George Lamming, who spent decades as a leader of the Caribbean literary Diaspora, won our 2014 Lifetime Achievement award for his deeply political books that critique colonialism and neo-colonialism. His first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, drew accolades from Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Wright. Health concerns prevented Lamming from attending our 2014 ceremony in person, but we were able to film him in his native Barbados for a brief Q&A:
Hunt, 46, had just met with Abrahamson in Canada, where the director is set to film Emma Donaghue’s suspenseful bestseller “Room.” Hunt told his Cleveland audience, gathered in the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, that he and the Irish director hit it off and are excited about bringing “Neverhome” to film.
It tells the story of Ash Thompson, formerly Constance Thompson, who leaves her Indiana farm disguised as a Union soldier to join the Civil War. Hunt said hundreds of women, both in the North and South, took up arms – some for love, some for money, some for adventure. If they were discovered, they were often accused of spying or insanity and drummed out, only to walk down the road and join another regimen. “One of the women did this seven times,” he said.
A warm audience greeted Hunt in Beachwood with a close reading of the text. “It is such a pleasure to be back in this room,” he said. “I associate it with one of the happiest weeks of my life.” A year ago Hunt accepted his Anisfield-Wolf award for “Kind One,” a mediation on revenge and slavery set on an antebellum Kentucky pig farm.
The new novel, like “Kind One,” springs organically from its opening sentence: “I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” Hunt said he wrote the book in a blistering three weeks from the spark of that sentence, and then spent two-and-a-half years refining it. He worked to stay true to the “understated fierceness” of that single narrative voice, and to pay attention to the ways voice can conceal and reveal gender.
Asked why the reader has no solid sense of the physical Ash Thompson, Hunt observed that the Civil War was fought largely by boys, whose character was still indistinct, especially in photographs. And he mentioned David Hodges’ essay on the dilemma of historical fiction – no character says: “Now I will put on my hobnailed boots.”
And although Hunt’s scholarship ran deep and wide, he wanted the voice of the opening sentence to be the reader’s gateway – not photographs, not military maneuvers, not all the accumulated frames readers keep at hand for this war. The voice itself is a hybrid, he notes, “not exactly a 19th-century voice, but informed by it.”
And, if Element Pictures executives have their way, one day soon readers will hear it in an actor’s mouth.
Brooklyn, N.Y. — The Brooklyn Book Festival—a celebratory, cerebral, free event that runs one Sunday in September—attracted tens of thousands of readers, and this year, a spike of controversy.
Anisfield-Wolf jurors Rita Dove and Joyce Carol Oates read from their work, soaking up warm applause, while two recent fiction winners—Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie—signed a petition calling on the festival to sever its support from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
“It is deeply regrettable that the Festival has chosen to accept funding from the Israeli government just weeks after Israel’s bloody 50-day assault on the Gaza Strip, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians – including 500 children – dead,” asserts the petition, distributed by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel. “Sustaining a partnership with the Israeli consulate at this time amounts to a tacit endorsement of Israel’s many violations of international law and Palestinian human rights.”
The nub of the criticism centered on a small aspect of the festival: the sponsorship of Israeli writer Assaf Gavron by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Gavron, whose much-lauded novel, “The Hilltop,” will publish in the United States in October, participated in a panel entitled “A Sense of Place: Writing From Within and Without.”
Diaz, who won both a 2008 Pulitzer Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” stayed away, as did the Pakistani writer Shamsie, who won for the novel “Burnt Shadows” in 2010. But a number of the signatories—New Yorker writers Elif Batuman and Sasha Frere-Jones, author Greg Grandin and essayist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts—also participated as speakers at the festival.
So did two other Anisfield-Wolf winners, Zadie Smith, a Londoner who won in 2006 for her novel “On Beauty” and James McBride, whose best-selling memoir “The Color of Water” earned the prize in 1997 and whose most recent book, “The Good Lord Bird” surprised the bookies by winning a National Book Award last year.
Appearing on the main stage with other poets laureate, Dove praised 19-year-old Ramya Ramana, who recited a moving piece called “A Testimony in Progress.” For her part, Ramana described Dove as one of her essential inspirations.
In a panel titled “Influence of the Real,” Oates spoke of her latest story collection, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” in which an elderly Robert Frost is visited by a disturbing young woman in the title story. “Each of these stories jolted me awake,” said the critic Alan Cheuse, “like a bark from a monstrous dog.”
Meanwhile, an affable James McBride appeared on a panel with novelist Jeffery Renard Allen, whose dense and beautiful historical novel “Song of the Shank” scored a cover review this summer in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times Book Review.
“I wanted to do something different,” McBride said of his comic slavery novel. “Many books about race are [dropping his voice to sing] ‘Ohhh, Freedom, Ohhh Freedom.’ I didn’t want to read that book. I wanted to write to the common place. I was thinking about the kid who reads Spider-Man comics.”
Allen, whose “Song of the Shank” has comic elements, said a famous black writer told him that the makers of the film “12 Years a Slave” forgot that black people like to laugh. Allen added that Langston Hughes entitled one of his novels, “Not Without Laughter.”
