Tag Archive | Chicago

Georgian Food and the Turkish Sparkers

Last weekend I was in Chicago because I was giving a talk at the Chicago Linguistic Society’s conference (I had an awfully good time the last time I went to CLS two years ago). Shortly before I left, my advisor sent me a magazine article about a Georgian restaurant (the only Georgian restaurant?) in Chicago. The conference ended on Saturday, but I didn’t fly out until the following evening, so on Sunday I decided to seek out this restaurant.

Chicago Diplomat Café is a deep, high-ceilinged restaurant with leather-backed armchairs and black tablecloths and an aquarium with goldfish. When I arrived shortly before noon, there was only one other party, a couple, dining. I was seated at a little table not far from them. I can’t remember if I’ve ever eaten alone in a sit-down restaurant before, but it wasn’t too awkward. With my suitcase in tow, I fancied I looked like a worldly traveler.

The magazine article had mentioned all sorts of scrumptious dishes, and my one regret in coming alone was that I doubted I’d be able to try more than one dish (no supra for me). There were three kinds of khachapuri, but if I ordered one I didn’t think I’d be able to eat anything else. I decided I wanted the khinkali, Georgian soup dumplings. But when I asked the waiter if I could have them, he said no. I was a bit flummoxed and said something about them not having khinkali today. The waiter didn’t exactly confirm this, but I switched my order to the mtsvadi. I also ordered a Georgian lemonade, pear flavor (the other option was tarragon). If the waiter approved of my Georgian pronunciation, he gave no sign of it.

Georgian lemonade

The Georgian lemonade turned out to be a bottled soda that didn’t taste at all like lemonade. It was a little too sweet for my taste; it gave me the impression of carbonated apple juice (the kind of apple juice preschoolers drink). The mtsvadi was tasty, though it wasn’t quite what I’d expected from the menu. The seasoned chunks of chicken had been cooked on a skewer, and the Georgian fried potatoes were…basically French fries (though quite good ones). The red sauce on the side was sour (in a good way). The menu had called mtsvadi the dish of kings. According to the magazine article, the chicken was marinated in pomegranate juice, and the sauce was tkemali, a sour plum sauce.

Mtsvadi

While I was eating, a larger party with a reservation came in. One young woman was explaining the dishes to her friends, and I later heard her tell the waiter she’d been a Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia. She and the waiter discussed the fact that Georgian lemonade is in fact flavored soda, not lemonade (wish I’d heard that sooner). The group discussed ordering khinkali, and I thought to myself that they would be disappointed as I’d been. But then when the Peace Corps volunteer asked for two orders of the dumplings, the waiter accepted the order! There was some brief exchange I didn’t catch (perhaps khinkali take a while to prepare?), but the Peace Corps volunteer said one of her friends had his heart set on khinkali, and it seemed clear they were being allowed to order them. I was miffed. Someday I will eat khinkali!

In other news from roughly the same part of the world…the Turkish edition of Sparkers appears to be coming out tomorrow, June 1st! The Turkish title is Kıvılcımlar, which Google Translate tells me means “sparks,” and it was translated by Canan Vaner. The publisher is Kırmızı Kedi (Red Cat!), and their page for the book is here (it seems to be on lots of Turkish bookselling sites, but I can’t really read any of them, so I’ll just link to the publisher). If you or anyone you know reads Turkish, consider buying the first foreign edition of Sparkers!

The Friends of American Writers Awards Luncheon

Back in February, I learned that Sparkers had won the Friends of American Writers’ Young People’s Literature Award. Friends of American Writers is a Chicago organization dedicated to the promotion of literature, and each year they award prizes to adult and children’s books with a Midwestern connection. At the end of last week, I traveled to Chicago to attend the awards luncheon.

Chicago

This photo is from Quiz Bowl Nationals in 2008.

I arrived the evening before the luncheon, having procrastinated all week on preparing my acceptance remarks. (It’s shocking how little useful material one finds when one Googles how to give an author award acceptance speech. Then again, I was probably making a mountain out of a molehill. This wasn’t the Oscars.) Over some rather chemical-tasting mac and cheese, I reviewed my single page of brainstorming and was forced to acknowledge what I’d suspected all along: a laundry list of connections between my life and relatively minor facets of my book did not make for interesting remarks. Everything scrawled on that sheet of paper was trivial. Nobody would care that, like my main character, I enjoyed trying to teach myself languages and, oh, hey, when I lived in Paris as a thirteen-year-old I read Argentinian comics about a girl named Mafalda in order to learn Spanish. Whatever I said needed to have some sort of arc, or at the very least a unifying thread beyond all the languages I tried to teach myself in my youth. I had an inkling of another idea, but I was hesitant to go there. The more I thought about it, though, the more it felt like the right, even the inevitable, choice. I knew if I stuck with my collection of not-actually-all-that-quirky anecdotes, I would probably be a bit of a flop. If I embraced that other idea that beckoned, on the other hand, I might be able to say something that actually mattered.

