SIU Alumnus empowering the public through writing

Southern Illinois University (SIU) A story about the unsolved murder of a gay man in Eldorado, Illinois, helped alumnus Chris Dennis earn a creative writing fellowship of $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in January.

Dennis is an overdose educator at the Egyptian Health Department in Eldorado and an author best known for his 2019 story collection Here Is What You Do.

According to Dennis’s profile on the NEA website, the story that won him the fellowship tells the story of him looking into a 40-year-old unsolved murder of a gay record producer whose body was found in a house across the street from his.

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Dennis said he recalls the investigation taking place when he was younger and seeing his parents and neighbors being interviewed about it.

“There’s not a lot of murders in our little town,” Dennis said. “The fact that he was gay was this kind of salacious piece of the story that everyone wanted to talk about.”

Wanting to find the truth in all the stories he heard growing up, Dennis went to his local courthouse and looked through the evidence. He discovered that no one was ever convicted for the murder.

Dennis said he applied for the fellowship in January, but was discouraged from submitting his entry because out of the thousands of applications, the NEA only fills around 30 slots.

“You really win the fellowship based on a writing sample that you send to them,” Dennis said. “The people who are judging it, they’re just reading everyone’s writing that they send and then they make a decision based on that.”

Dennis said he plans to use the fellowship money to take time off work to travel and spend time gathering research for his first draft of a book.

While attending SIU before graduating in 2007, Dennis worked as an intern at the Crab Orchard Review, a literary magazine, he said.

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“I would fantasize about sending things to magazines or trying to get something published,” Dennis said. “But it was probably… eight years later I got a story published in a magazine.”

His work as an overdose educator and author connect to personal challenges he surpassed in his life writing about incarceration and decriminalizing substance use, Dennis said

“I was in jail for six months… for possession of drugs, which there are people who are in prison for much longer than that, but it was a devastating experience,” Dennis said. “I just thought about a lot afterward about the people who are, like, in prison for years and years for drug offenses.”

Besides Dennis’s work as an author, his work as an overdose educator at EHD was inspired by his own addiction recovery.

“We [EHD] want to respond to the overdose crisis or the opiate crisis, especially in Southern Illinois,” Dennis said. “I [also] think when I give people or teach them how to recognize or respond to an overdose, it also opens up a bigger conversation about harm reduction.”

Dennis said he goes about his job in a progressive way. He said giving people more access to healthcare and people in the healthcare community improve their chances of recovery.

One of the things EHD specializes in is training people to recognize and properly respond to an overdose, Dennis said.

“We train a lot of police departments and first responders,” Dennis said. “But we really want to reach people who are still using substances [or] are friends and family members of people who are still using because those are the people who are around when somebody overdoses.”

Dennis said he’s seen his old self – when he used to be homeless and still using drugs heavily – in some of the people he’s taught, and how having a support system helped him want to improve himself.

“Sometimes there were people who were still really kind and made me feel like I mattered,” Dennis said. “I feel like that’s part of why I was able to recover… people reminded me that my life mattered even when I didn’t think that it did.”

Staff reporter Jamilah Lewis can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @jamilahlewis. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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