Letters From Chicago


Photograph by Dave Wilson

by Feroz Rather

In the winter of 2012, I flew from California to Chicago to attend the annual AWP conference. It was snowing lightly when I emerged from the hotel on Michigan Avenue with Brian, an aspiring fiction writer from Los Angeles. The wind blew ceaselessly, whipping the snowflakes into the chafing collar of my long coat. Brian said that if we walked east, we would hit the Field Museum near Lake Michigan. I was not eager to visit the museum. I was burdened with nostalgia and carried Kashmir like a wounded relic inside me. But Brian had done his research in advance and was up for as well as down with finding “Genghis Khan”.

“Genghis Khan?”

That sounded familiar; I had heard the brutal-sounding name somewhere in the history books I had read in school, I told Brian.

“Genghis Khan?” I asked again and chortled. “Oh, Changez Khan, you mean.”

“It is Genghis Khan,” Brian insisted.

I did not argue. I was enjoying the sudden sense of possibility that was dawning on me. I opened the top button of my coat and folded back the collar. I felt the thrill of being in the city: the speed with which the life gyrated (somewhat similar to the giddy pace of Saul Bellow’s plots), the firm solidity of the pavement, the width, the order, the grandeur of the modern street. I saw a tall, slender girl with snowflakes feathering the high dusky bun of her hair. She wore a warm yellow coat. A black scarf of mink wool hung loosely about her long, mahogany neck. Her dark eyes had a sort of luminous gloss. She walked toward me, click-clicking her high-heeled boots. There was something in the manner of her walking that struck me as symbolic; she carried the rhythms of Chicago in her deliberate, swaying movements. As she came nearer, I smiled at her. She smiled back, slightly pouting her blazing-red lips. Then, like any other Chicagoan, with the hands of her mental clock ticking breathlessly, she vanished away, leaving a tangy trail of perfume behind. At this very moment, Chicago has infected me, I thought. I walked on briskly. I walked along the polished pavements. I walked by the plazas with fortuitous facades. I walked past the high rise condos with square windows of doughty transparent glass.

In fifteen minutes squeezed to a jiffy, we reached the premises of the museum. Brian went in search of two tickets to visit the “Genghis Khan” gallery the next day. I did not accompany him. I walked many yards away and stood by the shores of Lake Michigan. As the lights brightened on the street behind me, I fantasized about the tall, slender girl. I imagined her entering a seedy bar, and I gave her a name. Dolly unbuttoned her coat and threw it on the table. She winked at the waiter. The music began. She made herself comfortable; she unzipped her boots and loosened the knot of her scarf. The waiter brought her a mojito. As she touched the straw with her upper lip, a Willie Dixon song began to resonate in the fragrant vapours of mint. She took a sip. Her heart felt warm and jazzy, her eyes twinkling. She found a lonesome boy sitting…

Meanwhile, it had stopped snowing. The wind whistled, making countless ripplets on the frosty skin of the lake. The lights from the street gleamed violet and blue on the snow. I stood there, talking to an apparition of Dolly, until someone tapped my shoulder: “Time to grab some dinner,” Brian said. I went and grabbed Mr. Thick Crusted Pizza and tore him to pieces with my teeth.

In the morning, I attended hour-long readings and sessions at the Hilton. At midday, in the long lighted corridor, I ran into Eula Biss. I wondered if she was still thinking about the black men being lynched and hanged from the electric poles that were supposed to be strung with transcending wires and unite all of America through Graham Bell’s phenomenal invention. I advanced towards her. I was about to introduce myself but the moment our eyes met, I was seized with a quaint wish: I wanted to kiss her hands, so bad, so bad. But then, I thought, it was not as good an idea as reciting from Notes from No Man’s Land. In my slumbersome apartment in California, I would dart awake in the middle of the night, grab the book, invoke Eula, iconoclastic, courageous, lyrically graceful and rupture the seamless quiet of the night with my murmurings of her music.