What was that other idea? Roughly, it was the social justice aspect of Sparkers. As I said in the remarks I eventually gave, this is the number one thing readers mention in their online reviews, yet I have rarely discussed it because I’ve had trouble coming up with anything thoughtful to say about it. But a review I had seen just a week before flying to Chicago had praised Sparkers for its great connection to current events in Baltimore, MD and Ferguson, MO. The day I was stewing over my speech, the news broke that the Justice Department would be conducting an investigation of the Baltimore police. I’ve been humbled by the numerous reviews like the one just mentioned and have felt like I don’t deserve the credit I’ve been given for addressing timely issues through children’s fantasy, but on the eve of the awards luncheon, I felt it was time to own the parallels people had been drawing between my book and real-life injustice.

I left the restaurant, got myself some ice cream, and went for a walk in Grant Park, across from my hotel. Crabapple trees (or the like) were in flower, their blossoms fragrant in the evening air. I admired Buckingham Fountain and the Chicago skyline rising behind my hotel, then turned around to look out across Lake Michigan, which was mostly just an expanse of gray nearly indistinguishable from the darkening sky. At last, I returned to my hotel to prepare the speech I had now resolved to give.

I finished writing it at the actual eleventh hour, and before going to bed, I wondered if I was really going to go through with this. Was I really going to open my remarks by mentioning two inquiries into racial bias in city police forces that I had literally pulled from the headlines that evening? Was I really going to say that the oppressive, unjust world I had invented as a teenager no longer looked so different from present-day U.S. society to me? Was I really going to name Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray in front of an audience I knew almost nothing about? I’d realized as I was coming up with things to say that Sparkers contains an incident of police violence right in the first chapter. Not that I’d forgotten, exactly, but I’d never before considered this scene in the context of this last year. In my remarks, I made the connection explicit.

I was sure I had chosen the right topic, but I was mildly terrified of actually speaking. What if the people who were giving me this award were offended when I said oppression and injustice still existed in the U.S.? What if they thought I was being too political? Did I really have the right to talk about Mike Brown and Freddie Gray? I was still wondering the next morning.

The awards luncheon was held at the Fortnightly Club, a handsome brick building that was the epitome of gentility on the inside. The dining room had chandeliers and a high ceiling painted like the sky. I met various members of the Young People’s Literature Award committee, who told me how much they’d enjoyed Sparkers. Two of the four other award winners were also in attendance, and I met them at the signing table before lunch. In keeping with the award eligibility criteria, we were all Midwesterners by upbringing.

After a little bit of signing, we returned to the dining room for lunch. Due to some confusion, I wound up giving my remarks before the meal began, while all the other authors, including those absent, were recognized over dessert. After a member of the awards committee introduced me, I walked up to the podium and plunged into my little speech. It went well. I think it was better than the linguistics talk I’d given in Chicago exactly two weeks prior. When I returned to my table, the committee members were complimentary. It seemed I’d had nothing to fear. They told me it was so nice that I’d credited my mother with inspiring me to work for social justice with Mother’s Day right around the corner. Ah, right, that was totally on purpose. (Hi, Mom!)

Remarks done, I was able to enjoy the delicious luncheon (dark and white chocolate mousse!) and the other authors’ acceptance speeches. Somebody else was the (requisite?) funny speaker (I learned what not to do when a Hungarian mathematician tells you your three-year-old daughter is a prodigy and should be doing algebra), and I was glad I hadn’t tried to be funny since I would have failed. And just before heading back to the airport, I got signed copies of Last Night at the Blue Angel and The Mathematician’s Shiva, which I am eager to read.

In conclusion, if anyone ever lands on this post because they Googled how to give an author award acceptance speech, here’s my advice: follow your instincts, dare to take risks, weave in what your book is about, and make sure you have some kind of structure and/or direction.

LA Times Bookfest, CLS, and C2E2

The past couple of weekends have been eventful and a lot of fun (which means this post is going to be long and all over the place). On April 18th, I went to the LA Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California. My main purpose in going was to meet my editor, whom I had never met in person and who was going to be on a panel wearing her author hat. It was fun to wander among the booths too, though I will admit to spending part of my time at the festival drafting a handout on English speakers’ perception of Zulu clicks.

