A. Van Jordan made an October appearance at Market Garden Brewery’s Brews & Prose event, sharing snippets from his latest work, “The Cineaste,” in front of a packed crowd. We caught up with the Akron native for a brief chat on the personal significance of winning the 2005 Anisfield-Wolf award:
The wood-frame Cleveland house where Langston Hughes once scribbled teenaged insights is back from the brink. Four years ago its back door flapped open and its copper fixtures had been pilfered by thieves, leaving ugly holes in the walls.
Today, it is renovated, and ready for its new owner, an aspiring writer from Lyndhurst. Perhaps the 3-bedroom home’s proximity to long-ago greatness will bring him luck. Langston Hughes was just 15 in 1917 when he rented the attic room on E. 86th St. His mother and stepfather had moved away, and Langston was doing well at Cleveland’s prestigious Central High School. He had started to write poems.
“The only thing I knew how to cook myself in the kitchen of the house where I roomed was rice, which I boiled to a paste. Rice and hot dogs, rice and hot dogs, every night for dinner. Then I read myself to sleep,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea.
Young Langston was a star on Central’s track team, and in its literary magazine, “The Monthly,” where his first short stories appeared. Ethel Weimer, his much-respected English teacher, encouraged him to read Walt Whitman, Carl Sandberg, Edgar Lee Masters, Amy Lowell, and Vachel Lindsay.
He went on to attend Columbia University (for a year), travel the world and play a central role in the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes returned briefly to Cleveland in the 1930s when the Karamu House produced six of his plays. In 1954, he won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his novel, Simple Takes a Wife.
But even as Hughes became enshrined in the 20th Century American pantheon, the colonial on E. 86th St. declined. In 2009, a neighborhood improvement group bought the decrepit property for $100 from the city of Cleveland, only to discover that the celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance had been a boy there.
Debra Wilson, real estate manager for Fairfax Development Corp., said her small nonprofit was ill-prepared to find the cash that rescuing a historic landmark would require. Nevertheless, her group managed the renovation and to sell it in October for $85,000. (See listing here.)
“We put about $174,000 into it, but we’re not complaining. We’re very proud,” Wilson said. “We’re doing a Langston Hughes reading garden next to it on land the Cuyahoga County Land Bank donated.”
Occasional news stories have meant “we get phone calls about it from around the world,” she said.
Studying the poetry Langston Hughes wrote during his adolescent in Cleveland, the scholar Arnold Rampersad observed that it is ”dominated by images of childhood. He was a star high school athlete, the best high jumper in Ohio, and again and again he depicted himself as a child in his poetry, showing an extraordinary quality of innocence” in a complex man.
In 2012, biographer Rampersad returned to Cleveland to be honored with an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement award.
Eugene Gloria‘s My Favorite Warlord earned praise from the Anisfield-Wolf jury for his “vivid and striking” work examining masculinity, identity, and heritage. His 2012 collection of poetry helped him snag his latest literary prize, the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for poetry. Prior to this year’s ceremony, we talked to Gloria about what winning the award meant to him and where he sees his career headed next.
If you follow Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Twitter or Facebook, you are probably already privy to the bevy of heavy hitters he has recruited for his new PBS series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross,” premiering Oct 21. The six-part documentary features names as varied as the Black Panther Party’s Kathleen Cleaver to Roots’ drummer Questlove. Gates has mentioned that he is particularly proud of procuring the insights of General Colin Powell.
The chair of the Anisfield-Wolf book awards serves executive producer, host and writer for the series, using his unparalleled knowledge of African-American history (and access to some of the nation’s foremost historians) to flesh out what most history books only skim. The series aspires to document the entire 500-year history of African-Americans, from the beginnings of the slave trade to the present-day occupant of the White House.
In a recent interview, Gates said this series was 40 years in the making. His inspiration for “The African Americans” was the 1968 program, “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” hosted by Bill Cosby, a seven-part look at the unheralded contributions of blacks in film, science and other endeavors. Gates’ series is a deeper dive into narratives much enhanced by leading historians, including former Anisfield-Wolf winners Ira Berlin, David Eltis and Annette Gordon Reed.
After the premiere on October 21, a new hour-long episode will air each Tuesday until the finale on November 26. Join us on Twitter as we tweet with Gates during each episode, using the hashtag #ManyRiversPBS. Catch a peek at the first episode with this two-minute video on a slave girl simply known as Priscilla:
As guests began to trickle in to the Ohio Theater at Playhouse Square, an older woman surveyed the crowd and winked at me. “Good—not everyone here has gray hair,” she said.
I was on hand to see Stephen L. Carter, the third author to come to Cleveland for the Writers Center Stage series, sponsored by the Cuyahoga County Public Library and Case Western Reserve University. My father introduced me to his work by keeping his nose in a well-worn copy of The Emperor of Ocean Park, winner of a 2003 Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction.
The Yale law professor, 58, warmed up the crowd with a few quips about football, poking fun of his favorite team, whose name “no one says any more.”
