Two girls, African American eighth graders, separated by geography and time, made a splash at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
One is Zaila Avant-garde, who captivated the nation this year winning on the word “murraya,” a genus of tropical tree. She had watched the bee on television four years earlier in her Harvey, La., home with her father. Jawara Avant-garde noted his daughter’s aptitude then and encouraged her toward her $50,000 win.
Still, MacNolia rose to become a national finalist. The judges then gave her a word – “nemesis” – missing from the official list. A reporter from the Beacon Journal newspaper protested immediately, but the officials overruled her objection.
MacNolia placed fifth and the citizens of Akron threw her a parade upon her return home.
“My spelling has cast a spell on my country,” MacNolia says in “M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A,” the poetry collection that won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2005. The author, A. Van Jordan, might have been writing about either girl.
In the poem “Scenes from my Scrapbook,” Jordan gives voice to a girl he imagines from his hometown.
“I’m 13 years old. I can spell and I’m black.
All odds are against me but my people are for me. . .
I keep spelling and I am twice as good
As a Negro girl has any right to claim.”
Jordon believes that the underhanded judges in Washington, D.C., all white Southerners, shook MacNolia’s confidence. She married, had a son and put aside her aspiration to go to college and become a surgeon. She found work as a maid. Jordon writes of her: “The almost national spelling bee champion, almost a doctor, wife, mother, grandmother and the best maid in town.”
Jordan, the Robert Hayden Collegiate Professor at the University of Michigan, delighted in this year’s spelling bee champ.
“Zaila Avant-garde is a shining example of what happens when a young person is given the space fully to follow their curiosities,” he said. “She’s not only a genius at spelling but she also seems to have a high emotional IQ, which is beautiful to see.”
“When I look at Zaila, she reminds me of what MacNolia might have been had she been given a chance to embrace her full potential,” Jordan said. “I felt emotional watching her win, and I was mad that a part of me braced for it not to happen; I’ve been conditioned for it not to happen. Zaila re-programmed me for the better!”
You can hear Jordan reading from “M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A*,” and discussing its historic roots in this 2004 radio interview.
The holiday of Juneteenth is deepening its mark on American history.
The day marks the moment in Galveston, Tex., when people in bondage learned that slavery was finished, two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
African Americans, particularly in Texas, have honored June 19, 1865, shortened to “Juneteenth,” with picnics, parades and pilgrimages to Galveston since enslaved men on the wharfs whooped at the news (and some were beaten for it). The halting story of how the rest of the nation caught up is worth telling.
And so, when the coronavirus pandemic sealed many New Yorkers into their apartments, historian Annette Gordon-Reed turned to the task. Bob Weil, her editor at W.W. Norton, had long encouraged her to write about Texas, where she had grown up.
The result is “On Juneteenth,” a nuanced, concise 148-page reflection in six chapters that twines some of her own family story with her home state, “this most American place,” as she puts it.
She writes that the “Cowboy, the Rancher, the Oilman – all wearing ten-gallon hats or Stetson – dominate as the embodiments of Texas. Of greater importance, as I have said in another context, the image of Texas has a gender and a race: ‘Texas is a White man.’ What that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man is part of what I hope to explore in the essays of this book.”
Indeed, such a potent reductive stew in the popular imagination makes Texas ripe for misunderstanding. At the taproot of Texas is Stephen F. Austin, who recruited white people to the Mexican province of Coahuila y Tejas, now East Texas, not to wrangle or drill but to clear the land for cotton. And Austin, a Missouri scion of slaveholders, discouraged the new arrivals from doing that work themselves.
Yet, Austin, whose name now graces a state capitol and the site of a hip music festival, is just one strand in a more complex origin story.
“No other state brings together so many disparate and defining characteristics all in one,” Gordon-Reed writes, “a state that shares a border with a foreign nation, a state with a long history of disputes between Europeans and an Indigenous population and between Anglo-Europeans and people of Spanish origin, a state that had existed as an independent nation, that had plantation-based slavery and legalized Jim Crow.”
This slim book is a testament to the reading pleasure to be had in the hands of an accomplished, lucid and to-the-point scholar. “On Juneteenth” is an excellent primer for a traveler wanting their bearings before visiting Texas.
Gordon-Reed’s own family tree is fascinating; her maternal side traces to the 1820s in Texas; her paternal to at least the 1860s. Juneteenth was no abstraction in her household.
“Juneteenth was different,” she writes of the day’s contrast to July 4. “For my great-grandmother, my grandparents and relatives of their generation, this was the celebration of the freedom of people they had actually known. My great-grandmother’s mother had been married three times, outliving all her husbands. Her last one had been enslaved until the end of the Civil War.”
Gordon-Reed played her own role in local history in East Texas, where she was the first Black child enrolled in the white elementary school in Conroe. “I integrated my town’s schools, a la Ruby Bridges, with the chief difference being that I was not escorted to my first day of school by federal marshals.”
The little girl proved an excellent student and recalls kind teachers and making friends. Still, she acknowledges and explores the tensions. Her mother remembers Annette breaking out in hives, “a thing I don’t recall.”
She does remember and relish the hours, seemingly endless at the time, making tamales with her female kinfolk for Juneteenth.
