people and invites people in, in a kind of spirit of community that makes everybody feel like they’re a part of what’s going on. I think it’s going to be an hour of just magical programming all around.

What do we have to look forward to from the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in the future?

Well, like a lot of organizations we’ve been trying to adjust to the pandemic. You probably recall, back last March, we were all like, “Oh.we don’t know how long this is going to last. But, hopefully, by April, things should be back to normal.” Right?

So it’s been a process of learning, what we can do and how we can take advantage of the circumstances. I think a lot of people in organizations, they’ve tried to replicate what they were doing before the pandemic. And in some ways, I think that’s the wrong way to approach it. Because you can’t. There’s nothing we can do, at the Fuller Award ceremony, to capture the excitement of being in a room with 150 other people who are there to see an author they love. We can’t replicate what it means to people to be able to go up and say hello to Sondra and to get their books signed and get a selfie.

But there are some things you can do you couldn’t do before. We’re trying to do as much programming as we can. But we’re also very concerned about social issues and economic issues impacting our culture right now. So we’re trying to help out where we can help out. For example, Independent Bookstore Day is April 24. And it’s usually an event that has scavenger hunts, and the independent bookstores have cupcakes… candy… prizes that they give away. So it’s a fun day. But again, it’s a pandemic.

The independent bookstores are struggling to survive. We lost one of our great independent bookstores, City Lit Books in Logan Square. And others have had to use GoFundMe, and get help in order to stay in business. So James Finn Garner, the great author, he came up with the idea to do something called Inside for Indies, in which different authors turn the camera on themselves, and invite the audience to share their workspace in their home. It’s an intimate glimpse into authors’ lives. And while doing that, Jim, devised a way people could donate to independent bookstores through the American Booksellers Association. And that’s a way the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, can support independent bookstores and Independent Bookstore Day. We’re going to do a live version of Inside for Indies, and we’ll have a few authors show us the inside of their homes and their workspaces, but we’ll also have people out at the independent bookstores around the city, giving us little glimpses at what they’re doing and how they’re doing.

We are, for the second year, doing a program called Chicago FitLife, in which we encourage people to go out and experience the city they’re stuck in, and to do it in conjunction with readings and sites associated with Chicago authors and stories. Last year—and we did this pandemic-safe, with masks and social distancing—we met up at the the place where the Chicago Fire started, which is now the Chicago Fire Academy. We discussed some of the literature written about and novels set during the Great Chicago Fire. We went to Haymarket Square, and we talked about Missing from Haymarket Square by Harriette Gillem Robinet—a great young adult novel set during the Haymarket Square riots. We went to Robie House because Blue Balliett has a novel, The Wright 3, in which the Robie house is the central setting. We got a personalized tour, and then we walked from there to Jackson Park to the Japanese Garden, which is also featured in that same novel. So, we get in our walking and we talk about books.

We have an exhibit coming up about Chicago writers of the Federal Writers Project which was a great WPA program that employed so many future greats like Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Fenton Johnson, and Margaret Walker, and so on and so forth. So we’re gonna do an online exhibit. We’ve got a couple of stage readings, we’ve got the induction ceremony later, and we’ve got more awards. So we’ve got a full programming schedule.

I guess, when you talk about what’s in the future, the future is we want to get the community involved more. We’ve always done a great job of having a really inspired, energetic and enthusiastic community. But we want to bring in more people, invite more people and get them to share what they’re doing. Because what the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame does is not about the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. We’re not looking to make our own headlines. We’re trying to coordinate with as many different great organizations as we can, to make sure we’re somewhat of a central database for Chicago literature.

I know this doesn’t make for very sexy copy, but the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame has always been a scrappy, poor organization that does way more than you would think we would be able to, given our budget and our resources. But it’s nice we were able to do so many great things even though we were at that disadvantage—but that’s not sustainable.

To see what the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame has coming up and to offer support, visit their site here.

Interview has been edited.

Poster designed by Mary Livoni; photos credit, Keith Dannemiller
Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.