Marilynne Robinson – she of the incandescent, Pulitzer-winning prose – wasn’t thinking about her celebrated fiction last month, even though she took clear pleasure recalling its pull in 2015 bringing President Barack Obama to Iowa to interview her. Instead, the winner of Lifetime Achievement from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize dwelt last month on her 1989 nonfiction Mother Country.
“I can report that I’ve been sued only once – and that for a book about nuclear waste disposal by the United Kingdom that makes the Irish Sea the most radioactive water in the world,” she told a Dayton audience about Mother Country. “If I wrote only one book — that would be the one.”
Observing that “my fiction and nonfiction come from different parts of my head,” Robinson smiled wryly, her cascade of white-gold hair giving her the aura of a prophet. At 73, she wielded gravitas on a panel of literary stars. She asserted that war crimes and environmental assaults were evils that get buried in willful acts of not-knowing:
“There are things we choose not to know that are absolutely as dangerous and destructive as what we think we know,” she told some 300 listeners at Sinclair Community College in downtown Dayton.
The Dayton Literary Peace Prize – established to commemorate the accords that ended the Bosnian War – has honored 60 writers in its 11 years. “The secret to peace threads through all of them,” said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair. “These books have fine-tuned my sense of what is acceptable, and, more importantly, what is not acceptable.”
Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winners have received the Dayton prize seven times, illustrating a convergence between equity and peace: Taylor Branch, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, Marlon James, Chang-Rae Lee and Andrew Solomon.
And the most recent lineup of authors gathered in November under a slate gray Dayton sky, exemplified some of the best work in contemporary letters.
“As a realist, I don’t believe in peace; as an idealist, I have to believe in it,” noted Viet Thanh Nguyen, honored for The Sympathizer, a political novel whose narrator spied for both sides in the Vietnam War. By squaring up to atrocity, Nguyen argues, “we can also imagine the best that humanity is capable of, and in that way provide a vision, a way to overcome the momentum of past conflicts and inherited bitterness, the inertia of accepting our brutality. A strong dose of unsentimental realism, mixed with a touch of wild idealism – that is one way to imagine what I attempted” in The Sympathizer.
Banned in Vietnam, the novel is being taken up by some U.S. military academies. “The significance of the Vietnam War is it is one more episode of perpetual war that the United States is engaged in,” Nguyen said. “This is something that Americans must confront.”
James Hannaham, runner-up for the Dayton fiction prize for Delicious Foods, told the audience that his uncle, an art professor “has a motto I’ve internalized: Fear No Art. I’m always gravitating to those things I’m afraid of.”
Indeed, crack cocaine has a major role in Delicious Foods. As Hannaham read literature “attempting to deal with the legacy of slavery,” he found “these books would set the story in the past. At some point I realized I didn’t have to do that, and it seemed to be a way to make a significant contribution to the genre.”
Although he gave a copy of his novel to filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Hannaham said he isn’t particularly drawn to Hollywood. “One of the miracles of fiction is the thing can get made,” he said. “It’s artisanal. You sit alone in a room with your thoughts. . . No one is telling you what they think 14-year-old white boys want to see.”
Rab, who works to bering peace prize books into classrooms and conversation, said the nonprofit is adding a new wrinkle this winter: a chance for stakeholders to help rebuilt the National Library at Sarajevo in Bosnia, which was firebombed during the war. More than two million books were destroyed. The peace prize’s “Fly With the Doves Book Circle” donates a new book to rebuilding Sarajevo’s collection for every $25 contributed on the website.
“We plan to send a complete set of DLPP award-winning books to Bosnia as our gift to them,” Rab said.
Wil Haygood, who thoughtfully guided the writers’ presentations, said his travels had given him a sense of the sacredness of books, including during the conflict in Somalia, where he witnessed boys and men risking their lives to hide and save them.
“During our own Civil War,” Haygood said, “Abraham Lincoln gave instructions to his military leaders: Keep as many libraries open as you can. . . Not every place did, but even in the midst of war, many were.”
Cross the American criminal justice system, and – if you are unlucky — prepare for crushing debt.
Here are a smattering of the possible fees awaiting defendants: for court appearances, for room and board in jail or prison, for court-required drug testing, counseling or community service, for a public defender or for electronic monitoring.
In the two decades, tens of millions of Americans have been fined or billed as part of their punishment for a criminal offense. And this practice has spiked — in 1986, 12 percent of those incarcerated were also fined, by 2004 some 37 percent were slapped with fines, while 66 percent faced both fines and fees.
Late fees and collection penalties compound these debts into punitive amounts, especially for anyone living in poverty. In 2011, the city of Philadelphia sent bills on unpaid criminal justice debts to more than 20 percent of its residents, with a median debt of $4,500.
One notorious example surfaced in a Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri. It showed the town of Ferguson set more than $3 million in revenue targets for criminal justice fines and fees in 2015, meant to cover more than 20 percent of the town’s operating budget.
“It’s become painfully obvious after Ferguson — where the courts were an ATM for the municipality,” said Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor, “and there is no justification for that.”
Yvette McGee Brown, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice, added, “People of color have been complaining about this for years. Poor people have been complaining about this for years.” She pointed out that “a $100 fine may be no big deal” to a judge sitting on the bench, but catastrophic to a citizen making $7 per hour. “Our orders have real impact on people.”
Both women spoke up in a roundtable discussion taped in Cleveland for the Tavis Smiley show, part of his “Courting Justice” series, which has included stops in Los Angeles and Little Rock. The segments recorded in Cleveland will broadcast nationally at 11:30 p.m. December 13 and 14 on PBS stations.
