DePaul’s Student Center was filled with families and students, all sitting attentively and facing a microphone standing by the stage. One by one, speakers came up from the first row of seats and read their own words to the crowd. Some shared a few lines and some recounted a full story. Each speaker was a war veteran sharing their memories, some were anecdotes that elicited a laugh from the crowd while some were heartbreaking recollections that left the storyteller on the verge of tears.
Last Wednesday on Veteran’s Day, Big Shoulders Books Press released their new book, “I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War,” a collection of memories from Chicago veterans written in poetic form. The book was released at a launch event, where veterans could read their memories from the book to a crowd.
Chris Green, an english professor at DePaul and the books editor, said the launch event was a chance to promote the book, to bring the stories to life and to give the veterans who shared their memories a chance to be heard and accepted.
Green co-founded Big Shoulders Books five years ago, in conjunction with the english department that has produced two other books prior to “I Remember.” Big Shoulders Books works with the students in the Masters of Arts in Writing and Publishing program, which Green said is a three quarter course that consecutively focuses on pre-production, production and promotion of the book. There are 15 to 25 students in the class each quarter, and these students make up the bulk of rotating staff for Big Shoulders Books.
Green said the theme for the book came from an idea he got from a local play.
“I was at a play called ‘An Iliad,’” Green said. “It’s a one-man show (about a) Homer-esque figure called The Poet and in the play he’s recalling what happened during the Trojan war, but he’s also weaving in what happened in actual wars throughout history. It made me realize that most of our history is a history of wars. It made me want to talk to soldiers themselves about what their experiences are like.”
Green taught the pre-production editing class for “I Remember,” and the primary role of students in that class was helping to find veterans for the book to share their memories. Finding veterans to contribute was a “grassroots endeavor,” involving asking veterans individually to contact others they knew who might be interested.
Part of the problem with finding contributors came from many veterans’ style of coping with their war experiences. “At first I didn’t realize that a lot of veterans don’t want to remember, and actually a veteran told me that at one point,” Green said.
Vietnam War veteran Ned Ricks saw a flyer that Green posted at the National Veteran’s Art Museum and reached out to Green about sharing his story. Ricks enjoyed the experience of being a part of the book and meeting other veterans with stories like his own.
“I was delighted to meet the other veterans,” Ricks said. “Veterans are not always the most outspoken at identifying themselves, especially guys of my era who came home to overt hostility from the American public. (I believe) the more often you share these experiences, the more they come to become stories rather than barbed wire wrapped around your heart. The more you tell the story, the easier it is on the story teller.”
Jordan Weber, the editorial assistant of Big Shoulders Books, was “ecstatic” to see so many of the veterans come out and read their stories at the launch event. All attendees of the event received a free copy of “I Remember.” Big Shoulders Books distributes all of their books free of charge, due to a private donor.
While the promotion of the book is still in the early stages, Weber finds the format of the storytelling in the book and the inclusion of the veterans in the launch event to be very effective and powerful.
“The ‘I Remember’ statement almost makes these stories poetic,” Weber said. “It travels all over the place. It can be really sentimental at times, really heartbreaking. But sometimes there’s also moments of fun in there.”
Ricks sees the book and launch event as an opportunity to support Chicago veterans, whom he asserts need outlets to talk about their war experiences in order to heal.
“If you’re asking ‘What can I do for a returning veteran?’ you can understand,” Ricks said. “You can give them latitude, love them unconditionally and let them tell their story.”