“This ritual was fitting, and so very Texan,” Gordon-Reed writes. “People of African descent, and to be honest, of some European descent, celebrating the end of slavery in Texas with dishes learned in slavery and a dish favored by ancient Mesoamerican Indians that connected Texas to its Mexican past; so much Texas history brought together for this one special day.”
Kamden Hilliard — a poet who has lived in Hawai’i, southern California, New York City, Hong Kong, Iowa and South Carolina over their 26 years — will be the second Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing and Editing.
Hilliard was chosen from among more than 100 applicants. The poet, who uses “they, them, their” pronouns, has yet to see Cleveland. That will happen when they start the two-year fellowship in August at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.
The new fellow will succeed Leila Chatti, whose first book “Deluge” arrives from Copper Canyon Press April 21. The poets have friends in common but have yet to meet. The fellowship combines writing, editing and community engagement.
“I was born in California to military parents,” Hilliard writes in their application. “We moved around most of my childhood and finally settled in Hawai’i in early 2002. The real and imagined traumas of 9/11, the violent mechanics of settlement and militarism in Hawai’i, and the ongoing condition of blackness sculpted my childhood. As such, my work is obsessed with the problems of inheritance, identity-based discrimination, and antiblackness.”
Hilliard graduated with an MFA in Poetry from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop last spring. They took an AmeriCorps Vista position with the Greenville County Behavioral Health Coalition, which helps nonprofits in upstate South Carolina deliver mental health and anti-addiction services. Hilliard, who laughs easily and delights in language, specialized in connecting LGBTQ youth to these services.
“I’m not from a place where people spend a lot of time writing and reading,” Hilliard said in a phone interview. “So, after two years in Iowa City, I was attracted to a place where I could dream toward community and a different future, organize to get things done and think about the reasons we write and need literature.”
Hilliard’s own work is quick-footed and linguistically playful. It has been collected into three chapbooks — “Distress Tolerance” in 2016 and “Perceived Distance From Impact” the following year. Their third collection, “henceforce: a travel poetic,” was published in 2019. They helped edit Jellyfish Magazine for three years.
Last fall, the poet Tommy Pico singled out a Hilliard poem for praise: “It takes the play dough colors of modern languages and squishes them all together in a statement on the nature of communication and I, for one, am here. for. it.”
That poem was runner-up for the Black Warrior Review Prize.
“We were especially drawn to the experimental force and verve of Kamden Hilliard’s poetry – which, as Craig Santos Perez has said, ‘transgresses the normative and secured border of nationalism, gender, aesthetics and language itself,’” noted Hilary Plum, assistant director of the Cleveland State Poetry Center. “In their application, Kam’s approach to literary community and diversity work combined the theoretical and the practical. We were struck by their ambition, the depth of their engagement and their sense of what’s possible.”
For their part, Hilliard said they were looking forward to shaping the fellowship and carrying it beyond the usual places.
“In our public conversations, we can attend to the places we inhabit,” they said. “’Ohio’ is not a British word. It’s an indigenous word. The shape of the fellowship, the folk who put it together – I take all of it as a positive sign. I have a lot of gratitude and look forward to starting the next chapter with you.”
Did the prominent Jewish Clevelander with family in Austria ask herself in 1945, “In the face of such decimation, what good is a book award?”
Seventy-five years after the fact of Auschwitz was laid bare to the world, “attacking Jews has once again become socially acceptable in many countries – across the left-right ideological spectrum, and among groups that blame Jews for their grievances and oppression” writes Dr. Walter Reich, former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in the Atlantic Monthly.
He attributes this resurgence to diminishing general knowledge of the Holocaust. “The horrifying knowledge of where anti-Semitism can lead,” he writes, “has been, in large measure, lost in a miasma of forgetting, ignorance, denial, confusion, appropriation, and obfuscation.”
In her classes at Case Western Reserve University, Dr. Lisa Nielson, an Anisfield-Wolf scholar, often teaches two writers in the canon: philosopher David Livingstone Smith and the Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch.
“Smith has some grim and important stuff to say about the Holocaust, and Sholem Asch is a great pairing,” Nielson writes. “Asch has a devastating short story about identity, dehumanization and survival called ‘Heil, Hitler!’ that is a powerful — if hard for some — choice to read.”
In “Less Than Human,” Smith writes, “For most readers of this book, the word genocide is probably synonymous with Auschwitz. The Holocaust was the paradigmatic twentieth-century genocide, and is also the most thoroughly documented one. These is an immense literature describing how Germans of the Third Reich thought of Jews, as well as Slavs and Gypsies, as less than human, portraying them as apes, pigs, rats, worms, bacilli, and other nonhuman creatures. And it is abundantly clear from this evidence that the Nazis did not intend the term subhuman to be taken metaphorically.”
“’One does not hunt rats with a revolver,’ quipped one SS expert, in a chilling allusion to the mass exterminations, ‘but with poison and gas.’”
Standing between the Nazis and the “degenerate Jew” propaganda was the fiction and plays of Asch. In 1933, Nazi students at more than 30 German universities pillaged libraries in search of titles they considered “un-German.” Among those thrown into the flames were the books of Sholem Asch.
