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David Mills, a former journalist, current television writer, and blogger (under the moniker Undercover Black Man), has been in a mood to resurrect old interviews this year, and he does us all the favor of choosing one with Leon Forrest (part 2 is here). Forrest was not just a local author, but was never a big star--certainly not on the level of friends and fans like Ralph Ellison and John Edgar Wideman--and his work seems to be getting increasingly obscure since his death in 1997.
Forrest led a rich life in the city. He was born here to a half-Catholic, half-Baptist black middle-class family and studied at the University of Chicago, with a break for military service. He was trained as a journalist, becoming the last non-Muslim editor of the Nation of Islam newspaper Muhammed Speaks, then headed up Northwestern's African American Studies department until his death.
His life experiences culminated in his epic, next-to-last novel, Divine Days, which weighs in at 1,000+ pages. I will confess to having read only the first hundred pages or so, since it's modeled on and meant to be the south-side equivalent of Joyce's Ulysses, and I decided to read that first. Inspired by the regional aspect of Joyce, it's not merely set in Chicago but about the city itself. Hyde Park gets a great treatment in the part I read, and Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap makes a thinly veiled cameo.
I can't speak to his other fiction, which, as Mills points out, is exceedingly difficult, but his essay collections are very good, particularly when he's writing about his favorite writers. They're out of print, but the CPL has them, and it's possible to find them used.
Mills also reprints a long interview with pre-Queen-of-All-Media Oprah Winfrey from 1986, when
she made the cover of Time her show went national (h/t David Mills, from the comments). In part 2 she discusses living in Chicago after Harold Washington. It's good, as are the comments.
Mills's interview with college pal David Simon, coproducer of the best television show ever, The Wire (not to mention coauthor of one good book, Homicide, and one truly great one, The Corner), is even better.