by Charles Ellenbogen

This Anisfield-Wolf award winner is absolutely stunning.

From its riveting opening pages until the truth of its conclusion, Karan Mahajan takes us through a stunning story of small bombs, both the ones used by terrorists and the ones encountered in everyday life. I think what’s new here is that Mahajan, as the perfectly designed cover demonstrates, connects the bombs in ways we rarely get access to, let alone appreciate.

What’s also new and both bold and necessary is that Mahajan takes us inside the lives of these terrorists. He accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making us, if not like them, then at least understand them, both on a personal and political level. It is in these sections that he asks the most difficult and urgent questions, and I hope Anisfield-Wolf plans to host some conversations about this book even before the author arrives in Cleveland for this year’s awards ceremony. (You must know that sensation of having finished a book and looking around immediately thinking, “Who else has finished it? I must talk to someone about this book. Now!”)

And please don’t think that Mahajan lets anyone in this story elude his hard questions. There are no angels in India, either.

In my enthusiasm for the content of the book, I don’t want to neglect Mahajan’s writing. He has passages, some as short as a phrase and others as long as several pages, that are just breathtaking in their precision and use of language. Unless I am teaching a novel, I rarely read with a pencil in hand. This time I did and my annotations and exclamation points fill this book.

The only fault with this book is mine. I know so little about India. It is not necessary to have much background knowledge to immerse yourself in this book, but I would love a suggestion of something to read to give me that background knowledge so I can appreciate it on another level when I return to it.

Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy – Eagle Academy in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 82nd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2017 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:

Isabel Allende, Lifetime Achievement
Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes, Fiction
Tyehimba Jess, Olio, Poetry
Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs, Fiction
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures, Nonfiction

“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners broaden our insights on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, we honor a breakthrough history of black women mathematicians powering NASA, a riveting novel of the Asian American experience, a mesmerizing, poetic exploration of forgotten black musical performance and a spellbinding story of violence and its consequences. All is capped by the lifetime achievement of Isabel Allende, an unparalleled writer and philanthropist.”

Dr. Gates directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. Joining him in selecting the winners each year are poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama.

The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored Sept. 7 at the State Theatre in Cleveland, hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. The ceremony will be part of Cleveland Book Week. Join our mailing list to be the first to know when the free tickets are available.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT: Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende is considered the most widely-read author writing in Spanish, having sold more than 67 million books. Born in 1942 in Lima, Peru, to Chilean parents, Allende burst onto the literary scene in 1982 with The House of the Spirits, which began as a letter to her dying grandfather. She starts each new book on the date of that letter, January 8. A feminist and philanthropist, Allende memorialized her daughter in the acclaimed nonfiction work Paula. More than 3.5 million have watched her TED Talk on leading a passionate life. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Allende the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

FICTION: Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes

Peter Ho Davies sees his innovative novel The Fortunes as “examining the burdens, limitations and absurdities of Asian stereotypes.” Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates calls it a “prophetic work, with passages here of surpassing beauty.” In four linked sections, The Fortunes explores the California Gold Rush, actress Anna May Wong, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by a disgruntled Detroit autoworker and the contemporary adoption of a Chinese daughter by American parents. Davies, a University of Michigan professor, is drawn to how we construct our identities.

POETRY: Tyehimba Jess, Olio

Tyehimba Jess put eight years into the creation of his second book, Olio, itself a physical work of art that imagines and reclaims lost African-American performances from the Civil War until World War I. A native of Detroit, Jess graduated from the University of Chicago and New York University. He is an alumni of Chicago’s Green Mill Slam Team. Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove declared herself wowed by “this roller-coaster mélange of poetry, anecdote, songs, interviews and transcripts” code-switching its way through the briar patch of American history. Jess is a professor at the College of Staten Island.