In the onslaught of titles published each year, friends of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards can deploy a powerful technique to sift the wheat from the chaff: Find the new work from those writers already in the canon. Here are some gems sitting atop the 2019 pile:
“Black Leopard Red Wolf” by Marlon James
The Jamaican American novelist most celebrated for “A Brief History of Seven Killings” goes genre. Actor Michael B. Jordan bought the film rights to this epic fueled by African mythology even before it published in February. The story — the first installment of a planned trilogy — spools out in beautiful sentences that coil around a hunter named Tracker. In nonlinear flashbacks, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone to find a disappeared boy, joining forces with a giant, a buffalo, a witch, a water goddess and a shape-shifting leopard. Following the child’s scent – Tracker “has a nose” – means trekking through forest, across rivers and through magical doors, beset by fantastical creatures. Tracker, we learn, is the red wolf of the title and the facts are murky. (“Truth changes shape as the crocodile eats away at the moon.”) This bloody quest-story is no escapism. As James told the New Yorker: “The African folktale is not your refuge from skepticism. It is not here to make things easy for you, to give you faith so you don’t have to think.”
“Everything Inside: Stories” by Edwidge Danticat
The author of “Clare of the Sea Light” and “Brother, I’m Dying” brought out in August her first short fiction collection in more than a decade. Known for precise, pitch-perfect sentences and a gift for juxtaposition, Danticat weaves eight Haiti-influenced stories of diaspora and longing. She pairs Cindy Jimenez-Vera’s insight — “being born is the first exile” — with Nikki Giovanni’s “We love because it’s the only true adventure” to frame the urgencies of quiet lives. One belongs to Elsie, a Miami home-health care worker, whose decency is no match to the manipulations of her ex-husband and former best friend. Another centers on a New York City teacher who is cheated of a final chance to meet her father before his late-life death. The last story, “Without Inspection,” covers 6.5 seconds as a construction worker falls toward oblivion. He realizes that “whatever he wanted he could have, except what he wanted most of all, which was not to die.”
“The Gilded Auction Block” by Shane McCrae
Following his essential poetry collection “In the Language of My Captors,” McCrae continues his investigation of U.S. freedom and its contradictions. In 23 poems, McCrae addresses the present American moment, and in some pieces responds directly to Donald Trump. The first poem, “The President Visits the Storm” starts with an epigraph from the 45th chief executive: “What a crowd! What a turnout!” — proclaimed to victims of Hurricane Harvey. And McCrae considers how the country has turned out. A poem titled “Black Joe Arpaio” begins “America you wouldn’t pardon me.” In another, McCrae stands up the exact language Carrie Kinsey used in a 1903 letter to Theodore Roosevelt about her brother – wrongly sold into forced labor – and transforms it through ear and syntax into a searing work of art. The poet also circles back to his white supremacist grandmother in Texas “who loved me and hated everybody like me.” She and her black grandson create a knot that grief cannot untie. It is a privilege to read his reckonings now.
“Grand Union” by Zadie Smith
The outlandishly gifted British novelist of “White Teeth” and “On Beauty” published her first short story collection in October. In 19 tales, she wheels through a dizzying constellation of topics, tones and fonts, writing about the future and the past. A reader can enter anywhere, like her bravura “The Lazy River,” an endlessly rotating watery amusement for tourists in Spain. Elsewhere, the writer spills blood in London even as the jaunty “Escape from New York” rifts on the urban legend that Michael Jackson ferried Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando out of the smoking debris of 9/11 in a rental car. And the marvelous “Words and Music” mediates on peak musical experiences as lived by two disputatious sisters. A couple of stories are closer to fragments, but several seem destined to become classics. Smith begins and ends with two mother-daughter stories — the first bristles with alienation, the last, “Grand Union” with the transcendence of generations.
“I: New and Selected Poems” by Toi Derricotte
The Pittsburgh poet co-founded Cave Canem, whose motto is “a home for black poetry.” This collection serves as a profound home for 30 new pieces as well as those swept from five earlier books across a span of 50 years. The title “I” comes from Derricotte’s son and is perfect for a writer sometimes characterized as a confessional poet, one who has mined the self to grapple with gender, race, identity, sex and spirit. In “Tender” she writes: “The tenderest meat/comes from the houses/where you hear the least/squealing. The secret/is to give a little wine before killing.” The collection, dedicated in part to “the mother and fathers – Galway, Lucille, Ruth and Audre” gestures toward the poetic ancestry of Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton (another Anisfield-Wolf recipient), Ruth Stone and Audre Lorde. In her acknowledgements, Derricotte writes, “I am most grateful to the universe for the community of Cave Canem. We imagined a place in which black folks were safe to write the poems they needed to write.” And so she has.
“A Long Petal of the Sea” by Isabel Allende
The beloved novelist, born in Peru, raised in Chile and now a resident of northern California, writes in her acknowledgements: “This book wrote itself, as if it had been dictated to me.” Indeed, this historical fiction contains unmistakable autobiographical notes. It begins with the Republicans loss of Spain and the marriage of convenience between fighters Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera in 1938. She is pregnant with the son of his slain brother and can only leave France aboard a ship for wounded fighters if she marries him. The ship sails to Chile and their bond of expediency begins a complicated family saga that crests with the catastrophic 1973 overthrow of the democratically-elected Chilean government, just as it radically altered the author’s life. Allende knows how to spin an engrossing story and to reward her readers with a savory and satisfying surprise for the 80-year-old Victor at the end.