So, Eula walked away and I walked away, too, entering the queue at Starbucks. There, I found the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, standing in front of me. I did not dare to tell him what I shared with him: love for Langston Hughes, a long history of subjugation and suffering, the experience of war, the quest for poetry. Instead, I thought of Orhan Pamuk’s prince from the Black Book who one fine morning would get up and burn all the books in his library, cancel out all other voices existing in the universe, to reach at, and listen to, his own. I quietly waited for my turn. Komunyakaa moved. I stepped forward to where he had just stood. I made my own humble purchase, a chai for two dollars. I went back to the hotel and dozed off.

Later that night, I caught up with Shane, Jeffery and Leslie in the lobby. We grew loud and excused ourselves. Soon we were gambolling through the drunken mist hanging over Roosevelt Street. After months of workshops and teaching and grading papers in the rustic ranches of California, after months of living amidst the green monotony of the vineyards stretching endlessly near the school, we were finally in a big, raucous city. “What do we love?” I gave the familiar call. “Freedom, freedom, freedom,” they chanted back. We went dancing and danced till the end of the night.

When my friends finally retreated to the hotel, I stood outside the gates. A feeble and melancholy beam of light from the lobby fell on the wide empty street. Wet thin snowflakes were seen falling through. I did not return to my bedroom. I walked across the street and kept walking until I reached a park. I sat down on a stone bench and looked at Lake Michigan from a distance. The dawn was about to unfold. It was very fucking cold. My hands shivered, my jaw clattered, the marrow inside my bones shrivelled. I stood and walked towards the edge of the water. I heard the rumble of the morning train, sending sparks flying into the air as it rattled away on a bridge of robust iron rails. Then, the train was gone, too. The city withdrew like a pencil drawing, an ashen silhouette dissolving in grey. A feeling of being outside the language and reality that surrounded me, a feeling like an icy wave of hesitation mingled with burning scepticism, melted into me. And as I ran back to merge with the city, the feeling spread over the pavement and the street, the walls and the windows, soaring higher and higher until it clambered over the roof of Chicago.


I was born in a village in Kashmir in 1984 to parents who spoke only Kashmiri or Koshur. When I turned five, I started school, where I was introduced to Urdu and English. This was also the year when the rebellion against India broke out. Kashmiris wanted freedom, aazadi, from India. “What do we love?” “Freedom” — became the most popular howl of Kashmiris during the aazadi demonstrations. But India crushed the rebellion by occupying the entire territory of the valley with more than half a million soldiers. By the time I started high school in 2000, all of the few thousand militants plus seventy thousand civilians had been killed; Kashmir was turned into one bleeding corpse blotched with countless military camps.

In the fall of 2010 I left Kashmir and arrived in California. I attended a creative writing program in the Central Valley, where I tried my rigid hand at writing fiction in English. My professor, Randa Jarrar, a Palestinian by birth and sentiment, had made much of her difficult journey from Arabic into English, and with her first novel A Map of Home published, she was waist deep in a matrix of the Anglo-Saxon words that she waded through comfortably. She was quite confident that like her, too, I would gradually immerse deeper, that the rigidness that hampered me would soften and give way.

In our workshop, where the rule was to be silent the day your story is being ripped apart, I could not voice my hesitation and scepticism against her belief, could not pit them against her faith in me. The creative part of my mind still clung to Koshur and Urdu. (If Koshur is the language I was born into, Urdu is where I conceive most of my metaphors.) But because I was not allowed to speak, I listened. I listened to my American friends with attention and envy as they spoke their language. I listened to them with awe as they flexed their minds, hammering words to forge new expressions. I listened to them with a resentment that was calm and considerate. I listened to them like an outsider who sincerely sought to become an insider, but without losing the sense of who he was.

As they read my sentences — for instance: The river, a serene mirror in the twilight of dawn, is a perpetual procession of water stunned to light — they were articulate in expressing their astonishment at the awkwardness; my language, they said, was weird and jarring but there were glints of ingenuity, possibilities of uncouth beauty. Only a few of them liked the tentative title of the story: “A Hamlet in the Himalayas.” But they all instantly fell for the fictional poet burbling William Blake by a brook running over a bed of white oval stones. Then, the soldiers arrived from across the Himalayas like hordes of African ants and lay a virulent siege to the poet’s adobe mud house. “Fuck!” my friends exclaimed. They ooed and ahed and oopsied as the soldiers barged into the house to beat the poet: “What crazy crap is happening in Kashmir!”


