In November of 2017, Pittsburgh got a little smaller.
The return of Pittsburgh-born John Edgar Wideman, the award-winning author of Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File (Scribner, 2016) and Brothers and Keepers, facilitated new ties between the University of Pittsburgh and the Homewood community. A Homewood native, Wideman wrote of the proximity—and distance—between his home and the University. Growing up, he would see the school’s distinct monument, the Cathedral of Learning, in the distance. But it served largely as a symbol of the isolation of his community in the mid-twentieth century.
With the help of Pitt’s Humanities Center, students from both the University and Homewood’s Westinghouse High School came together to discuss one of Wideman’s most vulnerable pieces: Brothers and Keepers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005). In the weeks leading up to Wideman’s return, students were asked to create their own memoirs attempting to unravel moments in their own lives that had shaped them, taking influence from the chaotic but authentic recreation of memories that Wideman presents in his book as he tries his hand at dissecting how he and his brother ended up the way they did. I was part of Research Assistant Professor Dan Kubis’ Seminar in Composition class and had the opportunity to create my own memoir.
My class met Wideman alongside a Westinghouse AP English class and got a chance to share our writing experiences with the author as well as learn more about his writing process. Several students spoke of their memoirs and the struggles they had faced in crafting them. At one point, Wideman, who had been provided with a random selection of a few of the students’ memoirs, revealed that many of the students had perhaps unwittingly given themselves happy endings. He explained that, as writers, we tend to wear “masks”—as writing is a voluntary process that excludes as much as it includes.
Throughout Brothers and Keepers, Wideman interjects his brother’s narrative into his own personal reflections, whether about the writing process or the memories his brother evokes for him. He repeatedly remarks on the difficulty of sharing his brother’s story and his fears of profiting off of it, of the story becoming about him. He chooses to step outside of himself and write his brother’s story as impartially as possible, but he readily admits the likelihood of missing details or misrepresenting Robby Wideman and his story.
The book is the collaborative effort of Wideman and his brother Robby to figure out what got them to this moment, where two very similar brothers find themselves in two very different realities: John, a celebrated author, professor, and former Rhodes Scholar; Robby, a man who got into trouble decades ago and is serving a life sentence in a Pittsburgh penitentiary. “We remember different things. They set us apart. They bring us together searching for what is lost, for the meaning of difference, of distance.” Sections flow as organically as an actual dialogue, with the interests and contributions of each of the speakers guiding its direction as they build off one another and venture into new areas.
This fragmented way of writing was new to me. I had encountered a degree of deviation from chronology in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five in high school, but that was science-fiction, and this was nonfiction. Yet, somehow, this seemingly orderless array of anecdotes and admissions made me trust Wideman more as a writer. His writing seemed more genuine and human because of its rawness.
Moreover, learning about intersections between Wideman and his brother showed me another layer of Pittsburgh. Different as they are, John and Robby share not only blood, but a similar obstacle: systemic racism. They both want to beat the system and create a better life for themselves, but how each man goes about doing so varies. Robby, as the reader learns, is always looking for loopholes and a good time; meanwhile, John denies his background and puts his life in Homewood behind him as a writer and professor. They both, in John’s eyes, commit sins against their family, each other, and themselves—a revelation that may at first come as a surprise to the reader. Here, a story supposedly about Robby Wideman suddenly becomes one about culture and family.
As much as universities are centers of thought, research, and technological innovation, they can isolate. With the daily grind of college classes or the stack of research papers or publications one needs to gain tenure, it can be easy to become out of touch with the world around us. Add in the fact that the financial cost of college excludes some voices from conversations, and a university can be a bubble.
A busy college student myself, I found this opportunity invaluable. I have lived in Pittsburgh for seven years, but I still have much to learn about the city. Every neighborhood is distinct, with its own history and culture.
Pittsburgh has so many layers to it. When I first moved here, a lot of people I knew thought of the Rust Belt at the mention of the city’s name. But, increasingly, impressions of Pittsburgh include an emerging foodie scene, a rich sports culture, and innovative technology and medicine.
The glimpse into Homewood this fall broadened my scope as I looked at another one of Pittsburgh's layers. Dan Kubis, who teaches in the English department and serves as assistant director of the Humanities Center, interviewed Wideman during "John Edgar Wideman, In Conversation," a free event hosted that week at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland, for his podcast “Being Human.” In it, Wideman speaks of Homewood:
Homewood’s history is a fascinating history, like a lot of urban areas. It’s been ... a place where various kinds of folk ... [various] ethnicities, nationalities, socioeconomic classes [....] passed through Homewood same way they passed through the Hill District, same way they passed, are now passing through, Squirrel Hill, etc., etc. So that’s a classic American situation: you have a bunch of streets, you have a bunch of houses, stores, but they keep changing, new people come. The city is a very dynamic place.
Homewood, like Pittsburgh, has its own story.
Since my experience with Wideman and his book, I’ve been hungrier to uncover more of what makes Pittsburgh tick. I’m trying to be less comfortable and make exploring Pittsburgh—its past, present, and future—more of a priority. I’ve been reminded to take action and be more aware of my reality.
One of the ways I’ve done this is with 412 Food Rescue. On weekends, I help reallocate food, and the work has me traveling around the city more, meeting new people, and getting out of the classroom. I’m becoming a bigger part of my community.
Amelia Steinley is a freshman Pitt student, a US citizen born in Canada who now calls Pittsburgh home.