“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead
The arrival of this latest novel from “The Underground Railroad” writer caused Time Magazine to enshrine him in July as “America’s Storyteller.” Seventeen years earlier, Whitehead picked up an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “John Henry Days.” The novelist returns to U.S. history for “The Nickel Boys.” It is based on a Florida reform school, the Dozier School for Boys, that warped the lives of thousands of children for 111 years. In the fictional treatment, Elwood Curtis is derailed from his path toward college and pitched into a facility where “all the violent offenders . . . were on the staff.” Turner is wiser to the rigged game and eats soap when forced labor becomes unbearable. Whitehead doesn’t dwell in horror, instead, pervasive racism soaks the novel’s ground, so there is nowhere to stand for either boy. In prose as clear as water, Whitehead traps his reader. Undergirding it all are the unmarked graves of close to 100 Dozier boys unearthed in 2014. Finally made unforgettable.
“Sightseer in This Killing City” by Eugene Gloria
This is Gloria’s first book since the Manila-born Midwestern poet won his Anisfield-Wolf prize for “My Favorite Warlord” in 2013. Known for taking months, and sometimes years, on a single poem, Gloria joins Shane McCrae in pondering the contemporary American moment. Deeply attuned to heritage and displacement, the new poems continue Gloria’s preoccupation with the arrivals and departures of ordinary people. The title poem reverberates from a Dallas hospital. The other 47 in this collection are concise, erudite and plain-spoken in language enriched by Gloria’s reading across continents and centuries. He samples Stevie Wonder and Shakespeare; Baudelaire and Al Green. In “Implicit Body,” the speaker commands “Call me Mr. Gone/who’s done made/some other plans./All that remains is nostalgia/and this aching torso of blue.”
“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown
Named to several best-of-the-year lists, this stunning collection grapples with the black body, especially the queer black body, in poems that combine bright music and “everything cut down.” Brown follows his “The New Testament,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf prize, with a meditation over 51 poems on masculinity, desire, violence and tradition: in poetry, in racism, even in the impulse to plant gardens. In the musical, compressed lines of “Dark,” Brown writes “I’m sick/of your hurting. I see that/you’re blue. You may be ugly/but that ain’t new.” The poet comes up with a new form, “the duplex,” which he designed to gut the sonnet. “The Tradition” is suffused with prickling self-knowledge, of a sense of this poet coming into his own. He addresses his own persona in “The Rabbits”: “I am tired/Of claiming beauty where/There is only truth.”
In the books that followed, Whitehead, now 49, has consistently delivered on Updike’s phrase – culminating in 2016’s “The Underground Railroad,” in which he places an actual time-traveling railroad beneath the country’s soil to wend its way from the days of slavery through the nation’s tortured history.
Now Whitehead arrives at a new milestone. He is the first writer since August 2010 to grace the cover of Time magazine, profiled by novelist Mitchell S. Jackson under the headline “America’s Storyteller.” The profile is timed to the publication of “The Nickel Boys” July 16.
Nine years ago, the Time cover headline was “Great American Novelist,” printed across the left shoulder of Jonathan Franzen.
In the laudatory new magazine profile, Whitehead is quoted saying that he followed his first novel, “The Intuitionist,” about a Manhattan elevator inspector, with “John Henry Days” wanting this second book “to be more expansive and have many different voices, a big American chorus. ‘John Henry Days’ is very unruly, like the country itself.”
“I had never read anything with an enslaved person as its main character where I really felt that sense of dread, claustrophobia and the narrowing of choices,” Ward told Time. “I felt the book could be a breakthrough experience for some people.”
One month after the book’s publication, Whitehead read from its pages in Cleveland at the Maltz Center as part of the Skirball Writer’s Center Stage series. As the author flipped seamlessly from Brooklyn hipster patter to pulling sentences directly from the novel, some listeners were audibly shocked.
Whitehead – who was called “Chipp” as a kid – switched over to Colson when he was 21. Time reports that “he learned only a few years ago that Colson, the name of his maternal grandfather, was also the name of an enslaved Virginia ancestor who purchased his and his daughter’s freedom.”
The writer’s resonance with history extends to his everyday conduct. While visiting the Langston Hughes House in Harlem, Whitehead carefully hung his coat in the hallway before the program director’s tour. “I didn’t want to disrespect Langston’s house,” he told Mitchell Jackson later.
The new novel, “The Nickel Boys,” was “inspired by the story of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida,” Whitehead writes in his acknowledgments. He credits reporter Ben Montgomery’s series in the Tampa Bay Times and University of South Florida’s Dr. Erin Kimmerle’s forensic studies of the school’s unmarked graves. And he directs readers to their websites.
Whitehead told Time that this new book is “about places with no accountability. That dynamic between the powerful and the helpless, where our worst impulses can be let loose.”
The subhead on the Time Magazine cover is “By Mining the Past, Colson Whitehead Takes Readers Into An Uneasy Present.”
