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.
Mary Fecteau is a senior producer at Ideastream Public Media and director of the 2020 and 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards documentaries. Below, she reflects on the experience of working with the awards staff to pivot from an in-person ceremony to documentary in order to celebrate past two Anisfield-Wolf award classes.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, many of the events I expected to cover as a senior producer for Ideastream Public Media dried up.
Meanwhile across Euclid Avenue, Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, was weighing what to do about the 2020 ceremony. For years, the in-person event brought a crowd of book lovers to Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. But in a year like 2020, she had to get creative. Together, we created an Emmy Award-winning documentary, which was distributed nationally on PBS.
Well, 2021 has turned out to be just as unpredictable as last year, and we were determined to make something just as memorable. After all, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has been a Cleveland tradition for 86 years.
It’s been cited as Cleveland’s best kept literary secret. Founded by visionary philanthropist and poet Edith Anisfield-Wolf in 1935, it has the distinction of being the only American book award designed specifically to recognize works addressing issues of diversity, race and our appreciation of human cultures.
Although many Clevelanders haven’t heard of it, it’s a big deal in the literary world. So frequently is it awarded to African American luminaries, it’s often referred to as “the Black Pulitzer.” Past winners include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison.
This year’s honorees are a fitting addition to that illustrious winners circle: Victoria Chang for “Obit,” her haunting book of poems; historian Vincent Brown for “Tacky’s Revolt,” a rewriting from the ground up of an episode in the Atlantic slave trade; Natasha Trethewey for “Memorial Drive,” a memoir at once clear-eyed and heartrending; James McBride, for his vibrant work of fiction “Deacon King Kong”; and Samuel R. Delany, the lifetime achievement honoree, for his robust, fearless, and genre-spanning body of work, which includes science fiction novels, memoirs and essays.
My colleague, Shelli Reeves, and I spent our summer filming with these brilliant writers in their hometowns. We perused the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Samuel Delany (he’s partial to the Cézannes), crashed James McBride’s band practice at his Brooklyn church, and dug through police records with Natasha Trethewey (some of which served as source material for her memoir).
Our goal was to create an experience for the viewer that is as moving and inspiring as the in-person Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, but it’s also a rare glimpse of writers at the top of their craft, recounting their process. And, of course, it’s once again hosted by the magnetic Henry Louis Gates Jr.
You can watch it September 14 at 9 p.m. on WVIZ/PBS or online. Get a short taste below:
Cleveland Book Week features a one-hour documentary with historian Vincent Brown, poet Victoria Chang, memoirist Natasha Trethewey, novelist James McBride, and lifetime achievement recipient Samuel R. Delany. Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosts.
“The 2021 documentary is intimate, crisp and time well spent with five beautiful minds,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “For viewers who loved last year’s documentary, this second installment is glorious. It both renews and challenges the ways we see the world.”
Stream the documentary via the above video at any time.
Journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson, an authority on the Great Migration and the anthropology of caste, will anchor the Cleveland Foundation’s annual meeting with a keynote conversation Monday, August 23. Guests can register to hear Wilkerson at 7 p.m. here.
Sixty-one years after the writer was born in Washington, D.C., Wilkerson has observations worth attending: about why India and the United States have proven especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, about the traces of caste detectable in this year’s summer Olympics and how she thinks about the January 6 insurrectionists carrying the Confederate flag into the Capital.
“The freedom to be able to decide for oneself what to do with your God-given talents is a very new phenomenon for African-Americans in this country,” Wilkerson observed in 2015 on a visit to Cleveland. She asked her audience to ponder all the wasted human potential through 12 generations of slavery on American soil.
Wilkerson sees these times of pandemic and reckoning as a signal moment to live up to what Martin Luther King Jr. called the citizenry to do, another chance to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.”
The writer will join Daniel Gray-Kontar, founder of Twelve Literary Arts, in a discussion of what Clevelanders might do now.
By Lisa Nielson
Almost 90 years ago, two women quietly cooked up what is to this day the only juried literary prize addressing racism in the United States.
Edith Anisfield Wolf was born to privilege in 1889, but rather than living the comfortable life of a wealthy, educated woman, she dedicated her life to philanthropy and books. That choice stems from her family legacy.
When Edith was 12, her father called her into his office to ask her to help him best decide how to use the family wealth to help the community. Together, that’s exactly what they did. Her father, John Anisfield (1860-1929), immigrated from what is now Krakow, Poland, in 1876 at age 16. With the help of family and friends, he began working in Cleveland’s textile industry, eventually owning his own company, and later expanding into real estate.
