By Brandi Larsen
Isabel Allende has created a lifetime’s body of work full of essential reads.
“Violeta,” her latest novel, is no exception, out now from Ballantine. Written in her native Spanish and translated by Frances Riddle, she uses the story of one woman’s life to take the reader through communities, countries, conflicts, and continents.
Violeta Del Valle is the title character, a centenarian whose life is bookended by both pandemics. In the epistolary novel addressed to an essential character in Violeta’s life, the reader follows Violeta from her birth to her last moments, a witness to the last hundred years of upheaval. She was a child who could not be controlled, an “expert in a variety of afflictions,” who goes from mimicking her mother’s “eternal illness” to an eventual old woman who credits her own good health to living a life “proudly ignoring any and all ailments.”
Born in a mansion in Chile’s capital, Santiago, Violeta and her family are exiled from the only city she knows after a tragedy brought on by a combination of global politics and her father’s underhanded business dealings. She comes of age in the quiet Southern countryside, a setting that will become a center of atrocity, later, during the country’s bloody revolution. When her first husband won’t grant her a divorce, she’s devastated that she cannot marry her lover, the father of her two children.
But the estrangement from her husband, whose connections to cruelty lay deeper than expected, gives her the financial freedom to build a life connected to men without being controlled by them. It’s a life led in Chile and then all over the world — with scenes in Cuba, Miami, California, Norway — but one punctuated by grief, the high stakes of country and kin intertwined through the powerful personal narrative in which Allende excels. In one instance, at the height of the coup, Violeta asks her ex-lover, Julian Bravo, to use his military connections to smuggle their adult son out of the country; his sneer on whether he was successful—or helped at all—amplifies Violeta’s despair.
The novel is a heroine’s journey, feminine in its cyclical darkness, born of blood and smelling like death. Violeta navigates the underworld, filled with men who are criminals and kingpins, mobsters and militants, pilots and priests, Nazis and the occasional good guy.
But, remember, Violeta emphasizes to her reader, the good ones never win.
On this point, I disagree with the title character. In the relationships Violeta values the most, the characters choose right even when the odds don’t look good. What I love about Allende’s work is that she populates her books with people who are deeply affected by each other, yes, but also by the time in which they live and the groups whose values they uphold, by each character’s capacity to change against the backdrop of historic and systemic injustice designed to retain power. Violeta’s grandson is one example, the rebellious boy who nearly gets expelled from Catholic school and then, with the revolution all around him, becomes a Jesuit priest, modeled on the real-life Chilean hero, Felipe Berríos del Solar, to whom Allende co-dedicates the book.
Violeta is a complicated and imperfect narrator, a character neither free of sin, ambivalence, nor bile. As she explains in her first letter:
I imagine someday, when you are old and less busy, you might want to stop and remember me. You have a terrible memory since you’re always so distracted, and that defect gets worse with age. I think you’ll see that my life story is worthy of a novel, because of my sins more than my virtues. You have received many of my letters, where I’ve detailed much of my existence (minus the sins), but you must make good on your promise to burn them when I die, because they are overly sentimental and often cruel. This recounting of my life is meant to replace that excessive correspondence.
We see Violeta on both the wrong side of history and on the front lines of justice. I loved how her love changes her (in ways I didn’t expect), how her humor and her drive create a shield of resilience, and how she discovers, as she puts it, “courage is contagious and that there’s strength in numbers; what you can’t do on your own can be achieved together, the more the better.”
That courage comes not in the absence of death, but in a grief so deep even decades of “military machismo” cannot stamp it out. The threads of grief and death hold the novel taut, as in much of Allende’s best work.
“Violeta,” written in a time of deep communal grief, was also inspired by a personal one, the death of Allende’s mother, with whom she shared thousands of letters. Allende has walked more than her fair share of miles down the path of grief, and her experience shows. Violeta’s big moments rocked me, but it was the small ones that devastated me, a simple phrase like “I love you more than anyone in this world,” that made me long for my own late mother to untangle Allende’s themes together. Grief and motherhood, the choices we make that define us, who we’ve loved, how and where we’ve lived, and those we’ve left behind, all tango on the page in a way that cracked me open. In a way that allowed me to feel what I’ve mostly kept at bay during this pandemic time of solitude and isolation.
Maybe it’s because I cradled the book in bed, reading straight until dawn, but Allende’s words moved my nebulous feelings—floating somewhere in the periphery—directly into my center, the most intimate and rewarding reason that I read.