Readers of Eugene Gloria’s poems have a cultivated patience, a relationship with time. It has been seven years since the publication of his last book, “My Favorite Warlord,” winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
In 2013, Henry Louis Gates Jr. praised Gloria’s poetry by remarking on his own keen interest in genealogy. The Anisfield-Wolf jury chair located a kinship in the poet’s exploration of our origins “as a key to the present [that] is compelling, addictive, and – in the best circumstances – generative. It is this last quality that is evident on every page.”
Gloria, 62, is deeply attuned to heritage and displacement. Arrivals and departures cycle through all four of his considered, beautiful and nimble poetry collections.
“My Favorite Warlord” opens with “Water,” a 39-line poem that took Gloria five years to write. Reading it now, it seems to flow toward the new book, “Sightseer in This Killing City.” The poet Yusef Komunyakaa identified “a playful exactness” in Gloria’s first collection, “Drivers at the Short-Time Motel,” which remains just right describing this new work.
The speaker of the title poem, “Sightseer in This Killing City” is in Dallas:
When I arrived, I saw the grassy knoll
Down that killing square. My cousin sick
and so I came with only Roethke’s line:
‘On things asleep, no balm.”
This poem may be set in Texas, but the book’s sensibility is informed by the troubling ascendancies of Philippines President Rodrigo Duarte and the U.S. President Donald Trump, both elected in 2016. The title poem ends, “And tomorrow is the past,/a gurney’s wheels squeaking/dry and violent through contagious halls.”
Democracies in the hospital, perhaps, the world a place of contagion, which “smiles wide as elevator doors.” The dis-ease is clearly infectious, leaving the reader, like a voter, to puzzle this out.
Gloria, born in Manila as his parents’ youngest child, grew up on both sides of the Pacific Ocean after his family settled in San Francisco. He has traveled widely but has lived mostly in the Midwest, the last two decades as a professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.
In the 48 poems of “Sightseer in This Killing City,” there is an exquisite, erudite, yet plain-spoken care with language from a poet well-read across continents and centuries. Snippets of verse from William Shakespeare and Charles Baudelaire crop up; so does a line from an Al Green song.
Anisfield-Wolf winning poet Marilyn Chin observes that Gloria’s new book tells unsettling stories “that praise ordinary people.” This is exactly right, including people on buses and those waiting in terminals. Poet Rigoberto Gonzalez calls the experience “a blessing to have Eugene Gloria help us reckon with the troubles histories that shape America [and] the Philippines.”
The new collection’s first poem, “Implicit Body,” ends stunningly by re-purposing a rift from a Stevie Wonder song. Gloria writes: “Call me Mr. Gone / who’s done made / some other plans./All that remains is nostalgia/and this aching torso of blue.”
One innovation is a persona Gloria calls Nacirema. The poet explains that the name “comes from artist Michael Arcega’s clever use of nomenclature as a way of examining Filipino American identity as well as his repurposing of Horace Miner’s essay ‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,’ from American Anthropologist, 1956.
The issue of the magazine published a few months before little Eugene was born in the capital city. It is a continuing pleasure to dwell in the worlds, and work, that child has wrought.
Chatti reads “The Rules” in her mellifluous, thoughtfully inflected voice in the audio clip. She states that she “wanted to write about the walk I took . . . in Madison, Wisconsin, and the brief, vital moment of joy that indicated my year-long depression might finally lift.” To do so, Chatti knew she would need to break the conventions of her craft, the rules.
Fortunately, the poet is already adept at upending expectations. “This poem has no children; it is trying/to be taken seriously,” she writes in “The Rules” with characteristic puckishness.
There will be no stars—the poem has had enough of them. I think we
we no longer believe there is anyone in any poem who is just now
they are dead, so let’s stop talking about it. The skies of this poem
are teeming with winged things, and not a single innominate bird.
You’re welcome. Here, no monarchs, no moths, no cicadas doing
they do in the trees. If this poem is in summer, punctuating the blue—
I forgot, there is no blue in this poem—you’ll find the occasional
pelecinid wasp, proposals vaporized and exorbitant, angels looking
as they should. If winter, unsentimental sleet. This poem does not take
at dawn or dusk or noon or the witching hour or the crescendoing
of our own remarkable birth, it is 2:53 in this poem, a Tuesday, and
everyone in it is still
at work. This poem has no children; it is trying
to be taken seriously. This poem has no shards, no kittens, no myths or
no pomegranates or rainbows, no ex-boyfriends or manifest lovers,
no mothers—no God, about which the poem must admit
it’s relieved, there is no heart in this poem, no bodily secretions, no
referred to as the body, no one
dies or is dead in this poem, everyone in this poem is alive and pretty
okay with it. This poem will not use the word beautiful for it resists
calling a thing what it is. So what
if I’d like to tell you how I walked last night, glad, truly glad, for the
in a year, to be breathing, in the cold dark, to see them. The stars, I
mean. Oh hell, before
something stops me—I nearly wept on the sidewalk at the sight of them
Photographer, filmmaker, poet and novelist Gordon Parks died in 2006 at the age of 93. But the 1998 winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for lifetime achievement continues to exert a centrifugal force on American culture, well into the 21st century.
