Minneapolis, MN — When the poet Ken Chen put together a discussion called “Mapping New Territories: Diasporic Writers from Regions of Conflict,” he knew the four artists he invited would be surprising in their range and moving in combination.

“The world is larger and more politicized than the regular American literary scene,” observed Chen, executive director of the New-York-based Asian American Writers Workshop.  His wry understatement served as coda to a powerful panel that attracted more than 120 listeners at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference.

Begun in 1991, AAWW describes itself as “a safe community space and an anti-racist counterculture, incubating new ideas and interpretations of what it means to be both an American and a global citizen.”

Chen, whose book “Juvenilia” won the prestigious Yale Young Poets competition in 2009, opened the conversation with a nod to a 2012 volume that has been important to him: Pankaj Mishra’s “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia,” described by the author as “part historical essay and part intellectual biography.”

With this reference, Chen tilted his audience toward a way of thinking that might be coalitional and anti-imperialist, and might see a broad range of peoples—including Persian, Pacific Islander, Indian, Japanese and Chinese—”as a kind of political identity rather than a physical or biological identity.”

Panelist Hayan Charara, a born-in-Detroit son of Lebanese immigrants, described his poetry as 20 percent political and 80 percent deeply personal.  And yet, he is identified as a political poet, with such work as “Animals” and “Gaza” coming up first in Google searches. A recipient of a NEA grant in 2009, Charara is a professor at the University of Houston.

“One of the hardest tasks for an Arab to accomplish is to live non-politically,” Charara said in Minneapolis. He wrote: “The poems I submitted to the National Endowment for the Arts grew out of an enormous sense of helplessness over the ways my government—and the governments it supports—used and misused language toward violent ends. As a result, my grandfather died a victim of war, as did many family friends, old neighbors, and some animals. So while this award is especially meaningful, its irony is not lost on me.”

Oberlin College professor Kazim Ali described himself as “a yoga teacher and occasional poet who is interested in the body itself as a political instrument.” He spoke of leading eight-hour long yoga sessions over 10 days in Ramallah, Palestine, and training men from Arab villages “hungry for these yoga poses.” Although they ranged in age from 19-26, they were stiff, physically damaged by war, with “the bodies of 50-year-olds,” Ali said.

“It gave me a chance to work body by body,” he said. “It felt like a kind of physical activism.” It left Ali thinking about living without the ability to sleep, or move, constrained in a permanent disenfranchisement.

The poet Jennifer Kwon Dobbs also spoke of her body in physical space.  The St. Olaf College professor was born in South Korea, taken from her mother and adopted into a white family in rural Oklahoma.  This experience meant “cleaving away from place and memory, of one’s own body being deracinated—adopted—into a white family.”

After a 13-year search, the poet was reunited with her Korean family and now advocates for the rights of unwed mothers and international adoptees. Her life, she said, has been one seeking “to demand a place on the ground, and to have that ground inside your mouth, if that makes sense. I think of territory as being inside my mouth. I am learning Korean.”

The visual artist, dancer, and poet Mong-Lan talked about her family of seven, which fled Saigon when she was a girl on the last day of its evacuation in 1975.  Her parents met in medical school and her father, a surgeon for the South Vietnamese Army, was dogged by post-traumatic stress. They eventually settled in Texas.

“In Vietnam, it’s called the American War,” said Mong-Lan, who returned as a Fulbright scholar in 2002 and again in 2007 to give a series of lectures at Vietnamese universities. “PTSD affects everyone in our family, including my brother’s children. It’s passed on for generations through the physical body.”

Mong-Lan, who now lives in Buenos Aires, echoed Ali, suggesting some of the answer might lie in movement itself. For writers from war-torn regions, “trauma gets relocated to another site: and that site is often the body,” Chen said.

Asian American Writers Workshop
Back side of the AAWP postcard, featuring “Stuff we happen to be into”

The cable network renowned for ambitious storytelling has optioned the rights to Marlon James’ latest novel, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year in fiction.  The book paints a complex portrait of Jamaica, hinged on the1976 assassination attempt on reggae legend Bob Marley and told in more than 30 distinct narrative voices.

James will adopt the script along with Eric Roth, who won an Academy Award in 1994 for the screenplay of “Forrest Gump.” No premiere date has been released.

James, an English professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., will take a yearlong sabbatical to concentrate on the adaptation. He told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that transitioning his work to the small screen represents an opportunity for more character exposition.

“There are some characters in the book who are minor who I’d love to dig into in a bigger way,” he said. “And I know that Jamaica may be wary that the main character, Josey Wales, is a gangster, a bad man. But you can look to New Jersey to see how they deal with ‘The Sopranos.’ They don’t take pride in the criminality, but they look at the show and say, this [setting] is a place of deep, meaningful stories.”

by Maria Pineda

For centuries, Christians have stereotyped Muslims and I, for most of my 17 years, have stereotyped them too, especially after 9/11. I am a senior of Saint Martin De Porres High School and I grew up with Islamophobia, fear of people who practice Islam.  But this year I was assigned a capstone project that I focused on Muslim life in America, because I was curious about this group that frightened me. I had believed some of the most heinous stereotypes: that Muslim men beat their wives and that all Muslims were dangerous. To me, the headscarves worn by some Islamic women looked suspicious.