A graduate of both Yale and Stanford, Carter began his career as a law clerk for Judge Spottswood W. Robinson, III, of the United States Court of Appeals, and then to Justice Thurgood Marshall of the Supreme Court of the United States. His relationship with Marshall taught him valuable lessons, one of which is “being strategic in which battles you’re willing to fight,” he said. He spoke at length of his reverence for the justice, who, Carter recalled, was able to praise the opposition in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which Marshall served as lead counsel.
Transitioning from law to a career as a writer wasn’t difficult, Carter told the crowd of almost 500. “All lawyers do is somewhat fiction,” he quipped, drawing a laugh from the crowd. However, he did acknowledge his lawyer training taught him to anticipate the “What ifs,” which translates to skillfully keeping the reader surprised at the plot twists in his novels.
Crafting his most recent novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, which explores what might have happened if Lincoln survived the assassination attempt, took months of deep digging. “I like to get my facts right. I used photos, maps, personal diaries…anything I could. I wanted to capture an authentic D.C.” He called the process of writing novels “emotional agony,” but enjoyed the satisfaction from completing them.
During the Q&A portion of the evening, an audience member alluded to the government stalemate in Washington and asked what, if anything, voters could do to improve civility at the federal level. “Civility will come to politics when people decide it’s more important than the outcome,” he responded. “Politics ought to appeal to the best in us and hardly ever does. The best thing we can do is have a greater involvement in local politics, where our votes really matter.”
Junot Diaz did not dress up for his talk. He wore black jeans, worn boots and his white shirttails out beneath a charcoal sweater, front and back. On an October Friday afternoon, he walked into the terraced auditorium at Cleveland State University, and leaned companionably against the wall, sipping coffee out of a disposable cup as Professor Antonio Medina-Rivera introduced him.
Medina-Rivera ran through Diaz’s dizzying credentials: a full professor at M.I.T., a 2012 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow, a Pulitzer Prize for his vibrant first novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which also won an Anisfield-Wolf book award. In addition, his host reported, Diaz volunteers at Freedom University, a new institution that attempts to meet the needs of undocumented college students in Georgia.
The 44-year-old Diaz took the stage and gradually built a case for embracing ambivalence and imperfection. “I am never trying to be right,” he said. “I’m trying to be the launch pad for somebody to be righter.” He mocked the preening persona-building on Facebook. He smiled and joked, even as he delivered some withering political remarks. Here is one sample:
“The elites are running rough-shod over us. They are engineering forced income transfers to the top. Elites are gutting the middle class, and that gets a shrug. But say, ‘A Mexican is taking your job,’ and everybody has an opinion.”
Diaz read the same passage from “Oscar Wao” that he selected in 2008 when he appeared at the Cleveland Public Library: three pages at the start of Chapter Two that describe Oscar’s sister Lola called to the bathroom by their mother to feel for a lump in the matriarch’s breast. It is a gorgeous passage, and one of the few stretches in the book without profanity or explicit sexual asides.
When Diaz finished, a student asked him if he thinks in Spanish. The writer was born in Santo Domingo, a third child in a neighborhood without electricity. His mother brought him to Parlin, N.J., to rejoin his father when he was six.
“Spanish is my birth language, and everything that means,” Diaz answered. “English is my control language, and everything that means. I can’t be super-smart in Spanish. In Spanish, I am less guarded.”
Asked how he perfected Lola’s voice, Diaz observed that poor children come-of-age in front of each other, in packed living quarters. In the comfort of the American middle class, adolescence happens privately behind closed doors.
“Most of us have so many aspects of ourselves, it is almost impossible to reconcile,” Diaz said, recounting his own years pumping iron as a young man, only to be caught out for his nerdy, Dungeons and Dragons-loving side by a dorm mate at Rutgers. There he fell under the literary influences of Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros, even as he worked full-time delivering pool tables, washing dishes, and pumping gas to cover tuition.
Diaz poked fun at peers who name Charles Dickens when asked who is their favorite author. He made a point of praising contemporaries – Ruth Ozeki for her new novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” and Edwidge Danticat for “Claire of the Sea Light” calling it “unbelievable, the best one she has done.” (Danticat won an Anisfield-Wolf award for “The Dew Breaker” in 2005.)
Everyone, Diaz claimed, is searching for the place where “all the parts of us can be present and safe.” For him, that place was reading. “I write because I love books,” he said. “Writing is just my expression of my excess love of reading.”
Still, he warned his listeners against unbridled enthusiasm. “Love something too much and you know the kind of kids you raise. . .
“It is OK to be involved in a practice you are ambivalent about. Some of the best parents are ambivalent about being parents. . . I am deeply ambivalent about the craft of writing. Anyone who grew up in the shadow of the (Dominican Republic) Trujillo dictatorship can’t see stories as only good. There is a cost to everything. I am always aware of the shadows that lurk in every artistic practice, and I’m always troubled by them.”
Then the sober mood broke. In a different conversation, Diaz allowed that he had been texting pictures of Cleveland. He sent one to his buddy Christopher Robichaud, a lecturer in ethics at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Robichaud grew up in Euclid and Chardon, and graduated with a degree in philosophy from John Carroll University. The two men bonded over “tabletop role-playing games, horror movies, superhero comics,” Robichaud said.