Kendrick Lamar sampled Parks’ photographs for his music video “Element.” And a mesmerizing art exhibit, concentrating on Parks’ first decade of visual work, is now open to all at the Cleveland Museum of Art through June 30. There is no admissions charge.
The National Gallery of Art curated “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950.” It features many iconic images, perhaps none more arresting than Ella Watson in 1942 in a polka-dot dress, a charwoman who cleaned government buildings in Washington, D.C. She stands before a flag, with her mop and broom inverted. Much later Parks retitled the portrait “American Gothic.”
The photographer gives the viewer context, depicting Watson’s family, religious life and neighborhood in his first extended photo story, a craft he would hone becoming one of Life Magazine’s most important photo-essayists.
The exhibit features Langston Hughes in Chicago in 1941 in a somber door-and-window portrait taken during the Chicago Black Arts Renaissance, and Ingrid Bergman appearing haunted in Italy. The collection includes fashion shots and Tuskegee Airmen and a 17-year-old Harlem gang leader named “Red” whose gravitas and charisma translate across decades.
“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all kinds of wrongs,” Parks famously wrote in 1999. “I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
Museum-goers will have the chance to consider Parks and his creations in a Salon Talk at 7 p.m. Friday, May 24 at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Professor Gillian Johns of Oberlin College, Daniel Gray-Kontar, executive director of Twelve Literary Arts, and Tonika Johnson, a Chicago activist and photographer, will reflect on Parks’ genius and his ongoing relevance today.
Sophomore Elizabeth Metz was dismayed by students at Beachwood High School arguing whether slavery or the Holocaust was worse. Administrators say her student-led forums have improved campus race relations more than faculty and staff have been able to do.
Senior Jalen Brown saw the toxic mix of homophobia and racism in the hallways of the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine. He formed a student cadre called “Specific and General Acceptance” to explore this intersection. One of their goals: fewer suicides.
Senior Kye Harrell led a silent sit-in at Shaker Heights High School, gathering more than 400 protestors on the day of the nationwide Parkland demonstrations. They made visible the discrepancy between high school roadblocks to Black Lives Matter participation and the school’s green-light for the Parkland rally.
And sophomore Karson Baldwin founded a strong, ongoing alliance between the International Newcomers Academy in Cleveland and students from his institution, University School, under the banner “Oné Respé,” a Haitian greeting meaning “honor and respect.”
These four leaders took a bow for their activism, singled out by the Princeton Prize for Race Relations. It rewards anti-racist enterprise rather than the more staid student essay contests.
“At a time when racial hatred threatens to turn into an American export, the winners of the Princeton Prize focus on harmony, respect, and community to advance race relations,” said Sandhya Gupta, who chairs the Cleveland regional competition.
Princeton graduate Henry Von Kohorn founded the prize in 2003 partly out of his disappointment in his alma mater’s record in attracting students of color. Led by Princeton alumni, it grew from a pilot in Boston and Washington D.C. to 27 regional competitions, which culminate in a spring symposium at Princeton for the winners. Karson Baldwin, who represented Cleveland, was one of only two sophomores among the honorees this year.
He quoted Joe Cimperman of Global Cleveland who believes the biggest deficit humanity suffers is the one in kindness and compassion.
Danny Williams, president and CEO of Eliza Bryant Village, gave a witty keynote to honor the quartet in Cleveland. He put up diagrams captioned “This is Your Brain” and “This is Your Brain on Social Justice,” with the portions associated with empathy enlarged.
“Once you have taken that red pill,” he said smiling, “you are going to find it hard to un-ring that bell.” And he quoted Allen Kay: “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
But the evening’s award ceremony at the Hawken School’s Gries Center in University Circle belonged to the four honorees. Elizabeth Metz started her “Breaking Barriers Project” at Beachwood High School, in the wake of the Tree of Life shootings and the racist killings of two black people in a western Kentucky Kroger on the same October weekend.
She used the fear of gun violence to unite factions at her school who were adding racist captions about lynching to Instagram and characterizing students with families from the Middle East as terrorists. The first forum attracted 40 students; the second 150.
Jalen Brown characterized his work as “changing lives and saving them.”
“In America, being black is difficult, insanely difficult,” he said. “Black Americans are not allowed to wear their hoods up and walk down the street. And dealing with the homophobia inside a community dealing with racism is more than most can bear.”
Jalen Brown led a moment of silence for Nigel Shelby, a gay Alabama youth who killed himself April 18. “I was where he was at the age of 15.”
Two more Anisfield-Wolf winners were named as Pulitzer finalists: novelist Tommy Orange, this year’s fiction winner for his debut, “There There” and historian Jill Lepore, who won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2006, a finalist in criticism for her writing in the New Yorker.
Three historians selected the Douglass biography: Annette Gordon-Reed, Tiya Miles and Marcus Rediker. Gordon-Reed, who chaired the jury, has her own Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” a 2009 winner that excavated the suppressed record of Thomas Jefferson’s black family.
Staples cites Gordon-Reed in one column the Pulitzer judges singled out: “The Legacy of Monticello’s First Black Family,” published July 4, 2018. And he quotes Frederick Douglass in another, “The Racism Behind Women’s Suffrage.”