The panel I attended featured authors David Levithan, Leila Sales (my editor), and Tommy Wallach. It was moderated by Aaron Hartzler, and it was a lot of fun. Afterwards, I got in the signing line and met Leila. She signed my copy of This Song Will Save Your Life, and we chatted a bit more after the signing crowd had dispersed.

Last weekend, I went to Chicago for the Chicago Linguistic Society’s conference (CLS), which was also a lot of fun. I flew in on Wednesday evening and attended a few talks on Thursday; in particular I’d wanted to hear the one on homesign and the one on sign language phonological typology. I don’t really expect to ever work on sign languages, but I’m always drawn to talks in that area. I also got to see linguists I knew at Swarthmore or whom I had met on the grad school open house circuit again, and it was great to catch up with them.

I presented my paper first thing on Friday morning. It was nice to get it over with and have the rest of the day to absorb other people’s research without worrying about my own talk. I particularly appreciated Bernard Perley’s invited talk on reframing the rhetoric and metaphors around language death and endangerment (in essence, he would like to see linguists talk about language life instead of language death). I thought what he had to say was hugely important and rightly challenged us linguists to think hard about the ethics of linguistic fieldwork. He also gently (but directly) called out the previous invited speaker on an aspect of her talk, which had been just hours before his. I have no doubt that was an uncomfortable moment, and for more of us than just the invited speaker, but I think Dr. Perley was right to point out what he did because we can’t change what we don’t realize we’re doing wrong.

My colleagues from UCLA were both presenting in the Beyond Field Methodologies session. I was particularly eager for my field methods professor’s talk because it was about me! Okay, not really. It was about our class’s experience taking a monolingual approach to doing field methods on Maragoli and about monolingual fieldwork in general. That evening, our little UCLA contingent of three went out for Chicago deep-dish pizza.

On Saturday, I skipped out on the conference to go to the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2). I’d been planning this ever since I’d learned that author Rachel Hartman would be appearing at C2E2 and that C2E2 was the same weekend as CLS. The timing worked out beautifully. It was my first time at a comic con, and I felt kind of out of my element among the crowds of cosplayers, but the costumes were pretty amazing.

The panel I’d come for was one of the few book-related panels and was about worldbuilding. In addition to Rachel Hartman, there were six other panelists, including the guy who writes the Star Wars Shakespeare (Shakespeare Star Wars?) books. I particularly liked the discussion of creating maps and of the authors’ favorite worlds. And best of all, I had the good fortune of getting to have dinner with Rachel, which was delightful.

Afterwards, I made my way back to the CLS banquet. Dinner was over, but the evening’s entertainment was just getting underway. And by entertainment I mean hours of karaoke, a CLS tradition. Now, I am not a karaoke person; I’ve always declined invitations to UCLA linguistics karaoke. I guess after my solos in the Georgian chorus concert I can no longer say that I do not sing in front of people without at least ten other people singing along with me, but the fact remains that my familiarity with popular music is so poor that most of the time I really can’t participate. I honestly don’t know the vast majority of songs that one could use for karaoke. Indeed, as other people went up to sing songs that are evidently well-known, I usually found myself recognizing the chorus or some chord progression but not knowing the melody, much less the words, to the verses.

It was fun to watch, though, and there were some pretty talented singers as well as dancers. A highlight was a non-karaoke number, in which two grad students sang a Greek song accompanied by clarinet and bouzouki. Bouzouki! I want a bouzouki. People also sang in Russian, Turkish, Japanese, and Indonesian. And Mandarin, which is how I ended up doing karaoke after all. I’d gotten up from our table briefly, and I came back just as a USC grad student I knew was singing a line from a song in Chinese. I said, “Hey, I know that song!”

Long story short, I found myself at the front of the hall with the USC grad student and a third grad student, and we sang the Taiwanese song 對面的女孩看過來, which, as far as I can tell, is about the inscrutability of girls. It brought me back to Chinese department New Year’s parties in the Swarthmore Friends Meetinghouse, which is the last place I sang this song, with the other students in my Chinese class. All I remembered of this song was the first line and the chorus, and although the karaoke video we’d found on Youtube had the words, they were obviously in Chinese characters, many of which I’ve forgotten. So I watched them fly by and jumped in on random pronouns or easy stuff like 很可愛. And the chorus, thank goodness.

So, you didn’t think I’d ever do karaoke? Yeah, me neither. I guess I do better with languages other than English. Maybe next time I’ll attempt a rendition of “Je fais de toi mon essentiel”…