Fourteen years after he won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his haunting second novel, “A Gesture Life,” Chang-Rae Lee delivers another startling, unsettling work. Sentence by gorgeously meditative sentence, “On Such a Full Sea” carries its readers into a future of captivity, danger and diminished identities.
Lee will return to Cleveland Tuesday, March 24, 2015, as part of the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s distinguished Writers Center Stage series.
The title comes from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” The playwright gives the line to Brutus and it is worth quoting as fully as Lee does on a page before his novel starts:
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea we are now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.
Lee, then, has written a quest novel. Ingeniously, it is narrated by a collective, a “we” that simultaneously Iulls and alarms. Here is the first sentence: “It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore.” The voice belongs to the descendants of immigrants imported to live in a facility called “B-Mor,” the former Baltimore. There is a sister facility in the Midwest called “D-Troy,’ occupying the ashes of Detroit. Some kind of environmental catastrophe has swept the globe, although there is Amsterdam, “one of the few cities that is still like it was in olden times, inhabited by permanent residents but also completely open to any who wish to visit and tour and buy souvenirs and snacks.”
Not so for the residents of “B-Mor,” who keep their heads down growing vegetables and raising fish for the finicky elites called Charters. At the bottom of the heap are the rough trade who live in the lawless “counties,” where those who misbehave are banished. The book unfurls the story of Fan, a 16-year-old B-Mor girl who – unbelievably – hops the fence. The narrators assume she is seeking her boyfriend Reg, whom the authorities have hustled away to study because he has tested “C-free.” The C, undoubtedly, stands for cancer, which seems to carry off almost everyone in this blighted land.
Although she is as tiny as a girl four years younger, Fan has distinguished herself as an expert diver working in the facility’s fish tanks. At the end of the opening chapter, the narrators reluctantly disclose that before she bolted, Fan did the unfathomable: she poisoned her own fish.
“On Such a Full Sea” is studded with small shocks, which grow larger and accumulate in the bloodstream of the reader. Lee’s precise, musical writing tells a mysterious moral story reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 masterpiece, “Never Let Me Go.” It, too, is set in a disturbing future and centers on teenagers. Although the film of the Ishiguro story was a dud, both novels ache with serious explorations of who qualifies as fully human.
Early in “On Such a Full Sea,” our narrators make an argument for the collective, asking, “Have we not done the job of becoming our best selves?” Lee’s subtlety allows this question to read another way, so it becomes “Have we not done the job of becoming the best slaves?”
All the while, Lee’s details singe and sing: a soccer game, a lavish outpost dinner, the swimming that has been Fan’s formation.
In her critique in the Guardian, novelist Ursula K. Le Guin praises the prose but objects to Lee and Cormac McCarthy (in “The Road”) entering into her genre of science fiction “irresponsibly, superficially.” She dislikes what she regards as holes in these stories: How, exactly, did Lee’s world slide into its decline? How are raw materials transported and manufactured into luxury goods for the Charters when the roads are abysmal?
Such criticism rests on the assumption that all should be explicit in creating a coherent world. But in “The Road” and “On Such a Full Sea,” much potency and poignancy lie in giving the readers’ imaginations the range to fill in the blanks.
The roads to dystopia lead back to the present, and if done well, create a gravitas of the highest order. Toward the end of “On Such a Full Sea,” Fan allows herself to imagine a reunion with Reg, and a happy life. Our narrators add the devastating coda: “For none of us can resist such hopeful flashes, which are, in the end, what lights our way through this ever dimming world.”
When writer Ta-Nehisi Coates visited Cleveland on a frigid February morning earlier this year, he was blunt when asked about America’s trouble acknowledging race. “You can’t have America without black people,” he said. “Once you understand that, you understand that the black experience is at the core of what it means to be free.”
His latest treatise for The Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations,” throws down the gauntlet on one of the most contentious subjects our nation has grappled with: how to make amends for 250 years of U.S. slavery. “Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap,” he writes. “Reparations would seek to close this chasm.”
But more than simply attaching a monetary figure to the sacrifices African-Americans have made during their tenure in America, Coates, 38, is asking for a moral reckoning: “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
Coates draws from the work of several Anisfield-Wolf winners in crafting his argument (he said that reading Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns was a defining moment for him). Coates’ strategically appeals to our patriotism: We are Americans and we deserve better from our public policy—and each other. His calls for a more just society are strengthened by noting (in great detail) the injustices of the past, incidents unlikely to be found in textbooks.
