When Andrew Solomon went to Finland to promote The Noonday Demon, his ground-breaking 2001 book on depression, he landed on a leading morning television show.
The interviewer, “a gorgeous blonde woman, leaned forward and asked in a mildly offended tone, ‘So, Mr. Solomon. What can you, an American, have to tell the Finnish people about depression?’” the writer recalls in his newest work.
Clearly this 52-year-old writer, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2013, has serious wanderlust. Solomon has traveled to 83 of the 196 recognized nations in the world. “I’ve been to so many places, and seen so much, and sometimes it feels like a glut of sunsets and churches and monuments,” he admits.
But it is also clear that travel has helped form Solomon into a public intellectual. By the end of this book, he himself is setting off scandals in Ghana and Romania, largely via his reputation as an LGBT activist. Far & Away collects 28 essays from Solomon’s decades of globe-trotting, including one set in northern Bali called “Where Everyone Signs.” It is plucked from his chapter on deafness in Far From the Tree, his Anisfield-Wolf winner in nonfiction.
“I had started traveling out of curiosity,” Solomon writes, “but I came to believe in travel’s political importance, that encouraging a nation’s citizenry to travel may be as important as encouraging school attendance, environmental conservation, or national thrift.” A few pages later he elaborates, “When I was in Libya, the people I met who had an essentially pro-American stance had all studied in the United States, whereas those who were vehemently anti-American had not.”
As a young New Yorker studying in England, Solomon cops to some youthful callowness: “I confused, as many young people do, the glamour of being an outsider with the liberty to do or think whatever crossed my mind.” Serious travel taught the writer to grapple with ideas he would not have otherwise encountered: “When Chinse intellectuals spoke to me of the good that came of the Tiananmen massacre, when Pakistani women spoke of their pride in wearing the hijab, when Cubans enthused about their autocracy, I had to reconsider my reflexive enthusiasm for self-determination. In a free society, you have a chance to achieve your ambitions; in an unfree one, you lack that choice, and this often allows for more visionary ambitions.”
Today Solomon leads a highly political life at the helm of the Pen America Center, a venerable nonprofit that advocates for imperiled writers globally.
His new book has a dizzying array of datelines. The first essay, “The Winter Palettes,” stems from Solomon’s first reporting assignment abroad. In 1988, the British monthly “Harpers & Queen” sent him to the USSR to cover Sotheby’s first sale of contemporary Soviet art. It begins with a toast, and in a book of many toasts and parties, captures some of the intoxication swirled into art and social change.
“I am susceptible to that little moment of romance when a society on the brink of change falls temporarily in love with itself,” Solomon writes. “I’ve heard to same people speak of the great hope they felt when Stalin came to power and the hope they later felt when he died; others, of the hope they felt when the Cultural Revolution began and the hope they felt when it ended. . . Hope is a regular chime in political life.”
His last essay, “Lost at the Surface,” details a narrow escape from drowning while scuba diving off Australia. He wrote it last year for “The Moth.” Invariably, it is illuminating to look out through Andrew Solomon’s eyes – whether he is drifting in the open ocean or realizing in Cuba in 1997 that “If you want to get to know a strange country quickly and deeply, there’s nothing like organizing a party.”
Hours before accepting her 2015 Anisfield-Wolf award, Marilyn Chin claimed “activist poet” as her mantle: “I’ve been writing poetry to right the wrongs of the world, to express my Chinese-American sensibility, to work for this utopian American future.”
Chin, a professor at San Diego State University teaching this year at Smith College, collected the prize for Hard Love Province, her fourth volume of poetry. Juror Rita Dove praised her work as “icy yet inflamed.”
Chin explained the origins of “Peony” to the staff at the academy: “In Beijing, a student named Lin gave me a vase of huge, gorgeous peonies for my birthday. “I went away for a few days and returned to a disaster! The peonies had wilted so terribly that they made me cry. Alas, the shock of recognition. Buddha warned us about ‘old age, sickness and death.’ All living beings, poets and peonies alike, must meet our eventual demise!”
by Marilyn Chin
Why must I tell you this story, O little one
You’re just a bud-of-a-girl, who knows nothing
Now you are full-faced, bright as sun
Now you open your skirts pink, layered, brazen
Suffering is alchemy, change is God
Now you droop your head, heavy with rust
Sit, contemplate, what did Buddha say?
Old age, sickness, death, no one owns eternity
Detach, detach, look away from the sun
Let your petals fall aimlessly
She called her talk in Cleveland “Why Weep for Stones?” and built it into a riveting meditation on history, art, war and morals. Readers of her fiction – Shamsie won a 2010 Anisfield-Wolf prize for “Burnt Shadows” – will recognize the thematic confluence at once.
Standing in the ornate neo-Gothic Harkness Chapel of Case Western Reserve University, Shamsie drew her listeners into thinking about the political destruction of art, such as the desecration and damage in Palmyra, Syria, amid a civil war that has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives. Recent reports indicate that some of Palmyra’s irreplaceable ruins have survived the fighting.