FICTION: Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs

Karan Mahajan took an incident from his New Delhi boyhood, when a car bomb exploded in 1996 in a marketplace near his home, as a spark for his second novel, The Association of Small Bombs. It tells of three boys caught in the blast, only one of whom survives. In a brilliant study of violence and its aftermath, Mahajan examines Punjabi society, Hindu and Muslim antagonism and the sometimes comic expression of human grievances. Anisfield-Wolf juror Simon Schama called the novel “a brilliant explosion of a book, essaying a totally original style — antic, dynamic and unrelentingly gripping.”

NONFICTION: Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures

Margot Lee Shetterly saw her first book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, become a juggernaut atop the bestseller lists. Simultaneously, the film version enjoyed critical acclaim and a robust box office. The writer, on a 2010 visit to her hometown of Hampton, Va., realized the stories of four local workers at NASA — Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden — deserved telling. Shetterly conducted hundreds of interviews and read thousands of documents to accurately depict her protagonists. Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove called it “a riveting, important work.”

 

Poet and novelist Louise Erdrich, wiping tears from her eyes, accepted the National Book Critics Circle Award Thursday night for her latest work, LaRose, before a cheering audience at New York’s New School auditorium.

LaRose tells of two families linked by tragedy, based on a story Erdrich heard about a gun accident long ago. “And of course the story was only two lines long: ‘A man killed a boy. The man gave up his son to be raised by the other family,’ “Erdrich told Kirkus Reviews. “I never thought I’d write about it, but the story stayed with me.”

The book is “an arresting, discerning, nimble novel that takes the entirety of Native American history in its grasp,” said critic Colette Bancroft as she introduced the prize. “Within that destiny, Erdrich is saying there is room for love and laughter and forgiveness with your ancestors whispering to you all the while.”

LaRose is dedicated to Erdrich’s daughter, Persia, who accompanied her mother to Manhattan. The younger woman has – unlike her parents — become a speaker of the Chippewa language and now teaches at a Native American immersion school.

Erdrich, one of the nation’s most celebrated storytellers and winner of a 2009 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for A Plague of Doves, has accepted many prizes. But at age 62, the Minneapolis bookstore owner brought an urgency to the stage as she called on writers and truth-seekers.

“The truth is being assaulted, not only in our country, but all over the world,” Erdrich said. “There is a great rush of deceit, and more than ever, we have to look into the truth. . . so let us dig into it, and go back to our offices and our rooms or wherever we write, and let us be fierce and dangerous about the truth. And let us find in that truth the strength to bear the truth, and the strength to demand the truth of our government.”

Margaret Atwood, honored with the NBCC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, joked about being allowed south across the Canadian border. Then she struck a similar chord to Erdrich’s.

“Never has American democracy felt so challenged,” observed Atwood, who has witnessed her dystopian classic, A Handmaid’s Tale, swoop back up the bestseller lists. “Never have there been so many attempts from so many sides of the political spectrum to shout down the voices of others, to obfuscate and confuse, to twist and manipulate and to vilify reliable and trusted publications.”

In a crisp Canadian accent, Atwood reminded her listeners of the three moves despots make to consolidate power: take over the military, stifle the judiciary and squelch an independent press.

The blazing new novel from Mohsin Hamid opens with this sentence: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

In “Exit West,” Nadia is “always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular in a flowing black robe,” a garb she will wear throughout her life. When Saeed meets her, they are taking an evening class on corporate identity and product branding, which seems like a sly reference to Hamid’s marvelous 2013 book “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.”

Saeed watches the robed Nadia don a motorcycle helmet and swing a leg over her motorbike before rumbling off. Later, over their first coffee, he is surprised to learn she doesn’t pray. Asked why she then wears religious garb, Nadia smiles over her cup at Saeed and says: “So men don’t f*** with me.”

In his taut and profound fourth novel, Hamid picks up the classic boy-meets-girl storyline and weaves it into a nuanced, melancholy love story of global significance. At age 45, the Anisfield-Wolf winner for “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” has delivered a story at once familiar and utterly new, a fable unlike any yet told.

In a tale inhabited by militants, migrants and cell phones, Hamid introduces his first element of magical realism: dark, door-like portals that the reader gradually realizes are opening up around the world. As is his wont, Hamid never names the couple’s home city. But as the place succumbs to “sandbagged checkpoints and razor wire,” helicopters, then howitzers and infantry, Saeed and Nadia reluctantly decide to pay a smuggler to move them through a portal.

