Four Anisfield-Wolf Book Award-winning authors — including two from our 2020 class — took home hardware from this year’s Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The annual springtime awards ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, so winners took to their cameras to deliver acceptance speeches, now posted on YouTube.  

Namwali Serpell won the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, for her sprawling Zambian novel, “The Old Drift.” Hunkered down in her home, Serpell spoke on the need to continue to create. “These are dark times, yes, but that darkness, that void is a break from business as usual,” she remarked in her video. “A crack out of which maybe a revolution will emerge. It feels impossible to do anything except survive right now, but I say art is survival too. So I say, make art, paint it, record it, dance it, write it down.”  

Ilya Kaminsky accepted the poetry prize for “Deaf Republic,” noting that poetry can offer comfort during turbulent times: “Poetry casts its spell on us, makes us want to return to its pages, to leave with its images, to memorize its lines, to whisper them to ourselves in the middle of the night, the last words we cling to when nothing suffices. In the middle of crisis I feel this more than ever.” Walter Mosley dedicated his prize, the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement, to the memory of his father, Leroy Mosley. Mosley, the author of more than 43 books, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.” Marlon James, a 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” was honored with the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction for his follow-up, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.”  Serpell and Kaminsky, both 2020 Anisfield-Wolf honorees, will be honored October 1 in a one-hour PBS television special, alongside Eric Foner (lifetime achievement) and Charles King (nonfiction). It will be hosted by Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. and feature a visit to the hometowns of each of this year’s winners.

Watch each of the winners on the Los Angeles Times YouTube channel. 

“I was meant to be here,” 11-year-old Amia said as she twirled around the state capitol building in Sacramento, California.

On a field trip with roughly a dozen other members of the Radical Monarchs, a social justice troop based out of Oakland, California, Amia’s enthusiasm was captured in the riveting 2019 documentary, “We Are the Radical Monarchs.”

Directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton, it follows the troop’s co-founders Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest over the first three years as they work to build curriculum, raise funds and add additional chapters.

The troop’s origin was personal to Martinez, whose 10-year-old daughter Lupita came to her in fifth grade with a desire to join Girl Scouts. A community organizer and activist, Martinez hesitated.

“I wanted her to have an experience where she was a part of a troop that centered her identity as a girl of color,” Martinez said in the film. “It wasn’t a week of specialization but ‘you are at the center of this conversation.’”

Martinez approached her friend Hollinquest, an Oakland-based teacher and activist, about creating their own group. Launched in December 2014, the Radical Monarchs are geared toward young girls in third through fifth grades.

Goldstein Knowlton, 55, stumbled upon the Monarchs in January 2015 after reading about the founders’ efforts in The Guardian. The Chicago-born filmmaker had directed and produced other features about young girls and sisterhood, mostly notably 2005’s “Somewhere Between,” and the genesis of the Radical Monarchs struck a chord.

“‘Radical’ and ‘girl groups’ — those words usually aren’t together,” she said. “Just from [Martinez and Hollinquest’s] quotes they sounded like the most intentional people I’ve ever heard from…I’m always drawn to people who have a vision, who are striving, not knowing what the outcome is going to be.”

The director and her team spent the next three years capturing the Monarchs take flight — at monthly troop meetings where they discussed female movement leaders like Dolores Huerta and Yuri Kochiyama and at political protests such as the local Women’s March in 2017.

Their curriculum units are all “radical” and take a youth-centered, age-appropriate approach. The girls learn about the Black Lives Matter movement, parse and challenge societal beauty standards and discuss what it means to be an LGBT+ ally.

One particularly moving scene involves Monarchs learning at the feet of former Black Panther leader Cheryl Dawson. “It’s my desire to plant seeds in the hearts of those who will take them. So you will know as you grow up that part of your responsibility is to the people…You have big work ahead of you.” Later, during a group photo, Dawson needed a moment to compose herself, wiping tears away before take two.

“Making this movie through the cycle of the 2016 election and finishing the movie during this administration has felt like a consistent gift of hope,” Goldstein Knowlton said. “Marilyn always says, ‘We’re radical hope peddlers.’ I have massive gratitude for that. I feel like I can take a big deep breath.”

Watch “We Are the Radical Monarchs” during Cleveland International Film Festival’s reimagined CIFF Streams, where for $8 per film you can view the documentary from the comfort of your home. Tickets are $8 for a single film or $75 for an all-access pass. CIFF Streams ends April 28. This film was the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community match for 2020.

