I was five when I came to the U.S. from China. My first experiences of America were formed in a predominantly white town where I could count the number of non-white classmates on one hand. Other children asked me why my eyes were so small, whether I ate dogs, and why my lunch of homemade dumplings smelled weird. I chose to bury these memories because I wanted to believe the world was a better place.
“The trick was to understand America, to know that America was give-and-take. You gave up a lot but you gained a lot, too.” That observation comes from Chimamanda Adichie’s short story, “The Thing Around My Neck.” I discovered it in a first-year seminar at Case Western Reserve University, an experience that helped awaken me to the power in sharing things that make us uncomfortable.
As the class progressed, I found comfort in being both Chinese and American. Zadie Smith writes in “Speaking in Tongues” of her “proper” English: “This voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place–this is not the voice of my childhood…A braver person, perhaps, would have stood firm, teaching her peers a useful lesson by example: not all lettered people need be of the same class, nor speak identically. I went the other way. Partly out of cowardice and a constitutional eagerness to please.” The seminar discussions made me feel less alone in my immigrant experiences; they also allowed me to face the more difficult feelings I’ve had. The things around my neck that make me different aren’t exclusionary, even if they may seem that way at first. I started to see new connections. The Anisfield-Wolf seminar, taught by Dr. Lisa Nielson, fostered the importance of difference and diverse stories. I started to write more about the need for Asian-American writers and stories in the media. I found purpose in writing and strength in multifaceted identities.
In talking about the readings in class, I realized that discussions about race and identity were pursuable once someone brought light to them, even if these questions were hard to explore. It changed the way I approached my Asian-American identity and the topics I address. I found power in owning the negative memories, admitting that they happened and starting a dialogue about the experiences. I am now six years removed from that seminar and a graduate of Case, currently in medical school. Still, the themes of these two readings from that class accompany me. I didn’t have to be less Chinese to be more American. Now I find comfort, despite the confusion, in the hyphen that exists in Chinese-American.
Jessica Yang was one of the members of the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf SAGES seminar in 2013. She graduated from CWRU in 2017 with a dual degree in biochemistry and psychology, and a minor in biology. An avid reader who is dedicated to exploring questions of identity, Jessica has been a blogger and freelance writer since high school and is currently finishing her first year of medical school at Rowan University in New Jersey.
Two more Anisfield-Wolf winners were named as Pulitzer finalists: novelist Tommy Orange, this year’s fiction winner for his debut, “There There” and historian Jill Lepore, who won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2006, a finalist in criticism for her writing in the New Yorker.
Three historians selected the Douglass biography: Annette Gordon-Reed, Tiya Miles and Marcus Rediker. Gordon-Reed, who chaired the jury, has her own Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” a 2009 winner that excavated the suppressed record of Thomas Jefferson’s black family.
Staples cites Gordon-Reed in one column the Pulitzer judges singled out: “The Legacy of Monticello’s First Black Family,” published July 4, 2018. And he quotes Frederick Douglass in another, “The Racism Behind Women’s Suffrage.”
The Pulitzer elevated Stapes, 68, for his “editorials written with extraordinary moral clarity that charted the racial fault lines in the United States at a polarizing moment in the nation’s history.” He received an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1995 for his memoir, “Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White.”
Frederick Douglass, a reader suspects, also might have lauded Gordon-Reed’s work. Blight emphasizes that Douglass – the most photographed American of the 19th century – existed as a man of words.
The historian, 70, described this book as “the biography of a voice.” A Yale University professor, Blight believes Douglass’ speeches and constant travel also made him the most heard individual of his century.
The Pulitzer jury called the biography “a breathtaking history that demonstrates the scope of Frederick Douglass’ influence through deep research on his writings, intellectual evolution and his relationships.” Blight won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2012 for “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”
Blight states that the former slave’s great gift “is that he found ways to convert the scars Covey [a slave master] left on his body into words that might change the world. His travail under Covey’s yoke became Douglass’ crucifixion and resurrection.”
The Biblical language is intentional – Douglass embraced a personal Christianity as a teenager in Baltimore, studying sermons as templates for his oratory. He escaped bondage at 20, and lived nine years a fugitive until his freedom was purchased.
“Never trust anyone who writes three autobiographies – they are manipulating you on every page,” Blight said wryly of Douglass at the Virginia Festival of the Book. He credited the collection of Savannah surgeon Walter O. Evans, who saved ten Douglass family scrapbooks, with making his book possible.
I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise
Eighteen months after the Unite the Right racist violence wracked Charlottesville, the 25th anniversary of the Virginia Festival of the Book gathered thousands of thoughtful citizens and served as one way to gauge the civic temperature.
That temperature was decidedly warm among poet Rita Dove and novelists Esi Edugyan and John Edgar Wideman, the trio who closed the festival with their session, “A World Built On Bondage: Racism and Human Diversity in Award-Winning Fiction.” It was the second consecutive year the festival culminated in an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards panel.
“Esi is a wonder,” Dove effused when introducing Edugyan, whose latest novel Washington Black weaves a tale of freedom and adventure told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy of the same name. He begins his life in slavery on a Barbadian sugar plantation in the early 19th century. Edugyan received the Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction in 2012 for Half Blood Blues, a historical novel set to jazz in the folds of World War I and II. The former United States Poet Laureate then turned to Wideman and told the audience, “I can’t remember a time — in my adult life — when I haven’t been accompanied by John’s work.” The 77-year-old nodded his head slightly as Dove rattled off his accomplishments, including a Rhodes scholarship, a MacArthur “genius” grant, all Ivy-League basketball player and an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize in 2011.
