We thoroughly enjoy when younger audiences immerse themselves in the work of poets who have come before them. A young poet recited Toi Derricotte’s “For Black Women Who Are Afraid,” and praises her work as a co-founder of Cave Canem, the literary home for black poetry. 

For Black Women Who Are Afraid

A black woman comes up to me at break in the writing
workshop and reads me her poem, but she says she
can’t read it out loud because
there’s a woman in a car on her way
to work and her hair is blowing in the breeze
and, since her hair is blowing, the woman must be
white, and she shouldn’t write about a white woman
whose hair is blowing, because
maybe the black poets will think she wants to be
that woman and be mad at her and say she hates herself,
and maybe they won’t let her explain
that she grew up in a white neighborhood
and it’s not her fault, it’s just what she sees.
But she has to be so careful. I tell her to write
the poem about being afraid to write,
and we stand for a long time like that,
respecting each other’s silence.

Written by Toi Derricotte

Anytime – and we do mean anytime – there is a new Toni Morrison interview or book or appearance, we pay attention. Not just because she is a 1988 Anisfield-Wolf winner, but because she is a literary treasure. She is 81 now, having spent roughly half her life as an author of note and with is comes the freedom and space to say exactly how she feels about any given topic. 

She recently sat with a writer from the Daily Telegraph for an in-depth interview in advance of her latest work, a play, which opened in London this month. In it, she collaborates with director Peter Sellars and Rokia Traore to retell the story of “Othello,” one of Shakespeare’s most-known works, this time giving more depth to Desdemona, Othello’s lover and wife. 

In the incredibly rich interview, Morrison talks candidly about a variety of subjects. We pulled some of the best quotes: 

On her son’s death:

“People speak to me about my son – ‘I’m so sorry for you’ – but no one says, ‘I loved him so much.’ I was busy in grief, which I don’t expect to stop. Suddenly realising that the last thing my son would want was for me to be very self-involved and narcissistic and self-stroking. It stopped me from writing. Which doesn’t mean you stop feeling the absence. It was being willing to think about it in a way that was not self-serving.”

On why she wanted to take on Shakespeare:

“Black classically trained actors love the role because it’s one of the few times that they are the stars. So the same old version gets repeated. And I didn’t find justification for that conventional view in Othello. I was interested in a different rendering of her.”

On where she considers home:

“I live in places that I love. And I’d hate to lose them. The house on the river I’ve been in since the Seventies. But home is an idea rather than a place. It’s where you feel safe. Where you’re among people who are kind to you – they’re not after you; they don’t have to like you – but they’ll not hurt you. And if you’re in trouble they’ll help you…”

The whole interview is worth a read – we think you’ll find it one of the highlights of your day.

The press keeps coming for Zadie Smith, as her latest book, NW, will be hitting bookshelves in September. An excerpt from her latest book appeared in The New Yorker recently and Smith gave an open and honest interview about her writing process and her desire to have characters that are diverse. But there was one quote in particular that made us pause:

Every time I write a sentence I’m thinking not only of the people I ended up in college with but my siblings, my family, my school friends, the people from my neighborhood. I’ve come to realize that this is an advantage, really: it keeps you on your toes.

And it seems clear to me that these little varietals of voice and lifestyle (bad word, but I can’t think of another) are fundamentally significant. They’re not just decoration on top of a life; they’re the filter through which we come to understand the world.

Is it clear now why we awarded Ms. Smith the 2006 award for fiction? This quote clearly touches upon all the elements of the Anisfield-Wolf Awards. We appreciate the differences in cultures because they are truly what makes the world such a rich place to be.

Read the entire interview here and follow Zadie Smith on Facebook for more updates on her work.

What annoys you most about book critics? If you could have a drink with any author, who would it be? Name a passage in one of your favorite books that you would rewrite if given the chance. These questions and more were lobbied to 2009 Anisfield-Wolf winner Nam Le as part of Tehelka’s “A Byte Of…” video interview series. Check out Nam Le’s responses above in the quick video.

2005 Anisfield-Wolf winner Edwidge Danticat visited the Tavis Smiley show on PBS to discuss her latest work, Create Dangerously. She discusses the origins of the book’s title, the difference between immigrant artists and American-born artists, and whether art should be considered a luxury or necessity.