“Exit West” moves forward – in very short, moving passages — to other distinct spots on the planet – Mykonos, Greece; Sydney, Australia; Tijuana, Mexico; Tokyo, Japan; La Jolla, California; coastal Namibia, London, Buenos Aires, Argentina and Amsterdam. In these last two cities a garden shed becomes a portal that connects two elderly men, unable to speak one another’s languages, who nonetheless grow fond. A war photographer witnesses “their very first kiss, which she captured, without expecting to, through the lens of her camera, then deleted, later that night, in a gesture of uncharacteristic sentimentality and respect.”

Hamid gives this vignette a lovely gravitas in eight short paragraphs; he is poetic as he suggests that untold beauty might arise on occasion if we could foil the arbitrariness of geography. In 2013, the writer told National Public Radio’s Morning Edition that he takes “six or seven years to write really small books. There is a kind of aesthetic of leanness, of brevity.”

So “Filthy Rich” was only 228 pages; “Exit West” is 231. Yet the novel is made of long, cool, scalloped sentences – one runs 276 words and still the reader hardly notices.

Hamid is emphatically a political writer; he anticipates and imbues “Exit West” with the present-day crisis. Rich countries are busy building walls even as refugees flee their “drone-crossed skies” by the millions. As these migrants emerge in new places, drones and satellite surveillance follow. Some violence travels with them and some violence awaits, new nights of shattering glass.

Nadia and Saeed respond differently to the threats; a great pleasure of “Exit West” is these characters’ complexity – alone, together and across time. Hamid’s portrait of them as a couple feels as authentic as anything fiction has mustered in the new millennium.

The writer gave Lit Hub an interview last year on “Exit West,” one of the most anticipated novels of 2017. He said, “I understand that people are afraid of migrants. If you’re in a wealthy country, it’s understandable that you might fear the arrival of lots of people from far away. But that fear is like racism: it’s understandable, but it needs to be countered, diminished, resisted.

“People are going to move in vast numbers in the coming decades and centuries. Sea levels will rise, weather patterns will change, and billions will move. We need to figure out how to build a vision for this coming reality that isn’t a disaster, that is humane and even inspiring.”

“Exit West” reads as a portal to that possibility.

If self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde were alive today, you might find her celebrating with the women of “The Revival,” a salon-style poetry tour dedicated to amplifying the voices and experiences of queer women of color.

The tour is the brainchild of Jade Foster, a poet in Brooklyn, N.Y. and founder of Cereus Arts, an artists’ collective. It’s October 2012 outing was immortalized in the documentary, “The Revival: Women and the Word,” making its Northeast Ohio debut this month at the Cleveland International Film Festival. It is the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community film this year.

“The Revival” women are a mix of 20-to-40something poets, singers and songwriters, all strangers before setting off in a single minivan on an international eight-city tour. There’s Foster, who also goes by Yanni Supreme. Fellow poet T’ai Freedom Ford, a Cave Canem Fellow and New York City high school English teacher, took a break from the classroom to hit the road.

Two of the women were more musically inclined: Be Steadwell, a D.C. native who blends jazz, acapella and folk music to create “queer pop” and Jonquille Rice, who fronts the rock and soul band, The CooLots. Eliza Turner, a music photographer and documentary filmmaker, rounded out the quintet.

Together, they clocked more than 2,500 miles in nine days, setting up shows in living rooms from New York to Toronto to Atlanta. The film is part history lesson, as the women celebrate ancestral connections with women like Lorde at their North Carolina stop.

Sekiya Dorsett, a New York-based filmmaker and writer, came to the project early. She attended one of the gatherings at a Brooklyn brownstone with her partner and once inside, “it was like a scene out of a film,” she said. “Something to me felt very at home there.”

Along with Foster as a producer, the pair set off on capturing the entire tour, fighting fatigue and financial drain to tell the story they envisioned. “It was a really crazy hectic schedule,” Dorsett said. “When you have limited resources you want to get it done as quickly possible.”