The Pulitzer elevated Stapes, 68, for his “editorials written with extraordinary moral clarity that charted the racial fault lines in the United States at a polarizing moment in the nation’s history.” He received an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1995 for his memoir, “Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White.”
Frederick Douglass, a reader suspects, also might have lauded Gordon-Reed’s work. Blight emphasizes that Douglass – the most photographed American of the 19th century – existed as a man of words.
The historian, 70, described this book as “the biography of a voice.” A Yale University professor, Blight believes Douglass’ speeches and constant travel also made him the most heard individual of his century.
The Pulitzer jury called the biography “a breathtaking history that demonstrates the scope of Frederick Douglass’ influence through deep research on his writings, intellectual evolution and his relationships.” Blight won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2012 for “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”
Blight states that the former slave’s great gift “is that he found ways to convert the scars Covey [a slave master] left on his body into words that might change the world. His travail under Covey’s yoke became Douglass’ crucifixion and resurrection.”
The Biblical language is intentional – Douglass embraced a personal Christianity as a teenager in Baltimore, studying sermons as templates for his oratory. He escaped bondage at 20, and lived nine years a fugitive until his freedom was purchased.
“Never trust anyone who writes three autobiographies – they are manipulating you on every page,” Blight said wryly of Douglass at the Virginia Festival of the Book. He credited the collection of Savannah surgeon Walter O. Evans, who saved ten Douglass family scrapbooks, with making his book possible.
I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise
Leila Chatti worked six years to create Deluge, 52 poems that the esteemed Copper Canyon Press will publish next year as her first book.
Michael Wiegers, editor of the press that publishes Jericho Brown, C.D. Wright and W.S. Merwin, called Chatti in March to give her the news.
“I’ve been happy-crying for the past hour driving to the prison I teach at – I’m so very, very excited to say my first book, DELUGE, is going to be published with @CopperCanyonPrs,” Chatti tweeted. “This feels like the best dream. I am so wildly grateful. Praise to God in all things.”
Faith is a strand that weaves through her first two chapbooks and rises in Deluge. Chatti, 28, is the daughter of a Muslim father and a Catholic mother. When her father heard that the Copper Canyon editor — whom his daughter has met just once at a brunch as a 22-year-old student in North Carolina — had selected her manuscript, he saw that brief introduction as fate.
“Deluge pronounced itself from the start as a book with a bold vision, unafraid to wrestle faith, myth, embodiment and multiple taboos,” Wiegers wrote in an email interview. “In several poems Chatti imagines the Virgin Mary as a mother, very physically, and painfully giving birth, and contrasts this personal elsewhere with her own body, blood, pain, and belief. It’s a sometimes startling, often vulnerable, seldom blinking debut collection that marks her as a promising talent whose artistry will continue to reveal itself.
“This is a very special book by a dedicated and talented poet. We’re thrilled to bring her poems to a larger readership.”
Chatti grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, a citizen of both the United States and Tunisia. She is midway through her two-year Anisfield-Wolf fellowship in writing and publishing at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. The editing, she said, is already influencing her, liberating the form on the page of some of her newest poems.
“Deluge is the title of two poems in the manuscript,” Chatti said in an interview. “The book is about my illness in my early twenties when I had a number of uterine tumors. For about 2 ½ to three years I was dealing with that. I was dealing with oncologists. One of the first symptoms I had was hemorrhaging, and when I went to the hospital, they referred to it as a flood. This was one of the most humiliating symptoms, and I bled for almost three years. Because I was brought up in a religious household, I thought about the flood, which was used by God as punishment.
“And that was very much how I felt, that I was being punished by doing something wrong, namely living with a partner unmarried. This was my sin, a specific kind of flood. Deluge is the Biblical term for flood.”
As Wiegers mentions, several poems dwell with Mary, a central figure in both Christianity and Islam, the only woman named in Qur’an.
“I consider Mary as my co-pilot in this book,” Chatti said. “She is extremely present in this book. Several of the poems are called ‘Annunciation.’ I am very interested in Mary from birth to the moment she gives birth to Jesus, Mary as Mary, Mary as a girl of 14. When I was sick, I was thinking a lot about fertility and chastity . . . I was very interested in this idea of Mary the human, faced with this massive imposition on her body.”
When Ploughshares published “Confession,” poetry judge Marianne Boruch wrote that Chatti “managed to both honor and upset convention in a most kickass-lively way. The sheer nerve and wit of what’s said – the whole piece feels wonderfully spoken.”
Here is Confession:
“Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”
She extended appreciation to her husband first, with a jaunty, “Thank you so much to Nick Laird, for sharing so much with me, willingly and unwillingly, including the title of his poetry book Feel Free, which I would also like to apologize to for stealing.”
The book is a lively, capacious and learned romp through five sections that explore freedom of language and thought: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf and “Feel Free.” Smith, a 43-year-old Londoner, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2006 for On Beauty, a witty story of an interracial family living in an American university town astraddle multiple cultural fault lines.
Critic Charles Finch, who championed the essay collection at the NBCC, praised Smith’s critical comfort with uncertainty. He wrote: “If, as the famous line from the famous book goes, personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then perhaps so is great criticism. Feel Free is a collection of essays, reviews, vignettes, and profiles by Zadie Smith, and it might so easily, like other books of its kind, ultimately feel like an arbitrary collocation of unrelated ephemera, a patchwork of unrelated scraps. Or in more cynical terms: a money grab. But it doesn’t!”