Coates appeared recently on PBS’ Moyers & Company to discuss his thesis. The entire segment is worth watching and sharing. Let us know your views.
A standard picture book contains 36 unnumbered pages. “Monsieur Marceau” follows the pattern, but manages a wondrous, supple depiction of the legendary mime Marcel Marceau.
Thanks to the lyrical writing of author Leda Schubert and the evocative paintings of illustrator Gérard DuBois, “Monsieur Marceau” has won the Norman A. Sugarman Children’s Biography Award, a biennial prize conferred by the Cleveland Public Library. During a ceremony in late May, two Sugarman honor books were recognized along with “Monsieur Marceau”: “Face Book,” by Chuck Close, and “Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows and Embraced Autism Changed the World,” by Sy Montgomery.
Schubert’s book dwells on Marceau’s art but also touches upon his heroism. She notes that during the Nazi occupation of his country, “He led hundreds of Jewish children from an orphanage in France to safety in Switzerland. They pretended they were going on vacation, often disguised as boy scouts.” After the war, he began his remarkable theatrical career.
“Children’s biographies aren’t like other narratives that youngsters encounter in school, on television, or in video games,” said Arthur Evenchik, the award ceremony’s keynote speaker. “After all, we know how a biography is going to end: the subject will achieve success and make a difference in the world. That’s where the story is heading. And yet, biography is still a suspenseful art form, because we don’t know how that person achieved success.
“How did Marcel Marceau, who spent his teenage years as an underground resistance fighter, become the world’s most famous mime?” Evenchik asked, then drew his listeners’ attention to the subjects of other Sugarman books. “How did George Washington Carver, the son of a slave, become one of the leading agricultural researchers of his day? How did Temple Grandin, a person with autism, become a renowned animal scientist, author, and public speaker? From a distance, these seem like miraculous transformations – and indeed they are. But children themselves are always in the process of becoming, and reading biographies is an ideal way for them to explore and reflect on that process.”
Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University, praised the quality of the books honored by the Sugarman jury since the award’s inception in 1998. He also celebrated the ever-growing diversity of their subjects. In these biographies, he said, “children can find stories of gifted, resilient people who look like them, whose struggles resonate with theirs,” and also “explore the lives of people who are different from themselves, or who seem to be different—people they might never have known about otherwise, whose struggles would have remained beyond their comprehension.”
Unfortunately, Evenchik added, diversity is all too rare in children’s literature. Citing a study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, he noted that out of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, 93 were about Africans or African-Americans, 69 were about Asian Pacific or Asian-Americans and 57 were about Latinos.
To strengthen his case for the value of diversity, Evenchik quoted Christopher Myers, a children’s book author and illustrator. Myers has written of the validation that comes “from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and the lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed, even celebrated.” Yet Myers also insists that multicultural books are not simply “mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities.” Children, he writes, see books “less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.”
Evenchik linked this insight to the Sugarman biographies, describing them as “a collection of atlases.” He paid tribute to Joan Sugarman, a children’s librarian, who established the prize to honor her late husband, and he commended the Cleveland Public Library, its director Felton Thomas, and the jury for their work.
“I’ve been coming to this ceremony for a number of years and I have never heard things put so well,” said Joel Sugarman. Jury Chair Annisha Jeffries, the library’s youth services manager, was visibly moved: “I can’t talk about it. Thank you, Arthur.” And artist DuBois, who had traveled from Montreal to Cleveland for the ceremony, praised Evenchik’s careful appreciation of details in the illustrations, especially one in which young Marcel mimics Charlie Chaplin for a trio of friends and a little dog.
Attending via Skype, writer Schubert beamed from her home in Plainfield, Vermont. “It is gratifying to have hard work rewarded.” Answering a question from one of the jurors, Schubert explained that she got the idea for the book from her agent. As she worked on it, she drew on her experience taking a class in mime during her senior year of college.
Deborah McHamm, founder of A Cultural Exchange, told Schubert that she had distributed copies of “Monsieur Marceau” to a group of African-American high school students who were studying how one individual can make a difference to a community. “And they love it,” she reported.
Writer and radio host Michael Eric Dyson posed a simple question to Walter Mosley midway through their Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture forum:”Do black people have the freedom to be individuals in America?”
