Filmmakers Leslia Asako Gladsjo and Sam Pollard wanted to make a documentary about the Tulsa Massacre, the two days in 1921 when a white mob burned down 35 prosperous square blocks of Black businesses, churches, schools and homes, killing an estimated 300 Black residents.
But as the 100th anniversary of the massacre generated more awareness, the long-time collaborators pivoted to tell a bigger story.
“So for Sam and I, it was really important to say, wait, it wasn’t just Tulsa!” Gladsjo said via a Zoom interview from her home in New York City. “We wanted to seize this moment, where people were looking at the destruction of Black Wall Street and looking at how it’s a continuing pattern up until today.”
So the pair co-directed “Rise and Rebuild: A Tale of Three Cities,” a documentary following four residents of Atlanta, Chicago and Wilmington, N.C. as they work to reclaim Black neighborhoods after decades of systemic destruction and targeted violence.
Gladsjo and Pollard have spent their respective careers documenting the Black experience in America, having first worked together in 2000 on a project for BET. Since then, Gladsjo has produced several historical projects, including 2019’s “Why We Hate” and 2016’s “Black America Since MLK” miniseries, while Pollard has worked on films chronicling the lives of Sammy Davis Jr, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, among others.
But for this film, she said, they wanted to shift the lens to the present day: “We both wanted the background to be this continuing destruction of Black wealth, but also the unbelievable heroism of people who are doing something anyway.”
Enter Erika Allen, one of four subjects in “Rise and Rebuild.” Allen is the co-founder of Chicago’s Urban Growers Collective, a sustainable farming nonprofit that provides more than 18,000 pounds of fresh produce each year to some of the city’s most food-insecure residents.
“They built this huge green energy center, which is not only a place that’s encouraging farming and creating compost for all the farms around the city but it also produces electricity, green energy, that’s going into Chicago’s power grid that the community actually benefits from,” Gladsjo said. “All this out of what used to be a dump.”
Over the course of a year, Gladsjo and Pollard followed Allen through Chicago’s South Side, alongside Wilmington realtor Brenda Dixon, Atlanta club owner Devon Woodson, and South Fulton mayor Khalid Kamau. In each city, the filmmakers tagged historians to provide context of the Black neighborhoods profiled.
“As I started to read the history, the more angry I got. Without reparations, how can you have any conversation?” Gladsjo wondered. “In the film you can feel the hopefulness and the energy from people in the film, but any real effort to address this history has to start with reparations.”
For Gladsjo, the conversation is more personal than theoretical.
“I’m Japanese-American and my grandfather was incarcerated during World War II,” Gladsjo shared. “We got a small reparations check — was it enough to make up for the fact that he wasn’t able to keep his business as a stonemason and his family didn’t have a breadwinner for those years? But we’re talking about a few years here, we’re not talking about generations.”
Gladsjo continued: “It’s important to tell these stories but also to be sure that the foundation of the history was there so you don’t think ‘Everyone should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and start a little business and it’s all going to be great.’ No, the problem is the history, these generations of injustice that have continued every time Black communities have built something, which shows this incredible resourcefulness. But it’s been stolen. You have to acknowledge that first.”
Watch “Rise and Rebuild” during Cleveland International Film Festival. Moviegoers can receive a $1 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: AWBA. This film is the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community match for 2023.
Join us Monday, April 3 as award-winning poet Adrian Matejka announces the new class of Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners.
Matejka won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2014 for The Big Smoke, a marvelous, nuanced, polyphonic exploration of the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion.
His latest work, Last on His Feet, is a graphic biography returning again to Johnson and his 1910 fight against Jim Jeffries, dubbed the “Battle of the Century.”
He’ll appear at the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s Parma-Snow branch to read selections from his work and announce the winners of the 88th Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
Adrian Matejka is the Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry at Indiana University Bloomington. He is the author of four collections of poems, including The Big Smoke and Map to the Stars. His latest collection of poems is Somebody Else Sold the World, published in July 2021.
Matejka resumes the pre-pandemic tradition of bringing former winners to Cleveland to announce and celebrate the new class. Jericho Brown (2015, poetry) and Marlon James (2015, fiction) returned to Cleveland in 2019 and 2018, respectively, to make the announcement.
This event begins at 7 pm and is free and open to the public. Books will be available for purchase and signing courtesy of Mac’s Backs.