McBride, who allowed that he’d “had my buns toasted” over his irreverent portrait of Frederick Douglass in “The Good Lord Bird,” said that the sainted abolitionist lived under one roof with his black wife and his white mistress, a set-up that the writer found “too delicious” to pass up.
The festival, now in its ninth year, awarded McBride its BoBi prize for “an author whose body of work exemplifies or speaks to the spirit of Brooklyn.”
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is an intoxicating first book about intersecting lives in war-torn Chechnya. The novel begins as Russian officers burn down a Muslim home and “disappear” the father Dokka but can’t find his daughter Haava. A neighbor hides the 8-year-old girl in a barely-functioning hospital. Novelist Anthony Marra sets this story over five taut days, as the child is hunted and the adults around her try to navigate radically different circumstances. Marra teaches at Stanford University. We caught up with Marra a few hours before he accepted the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction. Hear his remarks in the brief video below:
Ari Shavit, a columnist for Jerusalem’s daily newspaper Haaretz, spent five years writing My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel in English and Hebrew simultaneously. A former Israeli paratrooper, peace advocate and great-grandson of Victorian-era Zionists, Shavit carefully examines a fraught and difficult history, interweaving family memoir, multiple documents and hundreds of interviews with Arabs and Jews. This important, clarifying book asks why Israel was created, what it has achieved, what went wrong and if it can survive.
We spent a few minutes with Shavit prior to this year’s ceremony, and he expressed his gratitude to the jury for recognizing his work:
Adrian Matejka’s “The Big Smoke” is a nuanced, polyphonic book that explores the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African- American heavyweight world champion. A fan of the sport, Matejka was moved by this son of emancipated slaves – born in Texas just 13 years after the end of the Civil War – who loved Shakespeare, Verdi’s operas, travel abroad and a series of white women. The Big Smoke follows Johnson until 1912 in 52 poems. Matejka spent eight years researching and writing this book. He teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington.
We caught up with Matejka in a few quiet moments before this year’s ceremony to hear his thoughts on being honored with the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for poetry:
Faded fight posters on the walls at Cleveland’s Old Angle boxing gym served as an authentic backdrop for the poetry of Adrian Matejka, 2014 winner of an Anisfield-Wolf book award. Matejka’s 52-poem collection, “The Big Smoke,” centers on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, who earned the crown in 1908.
Gym owner Gary Horwitz rearranged his gym and his week to host. Dave Lucas, a founder of the “Brews & Prose” literary series, canceled his September plans and moved his audience from the Market Garden Brewery down W. 25th St. to the gym. The night featured Matejka’s reading, two live boxing demonstrations, and dollar bratwurst. Clad in a white T-shirt bearing Johnson’s likeness, Matejka, 42, took to the middle of the ring to read a selection of poems.
“Johnson was a folk hero, a contradictory figure,” Matejka said, testifying to the complexity of the boxer’s life. Born in Galveston, Texas in 1878 to former slaves, Johnson became one of the first African American celebrities. He flaunted an extravagant wardrobe and listened to Verdi’s arias while he trained.
“I didn’t mention that he had gold teeth, but he did,” Matejka added to his description later. “I didn’t mention that he used to change his clothes four to five times a day, but he did.”
Speaking to the crowd through an old-school boxing mic, Matejka began with the same poem that opens his book: “Battle Royale.” The title refers to a winner-takes-all fight in which black men were blindfolded and placed in a ring to fight for the amusement of white men. Last man standing won. Johnson got his start as a boxer in a battle royal in 1899. He won $1.50 for beating four other men and caught the eye of a local promoter. By 1910, he would headline in the “Fight of the Century” against heavyweight boxer Tommy Burns and see a $65,000 payday (today more than $1 million).
Johnson’s conspicuous glamour riled his white critics (and some black critics, as well — most notably activist Booker T. Washington). The physically imposing fighter – easily outweighing opponents by 40 pounds or more – took his lashes for being an unapologetically bold black man in the Jim Crow south.
As one of the most photographed figures of his day, Johnson had no shortage of press. Matejka used these references to create “Alias,” a sonnet composed entirely of callous monikers given to the boxer by mainstream newspapers like the Los Angeles Times:
The Big Smoke. Jack Johnson. Flash
nigger. The Big Cinder. Black animal.
Jack. Texas Watermelon Picaninny.
Mr. Johnsing. Colored man with cash.
His rendering of Johnson made the sport of boxing more accessible to some of those in the audience. “There’s something extra besides the brutality,” one woman told Matejka during the question-and-answer period.
In the midst of the demonstration bout that followed Matejka’s reading, boxer Darryl Smith received a gash near his eye. A little pressure from a towel, a dab of Vaseline — and the fight went on. Time for round two.
Laird Hunt’s transfixing new novel “Neverhome” unspools in the voice of a Civil War soldier. It works upon the reader like a haunting. The narrator is Ash Thompson, a young woman passing as a man into the uniform of the Union.
The opening line: “I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” Ash Thompson—born Constance—is telling us about her young husband Bartholomew and her strong desire to leave their Indiana farm to see the world: “I wanted to drink different waters, feel different heats. Stand with my comrades atop the ruin of old ideas. Walk forward with a thousand others. Plant my boot and steel my eye and not run. I said all of this to my dead mother, spoke it down through the dirt: there was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark. We both of us, me and Bartholomew, knew what my mother would have said in response and it was like she was saying it each time I asked her what she thought.