The lag between the tour and the film’s debut in 2016 was mostly financial, Dorsett said. They raised $15,000 for the project on Kickstarter, and spent the past three years refining the documentary.

“I wanted to create an authentic experience of what it’s like to be a black queer woman in America,” she said. “People need this film now more than ever.”

Dorsett will answer questions at the two screenings: 8:50 p.m. Thursday, March 30 and 1:10 p.m. Saturday, April 1. Tickets are $14 for film festival members, seniors and students; $16 for others. Moviegoers can receive a $2 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: ANWO.

The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges famously said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Bibliophiles might say amen, but books are barriers, not passports, for the estimated 36 million adults in the United States who can’t read above a third-grade level.

In Cuyahoga County, 400,000 people — almost half the population — read and calculate below an 8th-grade level, which bars them from standard job training; while 67 percent of Cleveland kindergarteners arrive “not fully prepared to start.”

Into this grim turf – so far from Borges’ Paradise – rides a short woman, Dr. Dana Suskind, who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative in Chicago.

She came to Cleveland as a guest of the Literacy Cooperative, arriving with a PowerPoint and film clips to emphasize that there is a fix to the 30 million word gap. This is the chasm children experience by age four growing up in homes without much talking, compared to homes awash in words.

“Not since the dark ages has so much human potential been left off the table,” Suskind said, quoting her colleague John List, an economist at the University of Chicago.  

“What happens outside the hospital is what really matters,” Suskind told a lunch gathering in downtown Cleveland. “The critical factor is language – the power of the parent or caregiver talking to build the child’s brain.”

Because 85 percent of brain development occurs in the first three years, smart babies are not born, but made through interactive speech, Suskind said. She came to this realization by studying the research, spurred by her initial surprise as a cochlear implant surgeon when some of her young deaf patients thrived when she implanted a device that enabled hearing and other children made almost no gains at all.  The reason turned out to be how rich the speech was at home.

“Many families haven’t been exposed to the powerful science that shows that their language is the key architect for their children’s brain growth,” Suskind told National Public Radio. “Our focus is empowering parents with that knowledge.”

The vehicle is the Three T’s: Tune in, Talk More and Take Turns. From birth on, parents who engage with whatever has caught a child’s attention, bring rich language to their daily interactions and begin to echo and respond to their baby’s sounds are building hundreds of thousands of neural connections – without buying anything at all.

Asked about the ubiquitous cellphone, Suskind said she now notices an eerie quiet when she walks into waiting rooms. “To be truthful, it’s a little bit scary to me,” she said. “I think we need a fourth-T: Turn off your technology.”

Suskind praised Dr. Robert Needleman, a Cleveland pediatrician in the audience. He pioneered “Reach Out and Read,” which brings books into the lives of young families through well-child appointments.

“We’re working on a maternity ward intervention where new mothers and fathers learn about the power of language,” Suskind said. “We’re working in pediatricians’ offices, home-visiting programs as well as children’s museums and libraries. Our program is about getting this message and these science-based programs to parents — to really, hopefully, get it into the groundwater.”

The Chicago surgeon “really has changed the landscape with her Thirty Million Words Initiative,” said Kristen Baird Adams, chief operating officer in the PNC Office of the Regional President.  The bank has pledged $350 million over 25 years in its Grow Up Great program.

“All the pediatricians, all the health care workers, all the teachers in the world knowing the importance of language in a child’s first three years means nothing if the parents don’t know,” Suskind concludes in her book. “When I began Thirty Million Words, I would look at the babies’ heads and imagine the rapid firing of developing neurons just at that moment. Now I look at the adults who care for them and think, ‘You are more powerful than you ever imagined and I hope you know it.’”

The Literacy Cooperative hosted its largest gathering — about 175 community educators, librarians, doctors and literacy workers – to disseminate Suskind’s message. It partners with two pertinent initiatives locally: Reach out and Read and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which delivers a book a month to a child from birth to age five.  More information on both is available at www.literacycooperative.org.