For someone as storied as Arnold Rampersad, sometimes the best words of praise come not from awards jurors or book critics, but from colleagues who have worked side by side with you for years. Shelly Fisher Fiskin, who co-edited Oxford University Press’ Race and American Culture series with Rampersad, wrote that there are few people more deserving of an award than her longtime colleague:

Fiskin writes:

An extraordinarily elegant writer, a meticulous researcher, and a scholar gifted with the ability to focus on what matters most about any subject that he tackles, Arnold Rampersad richly deserves this honor.

His biographies and his literary scholarship have had an enormous impact on our understanding of American culture, illuminating issues of race and racism in America in groundbreaking, crucial ways. He has been a role model for generations of scholars in American Studies, English, and African American Studies. I congratulate the Anisfield-Wolf jury for recognizing his important contributions to the cultural conversation with this award.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Congratulations again to an amazing writer.

…If you know where to look.

We enjoy getting writing advice from our winners because they’re so impossibly good at telling stories. Whether the story is about a 13-year-old girl winning a spelling bee or a look at three Southerners who tried to reinvent themselves in the unfamiliar North, telling a compelling story is the focus.

2004 nonfiction winner Adrian Nicole LeBlanc knows her way around a good story. She was honored for her 2003 work “Random Family,” a look at the decade-long immersion she spent tracing the lives of one Bronx family. Adapted from a presentation she gave at the Conference on Narrative Journalism, here’s her technique for finding stories worth writing:

I like to insert myself in situations – identified as a journalist but not necessarily working on a story – to educate myself. After my book “Random Family” came out, I spoke at conferences for social workers and youth workers. At these conferences, I signed up for every mailing list, so I’d receive notices for their workshops. One was called “How to Handle Traumatized Children.” I attended, not knowing whether it would become a story, but I was sure that by the end of five days there I would have 10 story ideas. An idea might be a simple profile of an interesting social worker. Or it could be an analysis of how the skill sets that social workers are encouraged to adopt both liberate and confine them.

I keep story files. I clip and file whatever strikes me: new slang words, fashions, particular towns and neighborhoods, someone’s turn of phrase. My idea files are full of things that interest me, in ways that often aren’t clear to me. Some story ideas hit me immediately when I meet a person who engages my interest. Other ideas take years to develop in my mind, and even longer to sell to an editor. My story files provide the ammunition to convince an editor, to explain why a story is worthwhile. They allow me to draw from a whole pack of information, not just one or two anecdotes.

Major stories come to me through my straying curiosity. Even as I lose myself in that story, I’m keeping track of new people and ideas that surface during the fieldwork – half hunches and ideas that I hope to explore, eventually.

We’re sticklers for learning how to pronounce all of our winners’ names. We don’t pat ourselves on the back for this; after all, it is their given name and making the effort to greet someone as they are customarily called is simply good manners. We can admit that some names are harder than others, based on the complexity of the ratio of vowels to consonants, but at rate, there might be some names that look disturbingly easy, but in fact will trip you up. Check out some of the names you think you’ve nailed, but really could use a lesson or two:

Arnold Rampersad, our 2012 Anisfield-Wolf winner, has a special tie to the Cleveland area, where our awards are hosted every year. As one of the nation’s definitive biographers, he has covered noted Cleveland resident Langston Hughes in detail, publishing two volumes of The Life of Langston Hughes, served as editor of Collected Poems of Langston Hughes and Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes. We are looking forward to his remarks at the 2012 ceremony in September!

Here’s a few tidbits about our 2012 lifetime achievement winner that you can chew on: 

Rampersad is a 2010 National Humanities Medal winner, along with Anisfield-Wolf jury member Joyce Carol Oates. The committee honored him for his skills as a gifted biographer and literary critic.

Rampersad also joins the long list of Anisfield-Wolf winners who have also won a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

He won the 1987 Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction, for his work, The Life of Langston Hughes.

He’s been featured at Authors@Google, the web giant’s program that allows for some of the world’s most innovative authors to share their work with a greater audience, video above. We welcome him to the Anisfield-Wolf family and look forward to the ceremony in September!