A philanthropist and bridge builder, he quietly and effectively helped found Mt. Sinai Hospital and started Camp Anisfield. Edith and her father also faced tragedy. In 1901, Edith’s 9-year-old sister, Lizzie, died of pneumonia, followed by her mother, Daniella, a year later.
Edith graduated from East High and attended Mather College briefly but never finished. She married Cleveland lawyer Eugene Wolf (1884-1944) in 1918, and together they ran the family businesses after her father’s death. Edith was a poet, self-publishing five chapbooks and contributing poems to the Plain Dealer, a member of the Cleveland branch of the Pen Women Society and was unanimously elected to serve on the board of the Cleveland Public Library in 1943.
After talking with her friend, Amy Loveman, about how best to honor the legacy and memory of her father, Mrs. Wolf started the John Anisfield Prize in 1935, later the Anisfield-Wolf prize in honor of her husband Eugene.
She endowed the Anisfield-Wolf Community Prize, which has been administered by the Cleveland Welfare Federation (now the Center for Community Solutions) each year since her death in 1963. Edith left her books to the Cleveland Public Library, three paintings and other art pieces to the Cleveland Museum of Art, and her house on East Boulevard to the Welfare Federation.
In 1964, the Edith Anisfield Wolf Fund at the Cleveland Foundation provided a third of the funding to endow the Abba Hillel Silver Professorship in Judaic Studies at what is now Case Western Reserve University. It also awarded $30,000 to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1970 to start an archive dedicated to Black history in Cleveland, the first such archive in the country.
Mrs. Wolf loved to garden, experiment with unusual recipes, and apparently was a fine pianist. Given that her father was fluent in German and Yiddish, she herself likely spoke both languages, in addition to French and Spanish. The list of books she donated to the Cleveland Public library indicates she (and her father) had wide ranging interests in history, philosophy, and languages.
From what thin correspondence remains from her, it seems she was an intensely private person and a woman of few words. Her handwritten notes are succinct, to the point, and written on the old-fashioned, thick-stocked note cards. Mrs. Wolf even refused to be involved in the prize she founded: “Mrs. Wolf made a great point of disassociating herself from the actual judging of the awards. She even refused to attend the annual awards ceremonies, on the grounds that she might seem to be putting herself forward too much.”
For all her reticence, however, her presence is felt. The Plain Dealer described her as a shrewd businesswoman who can spot a “phony” from a distance. References to her are invariably respectful, calling her “Mrs. Wolf” – a designation she herself preferred. On her election to the board of the library, the July 14, 1943 announcement in the Plain Dealer reported, “Mrs. Wolf is by nature conciliatory and soft spoken, but she manages to have her way.”
If you want to visit her remains, go to Knollwood Mausoleum in Mayfield Village, Ohio. She is in crypt #321. To visit the Anisfield and Wolf families, go to the Mayfield Cemetery in Cleveland Heights. You’ll find the Anisfields in the Mayfield Mausoleum and the Wolf family is close by.
Traces of Amy Loveman’s friendship with Edith can be glimpsed through random articles and off-the-cuff references. Given their mutual love of books, and Loveman’s importance as an editor and reviewer, their bond makes perfect sense.
Born in 1881, Loveman came from a literary family in New York City. Her maternal grandfather was the son of a rabbi. A linguist, encyclopedist and outspoken anti-slavery advocate, he wrote for The Nation. Her father emigrated from Hungary in 1850 and was a cotton broker who spoke six languages. Perhaps that is how the Anisfields and Lovemans became acquainted?
Loveman received her BA from Barnard in 1901; interestingly, she took no literature classes because she knew her love of reading would never end. In her first job, she worked for an uncle who was revising The New International Encyclopedia. She went to New York Evening Post, and became first a book reviewer, then later associate editor of the Post’s Literary Supplement, which she helped found in 1920.
In 1924, Loveman left with several colleagues to found a literary magazine, The Saturday Review, where she worked for the next 30 years. The masthead listed her as an associate editor and she wrote nearly 800 book reviews, editorials, and answers to questions from readers. In 1950, she became the poetry editor.
Despite being a poetry critic, (and culling 98% of submissions) she never wrote poetry herself: “I wouldn’t dare to,” she said, “knowing how well supplied the world already is with bad verse.”
Loveman edited, proofed, and mocked up Saturday Review editions, answered correspondence, and kept her male colleagues organized. She even rescued the paper on several occasions by locating missing items. Once she traveled to the dump to rummage in the trash to locate a missing photo. On another occasion, she and editor Norman Cousins spent hours frantically searching the warehouse for a missing manuscript to avoid legal repercussions. They found it behind a desk in the offices and the threatened lawsuit was dropped.
Along with the Saturday Review, Loveman was vital to the Book-of-the-Month club. She joined the reading committee in 1926 shortly after it was founded, then later became head of the editorial department in 1938, eventually joining the board of judges in 1951. Colleagues describe her as an optimist, kind, an elegant writer who adored Jane Austen, and corresponded with every great writer at the time. She was widely respected, to the degree that when her colleagues tried to throw a small surprise party to recognize her contributions to literary endeavors in June 1942, so many people wanted to attend, they had to rent a ballroom.
Loveman received the Columbia University Medal for Excellence and the Constance Lindsay Skinner Achievement Award of the Women’s National Book Association in 1946. Wheaton and Wilson colleges awarded her honorary Litt.D degrees in 1950. Amy served on the Anisfield Wolf jury in the 1940s.
On her death in 1955, Norman Cousins penned a lengthy obituary for the Saturday Review, and in 1956, published a 21-page eulogy with Overbrook Press. In his magazine obituary, Cousins wrote, “Amy Loveman was less cluttered emotionally than any person I have ever known. Her nobility was a universe: and to know it was to soar inside it.”
Lisa Nielson is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studies, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.
Hurricane Maria scythed more than 3,000 souls on Puerto Rico, according to the official death toll. Among that number was “Landfall” director Cecilia Aldarondo’s grandmother, who died in the aftermath of the 2017 storm.
The assessment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency found nearly every building in Puerto Rico damaged, and parts of the island stayed dark for almost two years without power.
Aldrarondo bristled at the “unsatisfying” media coverage, glib reports that she believes glossed over the anemic government response and Puerto Rico’s longstanding economic woes.
She got to work on a film that would concentrate on what residents did to save themselves.
“This is a film that’s not so much about a hurricane as it is about aftermath,” Aldarondo told Deadline. “It’s about how we pick up the pieces in the wake of these kinds of seismic watershed events.”
Aldarondo’s documentary focuses on citizens who banded together to create their own recovery plan. In one scene, locals explain how they broke the lock on a damaged school building and turned it into a community center and emergency housing.
“The hurricane has brought us toward a system where the common denominator is the common good,” one resident said.
The 90-minute film also tells history through archival footage, pulling back the curtain on years of economic destabilization and exploitation from hungry U.S. investors.
“Landfall” has made a splash on the festival circuit, winning the Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC’s Viewfinders competition, and nabbing Best Documentary at four others.
“People in Puerto Rico have been engaged in really extraordinary acts of solidarity and recovery precisely in the wake of that kind of abandonment by the federal and local governments,” Aldarondo noted in the Deadline interview. “There’s a really quite instructive case study of communities caring for one another when their institutions fail them. I wanted people in Puerto Rico to not be seen as victims but as leaders, as global leaders, in a way that I think colonized people very rarely get to be.”
Watch the trailer below:
Watch “Landfall” during Cleveland International Film Festival’s CIFF45 Streams, where you can view the documentary from the comfort of your home for $9 with discount code AWBA. CIFF45 Streams ends April 20. This film is the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community match for 2021.
The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 86th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2021 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:
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 above.
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners bring us fresh insights on race and the human condition,” said Gates Jr. “This year, we honor a brilliant military history, a breakout poetry collection that wrestles with mortality, a novel bursting with love and trouble centered around a Brooklyn church, and a memoir by a daughter reclaiming her mother’s story. All of which is capped by the lifetime achievement of Samuel R. Delany, who has broadened our humanity and sharpened our minds through his groundbreaking science fiction.”