An innovative virtual exhibition at Case Western Reserve University selects and showcases new local responses to Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards writing. Sponsored by the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, the exhibition features 10 new poems and essays responding to prompts from the Anisfield-Wolf award-winning canon.

Students and faculty from area universities created their own work based in Tracy K. Smith (“Wade in the Water”), Jesmyn Ward (“Sing, Unburied, Sing”), Tommy Orange (“There There”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“Stride Toward Freedom”). Three students from Tri-C reflected on two pieces from the public art Inter|Urban project, influenced by Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) and Junot Diaz (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”).

“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have been a part of Cleveland’s literary culture for over 80 years,” said Kurt Koenigsberger, director for the collaborative. “It’s really been within the last decade that local colleges and universities, largely with support from the Cleveland Foundation, have begun to take up the challenge that the Anisfield-Wolf Award-winners pose for the work we do in our institutions.”

For the past two summers, the collaborative has sponsored seminars to help Northeast Ohio faculty, artists and activists integrate Anisfield-Wolf books into their classrooms and community projects. The idea for an exhibition that engaged students directly was an easy next step, Koenigsberger said: “Creating a space that broadened our institutions’ understanding, appreciation, and celebration of work on race and racism seemed important to the work of our Collaborative, and to our Northeast Ohio community more generally.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a physical exhibition in March quickly transitioned to a virtual presentation. Switching to an online format had at least one benefit — most of the participants provided audio of their work, adding flavor and personality to the written word.

“The move to invite participants to record their work was a result of our students’ deliberations,” Koenigsberger said. “They were very eager that the public could hear how the poems and essays sounded in the authors’ own voices.”

Read (or listen) to the selections at the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative website.

Kamden Hilliard — a poet who has lived in Hawai’i, southern California, New York City, Hong Kong, Iowa and South Carolina over their 26 years — will be the second Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing and Editing. 

Hilliard was chosen from among more than 100 applicants. The poet, who uses “they, them, their” pronouns, has yet to see Cleveland. That will happen when they start the two-year fellowship in August at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.

The new fellow will succeed Leila Chatti, whose first book “Deluge” arrives from Copper Canyon Press April 21. The poets have friends in common but have yet to meet. The fellowship combines writing, editing and community engagement.

“I was born in California to military parents,” Hilliard writes in their application. “We moved around most of my childhood and finally settled in Hawai’i in early 2002. The real and imagined traumas of 9/11, the violent mechanics of settlement and militarism in Hawai’i, and the ongoing condition of blackness sculpted my childhood. As such, my work is obsessed with the problems of inheritance, identity-based discrimination, and antiblackness.”

Hilliard graduated with an MFA in Poetry from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop last spring. They took an AmeriCorps Vista position with the Greenville County Behavioral Health Coalition, which helps nonprofits in upstate South Carolina deliver mental health and anti-addiction services. Hilliard, who laughs easily and delights in language, specialized in connecting LGBTQ youth to these services.

“I’m not from a place where people spend a lot of time writing and reading,” Hilliard said in a phone interview. “So, after two years in Iowa City, I was attracted to a place where I could dream toward community and a different future, organize to get things done and think about the reasons we write and need literature.”

Hilliard’s own work is quick-footed and linguistically playful. It has been collected into three chapbooks — “Distress Tolerance” in 2016 and “Perceived Distance From Impact” the following year. Their third collection, “henceforce: a travel poetic,” was published in 2019. They helped edit Jellyfish Magazine for three years.

Last fall, the poet Tommy Pico singled out a Hilliard poem for praise: “It takes the play dough colors of modern languages and squishes them all together in a statement on the nature of communication and I, for one, am here. for. it.” 

That poem was runner-up for the Black Warrior Review Prize.

“We were especially drawn to the experimental force and verve of Kamden Hilliard’s poetry – which, as Craig Santos Perez has said, ‘transgresses the normative and secured border of nationalism, gender, aesthetics and language itself,’” noted Hilary Plum, assistant director of the Cleveland State Poetry Center. “In their application, Kam’s approach to literary community and diversity work combined the theoretical and the practical. We were struck by their ambition, the depth of their engagement and their sense of what’s possible.”

For their part, Hilliard said they were looking forward to shaping the fellowship and carrying it beyond the usual places.

“In our public conversations, we can attend to the places we inhabit,” they said. “’Ohio’ is not a British word. It’s an indigenous word.  The shape of the fellowship, the folk who put it together – I take all of it as a positive sign. I have a lot of gratitude and look forward to starting the next chapter with you.”

Hear Hilliard read their 2018 poem, “Ride W Favor.”