“Go on. Go on and see what you got.”
So the reader and Ash are launched. Toward the end of the story, an educated woman in Springfield, Ohio takes in the remnants of this subterfuge and murmurs, “Penelope gone to the war and Odysseus staying home.” Ash can only reply, “Ma’am?”
Indeed, some dozens, perhaps hundreds, of American women chose to bind their breasts and fight instead of wait during the War Between the States. On the pages of “Neverhome,” they occasionally recognize each other. Hunt credits, “most crucially,” in his acknowledgements “An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1865” by Lauren Cook Burgess.
As erudite as Hunt is, and as careful his research, “Neverhome” casts the powerful spell of fiction, hurtling its reader into “the stripped and battle-burned land” as lyrically as the best war novels. Hunt, 46, a University of Denver professor in Boulder, Col., won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award last year for “Kind One,” a slavery-shadowed story anchored on a Kentucky pig farm. (He will return to Northeast Ohio to speak about “Neverhome” at 7 p.m., Tuesday, September 23 to the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.)
Hunt has a gift for rural voices and rural ways, and for teleporting us into the mid-19th century American landscape. The thrill of “Neverhome” is akin to the one Robert Olmstead delivered in “Coal Black Horse,” and, like Olmstead’s, the cadences of Ash Thompson can be almost Biblical:
“Nor did I, nor any of those around me I am proud to say, slow down when the cannon fire grew so hot it seemed like the injury was already being done to us before we had fairly arrived and that we were already part of the world’s everlasting grief and glory, and we could see the trees crashing down destroyed in the heights and hear the sound, from all quarters, of hurt men letting the air out of their throats.”
The reader, mesmerized, swallows whole that singular beautiful sentence. There are many others. The vocabulary in “Neverhome” is perfect – plain and strange and tuned as true as a pitch fork. Hunt is a student of stories and story-telling, and he mixes fable and song into “Neverhome,” even more than he did in “Kind One.”
And though “Neverhome” is not about slavery, the peculiar institution casts its evil pall here. Ash comes upon bloody shackles in an abandoned shack, and later a dilapidated gallows near “a old slave-selling emporium.” Cross-dressing affords Ash some life-saving trickery, and it provides Hunt some plot twists that feel proto-contemporary. Hunt is interested in the human mysteries – one being sex. Another is aggression, and the damage the aggressor does to self in the pursuit of another’s blood and pain.
So Hunt, like Homer, sets his protagonist on a road to war. She, like the Greek king, is cunning. She, like he, is captured. Song is made of their stories and so is woe. Eventually, Odysseus returns after long years to Ithaca.
In this spare, splendid novel, readers will burn to know if Ash Thompson can find her way home.
Now, readers can catch up with Ifemelu through “The Small Redemptions of Lagos,” at AmericanahBlog.com. This new blog focuses on Ifemelu’s life in Nigeria, a kind of younger sibling to the novel’s incendiary and anonymous blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negros) by a Non-American Black.”
The new installment is no less expressive. Ifemelu’s observations are piercing, even on such subjects as a leaky roof at a Lagos airport or a friend who needs to take better care of herself: “Don’t expect water to taste like Coke. It is not Coke. It is water. And it is better for you.”
In the first handful of posts, love interest Obinze (whom Ifemelu calls “Ceiling”) appears, along with best friend Ranyinudo. More characters are expected.
“Americanah” won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and was selected as one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, the BBC and Newsday. Earlier this year, actress Lupita Nyong’o (fresh off her Best Supporting Actress win for 12 Years A Slave) announced she had optioned the rights to Adichie’s book, with plans to star in and produce the movie adaptation.
In the meantime, readers will have the web posts to keep them primed. “Ifemulu does have an opinion on everything and why shouldn’t she be like that?” Adichie told an interviewer in March. “I wanted her to be like that. I admire her very much.”
How can a book lover mark September 8—International Literacy Day?
Here’s a notion from the Literacy Cooperative of Cleveland, which has teamed up with the Cuyahoga County Public Library and Cleveland Public Library, to enlist social media’s stickiness in the cause:
Just snap a picture of yourself with a book you’re enjoying and post it on all your channels—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtag #literacyselfie. Along with the visuals, organizers hope you will chat about the book itself and its appeal. Cleveland State University President Ron Berkman and WKYC News Anchor Russ Mitchell will be sharing selfies, as will other high-profile Clevelanders.
Cleveland could use the boost: Most incoming kindergartners are unprepared for school, and a quarter of residents older than 25 lack a high school diploma. “Literary selfies” might end up boosting the economy, or, more simply, alerting a friend to a fascinating book.
The Literacy Cooperative recently launched #CLELiteracy to coax reading for fun. One early score: buy-in from Cleveland-area barbers, who have stocked their shops with free books for their customers. “It’s good to see them pick up a book instead of doodling around with a phone all the time,” said Madison Brooks, a Cleveland Heights barber.