Mosley, 62, paused to acknowledge the gravity of the question. “I would not give up being black in America,” he responded. “We are America. We got the culture, we got the music, we got the art — and we don’t really know it.”
Mosley, best known for his “Easy Rawlins” detective series, now 10 books deep, has enjoyed a successful and sustained career. He was born in California to a Jewish mother and a black father (the pair was denied a marriage license in 1951.) Their only child, who has lived in New York City since 1981, identifies with both sides of his family. He credits his daily writing regimen for his high output — he averages close to two published books per year. His 1997 crime novel Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned won the Anisfield-Wolf book award for fiction.
Mosley delved into his beginnings as a writer and the early resistance he encountered to featured a black male protagonist. Mosley recalled an agent telling him: “White people don’t like to read about black people, black women don’t like black men, and black men don’t read, so who’s going to read your book?”
During the lighthearted yet introspective discussion, the duo covered a range of topics—from President Obama’s handling of race to the questions of literary celebrity and hype. Watch the full conversation below and let us know what you think.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. spent a sunny April Saturday in Cleveland speaking frankly about money and race and aspiration.
He brought a relaxed manner to a charged topic as keynote speaker before 350 participants in the biennial African American Philanthropic Summit, hosted by the Cleveland Foundation.
“Black people have a long tradition of philanthropy,” said the long-time jury chair of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “We just don’t know that. It is called the collection plate. We’ve been ponying up pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters for ages and ages. The building fund – our building always looked the same. I think it was the preacher building a Cadillac.”
A laughter of recognition rolled through the conference center at Corporate College East in Warrensville Heights, Ohio. Turns out nearly two-thirds of African-Americans donate to various causes, giving roughly $11 billion each year to charity, according to a 2012 report from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Gates sat smiling and comfortable in a gray suit with a red tie with moderator Russ Mitchell, lead anchor of WKYC Channel 3. Mitchell, who wore a gray suit with a green tie, let the afternoon, and the conversation, flow. An audience member asked the Harvard University scholar to name the most pressing philanthropic need.
“Reforming our schools,” he answered. “It’s the key to progress, the key to citizenship and the key to social elevation . . . We have to reform our people’s attitude toward the school system but we also have to make the school system a place that nourishes young people.”
He advised listeners to be intentional, to form giving circles and select recipients based on good metrics and hard data. “So many of us think, ‘If I could only see Oprah and just tell her about the church needing a new wing and she would write a check,’” Gates said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Quoting James Baldwin—“Be careful what you set your heart upon, for it will surely be yours”—Gates reflected on his own blessings, and his decision in 1991 to ask the Harvard University Endowment office to help him raise money to rebuild African and African-American studies. He said the endowment staff responded: “We’re going to give you the first lesson in fund-raising. There are three groups of people who never give: doctors, actors, and black people.”
Gates, who has a knack for inviting everyone to the party, described the success that belied the stereotype. He also recounted how private equity billionaire Glenn Hutchins came across Gates’ August forum on Martha’s Vineyard. Eventually, the mogul decided to donate $30 million to what has become the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard.
But Gates didn’t linger on a triumphal note. Instead, he invited his audience to think with him about the state of black America: a quadrupling of the black middle class since 1968 and a stubbornly persistent 35 percent of black children at or below the poverty line since the same era, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
“When I was growing up—I was born in 1950—the blackest thing you could be was an educated man or an educated woman for the Negro people,” said Gates, who was raised in West Virginia, where his father was a mill worker and a janitor. “I’m serious. Who were our heroes? Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Dr. King. We loved athletes and entertainers, but the real heroes were the race men and the race women. Where did that go? That went the way of the west wind. Now we have to remind people that we too are people of the book. Our people defied the master of the plantation to read and write. Now so many of our kids—who have more opportunity than any of us had at six or seven—are squandering that opportunity. For what? Blaming white racism and the white man? Forget that, man. I have no sympathy for that.”
Instead, Gates called—gently, with a smile—on his listeners to build the beloved community without condescension, with patience and persistence. And, always, with the amplifying strength of each other.
The new book is nonfiction, the outgrowth of a Grantland assignment. An editor staked Whitehead in the 2011 World Series of Poker after learning that the virtuoso writer enjoyed a regular poker game in Brooklyn. The online magazine, part of the ESPN empire, paid Whitehead’s entry fee of almost $10,000 and assured him that he could keep any winnings. Rodrigo Corral’s jacket design for “The Noble Hustle”—the King of Hearts plunging a bloody knife into his own neck—hints that it didn’t go well.