Brandi Larsen serves as the board president for Literary Cleveland and writes books and essays. She is the co-writer of UNCULTURED: A Memoir, forthcoming from St. Martin’s.
For a few days in June, I sat down in an old building at Case Western Reserve University among 20 scholars, activists and artists to unpack the new class of books honored by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
I spoke of the immigrant experience, of entering this country as an adult in 1998, with only some knowledge of its complex history. Back in high school in New Delhi, I did study U.S. history, but barely remembered little more than the rolling prairies and the Boston Tea Party. The America I imagined was largely the one I saw on movie screens and television shows. I was largely ignorant of the harsh treatment of Native Americans, whom I had glimpsed in cowboy movies, and had barely a grasp on the long, annihilating history of slavery.
The titles in the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards canon can help with that.
This year’s fiction winner, “There There,” explores the contemporary Native American experience in Oakland, Calif., telling a story of pride, confusion and shame. I could see reflections of my search as an immigrant for identity formation in Tommy Orange’s novel about the indigenous American search for identity reclamation.
The nonfiction recipient, “The War Before the War,” ponders the role of fugitive slaves in the build up to the Civil War. Our group’s discussions about the legacy of slavery and its link to today’s wealth disparities helped me gain new perspectives into the ongoing reality of race and injustice, from enslavement to mass incarceration.
When my family first settled in the suburbs of Cleveland in a mostly white neighborhood, it was all very different and new. I perceived, but could not fathom, the gulf between the suburbs and the core city, and the unequal treatment of minorities and poor communities.
But like most immigrants, I was wrapped up for many years in our family’s survival, in the challenge of finding jobs, and unraveling the mysteries of college admission. My first education about race and diversity arrived when I became a graduate assistant in the Office of Diversity & Multicultural Affairs at Cleveland State University. Working there exposed me to the turmoil of racism and economic inequalities in this country through speakers and campus events.
The summer seminar allowed me to pick up the thread of this learning. Like other Americans, I can fall into the trap of stereotyping people even as I am stereotyped myself. I was grateful for the chance to learn more about the deep and cruel disparities in our society, and some ideas about what an individual might do to combat them.
Our group talked of leveraging our collective experience and expertise towards improving our region. As an educator and journalist, I can take the discussions into the classroom and my communities.
Decoding the themes and writings of the four Anisfield-Wolf award-winners this year challenged me to think differently and explore how I could take these messages into the world outside. I encourage you to join me and read them.
Cheryl D’Mello is editor of The Lotus, the Asian Indian nonprofit community newspaper in Cleveland, and a lecturer at Cuyahoga Community College. This essay arose from her participation in the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative’s second annual Anisfield-Wolf faculty seminar, “Reading Social Justice: The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funds the CHC.
by Lisa Nielson
A colleague at the Cleveland Council on World Affairs generously nominated me for a professional exchange, sponsored by World Learning, that has me packing my bags for India.
But what about books? How do I prepare for my first visit to a place with over 4,000 years of history? While I’ve lived in Jerusalem and Damascus – no slouches in the antiquity department – the weight of time and the linguistic, environmental and cultural diversity of India are daunting. Armed with a list of helpful articles and suggested reading from the marvelous program director at World Learning, Dianne Neville, I went to the public library.
Because I’m a medievalist, everything past the 17th century is distressingly recent. My association with the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards helps me remember that the modern and contemporary are not foreign countries. The Anisfield-Wolf canon speaks with the past without flinching. It has helped me gaze directly at the present.
- The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan is my first stop in the present. A 2017 Anisfield-Wolf book award winner for fiction, Mahajan’s novel tracks the aftermath of a marketplace bombing in New Delhi. The novel begins with the statement “A good bombing begins everywhere at once.” Readers learn a Kashmir dissident has detonated the device and that a Muslim and Hindu family are irrevocably damaged. Tender, brutal and often wildly funny, the story follows the aftermath through the perspectives of the victims, survivors, families and the bombers themselves. Mahajan sheds light on religious tensions, politics, bureaucracy and corruption, making this novel a thoughtful companion to Katherine Boo’s journalistic masterpiece Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
- Incarnations: A History of India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani (2016, Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This fascinating book traces India’s history through the lens of 50 people, some important historical figures, others obscure to me. I’ve met new poets, artists, musicians, scientists and religious figures. Sunil deftly wraps each story within a contemporary context – how a state continues to revere a certain figure, the religious implication of another – giving even the most ancient figures relevance. Khilnani, a scholar best known for The Idea of India, has inspired me to find and tackle the poetry of Basava (12th century), Kabir (15th century) and Mirabai (Meera, 16th century), who wandered North India singing love songs to Krishna.
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012, Random House) by Katherine Boo. This much-honored book won a Pulitzer Prize and has been sitting on my mental “must-read” list for a year. Boo spent many years following the fortunes of the residents of Annawadi, a ramshackle settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels ringing the Mumbai airport. An American who won a MacArthur genius grant before writing this first book, Boo is masterful at seeing what so many Westerners would miss in the enterprising teen trash-picker, the girl who is managing to attend college, the slum-landlords and duplicitous nuns.
- The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin Press, 2009) by Wendy Doniger. This title, recommended by a friend, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and represents the life’s work of a leading scholar on Hinduism. (Khilnani references her work as well.) As India grapples with the religion’s growing power within its contemporary politics, this fat book is timely. Doniger explores the intersection of the historical record with mythological worlds, examining Hinduism’s classic resistance to standardization. She considers how Sanskrit and vernacular sources are rich in knowledge of women and lower castes, and how animals are key to important shifts in religious attitudes.
- Kama Sutra, Bhagavad Gita, sections of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Puranas, Laws of Manu. I’ll reacquaint myself with these beautiful foundational works as essential preparation for my travels.
Finally, my group will visit Lucknow, which was the center of a sophisticated courtesan culture well into the 19th century. I can’t wait. In my class on the courtesan, I teach Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Rusva (a pseudonym). One of the first novels written in Urdu, it follows the life of a fictitious Lucknow courtesan Umrao Jan. Steeped in lush images of the loves and tragedies of a courtesan life, Umrao Jan Ada immerses the reader in the social intricacies of Lucknow in the 19th century. (There are two wonderful Bollywood films, too.) The British shattered Lucknow’s culture in 1857 in defeating the Sepoy Mutiny, which was partly bankrolled by local courtesans. Rusva paints the effects of that history and colonialism well.
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.
by Lisa Nielson
Sometimes when I need serious advice, I visit Edith.
Edith Anisfield Wolf, the founder of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, is interred in the mausoleum at Knollwood Cemetery in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. You’ll find her remains in the corridor to the right of the little chapel as one walks in: #321. I track down one of the battered folding chairs scattered around the mausoleum and sit in the humid quiet. She is one of the most influential women in my life who I have never met.
When I first started getting to research the poet and philanthropist, I was shocked by the paucity of information about her. The archives at the Cleveland Public Library contain nearly every book that won the Anisfield-Wolf award, but information about the founder herself is in just a few slim folders. The files consist mostly of copies of newspaper clippings and notes, but nothing original.
Wolf was wealthy and deeply involved in the Cleveland community her entire life: Where were her letters? Her business records? As an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Fellow and music historian by training, I wished to contribute in some way to her history. I wondered if Wolf would disapprove my rooting in her past, although I am shameless in my love for the thrill of the chase.
What began as a casual interest in Wolf quickly blossomed into a full-blown obsession. I spent hours in the Western Reserve looking for correspondence, information about the family business and the awards themselves. While on a research trip in Jerusalem, I dedicated a few days to researching the Cleveland Jewish population and the rich archives held in the National Library of Israel.
Through the archives and various genealogy databases, I skimmed the surface of her family. Her father, Jechiel Jonas Anisfield, became John when he emigrated from Poland to the United States, with a stop in Vienna for gymnasium in between. A respected businessman in the textiles industry, he included Edith in the family business from the time she was 12. He was well educated and spoke several languages, and ensured his daughter had the same privileges. Wolf’s sister, Lucie, died at age 9 in 1901, and the following year, she lost her mother, Daniella (sometimes Doniella or Daniela). Her father remarried Alice Strauss of the influential New York Strauss family two years later. He died in 1929, and Alice died in 1946.
Wolf graduated from East High School in 1906 and enrolled at the Mather College for Women, but did not graduate. In August 1918, she married lawyer and Cleveland native Eugene Wolf. He helped run the family businesses and served as president of Tifereth Israel.
In addition to her business acumen, Wolf was a poet and patron of the arts, unanimously elected to serve as a member of the board of the Cleveland Public Library in 1943. The Anisfield family has an elegant little crypt in the Mayfield Cemetery mausoleum. John, Daniella, Lucie, Alice, and Eugene, who died in 1944, are all there. The Wolf family is buried nearby. There is space in the crypt, yet Edith is conspicuously absent. That raises a question: Why?