And yes, he answered Diaz: the structure the writer photographed was indeed the West Side Market that Robichaud had described in their chats about childhood.
Kevin Powers‘ The Yellow Birds has been called a “beautiful and horrifying trance of a book,” an unnerving look at the cruelty and arbitrary nature of war. He spoke with us in the calm before this year’s ceremony, happy to accept the award that in recent years has gone to Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Hear his remarks below:
While Laird Hunt was in Cleveland for the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf ceremony, we managed to nab him for a brief interview during his busy day of press and pre-show preparation. Hunt was honored for Kind One, his 2012 novel that explores oppression on a rural Kentucky pig farm. (In interviews he often reveals that the idea for the book came from a nugget in another Anisfield-Wolf winner’s work—Edward P. Jones‘ The Known World.) Find out how Hunt reacted when he got the call from Dr. Gates and what he thinks the award means to his career moving forward.
October 9 is the first anniversary of the grim day that masked gunmen stormed onto a bus in Pakistan and shot a child in the head. Their motive was political: She had defied them publicly, having the temerity to insist that girls be allowed to attend school.
The world now knows her mellifluous name – Malala – and many were heartened by her medical recovery, capped July 12 when she addressed the United Nations. “One child,” she said, “one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
At least one cohort of adults believes her. A collection of poets has rallied to contribute to “Malala: Poems for Malala Yousafzai,” edited by Joseph Hutchinson and Andrea L. Watson. Its publication coincides with this first anniversary, and its proceeds go to the Malala Fund.
“This anthology is evidence that some poets still dare to respond to what’s happening in the larger world, and we believe they are making a significant contribution in doing so,” Hutchinson writes in the foreword. Meanwhile, speculation builds that the girl may win the Nobel Peace Prize this October.
For the moment, though, sixty writers from around the world stand with Malala. Kathleen Cerveny, poet laureate of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and the director of arts initiatives at the Cleveland Foundation, made the cut. Here, in its entirety, is her villanelle, “At Fourteen”:
Who was I at fourteen? Who were you?
Diverted from the real by lives of ease,
could we have stood up, then, and claimed our due
as humans growing hungry for the new
excitement of the mind – things never seen?
Who was I at fourteen? Who were you?
A girl has stood against her world. She drew
the fire of those who guard what’s always been
and stood steadfast against them, claimed her due.
Her courage is a brush that paints a view
of human worlds more worthy – rarely seen
by coddled ones, like me, like you.
The cowards’ bullets aimed to silence truth;
pierce brain and tongue – still both thought and speech.
She fell, but has not failed to claim her due.
And has the gift for rights now been renewed
by blood, the hunger of one child to learn?
This girl of fourteen shames both me and you
If we don’t stand – demand what we all are due.
We caught up with Andrew Solomon a few hours before the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf ceremony to ask him his thoughts on being honored for his transformative work, 2012’s Far From The Tree. “To win something that is fondly called the ‘Black Pulitzer’ has particular meaning to me,” Solomon would go on to say later at the ceremony.
Hear his quick thoughts on winning an Anisfield-Wolf award, the politics of identity, and the march toward acceptance.
When the starter failed Tuesday in A. Van Jordan’s car, the poet leased a rental and made a deadline dash from Ann Arbor to Cleveland. He arrived in good time to read five poems for “Brews and Prose,” a monthly literary series at Market Garden Brewery that uses beer to try to ease art away from its academic moorings.
Jordan, 48, a University of Michigan professor, won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2005 for “M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A,” which explores the life of MacNolia Cox, the first black child finalist of the National Spelling Bee in 1936. She grew up in Akron, as did Jordan, who infuses his work with history, physics, and music.
A year ago, Jordan told an audience at Arizona State University, “I went to a kind of crappy high school where we didn’t read novels. We were reading out of readers.” But a summer library program widened his vision, as did the coffee shops of Washington, D.C., where Jordan worked as a young environmental reporter and discovered open mic nights.
“A brother who can write is far more threatening to the status quo—and I mean the Negro status quo as well as the white—than a brother with a gun and pants hanging off his butt,” he told an interviewer for Baltimore’s “Spectrum of Poetic Fire.”
Its 25 poems each focus on a film, from “The Great Train Robbery” to “The Red Balloon” (introduced to young Van in that Akron library series) to “Blazing Saddles.” Jordan called the Mel Brooks comedy “one of the most brilliant films on racism in America” and launched into his piece that begins:
What is so funny about racism
is how the racists never get the joke.
In most settings, racists stick out
like Count Basie’s Orchestra in the middle
of a prairie, just as awkward as he is . . .
One of the most moving poems in “The Cineaste” is “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing,” the title of a 1987 movie by Patricia Rozema about unrequited lesbian longing. It begins, “Often, I find myself in situations/for which there are not adequate epigraphs.” Jordan read it in Phoenix, and in Cleveland. Here is a video clip – the poem begins at 2:45: