One of the most surprising things about “Good Trouble,” a new documentary on Georgia Congressman John Lewis’ six decades in the public spotlight, is how many jokes appear during the 96-minute runtime.  

The levity that imbues Lewis, 80, as he gathers with staffers, chats with relatives and booms from a podium persists in someone who has endured some of the worst America has to offer.  

The film makes his sacrifices clear — the civil rights movement was a brutal affair as Lewis put his body on the line time after time in nonviolent demonstrations from “Bloody Sunday” to the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington. The documentary’s title itself comes from Lewis’ belief that “good trouble, necessary trouble” is necessary to change the world.  

Director Dawn Porter, whose film credits include “Bobby Kennedy for President” and “Spies of Mississippi,” yearned to hear more from the civil rights icon. She was intrigued by the breadth of his work, she said, and wondered: “How do you do justice to such a magnificent life?”

“We came to him…at a time when he was ready to tell his story,” she told NPR. “You know, I think he is – as he was approaching his 80th birthday, he’s always reflective, but I think he was particularly reflective. So it was a wonderful time for both of us to engage on this adventure together.” 

A dizzying montage of Lewis stumping for a slew of progressive candidates in 2018’s midterm elections shows the stamina and grit of a man determined to help the country moves forward. “My greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone,” he says quietly in one scene. “As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can.” 

Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards jury chair Henry Louis Gates Jr makes an appearance, remarking that Lewis wept on his show, “Finding Your Roots,” as his team was able to uncover the activist’s great-great grandfather’s voting registration card from 1867.

“And by my calculation,” Gates told him, “no one in your family between him and you — because of what you did at Pettus Bridge and the Voting Rights Act — no one in your family line voted between him and you.” 

Gates recalled that after Lewis composed himself, he simply replied: “I guess it’s in my DNA.” 

Viewers witness the multi generational impact of Lewis in scenes of eager readers thrusting copies of “March,” his young adult graphic novel chronicling the movement, asking for autographs. (Lewis won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1999 for “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” the precursor to “March.”) 

Mostly, the film portrays Lewis as a gentle leader who has seen the country through some unbelievable lows. But it also reminds viewers that Lewis has moments of ferocity. The contentious 1986 Congressional election saw him face off with friend and fellow activist Julian Bond for a seat in Atlanta’s fifth district, a battle Lewis ultimately won.

Soundbites from those who know him best — his chief of staff, his siblings, fellow Congressional Black Caucus members — fill in the portrait, alongside the man himself. One voice is missing — Lillian Miles, Lewis’ wife of 44 years, who died in 2012. It is clear from those around him that Lewis is still working through his grief. As his sister noted, after her death, “He got quieter.” 

The film wrapped in December, right before the news that the congressman had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. An erroneous tweet from Congresswoman Alma Adams of North Carolina on July 11 reported on the congressman’s passing, leading to an outpouring of relief as his team refuted the rumors. 

“Grateful that the great ⁦@repjohnlewis is still with us,” former national security adviser Susan Rice tweeted. “We need the wisdom and strength of this American hero and civil rights icon now more than ever.”

Indeed, the film elevates Lewis at a critical time — it was released July 3, in the midst of a national reckoning with race after the police killing of George Floyd. In a virtual townhall June 15 on the mental health impact of the uprisings on Black America, Lewis was delighted at the action he saw in the streets nationwide: “We must continue to be bold, brave, courageous, push and pull, ’til we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.” 

Good Trouble is streaming now on multiple platforms and available in select theaters.

Join us October 1 to toast the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards authors and their brilliant books.

WVIZ/PBS ideastream will produce, distribute and broadcast an original one hour of television highlighting the 85th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. It will be hosted by Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. and feature a visit to the hometowns of historian Eric Foner, poet Ilya Kaminsky, scholar Charles King and novelist Namwali Serpell.

This destination viewing will let the Anisfield-Wolf community gather without fear of the pandemic. “We are grateful that the 85-year-old chain of celebrating Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards recipients will remain unbroken,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the awards. “Thanks to our longtime partners at ideastream, we are able to showcase the four new honorees for viewers everywhere, alongside the inimitable Henry Louis Gates Jr. And this television special will sit on the right side of the digital divide — accessible to the greatest number of people.”

Mark Rosenberger, chief content officer at ideastream, said the book awards “couldn’t be more relevant and important than they are now and it’s truly an honor to partner with them to share this program with an expanded audience. The environment has changed in so many ways and the awards and the conversations around them are more relevant than ever.”

More details will follow on the full schedule for Cleveland Book Week, arranged to keep all participants safe. In the meantime, dive into our 2020 award-winning books.

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.

The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 85th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2020 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:

“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners bring us fresh insights on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr. who chairs the jury. “This year, we honor a brilliant, breakout novel that centers Zambia, a book of political poetry 15 years in the making and a riveting history documenting a revolution in Western thought. All is capped by the lifetime achievement of Eric Foner, who has remade our understanding of the Civil War and especially its aftermath.”

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 October 1 in the Connor Palace Theatre in Cleveland, hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. The ceremony will be part of the fifth annual Cleveland Book Week slated for Sept. 27-Oct. 4.

Karen R. Long, manager of the book awards at the Cleveland Foundation, noted the prescience of philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf in founding the prize in 1935. “She understood that the best books are fuel to civic justice, as true now as it was during the Great Depression,” Long said. “We are proud to add the 2020 winners to this vital canon. These new books explore human diversity in riveting style, putting the lie to racism and ableism. Reading them knits us closer together in time when we must be apart.”

About the 2020 Winners


Lifetime Achievement

Eric Foner is a public intellectual who stands among the most important American historians of the past half century. He is the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University and only the second person to lead all three major professional organizations in his field: the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association and the Society of American Historians. “Eric Foner is the dean of Reconstruction historians, and is one of the most generous, and genuinely passionate, professors of his generation,” said Dr. Gates. “As a scholar and writer, his footprint is vast.” Three of his books are considered canonical: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men;” “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877″ and “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” This last book won a Pulitzer, a Bancroft and a Lincoln prize; Foner is equally proud of his numerous teaching awards. He retired from the classroom in 2018, continuing to write and lecture. Foner, 77, lives in New York City and in Connecticut with his wife, Lynn Garafola, a dance historian.



Poetry

Ilya Kaminsky is a celebrated poet, editor and translator whose first book, “Dancing in Odessa,” was published in more than 20 languages. He holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Born in Odessa in 1977, Ilya’s mumps were misdiagnosed by a Soviet doctor who thought the four-year-old had a cold. The mistake left the poet hard-of-hearing. Amid rising antisemitism, Kaminsky’s family won political asylum from the United States in 1993 and resettled in Rochester, N.Y., where he was fitted with hearing aids. Kaminsky, adept in Russian, Ukranian and English poetry, became a lawyer first. When “Deaf Republic” arrived, the BBC named Kaminsky “one of the 12 artists that changed the world in 2019.” Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove said the book haunted her, “a parable that comes to life and refuses to die.” It describes an unnamed country whose citizens can no longer hear one another, set amid political unrest. The book, which contains pictograms of sign language words, became a finalist for the National Book Award. Kaminsky lives with his wife, the poet Katie Farris, in Atlanta.



Nonfiction

Charles King is the author of seven nonfiction books, including “Midnight at the Pera Palace” and “Odessa,” which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2011. A professor of international affairs and government relations at Georgetown University, King focuses on nationalism, ethnic politics, the transition from authoritarianism and the relationship between history and the social sciences. It is this last category that animates “Gods of the Upper Air,” a history of five anthropologists who upended many of the racist and sexist verities commonplace a century ago. The title derives from a Zora Neale Hurston phrase. She was among the circle of pioneering social scientists. Under the leadership of Franz Boas they fomented, Anisfield-Wolf Juror Steven Pinker said, “nothing less than one of the epochal changes in the history of Western thought.” He praised the book, also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award, as “gripping and beautifully written.” King, 52, lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, the anthropologist and author Maggie Paxson.



Fiction

Namwali Serpell is a literary critic and fiction writer who spent 18 years working, episodically, on her debut novel, “The Old Drift.” She is a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. Born in the Zambian capital Lukasa in 1980, she grew up near its university and in Hull, England and Baltimore. Serpell wrote the opening of “The Old Drift” while a senior at Yale University, and the section about the title settlement along the Zambezi River after she visited the site in 2013. The novel spools out from a fateful collision there in 1904 among a local busboy, an Italian hotelier and a British photographer that Serpell sets reverberating through three generations. The novel romps through Zambian language, politics, history, science and speculative fiction. The novel is “a phenomenal accomplishment, nothing less than a retelling/reimagining of the creation and ‘history’ of Zambia,” observed Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove. Historian Simon Schama, also a juror, called praised call the book “brave and extraordinarily well done.” Serpell lives in San Francisco, where she is working on a book about her love/hate relationship with the novel “American Psycho.”

We have cancelled the March 30 reading by Peter Ho Davies and announcement of our 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winners, in keeping with the precautions at all Ohio libraries due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Please stay tuned for an online announcement March 30 of the new class of recipients. 

We thank our partner, the Cuyahoga County Public Library, and all those who made plans to join us in person. We encourage you to mark your calendars for 6 p.m. Thursday October 1 at the Connor Palace Theater of Playhouse Square for the awards ceremony, which will anchor the fifth annual Cleveland Book Week, beginning September 27 and running through October 3.

Novelist Peter Ho Davies, who won the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction, returns to Cleveland March 30 to announce our class of 2020 winners.

Davies will speak at the Parma-Snow branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library at 7 p.m. to read from “The Fortunes,” his sprawling novel exploring American history through a Chinese American lens.

In four linked sections, Davies 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. Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates called it a “prophetic work, with passages here of surpassing beauty.”

Davies will end the program with the announcement of our 2020 winners, followed by a book signing. Books will be available to purchase on site.

The University of Michigan professor follows former winners Jericho Brown (2015, poetry) and Marlon James (2015, fiction), who returned to Cleveland in 2019 and 2018, respectively, to make the new winner announcement.

The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

A mere dozen miles from the site where Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a day-long gathering will mark what would have been the novelist’s 89th birthday.

“In Celebration of Toni Morrison: A Gesture of Love and Reflection” will be live-streamed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from the Oberlin College campus. Organizer Johnny Coleman, professor of Studio Art and Africana studies, began working on the event the day after Morrison died in August.

“This warrior artist had such a giant global impact and such an individual impact,” he said. “I think there are individuals dispersed all over this planet who have very direct relationships with the images that Ms. Morrison conjured on the page and with the narratives she called up.”

Organizers hope citizens will stop by the Irene and Alan Wurtzel Theater to give an excerpt reading, or record an audio tribute to underscore how Morrison’s work influenced their lives.

In September, Cleveland Book Week featured reflections from writers who followed Morrison into the Anisfield-Wolf canon — Walter Mosley, ’98; Marilyn Chin, ’15; Kevin Young, ’18; Brent Staples, ’95; and Jesmyn Ward, ’18.

“Morrison centered blackness, in ways unparalleled, though she was not alone in doing so,” Young stated. “She helped us see ourselves and free ourselves and remind us that as she put it, the function of freedom is to free someone else.”

Walter Mosley, who also praised Morrison in 2019’s “The Pieces I Am” documentary, spoke on his friend of more than 20 years: “Of all her acts in the world of literature, Morrison almost single-handedly raised Black America to an international platform without us losing our identity.”

Marilyn Chin recited her new poem, “Praise (For Toni Morrison),” ending with “Praise holy, holy Chloe/Who shall finally reclaim her name.” A framed copy of the poem will be installed in the newly remodeled Morrison room at the Lorain Public Library. It will mark her birthday by hosting a rededication ceremony at 2 p.m. featuring members of the Morrison/Wofford family.

Watch our full tribute below and find more information on Oberlin’s “Gesture of Love” celebration

Marilyn Chin
Praise (For Toni Morrison)

Praise Sula, Praise Nell, Praise Sethe
Praise Bride and her blue-black beauty
  
Praise Valerian, Praise Sweetness, Praise Rain
Praise Pecola, forgive Cholly

May Milkman Dead find his wings

Praise Medallion, Praise Shalimar, Praise Mercy
Praise the blessed earth Lorraine

Praise the gateless gate of eternity

Praise the Great Mother’s legacy
Praise holy, holy Chloe

Who shall finally reclaim her name

Henry Louis Gates Jr. rarely speaks about one of his most publicized moments — the July 2009 arrest by Sgt. James Crowley at his Cambridge home, leading to the infamous “beer summit” at the Obama White House.

Now the multi-hyphenate — historian, TV host, executive producer, editor, Harvard professor and Anisfield-Wolf jury chair — reflects on that incident, some 11 years later, in a new interview with New York Times magazine.

“President Obama made an innocent comment that the arrest was stupid, which it was,” he told the publication. Then all of a sudden all these racists are beating up on him. My whole attitude was channeled through the desire to protect our first black president.”

Throughout the interview, Gates toggles from subject to subject, from myths of the slave trade to his thoughts on the remaining Democratic presidential candidates. (No official endorsement yet but he’s got his eye on Michael Bloomberg.)

A few highlights:

On his perspective of the beer summit” incident:

I thought that it would be hubristic and dishonest if I compared what happened to me to what happens to black people in the inner city….Well, that might be related to police excesses and abuses, but it’s a far end of the scale, and I was able to reverse what happened to me, unlike an Eric Garner.

On America’s responsibility for reparations:

I do believe that it’s impossible for any rational person not to understand the cost of 400 years of slavery and then another century of Jim Crow. We have to find ways to compensate for that cost. Affirmative action, to me, is a form of reparations. So is health care — Obamacare or a variant. And there’s reform of public education. One of the most radical things we could do to reform public-school education would be to equalize the amount of money spent per student in every school. That is never going to happen, but that would constitute a radical shift.

On the quiet objective of his PBS show, “Finding Your Roots”:

I’m trying to use the popularity of “Finding Your Roots” to get these political messages in there without being a scold. I am trying to deconstruct notions of racial purity. There is no racial purity. We are all diverse. Showing diversity is important to me politically and insofar as we can achieve that, our series has an educational value for the larger country, particularly at a time when we’re at Redemption [the period of white rollback of black progress following Reconstruction] redux.

Read the full interview here.

Pull up a chair at Case Western Reserve University’s new reading seminar for a hearty discussion of four Anisfield-Wolf award-winning books, covering everything from the modern, urban Native experience to the consequences of political upheaval in Chile.

Organizers invite you to explore four Anisfield-Wolf award winning books:

  • “There There” by Tommy Orange (2019, fiction) — January 23
    Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, launched his literary career with :”There There,” a layered, multi generational journey of 12 Native American characters who converge on a fictional powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. “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.” Orange said during a recent stop in Cleveland.
  • “Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation” by Jonathan Kozol (1996, nonfiction) — February 20
    In “Amazing Grace,” Kozol examines the living conditions of poor children in the South Bronx, giving residents in his 300-page treatise space to discuss AIDS, drug addiction, prostitution, crime, dismal education systems, white flight and more.
  • “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” by Kevin Young (2018, nonfiction) — March 19
    “Bunk” spans nearly 200 years of fraudulent behavior, from the cruel spectacles of showman P.T. Barnum to modern day racist birther movement. Young, the current director of the Schomburg Center in New York, spent six years researching the book.
  • “The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende (2017, fiction) — April 16
    What began as a letter to Allende’s 100-year-old grandfather became “The House of the Spirits,” her debut novel that led to a career tally of more than 67 million copies sold. The story follows four generations of the Trueba family through political upheaval in Chile, Allende’s home.

Colette Ngana, a doctoral student in sociology, said the choice to begin with “There There” was an intentional one.

“I don’t think we highlight indigenous writers often enough,” Ngana said. “[There There] allows us to learn more about the historical perspective. If you didn’t know about the occupation of Alcatraz, for example, the book pushes you to look into indigenous history. What does that mean for our perspectives in resistance movements of the indigenous experience?”

Facilitators will provide historical and political context on the books, while participants are invited to discuss the larger themes these books present.

The reading seminar is open to the community, with organizers hoping for a mixture of students, staff and Cleveland-area residents to attend. “Often we don’t have many opportunities for people in the community to feel integrated into academic life,”  Ngana said. “[This first seminar] will be a test to see who comes. We want everybody to feel welcome.”

The first session will be held Thursday, January 23 from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the Kelvin Smith Library’s Dampeer Room, 11055 Euclid Avenue. Light refreshments will be served. For more information, contact Lisa Kollins at lbk24@case.edu.