In California, I began to think about Aleksandar Hemon, whose session I had missed in the Hilton the next morning, because I had slept past noon and beyond. Up to that point, the only thing I had read by him was “If God Existed, He’d be a Midfielder,” which appeared in the Chicago issue of Granta in the summer of 2009. The essay gave the impression that he was an inadvertent immigrant writer, cracking light Santa Banta jokes to soccer away the heaviness of his sudden, penurious existence in America. But as I read his short stories and novels, it did not take me long to discover his special appeal to me. Not only was Hemon writing about the war at home, but he was also someone who stood at a distance from the English language, diligently poking his fingers in. He was twenty-seven when he arrived in Chicago in January 1992. In a matter of less than ten years, hopping from one badly-paying job to another, watching Sarajevo being destroyed on TV, he mastered the rules of grammar. He also learned how to fuck around a little, how to violate and titillate, how to ululate and militate, and, in the end, how to fuck around fully. Hemon proved a sedulous stylist who could pinch your bottom with his ample mordant wit. In him, I found the loud echoes of my own hesitation and scepticism rendered with nifty Nabokovian strokes, with the master’s easy abandon.

In the first short story of his first book, Hemon’s grown-up narrator looks at his childhood self with a gaping hindsight offered by Chicago. The narrator, aboard a ship with his parents, is on his way to the islands near Sarajevo:

We saw the thin stocking of smoke on the horizon-thread, then the ship itself, getting bigger, slightly slanted sideways, like a child’s drawing. I had a round straw hat with all the seven dwarves painted on it. It threw a short dappled shadow over my face. I had to raise my head to look at the grown-ups. Otherwise I would look at the gnarled knees, the spreading sweat stains on their shirts and sagging wrinkles of fat on their thighs. [1]

The power of Hemon’s images is palpable. The phrase “the spreading sweat stains” is grammatically loose and could be re-arranged less ingenuously as “the sweat stains spreading…” I do not know a word of Bosnian, to be honest. But because I also tend to enter English from without, I have an intuitive sense of where this creative handicap to half-reside in the language comes from. A similar handicap marks the early poems of Agha Shahid Ali who wrote Kashmir in Urdu-inflected English. At times, however, the smithing of Shahid’s images with ductile English, through a Koshur sensibility, deeply rooted in the poetic traditions of Persian and Urdu, produced marvellously beautiful poetry:

The night is your cottage industry now,
The day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.

Write to me. [2]


On the first day at high school in my hometown, Anantnag, I thirsted for the poetry that would help me understand something I had been obsessively mulling over the past many days: What do the soldiers’ children think about their fathers, when after months of being away in Kashmir, they return home to the Indian plains? A week later, I stumbled onto a poem by Carl Sandburg. I still remember “The Hangman at Home,” particularly this echo:

Do they look at his
Hands when he reaches for the coffee
Or the ham and eggs? If the little
Ones say, Daddy, play horse, here’s
A rope [3]

Sandburg hit me with a sardonic light that entered my mind and escaped through my eyes, dissolving the Himalayas in the fiery beams of its dew. From my own place in the world, Kashmir, from my own village on the rim of Anantnag, I was able to see through, to penetrate; I was able to draw the comparison. But how ignorant was I. I did not know that somewhere in the world there existed a city by name of Chicago, I did not know Sandburg had lived in Chicago. But when I did go to Chicago twelve years later, the city vivified my hesitation and deepened my suspicion; the city with deliberate, swaying rhythms held me warmly in the snowy visions of Dolly’s yellow embrace. As I roamed the streets that Hemon had roamed, little did I know that the letters would follow home soon after I had left Chicago.

Cover image by vonderauvisuals


[1] Hemon, Aleksandar. The Question of Bruno. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2000, 01.

[2] Shahid, Ali. “Stationary,” The Half-Inch Himalayas. Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

[3] Sandburg, Carl. “Hangman at Home.” Web.

About the Author:


Feroz Rather has an MFA from Fresno State. He is a Contributing Editor at The Normal School.