So does Whitehead’s first sentence: “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.” He is still in the same paragraph when he dispatches the cliché that hangs over every card game: “You make the best of the hand you’re dealt.” On the next page, Whitehead informs us that he was newly divorced when Grantland called, but he doesn’t linger. Crisply, our beleaguered memoirist writes that “one of the overlooked benefits of joint custody is that you’re going to go max thirty-six hours until someone discovers your decomposing body. ‘Anyone seen him? He was supposed to pick her up after school.’”
We seem to be in an era of humiliation humor—Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, Louis C.K.—but Whitehead borrows the mantle lightly. A lot of chortling awaits the reader of this dispatch from the “Leisure Industrial Complex.” Whitehead takes the Greyhound from NYC to Atlantic City to limber up his amateur game.
During his first, low-stakes tournament, Whitehead makes it to the final table, where “the other castaway was an elderly white man who bent over his chips, squinting through a magnifying attachment that barnacled on his thick specs like a jeweler’s loupe. He pondered before acting, as if reviewing a lifetime of hands and confrontations, or fighting off a nap. Sometimes you have to accept a casino trip for what it really is: an opportunity to see old people.”
The author preps for his Las Vegas days with a stack of poker books, a coach, a yoga instructor—the breathing exercises turn out to be clutch. He buys a red track suit, which he customizes with lightning bolts and the nebbish-y, Woody Allen-like script “Republic of Anhedonia.” He defines the word for readers before chapter one: the inability to experience pleasure. (“I was a skinny guy but I was morbidly obese with doom.”) He selects the sunglasses he will wear indoors.
Our warrior had hit Vegas before, in 1991—as a newly minted Harvard graduate on a cross-country trek with a couple of buddies. They crashed in a “grim box” of a hotel, without a proper casino, but Whitehead dropped his nickel into a slot machine anyway and won $2: “In a dank utility room deep in the subbasements of my personality, a little man whipped his hands on his overalls and pulled a switch: More.”
With one amusing sentence, Whitehead has conjured the stirrings of addiction. In his own life, and in “The Noble Hustle,” he doesn’t take it much farther. We do get a glimpse of a hyped-up stranger struggling to get back to the tables, calling out for a wheelchair, and Whitehead himself ponders the siren call of a stint on the circuit. But mostly we get jokes. And fine word-craft. And the agreeable ping of Whitehead’s observational abilities, bouncing off the felt in nimble, free association.
“The Noble Hustle” is fizzy, with just enough bite in its cultural acumen for us to shrug off the empty calories. The book won’t be the most important in the Whitehead oeuvre, but if it sends a batch of new readers to “The Intuitionists” and “Zone One” and “John Henry Days,” then that bloody King of Hearts will have done its work.
Last September, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka spoke passionately about the global “contest between barbarism and enlightenment” around educating children. His words sound prophetic now in the wake of the April kidnapping of Nigerian school girls in the northeast of his own beloved country.
Soyinka, 79, decried these armed men, saying these groups must be fought and immobilized. One such cadre – the Islamic militants of Boko Haram — has targeted schools, burning down more than 20. Then on April 15, this segment kidnapped some 234 girls, and drove them in trucks into the forests near the border with Cameroon. The name “Boko Haram” translates roughly as “western education is forbidden.”
In recent days, families of the missing girls have organized street protests and started social media campaigns to try to goad the Nigerian government into action. Rumors suggest many have already been sold off to soldiers, some for as little as $12. On Saturday, protests spread to London, New York and Washington, D.C. Demonstrators held aloft signs that read “African Lives Matter” and “Bring them Home!” The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is surging.
During his September remarks, Soyinka drew a sharp line between those seeking education and those violently suppressing it. He had already asked several Nigerian governors to distribute the inspirational videotape of Malala Yousafzai addressing the United Nations last summer—“so that the school children can see that they are not alone. What they are undergoing has become a universal scourge, which has to be fought.”
The great writer called for a world in which children could go to school without fear, “enjoying the smell of books – even those who couldn’t read, just being among the instruments of enlightenment, of expanding the mind.”
When screenwriter Misan Sagay visited the storied Scone Palace in Scotland, an 18th century painting of a pair of aristocratic women — one a woman of color, the other white — caught her eye.
