English Major Profile: Ayana Contreras (B.A. 2006)

WBEZ Chicago Public Media: Ayana Contreras. February 6, 2014. Photo by Andrew Collings.

As an undergraduate English major, Ayana Contreras focused on literature and creative writing courses. She also minored in communication and hosted a soul music radio show on WIU’s own 88.3 The Dog. She was an avid record collector, and she was always writing. Since graduation she has worked at WBEZ and sister station Vocalo Radio in Chicago, where she is Content Director. She is also the host of the radio program Reclaimed Soul and a reviewer for DownBeat, the storied jazz magazine. Her first book, Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Chicago will be published by the University of Illinois Press in the Fall of 2021.

M&L: Why did you choose to major in English at Western?

I transferred to Western because the Broadcast Communications program was strong, as was the English program (my original declared major). I wanted to transition into Radio, but I thought that keeping an English major with a Broad Comm minor would grant me vocational skills paired with an increased ability to compose and synthesize ideas.

M&L: What is your current job?

I am Content Director of Vocalo Radio (an NPR affiliate radio station in Chicago). I also host a radio show called Reclaimed Soul that airs on Vocalo Radio and WBEZ in Chicago. Additionally, I’m a columnist and reviewer for DownBeat Magazine.

M&L: How did your study of English help you to succeed in your career?

So much of what I do in radio is about storytelling and translating information. Strong, compelling narratives are crucial to keeping listeners tuned in. Good research and summarization skills are paramount in media, as well. And my work as a freelance culture writer (for publications such as Oxford American and the Chicago Reader) is directly tied to my composition skills.

M&L: Tell us about your forthcoming book, Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Chicago. What was the origin of this project?

Energy Never Dies attempts to holistically tell the story of the music, art and culture that emanated out of Black Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, working under the hypotheses that the culture was not only idiosyncratic, but continues to be influential to the current crop of Black creatives emerging out of Chicago. Much of the work published in the project began as interviews that aired on my program, Reclaimed Soul, over the years.

M&L: Can you talk a bit about your research process and writing practices for the book?

Almost all of my research for the book was conducted utilizing archival material in my personal collection (vintage publications, newsletters, archival recordings, etc.). Using a Stax Records Fan Club publication from 1969 and vintage Ebony magazines resulted in an in-the-moment voice (rather than the retrospection usually present in scholarly texts). I also used my original contemporary interviews with a multigenerational cadre of musicians, curators and visual artists such as bluesman Otis Clay, Naomi Beckworth, and Faheem Majeed that I conducted over the years. I interviewed doers rather than so-called experts, because I wanted as much first-person perspective as possible.

Generally speaking, I was interested in telling an authentic narrative that introduced as many new sources to the conversation as possible, rather than relying on the usual suspects in terms of works cited. This was a tricky proposition, because using unorthodox sources required quite a bit of vetting. The result was ultimately very satisfying, though.

M&L: What advice would you have for a young English major who dreams about writing and publishing a book?

Whenever possible, look for the open spaces: rather than regurgitating well-worn stories or perspectives, look for the stories you can tell authentically and that you can apply a novel spin to. It’s also important to cross-pollinate. Even after your graduation, keep reading, listening, and watching work that develops and challenges your worldview and even perhaps your tastes. It can only improve the palate available as you write.

M&L: What were some of your best experiences as a student in English at Western?

Really my best experience was the collective sum of all things. But if I have to choose something specific: the electives (such as Non-Western Literature) really built me most as a writer and a thinker.

M&L: What advice would you give to students considering studying English here at Western?

Short answer: choose your own adventure! Literature is a passport to unlocking the big and small mysteries of the world. You may not get all the answers, but do this thing right and you will figure out how to ask some razor sharp questions.