About Our Winners
Vincent Brown is an innovative scholar who combines impeccable historical research with innovative mapping and visual tools. He is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. “Tacky’s Revolt” is a groundbreaking investigation into the roots, combatants, cartography and reverberations of the largest slave revolt in the 18th Century British Atlantic world. Read more…
Victoria Chang is a celebrated poet, children’s book author and professor who grew up in Detroit and now lives with her family in Los Angeles. Her first two degrees, from the University of Michigan and Harvard University, are in Asian Studies, then she earned an MBA at Stanford University. Restless in the financial sector, Chang earned an MFA at Warren Wilson College and now serves on Antioch University’s faculty. In “Obit,” she distilled her grief after her mother died into a series of prose poems, structured like obituaries, for all she had lost in the world. Read more…
Samuel R. Delany is a pioneer of gay literature and a science fiction icon, as comfortable at academic conferences as he is at comic book conventions. His gifts as a novelist and critic put him on the creative writing faculties of the University of Massachusetts and Temple University. Born in New York City, Delany had won four Nebula Awards and a Hugo prize by the time he was 27. The Lambda Literary Report named him one of the 50 most important people in changing the culture’s view of gayness over a half century. His books include the novels “Babel-17,” “The Einstein Intersection,” “Dhalgren” and the memoir “The Motion of Light in Water. Read more…
James McBride is the first Anisfield-Wolf winner in nonfiction, for “The Color of Water,” to be honored in fiction. A celebrated novelist, musician, composer, Spike Lee collaborator and a National Humanities Medalist, McBride was praised by Barack Obama for “displaying the character of the American family.” A fictionalized version of his parents’ Baptist church in Brooklyn, N.Y., anchors and animates “Deacon King Kong,” a rollicking tale set spinning in 1969 when an elderly, alcoholic deacon shoots off the ear of a notorious drug dealer. Read more…
Natasha Trethewey is a former U.S. Poet Laureate and a 2007 Pulitzer winner for “Native Guard,” who wrote “Memorial Drive” to reclaim her mother, born Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, from becoming a footnote to her daughter’s more prominent story. Born in Mississippi on Confederate Memorial Day to a Black mother and a white father, the poet explores how she embodies some of the Civil War’s persistent contradictions. “Memorial Drive” investigates the life and death of Turnbough, killed when her daughter was 19 by a man she had divorced. Read more…
Look for interviews with the class of 2021 in the upcoming season of The Asterisk*, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards podcast.
The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is proud to present The Asterisk*, a new podcast hosted by Karen R. Long, manager of the awards. An asterisk is a reference mark, indicating an omission. Each episode will delve into some of the holes in our knowledge about an esteemed AWBA winner.
“There is always more to learn from the individuals who win an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award,” Long said. “They continue to grow as artists and thinkers even as their reflections on our shared civic life are urgent and intriguing. Plus they are just cool people.”
Season 1 of The Asterisk* opens with Eric Foner, the 2020 lifetime achievement winner. In this episode, recorded January 7, Foner discusses the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, his marriage to a fellow historian and his place among the most influential American historians of the last half-century.
“When somebody told me that they had just seen the Confederate flag on TV being carried around the Capitol, my first reaction was ‘good,’” Foner told The Asterisk*. “These people are telling us exactly what they believe. You cannot beat around the bush. You cannot claim to be a patriot and display the Confederate flag. You cannot claim to believe in racial equality and display the Confederate flag.”
“Quiet as it is kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941 . . . Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year.”
These lines from the beginning of “The Bluest Eye” helped cast a spell and launch the writing career of Toni Morrison. The lake is Lake Erie, the gardens are in Lorain, Ohio, the hometown of a woman who elevated and altered the course of world literature.
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931, Morrison remade English literature as an editor, novelist, professor, essayist and cultural critic. Her 11 novels include “Beloved,” which won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. From the beginning, Morrison shrugged off the white gaze, creating worlds in which Black characters shone in their particular and universal complexity, beauty and pain.
In February, Bill 325 passed the Ohio House, then moved to the Senate for a subcommittee hearing.
“Seeing someone from our neighborhood rise to worldwide renown and recognition, including being the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a continual source of pride for all of us in the Lorain area,” testified Miller, whose district encompasses Lorain.
Howse also testified. “Her work stirred our souls, challenged our conscience to confront injustices, and encouraged the rest of the world to do the same,” she said. “She set the stage for an entire generation of authors to tell their untold stories and celebrate the beautiful diversity of humankind.”
More context came from Cheri Campbell, whose 30-year tenure at the Lorain County Public Library coincided with the dedication of the Toni Morrison Reading Room in 1995. She recounted the story in her House testimony:
“Upon her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1993, many in the community wanted to rename streets, rename the library system, among other ideas,” Campbell wrote. “When the community discussion reached Toni’s ears, she asked us to establish a reading room in her name that would – in her words – ‘be the one place available in the neighborhood with a quiet room and comfortable chairs.’ Our library had been where she spent many hours reading books, so that is what she wanted from us. And we gave it to her.”
