Even St. Louisans who think they know their city’s deepest secrets will find surprising and unusual stories in a new anthology.
For instance, have you heard about how some early Italian immigrants were not welcome on the Hill? Sicilians were cast downtown, in Little Italy.
That Mennonite missionaries from Canada were the first whites to move into the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.
That Uncle Dick’s store in Kinloch was the place schoolchildren went for a free piece of candy.
Or that concerned neighbors took up a collection to send a single father’s unsupervised children back to Jordan:
“There was never a question whether or not the matter was of their concern. One man even wrote a speech about the children’s plight that he later gave after Friday prayers at the mosque. ... There was the sense, even among the single men, that the children could be their children, that the father could be one of them.”
Like “The Jordanian Kids” by Layla Azmi Goushey, the essays in “The St. Louis Anthology” often find corners of the metro area that defy expectations.
Yes, there are references to the infamous Delmar Divide, gated streets and important Ferguson protests. But editor Ryan Schuessler writes that St. Louis is “also a city of warmth, love, and beauty — especially in its contrasts.”
He and some of the anthology’s more than 50 contributors will celebrate the book’s release Friday at Earthbound Brewery. Sharing not only their writing but their heritage will also be a Bosnian poet who is a Sevdah singer and a dancer whose parents founded Dances of India.
Schuessler, 27, grew up in Kirkwood and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a master’s degree in journalism. He now works as an exhibit developer at the Field Museum in Chicago and as a freelance journalist.
Less than two years ago, he asked editors at Belt Publishing in Cleveland why their collection of Midwest anthologies did not yet include St. Louis. And with that, he had a new assignment.
When Schuessler put out a call for submissions to the anthology, he knew he wanted pieces to speak of different parts of the city.
“I was looking for compelling stories and diverse perspectives,” he says, talking by phone from Chicago.
He reached out to communities that hadn’t submitted and coaxed a few non-writers to contribute.
“A lot of the authors are emerging writers or aspiring writers ... or not writers at all.” The latter include three brothers, two of whom were born in a Japanese American internment camp in Arkansas.
After World War II, the Shimamoto family settled in St. Louis: “Growing up in St. Louis in the fifties and sixties was about the same for us as it was for most kids in our neighborhood at the time,” write Ed, Dave and Dick Shimamoto.
They realized in hindsight that their parents’ efforts to “Americanize” the family meant they “traded off cultural identity for community acceptance.” But they and others recaptured some of that cultural history through Japanese festivals first held in church basements and parking lots (and eventually growing to include a famous garden and annual event for thousands at the Missouri Botanical Garden).
Schuessler wanted to maintain as much of the original voice of the writers as he could. He included poetry, ranging from “What the Bullet Knows” to “An Ode to Imo’s,” and even a few photos from Humans of St. Louis. Some Normandy middle schoolers contributed thoughts to “You Have to Act Tough,” and a note at the anthology’s beginning remembers St. Louis was once a “city of mounds” and recalls members of the Illini Confederacy.
Although writers note over and over that the city doesn’t lack for problems, they also see them from different angles. And one who has lived many other places pays the city a high compliment.
Kelly Kiehl Davis declares: “In the event of a zombie apocalypse, I would return to you, St. Louis ... because you, St. Louis, hold the jewels of the world, those few people with whom I would be honored to begin a post-apocalyptic commune among, in the humid, sticky basin of your love.”
What “The St. Louis Anthology” book release • When 7 p.m. Friday • Where Earthbound Brewing, 2724 Cherokee Street • How much Free • More info left-bank.com