Although an extremely private person, Wolf can be glimpsed through her philanthropic legacy. In addition to the book awards, her fund also endowed the Anisfield-Wolf Memorial Award, which has been administered by the Cleveland Welfare Federation (now the Center for Community Solutions) each year since her death in 1963. Wolf 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. The Edith Anisfield Wolf Fund provided a third of the funding to endow the Silver Chair in Judaic studies at what is now Case Western Reserve University in 1964 and gave $30,000 to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1970 to start an archive dedicated to black history in Cleveland.
There is still so much more to know. When I visit her, sometimes I wonder if she would be annoyed by my prying. That is one of the questions I ask her when I visit, and I hope she would approve. I’m certain she would speak up if she didn’t. The July 14, 1943 announcement in the Plain Dealer on her election to the Board of the CPL described her thusly: “Mrs. Wolf is by nature conciliatory and soft-spoken, but she manages to have her way.”
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.
by Jessica Yang
I was five when I came to the U.S. from China. My first experiences of America were formed in a predominantly white town where I could count the number of non-white classmates on one hand. Other children asked me why my eyes were so small, whether I ate dogs, and why my lunch of homemade dumplings smelled weird. I chose to bury these memories because I wanted to believe the world was a better place.
“The trick was to understand America, to know that America was give-and-take. You gave up a lot but you gained a lot, too.” That observation comes from Chimamanda Adichie’s short story, “The Thing Around My Neck.” I discovered it in a first-year seminar at Case Western Reserve University, an experience that helped awaken me to the power in sharing things that make us uncomfortable.
As the class progressed, I found comfort in being both Chinese and American. Zadie Smith writes in “Speaking in Tongues” of her “proper” English: “This voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place–this is not the voice of my childhood…A braver person, perhaps, would have stood firm, teaching her peers a useful lesson by example: not all lettered people need be of the same class, nor speak identically. I went the other way. Partly out of cowardice and a constitutional eagerness to please.”
The seminar discussions made me feel less alone in my immigrant experiences; they also allowed me to face the more difficult feelings I’ve had. The things around my neck that make me different aren’t exclusionary, even if they may seem that way at first. I started to see new connections.
The Anisfield-Wolf seminar, taught by Dr. Lisa Nielson, fostered the importance of difference and diverse stories. I started to write more about the need for Asian-American writers and stories in the media. I found purpose in writing and strength in multifaceted identities.
In talking about the readings in class, I realized that discussions about race and identity were pursuable once someone brought light to them, even if these questions were hard to explore. It changed the way I approached my Asian-American identity and the topics I address. I found power in owning the negative memories, admitting that they happened and starting a dialogue about the experiences.
I am now six years removed from that seminar and a graduate of Case, currently in medical school. Still, the themes of these two readings from that class accompany me. I didn’t have to be less Chinese to be more American. Now I find comfort, despite the confusion, in the hyphen that exists in Chinese-American.
Jessica Yang was one of the members of the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf SAGES seminar in 2013. She graduated from CWRU in 2017 with a dual degree in biochemistry and psychology, and a minor in biology. An avid reader who is dedicated to exploring questions of identity, Jessica has been a blogger and freelance writer since high school and is currently finishing her first year of medical school at Rowan University in New Jersey.
By Gabrielle Bychowski
How do we talk about racism? How do we talk about sexism? These were two of the questions that initiated the 2018 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award seminar at Case Western Reserve University.
The goal was not only to help facilitate talk about racism and sexism but also to study the ways in which this talk already occurs. Students were challenged to analyze and deconstruct the grammar and rhetoric of white supremacy: What are the images created and repeated? How are sentences structured to lead readers or listeners to certain conclusions? What are the nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives that act as dog whistles for attentive audiences?
The thesis of our seminar was that Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners could help answer the questions posed on racism and sexism. We began the semester with the 2018 award winning authors in preparation for attending the awards ceremony in late September. In those weeks, students considered how the poetry of Shane McCrae (captured in In the Language of My Captor) taught readers how language bends and twists in order to reflect the tension between hate and love, captor and captive, identity and society.
Next, the students weighed the importance of truth and hoax through Kevin Young’s Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. This text seriously engages what it means to be a “nonfiction” book in an era where various authors try to blur the line between fact and fiction, especially as it applies to the construction, exploitation and oppression of racial identities.
