Touring literary Oak Park

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

What started as a project for the Chicago Writers Association (CWA) has blossomed into an entity of its own, with public events and ongoing ceremonies honoring significant Chicago authors. It's the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame (CLHOF), brainchild of author Donald G. Evans, founding executive director.

While living in London with his wife, Margaret Flynn, a move they made for her job, the couple toured Europe, cities such as Stockholm, Bruges, Cologne and Warsaw. Evans planned an author's itinerary — literary museums and shrines, writers' homes and bookstores.

"In particular, in London, Paris and Dublin, there was a great amount of respect and care put into the celebration of their literature," he said.

After living abroad for three years, and having a baby, the family returned and settled in Oak Park.

As a board member of CWA, Evans was challenged to come up with a project.

"There was very little being done, I thought, to commemorate historical writers," Evans said. "We have great literary culture in some ways, and we do a lot to encourage, celebrate and promote our literature, but the remnants of a lot of our writers are gone."

In 2008 he began CLHOF for those who were forgotten or not recognized. By 2010 six writers were recognized at a ceremony and a website was launched that displays the results along with information about each writer. The list now includes nearly 50. A recognition for lifetime achievement, the Fuller Award, was added in 2012 and includes another six Chicago writers. Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawski mysteries will be the next Fuller Award recipient on May 9 at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

When Evans' idea had grown beyond the program phase of CWA, it became its own organization. In 2014 a board where "everyone is a writer" was created. They also help with such events as induction ceremonies for the nonprofit organization. Bringing living authors into the mix and creating events was born.

For the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial, board member and Oak Park artist Margot McMahon contributed the idea of creating a sculpture of the poet in Chicago. McMahon's sculpture and porch for writing, posting, and reading poetry is now in place at Brooks Park, in the Kenwood neighborhood. The CLHOF holds youth poetry workshops there in partnership with Little Black Pearl. Upcoming sessions for teens are led by National Youth Poet Laureate Patricia Frazier.

"It goes from brainstorming and writing and revising to the finished project you can hold in your hands and read," Evans said. "It's a form of encouragement and accomplishment."

Chicago's Black Literary Renaissance Bus Tour covers Brooks along with Richard Wright, Willard Motley, Margaret Walker and Lorraine Hansberry as it travels through their neighborhoods. It also covers the Chicago Defender and the South Side Community Art Center.

There are literary walking tours of the Gold Coast and Downtown Chicago. In Oak Park, the walk covers Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Vincent Starrett, Elizabeth Berg, Alex Kotlowitz, Chris Ware and Jane Hamilton. 

A newer offering is Great Chicago Books Club evenings, where limited tickets are sold for the opportunity to have cocktails and dine with an author in a private home and have a book discussion over dessert. Events include Jane Hamilton discussing Disobedience in Oak Park and Audrey Niffenegger and Nate Marshall in Chicago homes.

Evans said there is no "rock jam" for writers, but CLHOF strives to emulate that through the way they bring authors and those who love them together.

"Our reading is such an integral part of how we process the world," he said, "how we identify our own ambitions and how we see behavior, good and bad. … All that is tied up in what we read. Literature is that important, but we don't get a chance to articulate it often enough."

The Chicago Black Literary Renaissance Bus Tour is Saturday, May 4, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet across from Brooks Park, 4600-08 S. Greenwood Ave., Chicago. $40. The Oak Park Literary Walking Tour is Sunday, May 5, 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Meet at Edgar Rice Burroughs House #2, 700 N. Linden Ave. $20. These and other events: chicagoliteraryhof.org/events_and_news.

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