Looking for some new titles to pick up? Check out some recent releases from Anisfield-Wolf award winners – you already know the writing is deft and the topics strong. Here are just a few gems we suggest sit atop your 2023 pile:
Lillian Faderman delivers yet another scrupulously researched historical volume with “Woman: The American History of an Idea.” In 400 pages, Faderman seeks out the fluid contours of womanhood, from American Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet to rapper Cardi B.
The title character of Isabel Allende’s latest novel is Violeta Del Valle, a centenarian whose life is bookended by pandemics. In the epistolary novel addressed to an essential character in Violeta’s life, the reader follows the narrator from her birth to her last moments, a witness to the last hundred years of upheaval.
Prolific poet Victoria Chang delivered three books since the start of the pandemic — the Anisfield-Wolf award-winning “Obit” in 2020, “Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence and Grief” in 2021 and this year’s “The Trees Witness Everything.” She read from the latter during this year’s Cleveland Book Week celebration, describing the book as an experiment with different syllabic forms, including Japanese wakas. She also explored these volumes on our podcast.
Mohsin Hamid probes identity, culture and belonging in “The Last White Man,” in which the white protagonist awakens to discover his skin has turned “a deep and undeniable brown,” setting off a chain of events in which other white people, too, find their skin darkened. The Aspen Words Literary Prize just named the book to its fiction longlist, with the winner announced on March 6, 2023.
Namwali Serpell‘s highly anticipated second novel “The Furrows” plunges the reader into tragedy — 12-year-old Cee lost her younger brother in a drowning incident when the pair are together. His body was never found, leading to an unresolved haunting for Cee, her parents and family friends. Tope Folarin of The Atlantic hailed it as “a book about how imagination and love and faith can help you escape a furrow.” Editors named this novel to a dozen best-of-the-year lists.
The second installment in Marlon James‘ Dark Star fantasy trilogy, “Moon Witch, Spider King”, debuted to critical acclaim in February. A twisting tale of African mythology and history, James assured readers that the sequel stands on its own — they can read this or the first installment, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” in either order.
Finally, for readers drawn to the topic of friendship, consider Kamila Shamsie’s “Best of Friends.” Two girls in Karachi grow into very different women in London, but whose pasts come round to confront them. Questions of loyalty and principle stand athwart their long-buried bond, and whether they can renew what they meant to one another as girls.
Book lovers gathered in person for the first time since 2019 to celebrate Cleveland Book Week this fall, with a variety of events taking place Sept. 9-16 featuring past and present Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winners.
In case you missed them, or would just like to enjoy again, you can watch recordings of author events showcasing 2022 poetry winner Donika Kelly, 2022 fiction winner Percival Everett, 2022 nonfiction winner George Makari and 2021 poetry winner Victoria Chang, as well as the full recording of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony held on Sept. 15 at the Maltz Performing Arts Center.
Check out highlights from the awards ceremony:
2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards poetry winner Donika Kelly discussed the healing power of poetry and her award-winning work “The Renunciations” at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland on Sept. 14.
A Reckoning with Shared History: Lynching and Percival Everett’s “The Trees”
2022 fiction winner Percival Everett joined Black Environmental Leaders at St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic Parish to discuss his novel “The Trees” at a community event commemorating the 1911 lynching of John Jordon.
George Makari at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens
Nonfiction winner George Makari discussed the roots of xenophobia with Case Western Reserve University Department of History Chair and Theodore J. Castele Professor Dr. Jonathan Sadowsky at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens.
This year, the multilingual poet, publisher, novelist, playwright, cartoonist, and lyricist became an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award lifetime achievement award recipient. He spoke at the City Club of Cleveland’s Friday Forum to discuss his life and career.
An Evening with Victoria Chang
2021 poetry winner Victoria Chang shared readings from her book “Obit” in Lake View Cemetery’s Community Mausoleum.
2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Ceremony
Watch the full recording of the awards ceremony honoring the 2022 class: poetry winner Donika Kelly, nonfiction winners George Makari and Tiya Miles, fiction winner Percival Everett and lifetime achievement winner Ishmael Reed.
Since 2016, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have hosted Cleveland Book Week, to celebrate its past and present winners and showcase Greater Cleveland’s diverse literary and literacy community.
The Great Lakes African American Writers Conference (GLAAWC, pronounced “glossy”) joined Book Week in 2018.
This year, Literary Cleveland’s annual Inkubator Writing Conference has joined to make the 2022 festival the largest and most collaborative literary celebration yet.
Literary Cleveland will kick off the 2022 Book Week with the Inkubator Writing Conference, with online literary panels running September 6-8. The in-person component returns to the downtown Cleveland Public Library September 9-10. The organization will hold free writing workshops, panel discussions, craft talks, readings, and more to empower writers, advance artistic dialogue, celebrate literary excellence, and amplify local voices. 2022 speakers include Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil.
Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards events will take place September 14-16, with the ceremony to be held Thursday, September 15 at the Maltz Performing Arts Center.
The series of Book Week programs will be capped off by the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference on September 17, which will relocate this year to its new home at the Cleveland Public Library, Main Branch in downtown Cleveland. The conference will feature the prolific award-winning author Walter Mosley as the Langston Hughes Literary Keynote, along with free music, spoken word, lectures, panel discussions, and much more celebrating the African and African American literary arts. Additionally, a Sunday Brunch on September 18 features two-time James Beard Award-winning culinary author Toni Tipton-Martin and local celebrity chef Eric Wells.
Mark your calendar now for these engaging events and more as the calendar evolves with further details.
In “Shine Bright,” music critic Danyel Smith makes it plain she wants “credit to be given where credit is due.”
Subtitled “A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop,” Smith puts the story of Black women singers into her shimmering pop music memoir, interweaving their stories with her own rise as one of the nation’s preeminent music writers. The result is intoxicating.
Scan the table of contents and the usual suspects are there: Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin. But Smith makes the inspired choice to include those with a smaller spotlight — among them 1960s girl group The Dixie Cups, Linda “Peaches” Greene of ‘70s duo Peaches & Herb, and Broadway songbird Stephanie Mills, who had a string of hits in the ‘80s.
An Oakland native, Smith, 56, received her first paid writing assignment in 1989 — covering a Natalie Cole concert for ten cents per word. By 1994 she had been named editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, making her the first woman to helm a national music magazine. A few years later she moved on to become an editor-at-large at Time, Inc, and editor at Billboard, The Root and ESPN’s The Undefeated.
That swift rise was at times scalding. Smith battled racism and sexism in multiple professional settings. “I hadn’t gone to NYU, or Columbia, or Brown,” she writes. “In fact, I had no college degree. I was unmoved by Basquiat. I did not view New York City as the center of the cultural universe. I could feel the energy, though, of fools feeling I was an inch too East Oakland, years before I was told.”
Music served then, as it has most of her life, as a balm; she came to lean even heavier into the beats and lyrics of her favorite artists. As a child, she dwelt in the shadow of her alcoholic stepfather, whose cruelty might have inadvertently pushed the young creative into a career as a writer.
Smith recalls an incident in sixth grade where her stepfather ripped out pages of her diary and burned them, angry that she had been writing about him. “You want to write something?” he dared her, pointing at a window. “Describe the fucking sunlight.”
This story is tucked into her chapter on Gladys Knight, who also navigated abusive men to achieve success. The chapters read like mini magazine profiles, with Smith inserting her story organically, an approach that might not have been tolerated at Billboard. At times, it can be a little disorienting (wait, what year was the interview with Janet?). But the richness is in the details — Smith dug up what sandwiches Gladys Knight ate at her tenth birthday party.
Smith shares that she was driven to create a more complete, truthful record: “What if no one ever gets [Black women] right? What if our spirits and stories are never truly known? It could so easily be that we — except for our songs, our art, our children — were never here at all.”
“Shine Bright” puts light on some of the complex Black women who make the immortal American music. By including herself, she helps readers understand why.
The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 87th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2022 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:
Percival Everett, “The Trees,” Fiction
Donika Kelly,“The Renunciations,” Poetry
George Makari, “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia,” Nonfiction
Tiya Miles,“All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake,”Nonfiction
Ishmael Reed, Lifetime Achievement
All five members of the Anisfield-Wolf jury — chair Henry Louis Gates Jr, poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, historian Simon Schama and psychologist Steven Pinker — salute the new class in the video below.
ABOUT OUR WINNERS
Percival Everett is an experimental writer of novels, short stories and poetry. “The Trees” opens as a comic story in Money, Miss. before morphing into a metaphysical commentary on lynching, racism and police brutality – a mystery tied to the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till. “This is a wickedly clever novel of ideas in the guise of genre fiction, a combination of mystery, thriller, police procedural and absurdist comedy,” said Anisfield-Wolf Juror Joyce Carol Oates. Read more…
Donika Kelly graduated from Southern Arkansas University and went on to earn her MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers and a doctorate in English from Vanderbilt University. Her first book of poetry, “Bestiary,” won the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award. “The Renunciations” responds to her childhood trauma and exists in part to recast its meanings. It also speaks to a wife and lover exiting the speaker’s life. Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove lauded these poems: “Several mini-sequences are woven throughout; their periodic reappearance – the “Dear –” erasures, Self-Portraits, Sightings, Oracles – acts as a subtle yet devastating reminder of the cycle of violence. I returned to Kelly’s book, and she set me gasping anew. This is poetry of the highest order.” Read more…
George Makari is an historian, psychoanalyst, and psychiatrist whose “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia” was a Bloomberg Best Nonfiction Book of 2021. The text is a riveting investigation into the history of an idea, xenophobia, which was declared the 2016 word of the year by Dictionary.com. The word, unlike antisemitism and racism, puts the emphasis on the perpetrator — not the victim — of these irrational fears, bigoted hatreds, and indefensible acts. “We see countless books that consider instances of racism,” Anisfield-Wolf Juror Steven Pinker notes. “Very few seek to understand it as a phenomenon to be studied and analyzed. ‘Of Fear and Strangers’ does that, free of cliché and jargon.” Read more...
Tiya Miles is a public historian who wrote the 2021 National Book Award-winning “All That She Carried” after learning about a plain cotton sack discovered at a flea market near Nashville. “All That She Carried” traces the history of three women, Rose, her daughter, Ashley, and her great-granddaughter, Ruth, who embroidered 10 lines of their matrilineal story of coming out of slavery on the sack. “I found it enormously illuminating, incredibly moving – it made me think in fresh ways about this long and difficult and challenging history,” writes Anisfield-Wolf juror Simon Schama. Read more…
Ishmael Reed — a poet, novelist, playwright, lyricist, cartoonist, musician and founder of small presses and publications — has remade literature. He has done so across six decades with satire, curiosity, teaching and an increasingly global reach. Known as “Uncle Ish” to his many admirers, the 1998 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient remains a fierce critic of the tokenism of multi-cultural artists and of establishment media. The New Yorker magazine positioned Reed in 2021 as “a canonical author of the 20th century and an underground voice of the 21st.”
“Reed is one of the most extraordinary and fearless authors in the great tradition of American satire. He is also, without question, the godfather of Black postmodernism, and one of the most continuously innovative and prolific writers at work today,” said Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. Reed serves as a distinguished professor at California College of the Arts. Read more…
Look for interviews with the class of 2022 in the upcoming season of The Asterisk*, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards podcast.
A 2014 road trip to a North Carolina brewery sparked the idea for Aaron Hosé’s film, “One Pint at a Time.” The documentary will screen twice at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April.
The Florida-based filmmaker and his wife/producing partner Brigitte took a weekend trip to Asheville, where the couple fell in love with craft beer. (Farmer Ted’s Cream Ale from Catawba Brewing Company was the specific brew that lit the flame.) But as the Hosés continued to explore their new shared passion over the following year, the director noticed something felt amiss.
“When you consider the amount of people of color who are beer consumers, that makes up one third of the consumer market, yet you have less than one percent of Black people who own breweries, that doesn’t seem to make sense,” Hosé said in a phone interview. “That was the jumping off point for me to make the film about the Black experience in craft beer.”
Over the course of four years, Hosé and his team followed three Black-owned brewing companies as they perfect their recipes, hunt for brick-and-mortar locations, and expand their brew into new territories.
“I like being as observational as I can,” Hosé said. “You’re actually filming people’s lives as they grow. They’re evolving as human beings and professionals. You want to be open to sticking it out as long as it takes.”
Hosé swept the country, traveling from New Haven, Connecticut, where dance instructor Alisa Bowens-Mercado launched Rhythm Brewing Co., to Tampa, Florida, where Huston Lett co-founded Bastet Brewing, named after the Egyptian cat goddess.
Hosé interspersed the journey of the brewers with beer industry experts, who discuss the beverage’s African origins.
One standout is the crew behind Cajun Fire, a brewery attempting to set roots in New Orleans East. Founder Jon Renthrope started dabbling in craft beer after Hurricane Katrina and after founding his company in 2011, is still working on a physical location. The company’s plans to build a cultural hub — an on-site brewery with space for a community garden, event space and cultural museum — have been met with resistance, with neighbors lobbying for a change in local codes to prevent the brewery from being built.
While the challenges accumulate, the wins get camera time as well. It’s incredibly satisfying to watch Lett mingle with customers in his own brewery after seeing him begin the film in his garage.
For Hosé, the progress is the point. His goal is for viewers to question their own habits: Are there local brewers they could support?
“Look around and investigate,” Hosé said. “Show them some love. That’s one of the ways we’ll move the needle in the right direction.”
Watch “One Pint at a Time’‘ Friday, April 1 at 5:05 pm or Saturday, April 2 at 12:05 pm. Tickets are $14 for film festival members; $16 for others. Moviegoers can receive a $1 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: AWBA. This film is the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community match for 2022.
For most of her childhood, professor Daisy Hernández, believed her aunt Dora Capunay Sosa died from eating a contaminated apple. It wasn’t until adulthood that she understood the disease that killed her aunt and ten thousand others each year: chagas.
Hernández tells her aunt’s story in “The Kissing Bug,” an intimate, meticulous investigation into an illness that disproportionately affects the Latinx community.
Chagas, named after the Brazilian doctor who described it in 1909, is similar to Lyme disease in that it is not the insect itself that harms the heart and digestive system, but the parasite it carries. These triatomine bugs or “kissing bugs” are found in warm, rural regions, flourishing in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America and South America.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates nearly 300,000 people in the U.S. live with the parasitic infection, nearly all of them immigrants. Another six million carry it outside these borders. But it’s infuriatingly unpredictable — after decades of study, doctors still can’t pinpoint which patients will develop life-threatening symptoms.
In the opening chapter, Hernández, a Miami University professor, explains that the parasite can live in the body undetected for decades, “quietly interrupting the electric currents of the heart, devouring the heart muscle, leaving behind pockets where once healthy tissue existed.”
In some cases, like her Aunt Dora, it will also attack the digestive system. After an exploratory surgery in Colombia, doctors told Hernández’ family that Dora’s large intestine had grown to the point she “had enough for 10 people.”
“This could have easily been a 700-page book,” Hernández said, speaking to an attentive audience at Hiram College in late March. She spent seven years researching not only her family history but crisscrossing the country to find patients and doctors to speak on the history of this little-understood, marginalized disease.
“It is really challenging because you have to not only find a patient but find a patient willing to spend hours with you,” Hernández said. “And in my case, I wanted to interview them over the course of several years.”
One patient, Carlos, slept next to a stack of overdue bills from mounting medical costs, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with his three brothers. Hernández met him as a patient whose heart had been decimated by the disease; she later served as his interpreter at an appointment following a successful heart transplant.
“The Kissing Bug” is Hernández’ third book, after serving as co-editor of 2002’s “Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism” and releasing her memoir “A Cup of Water Under My Bed” in 2014.
“The continuity for me has been Latinx communities and intersectionality and racial justice issues,” she noted.
Hernández quoted a piece of advice from writer Cherrie Moraga: “Some of us have to write the memoir first because we have to clear everything out so a different story can come through. I definitely felt that way with ‘A Cup of Water.’ A memoir of growing up with this immigrant family, with being queer, of having an alcoholic parent, really difficult dynamics, being the first in my family to go to college and have that experience in the U.S….I needed to write all of those stories so I could have space for other stories. I could not have written this book before my memoir.”
Hernández shared that a deleted chapter on America’s link between citizenship and access to health care might find its way into her next book: “Don’t hold me to that, if seven years from now you see me with a very different book,” she joked.
Early this year, Hernández became the first Latina to win the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, which recognizes a book for its originality, merit, and impact, and for breaking “new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence.”
What connects American Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet across 400 years to rapper Cardi B? The answer, for Lillian Faderman, is the concept of womanhood, as she explores in her sharp, scrupulously-researched new book, “Woman: The American History of an Idea.”
Faderman, a professor emerita at California State University, Fresno, draws a line across 500 pages between the two icons. And she brings the same exhilarating vigor found in her 2015 book, “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle.” It earned the Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction prize the following year.
“Woman” began in questions that Faderman’s adolescence posed to her. Born in 1940, the author recalls her junior high school classmates with their “short, tight skirts and see-through nylon blouses” in open rebellion against the mid-century television norms of women like Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver.
The most unruly ones ended up at the Ventura School for Girls, where they were sent to charm classes and church services meant to “reform the girls by inculcating in them the dominant culture’s ideal of womanhood.” This book wonders “how, when and why had that ideal of woman been created.”
Faderman wastes no time sharing who created the ideal: “For centuries, the men with the megaphones did not simply describe ‘woman,’ they prescribed who she must be. They left out of their prescription those who were beneath their concern.”
Faderman begins in the 17th century, exploring the Puritanical influences on white women in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the tyranny Black women faced on forced-labor estates in the Deep South, alongside the leadership some Indigenous women assumed in their nations. The scholar shifts her lens masterfully throughout the book, contrasting the experiences of privileged women with those disenfranchised. A standout is her chapter on women in higher education, full of nuggets such as the fact that Spelman College was named after Laura Spelman Rockefeller, Ohio abolitionist and wife of John D. Rockefeller.
Finalized over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, “Woman” touches on its still-unfolding effects on women’s economic agency. “The pandemic forced a recognition of how tenuous the expansion of women’s lives beyond the bounds of domesticity might be,” Faderman writes, noting the number of daycare centers that had shuttered. “Women can move out into the world only if they are childless or if their young children can be watched over.”
“Woman” closes with an examination of the ways womanhood has morphed within the last 20 years, touching on the expansion of gender identity among Gen Z and the ascent of Vice President Kamala Harris. There is no tidy conclusion.
Perhaps that’s the point, as Faderman writes in the epilogue: “It remains to be seen whether ‘woman’ will always be the default concept that takes hold in times of duress or whether ideas of ‘woman’ have now mutated so completely that there will never be a long return to the prison of gender.”
Readers rooting for the latter would do well to take up this book.
The title is a French word for a music that hovers between song and ordinary speech.
In the story, Roberta and Twyla are roommates at a shelter for orphaned or otherwise homeless youth. Their lives unfold over the next 40 pages. Morrison is opaque about which girl is Black and which is white, but sprinkles details: they’re both poor, one has a sick mother, the other’s mother is a woman who “dances all night.”
The girls meet again and again as they grow up, begin families and continue to hold on to memories of their four months together at the shelter.
The short story published in a 1983 collection called “Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women.” Morrison wrote in 1992 that her goal was to craft “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”
The result is uncomfortable, as Morrison surfaces her readers’ impulse to scan each page, each bit of dialogue, for a racial clue. Just when you think you’ve settled on an answer (Twyla’s white, you assert confidently), another paragraph makes you double back.
Even knowing Morrison’s aim, it’s difficult to detach from our deep socialization. Race matters, we know it matters, and to remove it feels like our roadmap has been snatched. We’re driving blind.
Smith notes this conundrum in the introduction: “If race is a construct, whither blackness? If whiteness is an illusion, on what else can a poor man without prospects pride himself? I think a lot of people’s brains actually break at this point. But Morrison had a bigger brain.”
The women collide into each other on scenarios that give readers space to examine their own biases. Is the waitress more likely to be black? What about the mother protesting school integration? Who would be more likely to be on their way to see Jimi Hendrix? Part of the fun is recognizing where bias falls short and commonality emerges.
“Morrison constructs the story in such a way that we are forced to admit the fact that other categories, aside from the racial, also produce shared experiences,” Smith concludes. “Categories like being poor, being female, like being at the mercy of the state or the police, like living in a certain zip code, having children, hating your mother, wanting the best for your family. We are like and not like a lot of people a lot of the time.”
Startling that what was true in 1983 feels fresh almost 40 years later.
In a career spanning nearly 60 years and encompassing over 40 publications, Samuel R. Delany has written memoirs, novels, literary criticism, and personal essays. But he is most frequently cited as a foundational figure in the genre of science fiction for sweeping, dystopian tales like 1975’s “Dhalgren” and inventive, interstellar fantasies like “Babel-17,” published in 1966.
But Delany, known to his friends as Chip — a nickname he gave himself as a child in summer camp — is also a fearless pioneer of gay literature. His memoir, “The Motion of Light in Water,” reveals a life that ran counter to the mainstream culture of the 1960s, including a string of homosexual relationships, during his 19-year marriage to poet Marilyn Hacker.
Science fiction allows space for transgressive worlds in ways that realist genres may not. Look at his Triton, a society on Neptune’s moon free of sexual and gender normativity, or the post-apocalyptic world of the Fall of the Towers trilogy, which is set far in a future in which distinguishing races based on melanin is impossible.
For creating fantastic new worlds that invite us to better reckon with the real ones in which we find ourselves, Samuel R. Delany is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Set in a fictional New York City public housing project in 1969, “Deacon King Kong” begins with a shooting. But former journalist James McBride’s tragicomic novel is not a whodunit but rather a whydunit.
Written with warmth and tenderness, McBride infuses each of his characters with intricate backstories that humanize and intertwine them — from the old, bumbling church deacon who pulled the trigger, to the feared, but talented, young drug dealer he shot, from Italian mobsters to Irish cops to black church ladies. This is not a story of urban isolation but rather of connected and human cacophony.
As he did in his memoir, “The Color of Water” (which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for non-fiction in 1997), McBride again richly imagines the love, violence, and everything in between that forge a community.
For his multilayered and generative understanding of the multitudes of humanity, James McBride is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction.
Born in Mississippi on Confederate Memorial Day in 1966, Natasha Trethewey’s existence was the result of an interracial marriage, still illegal in the state at the time of her birth. In richly poetic prose, the former US Poet Laureate captures the collective trauma evinced by growing up Black in a society where Black lives matter most as a bolster to white supremacy.
But “Memorial Drive” is also the powerful story of personal tragedy: the murder of her mother in 1985, at the hands of her abusive ex-husband. Trethewey blends her own self-reflection with her mother’s concrete and straightforward account of violence, reproduced from the police record. A portrait of the writer emerges from the transcription of her mother’s voice.
For turning wounds into words that memorialize a life both trapped by and transcendent of its circumstances, Natasha Trethewey is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction.
In “Obit,” poet Victoria Chang prefers the stark, objective language of the journalistic obituary form to the elegy, overflowing with sorrowful and often florid language.
The immediate spark for these poems was her mother’s death in 2015. But Chang’s obituaries memorialize not just people but also lost things—appetite, language, control. Printed in narrow columns as if clipped from a newspaper, these pieces are interspersed with shorter pieces, giving multiple forms to a single voice’s expression of loss.
For giving strikingly original language to the universal experience of grief, in a year in which too many lives have been lost, Victoria Chang is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Poetry.
We’re all too familiar with the recitation of Black history—both in the US and globally—as an unrelenting catalog of sorrow and loss: slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality and other structural racisms. But in “Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War,” historian Vincent Brown presents a different, far more nuanced story, detailing the strategic, political revolt orchestrated by enslaved West Africans in Jamaica in the 18th century.
Even in the dire world of Caribbean slavery, Brown reminds us that Black people were actors in their own story. Brown meticulously plumbs the archive to split open the received British wisdom about the revolt, to represent the enslaved as engineers of a revolt that, though “put down,” in fact destablilized the institution of Atlantic slavery and propelled it toward its eventual abolition.
For rewriting the traditional telling of a brutal era of history, Vincent Brown is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction.
Pittsburgh fiction writer Deesha Philyaw dedicated her award-winning short story collection to her daughters “and for everyone trying to get free.”
That search for freedom marinates each of the nine narratives in “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” named in 2020 a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of The Story Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award.
“I started off writing novels about dissatisfied women,” she said of her earliest drafts. “The early characters were church ladies but I didn’t think of them that way. They were simply women conjured from my memory, and I drew them into my imagination.”
In “Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” the stories are delightfully sexy and compelling. In one, a covert love affair between a pastor and a member of his congregation spans a decade and many, many pans of peach cobbler. In another, a reluctant art teacher finds herself entangled with a scientist. Closing the book is a daughter who finds herself struggling to care for a mother with dementia, who is fixated on the lead singer of The O’Jays.