A year of research upended my attitudes about Islam. Now, I am offended when someone speaks ignorantly about it.  During a recent Spanish class, my teacher went over some history of Spain, noting that Muslims controlled the territory we now call Spain from 771 to 1130, and were part of a religiously mixed culture on the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. But my teacher also stated that Muslims worship Muhammad, which irritated me because I knew Muslims worship only Allah, and Muhammad is their prophet. I immediately raised my hand and told my teacher what I knew was right. To his credit, he acknowledged his mistake. I found that setting the record straight was as important to me as it would have been had my own faith been mischaracterized.

As part of my research, I interviewed Julia Shearson, a Muslim convert and executive director of the Cleveland chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations.  She taught me a good deal about Islam, carefully explaining the meaning of Jihad, Sharia Law, and the purpose of the head scarf that some Muslim women wear.  Shearson confided that people sometimes fear her when they glimpse her headscarf.  A stranger once jumped away from her as she exited an elevator.  That left me speechless—I have rarely met a nicer person, but such incidents show how deep our stereotypes can be.

I have become a passionate ally of the religion and I intend to continue to defend it.  When a newscaster reporting on ISIS refers to its members as “Jihadists,” I get angry—Jihad refers to the deep struggle of life. I had the same reaction when I heard about people in Nashville protesting against the construction of a mosque, assuming its members would plot against America and try to substitute Sharia Law for the U.S. Constitution. Discrimination like this is so offensive to all law-abiding followers of Islam.

Now I know many American Muslims struggle in our country to find a job or housing. Women who wear scarves to respect their modesty have lost opportunities and faced prejudice because of their faith. This is such an unnecessary sacrifice in 2015.

I am grateful to have researched the stereotyping of Muslims in America, and in my own mind. I hope to contribute to a cycle of enlightenment and liberation so the misconceptions and discrimination against Muslims will diminish over my lifetime, along with other prejudices in our communities.

Maria Pineda is a senior at Saint Martin de Porres High School.

At 84, Toni Morrison is full of reflection on her successes and incidents where she might request a do-over.

“It’s not profound regret,” she told NPR’s Terry Gross. “It’s just a wiping up of tiny little messes that you didn’t recognize as mess when they were going on.”

Morrison’s press tour for her eleventh novel, God Help the Child, has been full of little fascinating admissions like this. (My favorite parts of the recent lengthy New York Times profile are the quick revelations that Morrison has never once worn jeans and that she considers sleeping on ironed sheets one of life’s greatest luxuries.)
Her vulnerability is heightened during the NPR interview as she riffs on the pains and shifts that accompany older adulthood. As she has aged, her circle has become smaller; as a result, “there is this boredom or the absence of something to do.”
But the conversations all lead back to her novel, a haunting tale of childhood traumas sans redress. Bride, the main character in God Help the Child, is a dark-skinned cosmetics executive struggling with the weight of rejection that has plagued her entire life. In her review for Newsday, Anisfield-Wolf manager Karen Long calls the novel “hypnotic” and praises Morrison for her vivid language and pacing: “Morrison has a Shakespearean sense of tragedy, and that gift imbues “God Help the Child.”

In a warm lecture hall, University of Kentucky professor Adam Banks bounced and spoke with the cool cadence of a spoken-word poet, dropping gems on technology, funk and black freedom.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Banks returned to the city to argue that Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album, “Talking Book,” is a master key to black rhetoric, literacy, innovation and contemporary engagements with technology. As he stood on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, blocks from the John Hay High School he attended as a teen, Banks seemed keenly aware of geography and beginnings as he performed his presentation: “Talking Back to the Book: Critical Digital Literacies in African American Rhetorical Traditions.”

He called Wonder’s work “a funk sermon,” an infusion of new technologies, innovation and cultural pride. Funk music, he insisted, gives African Americans a framework for assessing our identities. “The boldness, the wildness, the stank of funk forces us to remember the full range of who we be, and often, forces the rest of the society to confront more of that range, that rage, that joy, that pain, that pleasure of who we be.”

Bridging the gap between the civil rights era and the black power era, “Talking Book” came out at a time when “black communities all over the country were refiguring their relationship with the United States,” Banks said.

Linking Wonder and other masters of funk to today’s rhetorical spaces, Banks described Facebook and Instagram as places where creativity and free dialogue can flourish, as it did among musicians in a studio. “That’s an example of a free space,” he observed. “It can’t be policed.”