Campbell said the Reading Room drew many visitors and scholars, curious about Morrison’s origins. “In my work, no matter where it’s set,’ “she once told an audience at Oberlin College, “‘the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie.’”
Dr. Marilyn Mobley, a founder of the Toni Morrison Society and professor of English and African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University, also wrote in favor of the bill. “It is only fitting,” she said, “that the state of Ohio recognizes all that Toni Morrison has given us through the power of her words, the persistence of her commitment to truth, and the unwavering passion she shared for the sanctity of the human spirit.”
House Bill No. 325 will have a second hearing in the Ohio Senate in December. If the bill passes the subcommittee, it will head to the full Ohio Senate for a vote.
Ohio residents wishing to send along letters of support for the bill can email Rep. Miller at Rep56@ohio.house.gov.
Fans of Rita Dove’s 2009 poetry collection “Sonata Mulattica”can dive into the story behind the poems in a new podcast produced by the Akron Symphony Orchestra, Unorchestrated.
Hosted by music director Christopher Wilkins and marketing director Tom Moore, the podcast premiered this month with a 14-episode deep dive into Dove’s collection. It explores the little-known history of George Bridgetower, a 19th century African-European violinist and his turbulent friendship with Ludwig van Beethoven.
Dove, who grew up in Akron and serves as an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards juror, plays the cello and viola da gamba. She drafted the poems after spotting Bridgewater in a background scene of “Immortal Beloved,” a 2003 Beethoven biopic. Dove paused the movie in her Virginia home, googled “black violinist Beethoven,” and let the brief paragraph of search results simmer in her mind.
“I couldn’t get rid of him,” Dove says in the first podcast episode. “I kept thinking of him. I kept doing as much research as I could. That curiosity led to me to write about him.”
In a 2009 New York Times interview, she mused on Bridgewater’s impact. “Here was the case of a man who made it into the history books, but barely,” she said. “And who would have been, if not a household word, a household word in the musical world. That flame was snuffed out.”
Dove recorded the episodes from her home in Charlottesville, where she is the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
The first two episodes — roughly 20 minutes each — are available now on most major podcast platforms.
Enjoy this reimagined ceremony turned documentary, streaming now. It is hosted by Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. and features a visit to the hometowns of historian Eric Foner, poet Ilya Kaminsky, scholar Charles King and novelist Namwali Serpell. (Runtime: 56 minutes)
Our slate of virtual programming during this year’s Cleveland Book Week means you have continued access, including our collaborations with the Cleveland International Film Festival, Western Reserve Historical Society, Global Cleveland, the City Club of Cleveland, and the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference. Dive into any programs you missed or rewatch your favorite sessions below.
2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Documentary
Hosted by Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr., this documentary features a visit to the hometowns of historian Eric Foner, poet Ilya Kaminsky, scholar Charles King and novelist Namwali Serpell.
CIFF Streams + ABWA
Viewers had the opportunity to stream free Cleveland International Film Festival documentaries, all with an Anisfield-Wolfian flavor. While the selections are no longer available to stream, the post-film conversations with the director and documentary subjects are. These conversations are hosted by Cleveland State University professor Eric Siler and feature captions and sign language interpreters.
Global Cleveland Sister Cities Conference
2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for fiction Namwali Serpell and Baldwin-Wallace University Professor Chisomo Selemani discussed “The Old Drift” and Zambia at this international gathering.
Ilya Kaminsky, winner of the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in poetry, discussed his art, his heritage, and his insight that disabilities can be “a political position for advocacy for us all,” in conversation with Alexandria M. Romanovich of Cuyahoga Community College.
Charles King in Conversation with Steven Pinker
A virtual conversation between Charles King, 2020 winner for nonfiction for “Gods of the Upper Air” and Anisfield-Wolf juror Steven Pinker, hosted by the Western Reserve Historical Society. Their discussion is preceded by a shorter one between Cleveland historians John Grabowski and Regennia Williams, who bring local context to King’s story of “how a circle of renegade anthropologists reinvented race, sex, and gender in the twentieth century.”
City Club of Cleveland: Eric Foner
2020 lifetime achievement award winner Eric Foner discussed his most recent book, “The Second Founding,” the Reconstruction Era, and the contemporary struggle for freedom and equality.
Great Lakes African American Writers Conference (GLAAW-C)
Award-winning novelist and playwright Pearl Cleage delivered the literary keynote for this writers’ conference, while noted agent Kima Jones from Los Angeles preceded with the professional keynote. Brandi Larsen, a former Penguin Random House executive, discussed engaging the big five publishers.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”