Novelist Tommy Orange, cast in the warm glow of the lights at St. John Episcopal Church, brought his Anisfield-Wolf award-winning debut, “There There” to Northeast Ohio for Cleveland Book Week.

Lake Erie Native American Council (LENAC) dancers – An Evening with Tommy Orange: Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards 2019 winner for Fiction for Cleveland Book Week 2019 – Photo © Bob Perkoski

The evening’s reading melded some new writing from Orange about fathers and sons playing basketball with dancers and drummers from the Lake Erie Native American Council, who performed traditional powwow dances and a drum circle. Their music and movement gave attendees a taste of the book, which follows twelve urban Native characters in advance of a fictious Oakland Coliseum powwow. More than 80 percent of indigenous Americans live outside reservations.

“I very much wanted to write about the place I grew up,” Orange told the packed crowd. “I love Oakland. There’s ten million New York novels and there’s very few Oakland-specific novels and I definitely wanted to contribute in that way.”

Orange was born in Oakland in 1982 to a white mother and Native father and is an enrolled member the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. Growing up, he struggled with identity and embedded pieces of that discernment into each of the characters in “There There.”

“It was really important to me that the Native communities, especially the Oakland one, that people wouldn’t think that what I wrote was untrue to their experience,” Orange said. “Markedly, there’s so much joy [from Native communities] in feeling like they’re in a book, in a way that feels like ‘now,’ like it hasn’t been represented enough.”

Watch the full event below and make plans to join us next year for Cleveland Book Week 2020.

With the William G. Mather steamship providing a nautical backdrop, poet Tracy K. Smith brought her work to the shores of Northeast Ohio as part of the 2019 Cleveland Book Week festivities.

The 2019 Anisfield-Wolf winner for poetry opened her reading with a few selections from “Wade in the Water,” her 2018 award-winning collection. She began “The Everlasting Self,” a short meditative poem on identity and legacy, before segueing into “Declaration,” an erasure poem taken directly from the Declaration of Independence. “Please speak to me,” she recalled asking of the document. “Please show me something I haven’t already seen.”

Later in the reading, she explained the significance of the title poem, which came to her during a visit to a small Georgia town. A woman, part of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, approached Smith and greeted her with an “I love you.”

“That felt like the most beautiful gift that someone could chose to give,” Smith said. ‘I see you. You are meaningful. I don’t know you but yet I love you.'”

During her just-finished two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate, she strove to bring poetry to rural communities, appearing in Alaska, South Dakota and Maine, popping up in rehabilitation centers, libraries, prisons and community gathering spots.

“I wanted to get off the beaten path but I also felt like this is a moment in America where all we’re inundated with is ideas of division,” Smith told the crowd on the harbor. “I knew that poetry could help get past that narrative. Because poems make you stop and pay really close attention. ‘Someone else is speaking here’ and it feels like it matters…And it gave me so much hope about America at a time when very little else did.”

Currently, Smith is the host of The Slowdown, a bite-size poetry podcast that delivers five-minute episodes every weekday. She is also a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.

Watch her full remarks below and make plans to join us in 2020 for Cleveland Book Week.