Writing started as a creative escape for the self-described “stay at home mom with a toddler who never napped.” Philyaw began pouring out short stories and longer fiction pieces, but after her first divorce, she switched to more lucrative avenues — freelancing for magazines, consulting for nonprofits and governmental agencies and teaching at a local college, often at the same time.
Early on, she got advice from a mentor that transformed her view on publishing. “Your growth as a writer is more important than getting published,” she remembers being told. “All of us write terrible first drafts. When you stop resisting revision and welcome it as the only way to make your drafts less terrible, you’re growing as a writer.”
Pittsburgh essayist Damon Young, author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” introduced Philyaw at the conference. He described his friend as a literary Stephen Curry. “She gets better every year,” Young said. “Deesha is an example of how mastery isn’t a static dynamic. It’s a living and breathing process. Mastery involves work.”
That camaraderie between Philyaw and Young extends to a bevy of writers in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. “We are intentionally in community with each other,” she said, noting the famous falling out between Harlem Renaissance contemporaries Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. “It’s individual writers deciding to be good kinfolk to each other and abandoning the scarcity mindset that says ‘There can only be one.'”
Among the Church Ladies’ fanbase is actress and producer Tessa Thompson, who is adapting the collection for a series on HBOMax. Philyaw is scripting the series with co-writer Tori Sampson: “I want to be able to answer all of the burning questions [about these characters] but add some new complications as well.”
As she closed, Philyaw pushed back on an “age ceiling” in publishing. “I was 49 when ‘Church Ladies’ came out. It took me 20 years to get here. While it may have happened sooner, I’m glad I didn’t rush to publish a book that I didn’t love. But I feel I published the best book I could because I had been growing as a writer over these twenty years. I’m glad I didn’t give up when it got hard.”
Join the Ursuline College community for an afternoon conversation with former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, winner of the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction.
Her memoir, “Memorial Drive,” explores her mother’s life and death and the abiding tie between the two women. Trethewey writes of how her mother came to die at the hands of a former husband when the author was 19, as well as the Mississippi context that formed and informed both women.
“When my backstory was written, my mother entered it only as a footnote, or an afterthought – as simply a ‘victim’ or ‘murdered woman,’” Trethewey told the New Yorker. “It really hurt me because her role in my life, in me becoming a writer, was being diminished or erased. I just decided that if she was going to get mentioned then I was going to be the one to tell her story, and to put the important role she played in my making in its proper context.”
Ursuline English Chair Katharine Trostel participated in the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative summer session on teaching “Memorial Drive,” and brought the idea of a campus read of Trethewey’s new classic back to her liberal arts college. Administration and faculty agreed it was an ideal text, especially during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Hear Trethewey share the story of “Memorial Drive” October 28. This virtual event is open to the public, and registration is required.
This year’s virtual showcase – expanded beyond its usual timeframe – celebrated present and past Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (AWBA) winners over its distinguished 86-year history.
2021 Awards Documentary
Enjoy this reimagined ceremony-turned-documentary hosted by Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr., featuring an intimate portrait of our 2021 winners.
As part of the CIFF Streams + AWBA film selections, viewers can enjoy an additional Q&A with the producers of this year’s documentary.
A Conversation with Mira Jacob
In Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir “Good Talk,” her half-Jewish, half-Indian son, Z, has questions about everything, like many six-year-olds. At first the questions are innocuous enough, but as tensions from the 2016 election spread from the media into his own family, they become much, much more complicated.
AWBA + CIFF Streams
Viewers had the opportunity to stream seven free Cleveland International Film Festival features, including the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards documentary, and two short film programs. Each film was coupled with an in-depth interview with the people behind the lens, hosted by Cleveland State University Professor Eric Siler.
Writers Center Stage: Richard Powers
Award-winning author Richard Powers is known for writing novels that explore modern science and technology. His best-selling novel “The Overstory” (2019) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His latest novel, “Bewilderment,” will be released in September 2021.
Ayana Grey and “Beasts of Prey”
The author of this much-anticipated young adult series opener met with attendees in the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Rainforest. In “Beasts of Prey,” fate binds two Black teenagers as they strike a dangerous alliance to hunt down the creature menacing their home—and uncover ancient deadly secrets.
Award-winning novelist Deesha Philyaw (“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”) headlined this multi-day writers’ conference, now in its fourth year.