Despite the antiquity of the painting, the women were positioned and clothed in equal fashions — an arrangement that intrigued the screenwriter. It started her hunt — years combing through archives — to piece together the history of those two women. Her research informed the screenplay for “Belle,” the film based on the darker-skinned woman in the portrait, opening in theaters today.
British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw portrays the title character, Dido Elizabeth Belle, born the biracial daughter of an Navy Admiral and African woman in 1761. Sent to live with her aristocratic uncle, Dido straddles two disparate worlds, struggling to find her place in a British high society that both beckons and snubs her.
Directed by Amma Asante, “Belle” attracted strong notices during its run at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, where another historical drama (“12 Years a Slave”) stunned crowds and went on to nab the top prize at the Oscars.
Might “Belle” be the next historical film starring people of color to generate Hollywood buzz?
Anthologies are tricky – and a new one called “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry” might seem like a gimmick. But readers who venture here will find that London editors Anthony and Ben Holden, a father and son, have come up with an engaging conversation-starter and a new angle on some marvelous work.
They asked 100 men to write a brief introduction to a poem that choked them up. The “vast majority are public figures not prone to tears,” writes Anthony Holden, “as is supposedly the manly way, but here prepared to admit to caving in when ambushed by great art.”
One, Simon Schama, is the Anisfield-Wolf juror and historian. Two are recent Anisfield-Wolf winners: Mohsin Hamid and Andrew Solomon. Poet Terrance Hayes picks former juror and Anisfield-Wolf recipient Gwendolyn Brooks for her poem “The Mother” and two contributors – novelist Mark Haddon and actor Tom Hiddleston — choose separate Derek Walcott poems, both published in 1984.
Schama, fresh off his new book and PBS series, “The Story of the Jews,” decides upon W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby.” The historian writes that “tears come to me reading Auden’s ‘Lullaby’ to a lover already asleep because the poem suspends time and the brutality of the world (‘1937 when fashionable madmen raise/Their pedantic boring cry’) at the moment of unanswerably perfect love.” The honesty in the poem “makes the eyes prick and the heart knock,” Schama writes. The actor Simon Callow, for his own reasons, picks the same poem.
Hamid, who won his Anisfield-Wolf book award for the novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” chooses Robin Robertson’s “Keys to the Doors,” a 14-line piece addressed to a daughter and published in 2012, the book’s most recent poem. Hamid writes that he cut it out of the New York Review of Books, mailed it to Lahore and taped it to his printer – “It’s there now, stirring to the beat of my ceiling fan as I write this.”
A young father when he found it, Hamid writes that the poem captures something of the way his own little girl would “stride into my room where I was novel-writing, and talk to me, and ask me questions, and bring her fantasies into where I sat draped in mine.”
Andrew Solomon, who won last year’s nonfiction Anisfield-Wolf book award for “Far From the Tree,” picks Elizabeth Bishop’s 1976 work “Crusoe in England.” It is one of a dozen poems in the book by women, in the voice of an imagined aged Robinson Crusoe. Solomon writes that “the meticulous dryness of this narrator, so bereft of the spirit of adventure even when recalling adventures, seems to catch in the throat of the old man who speaks it.” Solomon esteems this voice for containing “not so much bitterness as restraint. Love is circumstantial; we can love anyone if need be; and losing the one we love is the singular catastrophe.”
Terrance Hayes writes that Brooks’ 1945 poem that begins “Abortions will not let you forget” was instrumental to him as a college student: “It is, in fact, the poem that made me choose the path of a poet rather than that of a painter. (No painting had ever made me cry.)” He writes that his continuous relationship with the poem as an older man is “a testament to its craftsmanship.”
Finally, Mark Haddon selects Walcott’s “Midsummer: Sonnet XLIII” and writes that he dislikes the sentimental. But the Nobel Laureate accomplishes something different here: “the sublime sublimely articulated.” A few pages later, Hiddleston writes that he reads Walcott’s “Love After Love” at least monthly. “I read it to my dearest friends after dinner once, and to my family at Christmas, and they started crying. Which always, unfailingly, makes me cry.”
All these tears caused Billy Collins to jokingly ask “how any of us make it through the book without succumbing to a complete emotional breakdown,” editor Ben Holden writes. And then he shrugs: “What could be more human, honest, or pure than tears?”