“We’ve created the equivalent of a modern-day debtor’s prison in fees, fines and bail that basically puts a price tag on freedom,” Smiley told the Cleveland audience.
Judge Ronald B. Adrine, presiding judge of Cleveland Municipal Court, is a national leader on combatting the scourge of fines, fees and bail falling most heavily on the poor. “Looked at from any objective standpoint, [defendants] who are low income, low risk, these people are being absolutely preyed upon,” he said. “We’ve allowed numerous people to fall into this crack and be piled on so that they can never climb out of this hole.”
One consequence: these debts prevent citizens from getting a driver’s license in many states. A year ago the White House convened a seminar on this topic, and Adrine described it as transformative. He returned to Cleveland and convened the city’s 14 municipal judges: “We changed nonviolent misdemeanors,” he said, “so that you are allowed to get out on your signature [instead of posting bail].”
Asked point-blank by Smiley if the U.S. criminal justice system is fundamentally fair, Adrine said, “I believe it is fundamentally fair but not always fair.” Judges, he stressed, “are not trying to let out vicious criminals on the street. But we want to make sure that people who are low risk are not destroyed by being kept in jail.”
McGee Brown said the role of poverty cannot be overestimated. “There is a reason O.J. [Simpson] got off,” she said. “There is a reason when you are wealthy you are more likely to get off, even if you’ve committed a horrific crime.” O’Connor added, “You cannot have justice in an underfunded system, such as we have, with overburdened public defenders, judges watching the clock moving cases along and prosecutors acting on a formula too often.”
Mansfield Frazier, Cleveland vintner and community activist, asked, “How can the courts escape the clutches of the bail bond industry? They have a strong lobby.”
McGee Brown retorted, “Their power isn’t as great as they think it is. I don’t make decisions based on what the bail bondsmen want . . . It’s really about the judges pushing back.”
The panelists spoke of the importance of judicial education, adequate funding and efforts to combat voter apathy in electing judges. “Judges have tremendous power and I don’t think the voter recognizes it,” said Lakewood Municipal Court Judge Patrick Carroll.
Adrine underscored Carroll’s point: “Politics is the art of who lives, who dies and who pays.”
“Courting Justice” will become a yearlong initiative involving Ideastream, the City Club of Cleveland, the Cleveland Foundation and the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. The next convening will be January 19 at the bar association. Interested people can call 216-870-1203 for more information.
“It is our hope that we can get to the root of this challenge,” said Ronn Richard, president of the Cleveland Foundation. “We can reflect on the procedures and policies that can so deeply derail the lives of the disenfranchised.”
And then change them.
“Call soul food what it is: the edible scripture of the Black aesthetic, the culinary answer to jazz, memory food of a people.”
That’s a tweet from Michael Twitty, a culinary historian from Maryland, who sees Cleveland as “the deep north.” To stay warm, he kept on his light grey jacket as he addressed the audience at the Cleveland Natural History Museum gathered for his December talk, “A Place at the Table.”
He begins with a question: “What if the enslaved could tell their story through food?” The story of American history, he argues, lies within the story of the foods people in bondage ate and the meals they cooked for others. It grieves him that so many hadn’t been properly acknowledged or recorded.
Via his food blog, AfroCulinaria.com, Twitty seeks culinary reconciliation. He has poured years into researching the origins of Southern cuisine and the agricultural connections between West Africa, the Caribbean and North America. His tweets at @KosherSoul are just as rich.
A childhood trip to Colonial Williamsburg sparked young Michael’s interest. The splendor of the kitchen in the Governor’s Palace fascinated the 7-year-old foodie. “My father was a Vietnam vet and all he wanted to see was guns and the cannons going off,” he said. “I had him in the kitchen for an hour and a half, staring at this beautiful pheasant. . . I actually flirted with the pheasant.”
It’s fitting then that the Twitty family – both living and ancestral — features prominently in his work. He started The Cooking Gene, a crowdfunded culinary tour of the South, five years ago, as he traced his family tree through two centuries. Along with a host of scholars and chefs, he visited the lands they worked and in some cases, sought to meet the descendants of the people who owned them.
Twitty’s first book, of the same name, will arrive in 2017. A few prospective publishes worried that Twitty’s identities – a black, gay, Jewish man – would be too much for readers. “This country is the only place I’m possible,” he retorted. “How dare you deny me the one thing America can give me – my uniqueness. My possibility.”
When Twitty hosts cooking demonstrations on former plantations and historical sites, he dons the full 18th century attire of those in captivity. He uses tools that would have been readily available to that population – cast iron skillets feature heavily – and recipes that would have been intimately familiar to the enslaved people on the plantation. Think okra and rabbit soup or mashed black eye pea fritters.
From the lectern in Cleveland, Twitty was careful with his language. He mentioned “enslaved people,” not slaves. “Slaveholders,” not master. They were “freedom seekers,” not runaway slaves. “Better yet, patriots,” he insisted. “Not slave rebels—patriots. They only wanted what America promised.”
In his work as a culinary historian, he has mastered the art of preserving culinary history, deftly maneuvering his way around a reluctant elder to slowly ease down their guard as he tries to capture their recipes. His first tip? Present yourself as a helper, not a pest. “Don’t be lazy; do some work. Wash the dishes, sweep the floor,” Twitty advises. Only then can you sidle up with questions about ingredients. Another tip? “Keep some measuring spoons in your pocket.” All the better to measure what the elders tend to eyeball.
He also brings dearly won kitchen wisdom to our political moment: “With these incidents of hate that we see, we have a choice. And that choice is to feed people. Feed them knowledge. Feed them love.”