“What do we celebrate when we celebrate ancient artifacts withstanding savagery?” Shamsie asked, before venturing a few answers in her mellifluous voice. “We celebrate the mere fact of endurance to begin with. We celebrate humanity’s search for beauty in every age and every corner of the globe. We celebrate the expansion of our own ways of seeing, the deepening of our understanding of beauty and art. We celebrate the dedication of the artists and artisans. We celebrate the work of those who preserve rather than destroy. We celebrate human curiosity.”
Shamsie, 43, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, knows a tension exists in valuing art in times of war. “There is no equation for calculating the value of a life against the value of a 2,000 year-old ruin,” she said. “The two acts of decimation cannot be seen in opposition . . . Or to put it another way, if you encounter someone who is going to dynamite a 2,000 year-old temple because they find it offensive you can be pretty sure they’ve killed some people on their way there.”
Such pithiness made Shamsie a highlight of the Cleveland Humanities Festival, which spent the first ten days of April “Remembering War.” The novelist wrote her fifth of sixth novels, “Burnt Shadows,” out of the foreboding of nuclear war threatened between India and Pakistan. The book begins with the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki, and ends in 2002 in a U.S. prison cell, where a character awaits being sent to Guantanamo Bay.
As the scope of “Burnt Shadows” indicates, Shamsie is deeply interested in history. She enlists it often in her writing, including frequent columns in the Guardian newspaper, to combat the amnesia that feeds toxic political impulses.
In 32 A.D., the wondrous temple in Palmyra “was dedicated to the Mesopotamian god, Bel, who is often identified with the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter; during the Byzantine Era the Temple was converted into a Christian church; in the 12th century the Arabs further converted it into a mosque,” Shamsie reminded her Cleveland listeners. “The people of different faiths who worshipped here over the centuries were separated by a great deal but they all recognized the majesty of the temple and were moved to incorporate it into their own belief system.”
Not so for ISIS, or, as Shamsie prefers, Daesh – a term this group has outlawed in the territories it controls. Daesh first desecrated the temple with public executions, then blew it up. Of course, some of this is propaganda. “After a point, the outside word stops being interested in the stories of human victims, but dynamite a 2,000 year old structure and you’re back in the headlines,” she said.
In Pakistan a decade ago, Shamsie started meditating on “why weep for stones” when she visited Peshawar, near Afghanistan at the foot of the Khyber Pass. Within the city, Taliban influence has grown, and her own family in Karachi was nervous about her visit.
The novelist bridled: “It seemed to me I was allowing a kind of propaganda victory to the Taliban in reducing that city primarily to their actions and their influence, and to have very little sense of everything in Peshawar that stood in opposition to their narrow-minded, small-hearted version of the world.”
She found it in the Peshawar Museum, where Shamsie entered “close to a state of rapture.” Nearby is a 2007 excavation trench revealing Peshawar as a continuously-inhabited city back to the 6th century B.C. Persians form the baseline. Then came Greeks, then Indo-Greeks, then Scytho-Parthians, then Kushans, then White Huns, then Mughals, then Sikhs and the British.
Being among Peshawar’s ancient artifacts “in a time when Pakistan is one of the epicenters of the battle within Islam . . . is to be reminded that there are two stories we can tell ourselves about the interaction of different cultures and beliefs,” Shamsie said. “One is the story of conquest and destruction. The other is the story of exchange and deepening knowledge. Both stories are true, but we get to choose which one we choose as our worldview, which one we bear in mind when we consider if we want to build walls or doorways.”
Shamsie first arrived in the United States 25 years ago as a college exchange student. What she found as a Pakistani and Muslim, she said, was welcome. She called on her audience – embroiled in national political rhetoric of walls and banishment – to remember that version of American hospitality, and themselves.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ second book of poetry, Heaven, brims with 38 poems that ask “Who the hell’s Heaven is this?” and then splinters the answers into a night sky’s worth of possibilities. The poet insists on the strangeness of difference. “Lyric steeped in beauty, in exhilaration; when Phillips writes about jazz or the Wu-Tang Clan, the quotidian is lifted onto a plain as mythical and fateful as the battlefields of Troy,” says jurist Rita Dove. While the classics reverberate here, so do references to roosters in Ohio, Led Zeppelin riffs in the basement and bears in Colorado. Phillips, who lives in New York and Barcelona, also writes about basketball and soccer for the Paris Review and The New Yorker.
The Jazz Palaceis the 15th book of Mary Morris, one she spent almost 20 years writing. It features three central characters: a black trumpeter, a Jewish pianist and a saloon owner in Prohibition-era Chicago. The story is drenched in a remarkable period of experimentation when music got faster, skirts got shorter and the appetite for pleasure surged. Jurist Rita Dove writes as a reader, “Here I was, drenched in the soot and stink and noise of early 20th-century Chicago, walking along the docks, threading through the alleys, listening to a trumpet wail from a corner saloon.” Born in Chicago, Morris is a professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College.
