At 85, N. Scott Momaday – considered the dean of Native American literature – is attracting renewed accolades for his life’s work. In 2018, he won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and entered the National Native American Hall of Fame. In May, he received the Ken Burns American Heritage Prize and this November will be feted with a Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
“If we are to understand the synthesis of literature and peace, we must first consider that the end of art is the definition of the human condition,” Momaday said in a press release. “In its ultimate realization the human condition is a state of peace. Peace is the objective of human evolution, and literature is the measure of that evolution.”
The Dayton Literary Peace Prize, begun in 2006, serves as the only annual book prize to recognize “the power of the written word to promote peace.”
“N. Scott Momaday’s body of work illustrates the power of ritual, imagination, and storytelling to mediate between cultures, produce peace through intercultural understanding, and heal individuals damaged by conflict,” said Sharon Rab, the founder and chair of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. “By honoring and safeguarding the storytelling traditions of our nation’s indigenous communities, his writings at the same time affirm the value of a multicultural society.”
When the writer won his Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement prize, Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. struck a similar note. He called Momaday “at root a storyteller who both preserves and expands Native American culture in his critically praised, transformative writing.” Momaday made himself at home the next day with a historic presentation at the City Club of Cleveland, where he was the first indigenous American to address the club.
Momaday made history in 1968 with his first novel, House Made of Dawn. It won the Pulitzer Prize the following year and ushered in a mid-century renaissance of Native American literature.
In Dayton, the peace prize’s fiction and nonfiction winners will be announced September 17, with the awards ceremony to follow on November 3. Momaday joins literary giants Louise Erdrich, Taylor Branch, and Wendell Berry as recipients of this honor.
In 2015, Brooklyn, New York-based artist OlaRonke Akinmowo lugged 100 books — all written by black women — to a brownstone stoop and launched the uncertain beginnings of her newest project, the Free Black Women’s Library.
Dressed in a black tank top and gold leggings, Akinmowo danced barefoot in front of her collection “in honor of the sacred beauty” of these authors.
“Black women’s words have saved my life, healed me, nurtured me and provided me with the comfort that I’ve needed in every rough moment of my life,” Akinmowo wrote in an Instagram post commemorating that anniversary, “and I wanted to share that fact/testimony.”
As the first patron arrived — an 8-year-old girl in a vibrant, multicolored dress — Akinmowo watched a mobile library featuring black women authors become a necessary idea.
In this organic process, she found new spaces to display the books — museums, theaters, art galleries, churches, and festivals. Now, four years later, up to 200 people will come through the library’s traveling installation each month.
“I want it to feel inclusive and diverse,” Akinmowo said in a phone interview. “That’s why I like to have everything from children’s books to young adult to erotica. Even if people come not knowing what they’re looking for, they’ll find something.”
Usually they’re looking for the classics, Akinmowo said. Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks are perennial favorites. “Toni Morrison…she’s iconic. Whether it’s Bluest Eye or Jazz or Sula or Paradise. They come in asking, ‘Do you have any Toni Morrison?’”
She doesn’t catalog the books or direct patrons to any particular author. Instead, she allows the library to exist in a more interactive way, making the search for a resonant title part of the fun. She does, however, note which genres people are seeking. (After “Black Panther” was released last year, she noticed an uptick in the number of people looking for science fiction.)
The 40-something curator turned to books to get through a difficult childhood in Brooklyn. “Having an unstable family, libraries offered me comfort, safety, resources, inspiration, education,” she said, adding that she began reading around age 3. ”That’s part of the foundation for my project – my love for libraries and books.”
That love is apparent at the pop-ups. Everything is free, from the books themselves to the associated community conversations that spring up around a monthly theme. One of their recent events featured bell hooks’ All About Love, and the discussion that followed pulled from the text.
The library thrives thanks to donations and volunteers who move the books from space to space each month. Akinmowo runs it as a side project amidst her day jobs as a set decorator and yoga teacher. She is currently seeking funding to make the library more sustainable and even more community oriented.
Enthusiasts are adapting the model in different cities — most notably Atlanta, Detroit and Los Angeles. “Having branches and forums in other cities was something I always dreamt could happen,” Akinmowo said, “so it’s really exciting to see that visualization become reality.”
Frequently, the founder invites poets and writers to share in the space. Last month, author Tressie McMillan Cottom came up from Virginia to discuss her newest book, Thick, with library guests, a move that surprised and inspired Akinmowo. Cottom’s collection of essays on race, beauty, politics and media proved a fertile starting point for the assembled patrons.
“These intimate vulnerable conversations we’re having between strangers is so powerful,” Akinmowo said. “That deep connection. We talked for two and a half hours. It was a full house. Seeing these black women share themselves, creating a space where black women can feel seen and heard…it feels like really sacred work.”
In the books that followed, Whitehead, now 49, has consistently delivered on Updike’s phrase – culminating in 2016’s “The Underground Railroad,” in which he places an actual time-traveling railroad beneath the country’s soil to wend its way from the days of slavery through the nation’s tortured history.
Now Whitehead arrives at a new milestone. He is the first writer since August 2010 to grace the cover of Time magazine, profiled by novelist Mitchell S. Jackson under the headline “America’s Storyteller.” The profile is timed to the publication of “The Nickel Boys” July 16.
Nine years ago, the Time cover headline was “Great American Novelist,” printed across the left shoulder of Jonathan Franzen.
In the laudatory new magazine profile, Whitehead is quoted saying that he followed his first novel, “The Intuitionist,” about a Manhattan elevator inspector, with “John Henry Days” wanting this second book “to be more expansive and have many different voices, a big American chorus. ‘John Henry Days’ is very unruly, like the country itself.”
“I had never read anything with an enslaved person as its main character where I really felt that sense of dread, claustrophobia and the narrowing of choices,” Ward told Time. “I felt the book could be a breakthrough experience for some people.”
One month after the book’s publication, Whitehead read from its pages in Cleveland at the Maltz Center as part of the Skirball Writer’s Center Stage series. As the author flipped seamlessly from Brooklyn hipster patter to pulling sentences directly from the novel, some listeners were audibly shocked.
Whitehead – who was called “Chipp” as a kid – switched over to Colson when he was 21. Time reports that “he learned only a few years ago that Colson, the name of his maternal grandfather, was also the name of an enslaved Virginia ancestor who purchased his and his daughter’s freedom.”
The writer’s resonance with history extends to his everyday conduct. While visiting the Langston Hughes House in Harlem, Whitehead carefully hung his coat in the hallway before the program director’s tour. “I didn’t want to disrespect Langston’s house,” he told Mitchell Jackson later.
The new novel, “The Nickel Boys,” was “inspired by the story of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida,” Whitehead writes in his acknowledgments. He credits reporter Ben Montgomery’s series in the Tampa Bay Times and University of South Florida’s Dr. Erin Kimmerle’s forensic studies of the school’s unmarked graves. And he directs readers to their websites.
Whitehead told Time that this new book is “about places with no accountability. That dynamic between the powerful and the helpless, where our worst impulses can be let loose.”