The fiction award winner, Sing Unburied Sing, written by Jesmyn Ward, demonstrates for students the ways that fiction can be used to speak of unspeakable traumas and embodied truths that are too often left dismissively abstract. The majority of the class attended the award ceremony, which was critical to bringing the texts alive in new ways by introducing the classroom readers to the book’s writers.
Beyond the 2018 winners, the seminar invited the class to read important Anisfield-Wolf texts that take different perspectives on the questions and language of racism. Books by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X began the analysis of the Civil Rights Movement, a scope which we expanded to consider the women of the civil rights movement as well. Books like Hidden Figures and The Gay Revolution filled in this picture in part, as well as additional texts such as This Bridge Called My Back, Sister Outsider, and the writings of Angela Davis.
These women writers gave insights into the ways that women were hard at work in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the distinct ways sexism was compounded with the racist rhetoric of white supremacy. Indeed, by adding the lens of gender, the reading of King and Malcolm X prompted students to consider how being heterosexual cisgender men of faith may have influenced the way in which these leaders encountered the world.
As a scholar and instructor of Anisfield-Wolf award-winning books, I am honored to introduce students at Case Western Reserve University to the canon of books that each respond to the questions of how we talk about racism and sexism. In the last couple of years, the class has been in high demand with spots filling up quickly. There is always an extensive waitlist.
On the first day, I hear about what brings the students to the seminar and to the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award archive. Some students come already invested in social justice, racial equity, and feminism. Other students come to the class admitting that they come from places where racism and sexism is rampant but discussing either is discouraged. In each case, I take my job seriously: to meet students where they are, equip them with critical tools and books, and bring them into the ongoing discourse the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has promoted.
One student, Kami Mukenschnabl, wrote, “Reading and discussing award winners from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has been extremely interesting and eye-opening. Coming into this class, I was not very familiar with cultural ideas and ideas of gender and race that differ from my own….By reading and discussing these books, I have learned how to read, reflect, and discuss the difficult, yet important, topics that these books bring up.”
By the end of the semester, I hear a myriad of ways that students now feel not only better trained to engage these conversations and activism but also feel connected to a wider community that these books have generated. For these reasons and more, I am grateful to see these students and the A-W community grow one year and one seminar at a time.
Gabrielle Bychowski is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University, teaching courses on transgender and intersex history, disability culture, racism, and medieval literature. This post originally appeared on her blog, Things Transform.
by Charles Ellenbogen
Anisfield-Wolf award winner Adrian Matejka has produced another excellent book of poems. I chose the word ‘book’ deliberately. This is not a collection of poems, but it is, like The Big Smoke, a book. Generally, when I read poetry, I can read 2 or 3 poems at a time. If I read too many more, I can’t really give them the attention they deserve. This is not to say that Matejka’s poems don’t deserve careful attention; they do. It’s just that the book has such a narrative drive (see the transition between “Stardate 8705.29” and “Business as Usual” for an example) that I often had to remind myself to slow down.
Together, “Map to the Stars” tells a compelling coming-of-age story that involves a move to the suburbs (which means a move from Prince to Fleetwood Mac) and all that involves, notably the sometimes unspoken but always simmering issue of race. In “After the Stars,” Matejka reports that “Upward / mobility equals stars in every // thing” and that the persona’s new neighborhood has “One sedan per driveway / & one tree centering each & every yard.” But all is not idyllic in the suburbs. Matejka reminds us that “All of this dirt came from some / other dirt repeating itself & you stand on top / of its frozen remains, arms raised like the Y / in YMCA. Look at you now. You are high-fiving / yourself in the middle of a future strip mall.”
Throughout, “[t]he spacious myth of space” proves to be just that, a myth. There is a hope that “everyone looks the same / in a space suit” but they don’t. In “Outta Here Blacks,” Matejka notes that despite the move, some things didn’t change:
We were outside our chalk-outlined / piece of town like a bad pitch. // We were outlying that old spot // like perfectly spelled / gentrifications.
Still, there remains a somewhat empty hope for a fresh start. In the perfectly named “Record Keeper,” Matejka writes:
& because nobody / hunts for dinner in the suburbs, we put down / our implements of half step & appetite, sidestep / the moon as it descends into a whole plateful / of charred thighs and wings. We collectivize / the back-in-the-days way as tenaciously as chicken / legs undress themselves at a cul-de-sac party, then raise the stripped bones to history. Out here, there / isn’t any, so history is whatever we want it to be.
Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at Campus International High School in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.