Anisfield-Wolf recipient Zora Neale Hurston would have turned 129 years old January 7. To celebrate her birthday, the editors of ZORA, an online magazine eponymously named after the Harlem Renaissance writer and pioneering anthropologist, compiled the ZORA Canon, its definitive list of the best books written by African American women.

Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge (“We Love You, Charlie Freeman”) writes that the editors decided to take up the task when they realized no one seemed to have published a comprehensive list of black women authors, a baffling fact considering the robust reading habits of black women.

Collectively, they took steps to remedy that omission. “Taken together, the works don’t just make up a novel canon,” Greenidge writes in the introduction. “They form a revealing mosaic of the black American experience during the time period.”

Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner Jesmyn Ward was one of the six panelists who selected the works, ranging from poetry to plays, nonfiction to short stories and novels. Alongside Ward was Malaika Adero, a former vice president and senior editor for Atria Books; Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson and author of “Negroland;” Ayana Mathis, a professor and bestselling author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie;” Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and author of “Thick”; and Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies whose most recent book is “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.”

The 100 works are divided into five sections, spanning 160 years of literature: “A Fight For Our Humanity” (1859-1900), “A Rebirth of the Arts” (1924-1953), “Civil Rights & Black Power” (1959-1975), and “The Strength of Self Worth” (1976-1999) and “A Radical Future” (2000-2010).

Browse the list and you’ll find Anisfield-Wolf winners peppered throughout: Toni Morrison appears four times (“Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved,” and “A Mercy”) and Rita Dove gets a nod for 1986’s “Thomas and Beulah.” Sonia Sanchez, our 2019 lifetime achievement winner, is recognized twice for her 1970s poetry collections: “We a BaddDDD People” and “I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems.”

As ZORA senior editor Morgan Jerkins debuted the list on Twitter, she noted: “For those academics who are scratching their heads over how to make their syllabi more diverse, here you go. You have 100 books to choose from and they were chosen from the best of the best.”

And to cap the birthday off, Amistad Press is giving away free electronic copies of Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Visit www.CelebratingZora.com for downloading instructions.

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.

Logan Greer, 10, with Tracy K. Smith, 2019 Anisfield-Wolf award winner for poetry and the inspiration behind Logan’s poem.

For the past decade, Northeast Ohioans gathered for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremonies have celebrated a young poet alongside the winning authors. This year Logan Greer, 10, a fifth grader at Campus International School, set the tone with her poem, “City of Growing Up.” She wrote these lines in the spring of 2019 during a class exercise with teaching artist Nicole Robinson. Logan took her inspiration from “Ash” by Tracy K. Smith.  Campus International is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

City of Growing Up

City of pleasant party people
City with gangs
City with learning
City before cruelness before being anxious
City that believes in God
City like a flower growing in the ground
City trotting around Lake Erie
City paralyzed from moving
City with depression
City examining the streets
City of a long road that I walk down
City with my family
City of angry people fighting to live
City of the taste of my grandma’s macaroni
A city of my life

 

 

 

 

Watch her recite it below and leave a comment for Logan. We’ll make sure she sees it.

Poet Sonia Sanchez launched Cleveland Book Week 2019 with a rousing, reflective performance at Kent State University, as part of the 50th anniversary May 4 commemoration events.

Sanchez began the evening with “A Poem of Praise,” accompanied by a reflection on Kent State students who were killed and wounded by the National Guard during the campus demonstration in 1970, chanting each by name.

As one of the architects of the Black Arts Movement, Sanchez, 85, has written more than a dozen poetry books, several plays and essays, experimenting with musicality in the written word. She’s also spent more than 40 years in the classroom, a pioneer of black studies and women’s studies on college campuses. For these contributions, she’ll be honored on Thursday night with the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize.

Throughout the evening, Sanchez anchored her talk with the theme of activism, urging the students to be politically active, to push the conversation forward around income inequality and climate change. “I can’t give you any easy answers but you’ve got to face this world with a very brave face, with a face that says, ‘I want to live,'” she said. “The only way to do that is to struggle and fight. Not wars, but fight against the greed in this country.”

Watch her full remarks below and make plans to join us for the remaining Cleveland Book Week events. All events are open to the public. See the full schedule and make reservations here.

The typical story set in New Orleans begins and ends somewhere in the French Quarter, but Sarah M. Broom’s meaty new memoir “The Yellow House” stretches our attention seven miles east, to the neighborhood where she and thousands of others live beyond the glitz of the city’s most famous district.

Broken into four movements spanning nearly a century, “The Yellow House” is the story of connection, longing and migration. Who belongs to a city, Broom asks over 300 pages. Whose stories are worth capturing and telling?

She begins her family’s story with the title dwelling. The house sat for 50 years in New Orleans East, more than 40,000 acres developed in the 1950s. It was built on what was “largely cypress swamp, its ground too soft to support trees or the weight of three humans,” Broom writes. Still, NASA’s massive Michoud Assembly Facility went up in 1940, anchoring the idea of a vibrant community to young families.

These promises lured in Ivory Mae Broom, Sarah’s mother. Widowed at 19, a mother of two, she used $3,200 from the life insurance payout to purchase a small green house on Wilson Avenue in 1961. Over the next five decades, the household would swell to hold twelve children. Sarah is the youngest — her eldest sibling, Simon Jr, is thirty years her senior.

Broom, 39, captures the life of her family with vigor. Her storytelling is most vivid when she writes about her father Simon Broom, Ivory Mae’s second husband. He died when Sarah was just six months old, collapsing in the bathroom. But his presence looms large as the writer relies on interviews with her mother and various siblings to paint a portrait of a man she never knew.

“My father is six pictures,” she writes. “These photos can be shuffled around, pinned up on my wall in various configurations, held up high in the palm of my hand, and then dropped to the ground and still they are only six pictures.”

But the Yellow House (which got its nickname when Ivory Mae purchased yellow siding in the 1990s) was never quite the oasis the Brooms were seeking. The place somehow bogged down into a perpetual state of disrepair. Simon built a poorly constructed and incomplete addition to the back of the house, the walls exposed and the bathroom unfinished. The family took to “carrying boiled water through the house and to the bath in our red beans and rice pot.”

The house, as Sarah writes, became more of a shackle for her mother, trying to manage its upkeep while simultaneously raising 12 children on a nurse’s aide’s salary. Her refrain was “You know this house not all that comfortable for other people” whenever one of the children wanted to invite a friend home. Non-relatives rarely crossed the threshold during Sarah’s childhood.

The Katrina section, simply titled “Water,” is gut-wrenching. Most of the Brooms were safely out of harm’s way when the hurricane hit in August 2005, but two of her siblings, Carl and Michael, didn’t make it out of New Orleans East before the onslaught. Carl rode out the storm at his home, while Michael hunkered down at a girlfriend’s apartment.

“You thinking that’s mannequins floating by you, but when you get by it that body smell so bad, it then swoll up big,” Carl told his sister. “Man that ain’t no mannequin, that’s a dead body.”

The water knocked the Yellow House off its foundations and the city later abruptly bulldozed it, ending a chapter of the Broom history for good.

Post-Katrina, the memoirist takes a job in Mayor Ray Nagin’s office, lasting only six months as a speechwriter before burning out. “More and more I began to feel that I was on the wrong side of the fence,” Broom writes, “selling a recovery that wasn’t exactly happening for real people.”

Broom is a master at the minutiae, conjuring a neighborhood hovering below its potential, neglected by the powers that be. The house itself is so carefully depicted you can see the hand-sewn curtains and the frayed edges of the kitchen linoleum.

For all its attention to detail, “The Yellow House” is slow to ignite. Broom lingers in her mother’s and grandmother’s childhood too long, giving too many peripheral characters space that feels unearned. With such a wide family tree – Broom currently has 50 nieces and nephews – it’s impossible to flesh out each relative. Still, she brings to life those she knows best.

The memoir does balance personal narrative and journalistic inquiry, with Broom centering the city of New Orleans at every turn. The streets, the homes, the neighbors all feel grounded in time.

Her story, and the larger story of the Broom clan, is worth finding, well off the beaten path.

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.

The poet, novelist and essayist has won the Dayton organization’s Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. It is named for the celebrated U.S. diplomat who played an instrumental role in negotiating the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.

“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.”

What started out as Akinmowo’s personal collection quickly multiplied ten-fold. Donations began pouring in from publishers, writers, online supporters and of course, patrons themselves, who adhere to the “bring a book, take a book” code.