Such places contrast with the “incessant testing, punitive mind-set and folk funding the de-funding of public education” that bedevil American schools today. And those free spaces, existing outside traditional academic environments, can be created and expanded almost anywhere. For years, Banks has hosted “community cyphers” in bars and church basements, giving lessons on blogging and social media so participants could develop a voice on their own terms. Whether using Twitter to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement or simply retweeting humorous memes, these acts link to black oral traditions such as hush harbors and “signifying.”

“There’s a relationship between innovation and tradition,” Banks insisted. “Just because there’s a lot of wild stuff happening right now, doesn’t mean it just grew. It comes from somewhere….that’s a wonderful assurance. Even if I don’t understand some things that are happening, that’s always a way in.”

The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 80th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2015 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:

Jericho Brown, The New Testament, Poetry
Marilyn Chin, Hard Love Province, Poetry
David Brion Davis, Lifetime Achievement
Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, Nonfiction
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, Fiction

“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners heighten our perceptions on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, we honor ground-breaking research into the lives of specific families enslaved on two New World plantations, a tour-de-force fictional portrayal of Jamaica spun in multiple voices, poetry from both coasts that is erotic and grave, and the indispensable, morally towering scholarship of David Brion Davis.”

Gates directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. He praised David Brion Davis as a foundational scholar whose Problem of Slavery trilogy is an essential work on the cultural, political and intellectual history of Western slavery and abolition. Joining Gates in selecting the winners each year are poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama.

Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronn Richard said the breadth of topics taken up by this year’s winners is gratifying, and reflects founder and donor Edith Anisfield Wolf’s belief in the power of the written word to elevate and enlighten.

“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards rose from the philanthropic vision of one woman who realized that literature could advance our thinking and beliefs about race, culture, ethnicity, and our shared humanity,” Richard said. “We are proud to showcase books that are beautifully written and enhance the urgent, national – and local – conversations around race and cultural difference.”

Past winners include four writers who went on to win Nobel prizes – Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka.

Meet Our 2015 Winners


jericho brown book cover

 Jericho BrownThe New Testament, Poetry 

In the language of the blues and the Bible, poet Jericho Brown crafts 40 poems for The New Testament, a meditation on race, masculinity and gay sexuality. Anisfield Wolf juror Rita Dove calls this book “a reminder that outrage is a seductive disease — we would rather rage or weep than find a way to love in spite of the pain. Brown’s poems brim with love for this damaged world without letting the world off the hook.” And poet Rae Armantrout adds her praise, noting: “Like the other new testament, it’s about what love can do.” Brown teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.

marilyn chin book cover

Marilyn ChinHard Love Province, Poetry

Hard Love Province is the fourth collection of poetry from Marilyn Chin, whose book mourns the loss of a beloved in a world that seems inured to suffering. “In these sad and beautiful poems, a withering portrayal of our global ‘society’ emerges – from Buddha to Allah, Mongols to Bethesda boys, Humvee to war horse, Dachau to West Darfu, Irrawaddy River to San Diego,” observes Dove. Among the 23 poems are One Child Has Brown Eyes and Black President. Adrienne Rich described Chin’s work as “powerful, uncompromised and unerring.” Born in Hong Kong, Chin is a professor at San Diego State University.

marlon james

Marlon JamesA Brief History of Seven Killings, Fiction

In scalding yet musical language, A Brief History of Seven Killings hinges on the true 1976 attempt to assassinate reggae legend Bob Marley. Novelist Marlon James just calls him The Singer, and sets this character among a pinwheel of voices: CIA agents, child gangsters, a Rolling Stone reporter, drug dealers, corrupt politicians and a woman seriously diverted by one night with the musician. Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates praised the “superb risk-taking” of James, whose story brims with profanity, violence, dialect, tenderness and cruelty. James teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

dunn book cover

 Richard S. DunnA Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, Nonfiction

More than 40 years in the making, A Tale of Two Plantations is a scrupulous, revelatory archival investigation of some 2,000 people enslaved across three generations: roughly half on a Jamaican sugar plantation called Mesopotamia, and half on Mount Airy, a Virginia tidewater plantation growing tobacco and grain. Richard S. Dunn, a University of Pennsylvania historian, uses his findings to ask about enslaved motherhood, the effects of interracial sex on the meaning of family and how individuals fared upon emancipation. Oates calls the book magisterial, noting, “It is refreshing to encounter a historian who doesn’t include a forced conclusion.”

davis book cover

 David Brion Davis, Lifetime Achievement

David Brion Davis is a preeminent American historian whose 1967 book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, earned an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. It anchors a groundbreaking trilogy that culminated last year in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which in March won the National Book Critics Circle award. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin writes that Davis’ influence is deep, having changed “traditional approaches to intellectual history by embedding ideas in social and political action and institutions.” Born in Denver in 1927, Davis is an Army veteran who retired from Yale University in 2001. He lives in Connecticut.