Only one writer received a standing ovation at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards in Chicago on Wednesday night.
It wasn't the marquee award-winners who brought the well-heeled crowd to its feet in the giant room at the UIC Forum.
It wasn't Walter Isaacson, the best-selling biographer of Steve Jobs. Not Don DeLillo, a titan among novelists. Not Scott Simon, the NPR host who interviewed them both live on stage.
The biggest applause of the night went to a slender woman with long, dark hair and a largely unfamiliar name: Nami Mun.
"I was asked to speak about how I went from being a homeless teenager selling Avon door to door to being an author and professor," Mun told the crowd at the library fundraiser, where dinner cost a minimum of $1,000 a plate. "This, of course, is impossible to answer in five minutes, but I can definitely say this — I didn't do it alone."
Mun went on to talk about the help that saved her.
City shelters. Public schools. Public bathrooms. Public libraries. Planned Parenthood. Federal grants and loans that got her to college and kept her there.
"Thank you for this award," she concluded, "and for proving to the world at large with your generous giving, that it is good to share prosperity. That none of us stand alone."
She walked off the stage, relieved. The prize — called the 21st Century Award, given by the Chicago Public Library Foundation — wasn't her first award, but this was her first acceptance speech, and she'd been nervous, wanting to make a point without being offensively political.
The audience was still clapping when she heard the emcee, Bill Kurtis, call her back.
"I thought I'd left something on the stage," she recalled Friday.
She walked back out into the bright stage lights, and, to her astonishment, the audience was standing.
Since the publication of her widely praised novel "Miles from Nowhere," about a Korean-American teenage runaway, Mun has gotten accustomed to telling her story: how her family came to the Bronx from Seoul, South Korea, when she was 8; how as a teenager she ran away and lived on the streets; how, at 39, she earned a master's in creative writing from the University of Michigan.
She's also accustomed, she said, to being portrayed in a way that makes it sound as if she rescued herself all on her own. At the library fundraiser, which included the mayor, she wanted to make the point that she didn't.
"I didn't want a diatribe," she said Friday, sitting in Kopi Cafe on the North Side. "But I wanted people to hear that this" — she waved a hand across her body — "this didn't happen in a vacuum."
Mun moved to Chicago in 2008 to teach fiction at Columbia College. Until then, most of what she knew about Chicago was what she'd seen on cab rides between O'Hare and the Loop.
"This will make me sound a little dorky," she said, then explained how whenever she flew coast to coast, she'd arrange a layover that allowed her just enough time to hop a cab to the Art Institute, roam around for a while, then dash back to the airport.
"I left my luggage in the cab," she said. "Not very New Yorker of me."
Mun lives in the North Side neighborhood of Andersonville with her husband, Augustus Rose, who is also a writer and teacher. She still feels her Korean roots, but doesn't know a lot of Koreans here.
"If writing were a country," she said, "I'd want to be its citizen."
Mun talks easily, but she doesn't like to overtalk what she's writing, just as she doesn't like to talk too much about her past, even though she uses nuggets of it in her fiction.
Once a week, she works the phones at the National Runaway Switchboard on Lincoln Avenue, and the calls shrink her own worries into perspective.
"I leave that shift thinking, oh that's right, I'm not running away from my pimp. I'm not sleeping in the Greyhound station and trying not to get raped while waiting for the bus."
Before she turned to writing in her 30s, Mun cobbled life together with less romantic jobs.
She was once an Avon lady. So, I asked, what makeup does she use now?
"Anything on sale at the pharmacy."
She was once a waitress. What's her favorite Chicago restaurant?
"Sunshine Cafe on Clark Street. It's homestyle Japanese cooking."
She worked as a bartender. Her favorite Chicago bar?
"The Violet Hour. It's a quasi speak-easy."
She worked as a criminal defense investigator. What Chicago crime has fascinated her most?
"It's tied into my next book so I'd rather not say."
Even though she just received one of the best Chicago awards any writer can, Mun doesn't think she qualifies quite yet as a "Chicago writer."
"I understand it's something I have to earn."