Huffington Post’s Black Voices rounded up 50 books the editors think every African American should read (they added on Twitter that of course the list has value to everyone, but these books focus primarily on the black experience in America). We were thrilled to see how many Anisfield-Wolf winners were on the list, proving to us once again that our winners stand out in the crowded literary field. 

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

“Annie Allen” (1949)

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

“Breath, Eyes, Memory” (1999)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Adichie

“Half Of A Yellow Sun” (2008)

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

“Invisible Man” (1952)

Edward P. Jones

Edward P. Jones

“The Known World” (2003) 

Malcom X

Alex Haley

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1987)

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

“Song of Solomon” (1977), “Sula” (1973) and “The Bluest Eye” (1970)

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

“The Weary Blues” (1925)

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith

“White Teeth” (2000) 

Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson

“The Warmth of Other Suns” (2010)

Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley

“Devil in a Blue Dress” (1990) 

Ernest J. Gaines

Ernest J. Gaines

“A Lesson Before Dying” (1993)

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Can’t Have It All” article has re-ignited the conversation about working mothers and their quest to obtain balance in all areas of their lives. Some argue that Slaughter’s perspective (as a former State Department employee turned tenured Princeton professor) reeks of privilege, while others simply admit that she makes valid points about the difficulty of proving yourself both on the job and in your home. 

The Wall Street Journal caught up with 2006 Anisfield-Wolf winner Zadie Smith at the Book Expo and talked to her a bit about how she sees her career these days, as she has a two-and-a-half year old daughter and an upcoming book to promote. How does she balance the two? 

Smith said: 

It’s not always easy but I think one way you can make it easier is just doing the essential things and nothing else. I’m not in a great passion to run around the country for three weeks, you know? I’d rather be at home.

But actually writing fits fairly well with motherhood. I’m in the house all the time, which helps. You can set your hours. I suppose the hard thing for a child is the sense that your mother is often thinking about something else. In the downtime between novels you have to demonstrate that you’re also thinking of your family. I’m trying to do it now.

Read the rest of the interview here

Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 masterpiece The Warmth of Other Suns focuses on the Great Migration, scores of Southern African Americans who packed up and left everything they knew behind for a brighter future in the North. With painstaking detail, Wilkerson recounts the lives of four African Americans and their dreams awaiting them in a new place. It was a difficult journey for most, with countless hardships along the way. One of the subjects profiled, Robert Foster, made his way to medical school, becoming a surgeon and later opening his own private practice. 

His daughter, Bunny Foster, sat down with Isabel Wilkerson in the research stage of the book to share her memories of her father. In a recent interview, she talked about how the man she remembered is different (in a good way) from the man Isabel portrayed: 

“My father could be difficult. He was a perfectionist,” Bunny explains. “But Isabel got to what I wasn’t really privy to, in spite of being a brilliant surgeon and physician—he was terribly insecure. I remember case after case where he did some incredible surgery on someone who was expected to die and that person lived. The book taught me things I didn’t know about my own life,” Bunny says. “When I go back and think about the struggles my father had, it saddens me. He made so many hard choices and I had no clue.”

She credits Wilkerson’s thorough investigative skills with uncovering a well-rounded image of her father, one that she will cherish forever. Read the full article here.

Have you read The Warmth of Other Suns? What did you think about Robert Foster’s storyline? 

During a two-day symposium at Stanford University, Junot Diaz had the opportunity to sit down with editor Paula M.L. Moya to discuss his work and his thoughts about his intersection of race and literature. This particular answer, in response to Moya’s question about whether people of color unconsciously fuel white supremacy, stood out to us: 

How can you change something if you won’t even acknowledge its existence, or if you downplay its significance? White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, or the Voldemort name which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels. And yet here’s the rub: if a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: the devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist. Well, white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that, if it exists at all, it exists always in other people, never in us.

Read the entire interview here

Diaz will also be headlining the upcoming Facing Race conference in November 2012. The three-day event is the largest gathering of journalists, artists, activists and leaders assembled in one area to discuss racial justice. As a writer whose work dives deeply into the racial issues and dilemmas, we definitely think Diaz is well suited to address the attendees. See the trailer for the event below.