Dr. Eve L. Ewing inspires, entertains, educates, confronts and challenges with her poetry, scholarship, teaching, public speaking and tweeting. The sociologist of education and writer has won a dizzying array of honors and awards for her work, including “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side” and her poetry collection “Electric Arches.” This year the Chicago Public Library awarded her the 21st Century Award. She is the co-author (with Nate Marshall) of the play “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks” and writes the “Ironheart” series for Marvel Comics. Ewing is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, is an instructor for the Prison + Neighborhood Art Project and serves on the board of youth poetry and social justice organization MassLEAP.
If you could have a superpower to use in the world, what would it be and why?
I do have superpowers. I just keep them secret.
Who do you most want to influence, why and how? Any directions for the rest of us in making your visions reality?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t think of my work in quite that way. The only person that I know I have one-hundred-percent control over is myself. So I try to listen and learn as much as I can and be attentive to ways that I can do things that I think are helpful or important or good. Because I’m sort of a loudmouth, I also speak up about those things, so maybe some other folks who are trying to do good things can hear about it.
You are a sociologist, educator, poet, writer, playwright, public speaker and Twitter “shero”—do all these roles get equal billing? Do you feel that any are more important in the public domain? How do you manage to integrate them all? How do you switch from one mode to another—do you have tricks?
This is what I am asked most often and I feel like I’m the most poorly equipped person to answer. I don’t have a good basis for comparison because I don’t know any other way to be. I don’t see those things as having neat partitions any more than I do, say, my identities as a black person, a woman, a Chicagoan, a Gemini, a person who unapologetically puts sugar in my grits. In my head, it’s all happening all at once. As I’ve often said, I see myself as having one big project with many component parts—trying to live and create, with equal parts imagination and critical questioning, trying to use those two lenses to make the world around me marginally better in the limited time I have to be alive.
It seems that you are everywhere in Chicago now. I know that is the culmination of years of hard work. How is it paying off, both personally, in public discourse and in signs of change?
Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I don’t actually feel like I’m everywhere. I still only know how to be in one place at a time (unfortunately). But I do appreciate that people have been very kind to my work, very supportive, and given me a lot of opportunities to share it with the world.
What are you excited about with your forthcoming books “1919” and “Maya and the Robot”?
Thanks for asking! With “1919,” I am excited because I’ve been working in partnership with the Newberry Library for a year of programming related to the 1919 race riot, and my publisher Haymarket Books has also been working to put together a really great teaching guide for the book. So I’m excited for it to be a tool for folks to hopefully learn about a period of history that is really important but that is often overlooked, I feel. And with “Maya and the Robot”… I’m just in love with the story and with the character. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such profound love for something I’ve written, or had an experience writing like that. That story just poured out of me. I wasn’t planning on writing it, in terms of my artistic trajectory or my career or professional goals or anything like that. But it just came out. So I’m really excited for the world to see it.
How does it feel to be billed as “the Zora Neale Hurston of her generation?” Who are your main influences/influencers and why?
It feels very humbling and also complicated, probably more complicated than the person who said that [the host of Studio 360] realized. Zora Neale Hurston, like me, wrote across disciplines. But she also struggled mightily toward the end of her life and only began to get the level of recognition worthy of her tremendous talents years after she passed, thanks in no small part to Alice Walker’s efforts to remember her and uplift her legacy. So I am inspired by Zora, but it’s not so much that I want to be Zora. Rather, I’m interested in keeping an eye out for the Zoras of our era—the minds and hearts that have so much to give us, who are in danger of being forgotten or lost to us altogether.
What gives you hope in Chicago’s literary scene? What do you love, what would you like to see more of or change?
Whenever I meet some of the writers that are coming up, I get so excited. They’re so talented. I’m also in love with how we are always looking for new ways to collaborate and support and celebrate each other. I think I’d like more opportunities to connect with the great nonfiction writers who are coming up. I’ve also been brainstorming ways to build different kinds of poetry communities for young people. I’m really excited with what we’ve done with the Emerging Poets Incubator and I want to extend some of that success to young folks. I also would like to see more literary venues that are truly ground-floor, entry-level, open to everyone, where people can learn and workshop and connect. When I talk to my mentors that are a bit older than me I get the sense that there aren’t as many of those now as there were in the nineties.
You write: “The work of the poet is not unlike the work of being black. / Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory…
Other days, you wonder if exile would be too lonely / and figure it can’t be worse than thinking you won’t make it home…”
Does it get any easier? How does collaboration help and what advice do you have for your audiences and community?
That poem was inspired by a time on the road when I felt really isolated, frustrated and disconnected. Now I’m much, much better about protecting my time and my need to work and my energy and my need to be around my friends and family, my need for rest. I’ve learned the hard way how to reinforce boundaries in my life and that helps a lot. My advice to everyone is that learning to say no is one of the best things you can do for yourself. I think of it as “saying no to say yes.” When I say no, I can’t do this event, I’m saying yes, I’m gonna have time to take my mom to see a movie; yes, I’m going to have dinner at home with my husband; yes, I’m going to get a full night of sleep; yes, I’m going to have energy left to be a good mentor.
Which Chicagoans past or present couldn’t you do without?
My whole family. Nate Marshall. Gwendolyn Brooks. The heating lamp on the CTA platform. Svengoolie.
Who would you love for all Chicagoans to read?
“Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” by Ibram X. Kendi.
What does a week/day/month look like to you? How do you stay productive and sane? Any roadblocks? Any methods for getting beyond them?
It’s always different. Looking at my calendar this past week, it was the first week of not having class after teaching three courses for ten weeks, so I was catching up with a lot of things. Early morning swim class because I’m trying to get good enough to do a triathlon; meet with a student I’m advising for her dissertation; lunch meeting with a colleague; phone call with W. Kamau Bell because I’m helping with the next season of his show on CNN; meet with three more students; go out to the Breathing Room to host a panel of activists in support of Jeanette Taylor’s run for the 20th Ward. That was Monday. Tuesday, grading papers, trying to catch up on email, I had two meetings and I got a haircut. Wednesday I got my monthly allergy shot, met with a colleague and gave a lecture at University of Illinois at Chicago. Then it was my mom’s birthday, and she wanted me to exercise with her and then she wanted to have like a family game night. Then more grading papers, more emails. Friday I got my nails done, had a call with a publisher about a potential new project, and then I gave a talk at Dominican University. In between everything, I have to find time to write, read, keep my house sort of not repulsively messy. I work whenever and wherever I can. In line at CVS, on the train. I have favorite work spots all over the city, so that if I have a meeting in Pilsen or Englewood or Woodlawn or Logan Square I can just post up and work before or after. I am blessed to do work that I love, so that helps. I also am a big believer in therapy. And I have really loving, supportive people in my life and I text them basically all day, every day just to check in and laugh about how ridiculous everything is.
It seems that earning a living and gaining respect is hard for both teachers and creative artists these days. Why are educators and artists so threatening to those in power? How do we survive/thrive?
People who speak truth to power and encourage others to do the same will always be dangerous. We have to understand our lives as precarious and build mutual connections to try to mitigate that precarity. We have to have each other’s back with the understanding that someone can be coming for us any time, any day, and our only chance is to have the systems and structures in place to love and protect and support each other. We’re our only hope.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.