In vivid prose, and through the voices of 150 interview subjects, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Strugglechronicles a journey out of the closet, onto the streets and into the beginnings of legal protections for millions of Americans. Lillian Fadermancrafts a meticulous history — 128 pages of footnotes, included — that documents the women and men who sacrificed and persevered to make a place in this nation for their dignity, decency and humanity. Juror Steven Pinker praised it as “a real milestone.” Faderman grew up in New York City and Los Angeles, became a leading historian of lesbian and LGBT narratives, and is a now a retired professor from the California State University, Fresno.
Orlando Patterson is a preeminent American sociologist, whose landmark books have influenced the course of global scholarship: Slavery and Social Death (1982), Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991), The Ordeal of Integration (1997), and The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth(2015). Praised as a Renaissance scholar by his peers, Patterson served eight years as advisor for social policy and development to Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. He helped found Cultural Survival, one of the leading advocacy groups for the rights of indigenous peoples and is an expert on the sociology of sports, particularly cricket. Called the “Caribbean Zola” by London’s Daily Telegraph, Patterson is a professor at Harvard University.
What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing is a revelatory and racially complex chronicle of a uniquely American art form, with roots that predate the nation in West Africa and Ireland. Brian Seibert, a dance critic for The New York Times, took 10 years to write his first book, praised by jurist Simon Schama as “a brilliant read from beginning to end — recovering a whole universe of dance, race, rhythm — and doing it in such a winning style. It just made me want to dance immediately every time I finished a chapter.” With nuance, sophistication, suavity and wit, this history profiles dance geniuses in what has often been an outsider art. Seibert, born and raised in Los Angeles, is himself a dancer. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
by Gary Stonum
In electoral politics you must choose one candidate. In identity politics, it is often the same. As Warren Duffy, the African American narrator in the 2015 novel Loving Day, tells his newly discovered teenage daughter Tal, “There’s Team White and Team Black, okay? You probably didn’t even know you were on Team White.”
Of course, things are not so simple. Like author Mat Johnson, Duffy identifies as black but looks white, “the human equivalent of mismatched socks.” Repeatedly, he must perform his race in order to fit in. Worse, 17-year-old Tal, who is actually darker than her father, has been raised Jewish since her mother died, and was, as her father puts it, “casually racist.”
This may sound like the setup for a 21st century update of a tragic mulatto plot. Johnson instead writes the comic mulatto novel. Many of the scenes in Loving Day are hilarious, the literary equivalent of Key & Peele sketches expanded into a full Marx Brothers movie. But like those confections, Johnson’s plot is secondary – and generally less successful than the sharply witty observations and wacky set pieces. In this, the novel is much like Pym, Johnson’s less ambitious, more focused 2011 book that established his reputation as a satirist in the tradition of George Schuyler and Ishmael Reed.
Duffy, packing an extra dose of double consciousness because of his skin color, understands all too well the guilty satisfaction his peers take for “sitting in judgment over others for insufficient blackness.” Our protagonist notes, “Black people aren’t used to not having the final say on race in America; it’s uncomfortable.”
Learning the name of one Sunita Habersham, Duffy observes that the British identify class from accent but “in African America first names offer not only class and region but year” of birth. She predates the “celebrity insane-name movement, which means her parents were also hippies and most likely young and idealistic when she was born.”
But Duffy, back in the U.S. from Wales and a wife who has just divorced him, has more pressing problems. Broke, feckless and a failed at his chosen profession as a comic-book artist, he has inherited from his father a dilapidated, roofless, and haunted colonial mansion. It sits incongruously on seven acres of lawn in a dilapidated section of 21st century Philadelphia. To pay for the divorce and provide schooling for Tal, Duffy must either sell the heap or, better, burn it down for the insurance.
The two burdens eventually converge when Tal enrolls at the Melange Center for Multiracial Life, a would-be “Mulattotopia” squatting at first in a city park but soon decamped to the grounds of the mansion. Hijinks and heartbreaks mount among a cast of mixed-race characters, including a giant blond Thor look-alike who has renamed himself “One Drop” after the infamous rule. Tal believes the mansion is haunted by the ghosts of the Lovings, the sacred First Couple of interracial marriage, whose successful 1967 lawsuit legalized interracial marriage nationally. Loving Day, the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling, is celebrated at the Melange Center as “Mulatto Christmas.”
Like the Duffy family lawyer who is fluent in “Caucasian, street, and brotherman,” Johnson is especially acute on speech patterns, noticing a white clerk who “keeps his expression passive and servile” and concluding that we “have truly arrived in a new age.”
New age or not, the characters here can scarcely agree what to call themselves: Mixies, mixed race, redbone, halfro, biracial, triracial, mulatto, WASPafarian and, for epithets, the matched pair of Oreo and sunflower. None names a Team.
Gary Stonum is a critic and professor emeritus of English at Case Western Reserve University.