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.”

Library guests assemble for a discussion with Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of the essay collection, “Thick.”

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.”

Anisfield-Wolf Fellow Zachary Thomas has sparked an idea that is igniting across Northeast Ohio.

In 2016, as a sophomore at John Carroll University, Thomas pioneered a creative writing program for youth incarcerated in an Ohio juvenile detention center. Writers in Residence began as an idea to reduce recidivism by bringing adolescents behind bars together with college students to build long-lasting relationships and build up self-expression.

The idea germinated from the example set by Carroll Ballers, an older student initiative using basketball as an entry point for fun, food and mentorship among the residents of juvenile detention facilities and undergraduates.

Inside these centers, Thomas quickly learned that residents had few chances to write. Authorities allowed no pens or paper in private quarters. If a resident wanted to put down a thought, a prison staffer would hand over a crayon.

After Thomas’ mother died, the 18-year-old Washington D.C. native turned to writing to uncover “what my heart needed to feel, what my mind needed to understand.” Thomas thought it might work as a similar catharsis for young residents bottled up in a place where emotions run high.

So Thomas enlisted the help of trusted allies at John Caroll: professor Philip Metres, and friends Anthony Shopolik, Rachel Schratz, and Michalena Mezzopera. Together, they cooked up a pilot writing workshop to see if the idea had legs.

The first session got off to a bumpy start. “No one talked. That was really scary,” said Thomas, now 23. “But they were seeing what we were about. Which is fair, because we’re coming into someone’s home, so to speak. We’re strangers, so they have to vet us.” writers in residence logo

The program began in earnest in spring 2017, with two groups of John Carroll students converged on two different facilities, working with male and female residents at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility.

“We go for 12 weeks and by that ninth week we’ve gotten so close to the residents that we’ve become a family together,” Thomas said of the weekly sessions. “That puts us in a place to empathize, but also see them for who they really are.”

The student volunteers and incarcerated peers spend their 90-minute sessions discussing short pieces of literature, connecting the art to the one another’s lives. The offenses are sidelined, unless the residents themselves volunteer why they are locked up, Thomas said. “I don’t know why they’re in there. I’ve never asked. That’s not my priority. I’m more interested in who they are.”

To build trust with the residents, the program requires a strict commitment from volunteers, ensuring that the same faces show up week after week.

“We want people who are going to be reliable forces,” Thomas said. “For a lot of the residents, they don’t have a lot of that. They build their day or week around it. For you not to come, you disrupt their whole world.”

The residents themselves have found value in the program. “It lets us open up with what is easy to write rather than say,” one wrote in the post-workshop survey. “[It’s a] respectful environment where we can speak openly.”

Toward the end of the 12-week program, residents see some of their writing published in a chapbook, available as a free download on Writers in Residence website. (A physical copy is also available for sale.)

“The first time we [published the chapbook], one of the residents read his name and said, ‘This is regal,” Thomas said. “His work was on display. That act of being published gave him the realization. It’s a good feeling to have. It’s your own hard work.”

The spring 2019 chapbook features Lucille Clifton-inspired poems and a smattering of “six-word memoirs,” among other short pieces. In one of the poems, a resident writes: won’t you celebrate with me for I/ have been taking care of and raising/ babies since I was six and being in/ here is the only break I’ve had.

Another offers: I don’t know how to begin this/ Life is a gamble.

Writers in Residence expanded this spring to Oberlin College, embedding the program in the Lorain County Juvenile Detention Home. It will encompass programs based in three more colleges during the fall semester: the College of Wooster, Youngstown State University and Hiram College.

“It was a lucky day when professor Phil Metres left me a message asking if the Cleveland Foundation might help with a program in the Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “That led to meeting Zach Thomas and attending one of his Writers in Residence sessions. I was floored by the authentic friendship and joshing vulnerability among the young men. And I was struck, as a literary critic, that the writing they did together was of such a high caliber.”

Thomas, who draws a salary through a Cleveland Foundation grant, will work as the liaison between the schools and the detention centers. He wants to ensure the expansion programs stay laser-focused on the youth they serve.

“[The residents] have a strong BS meter,” he said. “A lot of people can talk, but you have to come through with some action.”

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.”