The esteemed panel spoke of beginnings and how the path toward success often creates a chasm between where you’ve been and where you’re headed. For Wideman, that divide began as a basketball player on the high school varsity team, a pursuit that eventually led him to the University of Pennsylvania and away from his Pittsburgh roots. “I felt quietly that I needed that,” Wideman said. “At home it was a world of women – my grandmother, mother, her friends. I loved it, but I wasn’t active in that world. I was listening. But I knew there was a different world for men . . . Where was that men’s world?”
He found that men’s world — rowdy, instructive — through sports. “Doing the things that made me successful in the world outside of my family was absolutely stepping away from that family,” Wideman said. “I could not sort that out, so I just pretended most of the time that it wasn’t happening. I blinded myself to it.”
That sort of isolation from one’s community presented itself as more of a cultural struggle for Edugyan, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who settled in Calgary, Alberta, the Canadian interior.
“I’m attracted to stories of people who are on the margins,” Edugyan, 41, said. “This comes out of my own history growing up a black woman in the prairies, in Alberta. Being born in Calgary, in the late 70s, where the black population has never been more than three percent.”
That dearth of community translated into her art: “I grew up with a huge feeling of isolation and almost of not having a community in that sense, and being sort of a constant outsider as I’m making my way through the world . . . That’s always been why I’m attracted to stories that are footnotes in the larger history . . . things that are sitting on the margins and looking at events through those eyes.”
Does writing feel like home? Dove asked. “Books opened the doors to feeling at home in the world,” Edugyan replied. “You learn that others, people who are totally unlike yourself, are going through the same thing, feeling the same emotions. There’s a great comfort in that.”
Wideman noted that his ease with writing ebbs and flows. But above all, he told the audience, language is art.
“Nobody owns the language,” he said. “Language is entirely invent-able by each one of you, each one of us, the language is a collective phenomenon. . . That’s what I hope to prove to people like myself: You own the world. It belongs to you. Language is an instrument. Language dances. It dreams. It contains silence.”
When it came to the power of the written word to offer a reprieve from the current news cycle and political climate, both authors had their reservations.
“Literature doesn’t solve problems,” Wideman told the audience. “Literature is the opportunity to think about problems, to invent in one’s own mind, and try to invent in other minds, a different world.”
“There’s no magic bullet novel that’s going to solve all our problems,” Edugyan quipped. “Empathy is important because we’re living in age right now where nobody is listening to anybody else. . . We need to engage with lives and experiences that are totally different from what we are going through ourselves. That’s the only way we can mark a path forward.”
When one white man in the audience asked Edugyan if buying a copy of Washington Black “would count as reparations,” the crowded auditorium sat silent for a few moments amid the pointedness of his insult.
Edugyan called it a terrible question, but she nonetheless answered it.
“One thing you might get – having walked with this young slave boy for six years, totally unlike yourself – is empathy,” she said. “You might feel something for him. Maybe it doesn’t change the greater world, this experience of empathy, but it offers something so rare, the experiences of someone totally different.”
The cover of Jericho Brown’s new poetry collection, The Tradition, features a young black boy, perhaps 10 years old, surrounded in a lush field of flowers, ocean waves at his back.
It’s beauty is evident, but it intimidated Brown when he first saw it. “It’s so gorgeous and it does speak directly to the poems,” he told The Rumpus. “I kept wondering, “Are these poems good enough for this goddamn cover?”
Let that answer be an emphatic yes.
This work, stitched together over 51 poems, is a meditation on grief, violence, fatherhood, trauma, sexuality and beauty. The Tradition is his third book, the follow-up to 2014’s The New Testament, which won the Anisfield-Wolf award in poetry.
For this new book, Brown laments the pain of heartbreak, family erosion, gun violence, and self-exploration.In “Riddle,” he sneers at white supremacy, evoking the wail of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, as the vocalization of its destruction: We do not know the history/Of this nation in ourselves. We/Do not know the history of our/Selves on this planet because/We do not have to know what/We believe we own.
He plays with religion and racism in “Stake,” which begins: I am a they in most of America/Someone who feels lost in the forest/Of we, so he can’t imagine/A single tree. He can’t bear it.
In The Tradition, Brown centers what he calls “the duplex,” a new poetry form he originated that “guts the sonnet” and experiments with structure over 7 couplets, beginning and ending with the same line. The first of these poems appears in the first section and builds tension over its 14 lines:
A poem is a gesture toward home. It makes dark demands I call my own.
Memory makes demands darker than my own: My last love drove a burgundy car.
My first love drove a burgundy car. He was fast and awful, tall as my father.
Steadfast and awful, my tall father Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.
Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark Like the sound of a mother weeping again.
Like the sound of my mother weeping again, No sound beating ends where it began.
None of the beaten end up how we began. A poem is a gesture toward home.
“[The sonnet’s] been pushed down my throat the entirety of my life,” Brown said. “There is something in me that doesn’t like that, and doesn’t trust that, because I’m a rebellious human being. I need to be a rebellious human being because I’m black and gay in this nation and in this world which has not been good to me or anybody like me.”
Each section of The Tradition draws readers forward, hungrily. The pacing is intentional, though it’s still hard to catch your breath. It’s an intimate collection that prides itself on its vulnerability. Readers who pick up a copy will be awed, from cover to closing stanza.