Finch praised how the essayist rotates with aplomb through the art of Jay-Z, J.G. Ballard and Justin Bieber, more appreciative than harsh.
Smith, who wore her trademark turban and trousers to the stage, ended her short acceptance remarks with an appreciation of Robert B. Silvers, the late editor at the New York Review of Books, for whom she wrote many of the essays in her book.
“He was a model of rigor, clarity and engagement,” Smith said. “He made you a better writer deletion by deletion, query by query. The first essay I ever wrote for him was about Kafka. And a line from ‘The Judgment’ always reminds me of him. It’s the bit when the father leaps up out of bed and says to his son, ‘Now you know what existed outside of you. Before you were only aware of yourself.’ Bob knew how to prompt writers, easily some of the most narcissistic people on earth.”
That line prompted a wave of slightly uncomfortable chuckles from the audience at the New School in Manhattan.
Other winners this year were Nora Krug’s provocative and searching graphic memoir, Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home; Anna Burn’s Milkman, a novel set amid the Irish troubles, already crowned with a Booker prize; Christopher Bananos’ erudite biography Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous; Ada Limon’s poetry book The Carrying that celebrates her mother, and Steve Coll’s probing, definitive and multi-year investigative nonfiction, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Jericho Brown will announce the new class of Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners in Cleveland April 4.
Brown, 42, will cap the night with news of the 84th class of writers to win this year’s prize, honoring the 2018 books that best excel in confronting racism and exploring human diversity. Previous winners include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Gunnar Myrdal, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Marilyn Chin, Sandra Cisneros, Margot Lee Shetterly and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
The announcement will be live-streamed on the Cleveland Foundation’s Facebook page. And the new winners will be in the State Theatre of Playhouse Square at 6 p.m. Thursday, September 26 to accept their awards.
A native of Shreveport, Louisiana and an English professor at Emory University, Brown wrote the 14-line title poem to his new collection the year he was in Cleveland. Celebrated for his intense musicality, lyrical clarity and muscular impact, the poet begins “Night Shift” with “When I am touched, brushed, and measured, I think of myself/As a painting.”
There are 51 poems in “The Tradition,” published by Copper Canyon Press. Here is the title piece:
Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer. Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.
Poet Claudia Rankine, born 56 years ago in Jamaica, returned to the city of her first college teaching post to kick off a community read of her slender, seminal book, Citizen: An American Lyric.
“In a sense, I am home,” she told a Cleveland audience. “My husband grew up here. My time here was very important. I met my husband at Mac’s Backs-Books on Coventry and I had my very first teaching job here.”
The crowd, gathered in the Parma-Snow auditorium of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, cheered this bibliophilic beginning to romance. Rankine, a Yale University professor and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, saw her first book, Nothing in Nature is Private, published in 1994 by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.
Filmmaker John Lucas, Rankine’s husband, has collaborated with her on several projects, most recently an art exhibition in Brooklyn last year that explored blondness called “Stamped.” Lucas is white and Rankine is black.
“It is possible to love white people as family, friends and colleagues but that does not disallow them acting on racism,” Rankine said. “What allows you to feel safe is you can call it. You can say, ‘That’s racist,’ and they don’t run screaming from the room or cry. They say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right.’”
Wearing one of her signature purple-infused scarves and crossing her ankles in black boots, Rankine spoke mellifluously and frankly: “America is an anti-black society.” She interrupted herself often to recommend books – White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and especially The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde.
But before she found these books, when Rankine was an undergraduate studying at Williams College in Massachusetts, she read poetry by Adrienne Rich, followed by prose of James Baldwin.
“I remember thinking as I was reading Adrienne Rich that I really liked this stuff but that I could do this better, something only an 18- or 19-year-old would think,” Rankine said. “But I also understood later that this was because I wasn’t included in this thing I was reading. When I got to Baldwin, there I was, and there was no going back.”
The poet told a version of this literary baptismal story the next day for about 1,000 high school students gathered at the Maltz Performing Arts Center. She recommended they see Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.” She urged them to make sure family members vote. Students asked her about the school-to-prison pipeline, the cover of her book and why she wrote Citizen in a second-person voice.
“Everybody commits crimes,” Rankine said about the false narrative of black criminality. “Our president commits crimes. You can’t be a black kid walking around in a hoodie. It takes away your citizenry.”
She employed the “you” pronoun, Rankine said, “so you have to wonder who the ‘you’ is. It’s a way to answer those people who say they don’t see color, they don’t see race.”
Rankine, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” recipient, is an exacting observer who takes pains to document the language and slipperiness of racism in day-to-day exchanges – from the news commentary in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to the treatment of Serena Williams on the international tennis circuit.
“Sports have always been a ground where racial politics play themselves out, not just here, but across the globe,” she said. “Now, you can see these matches on Youtube. Everything is recorded, watched, check-able.”
In a droll voice, the poet said, “I’ve been in the world awhile. I think people mean what they say.”
Rankine noted that Serena Williams was called on a foot fault in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open – the writer stressed that she wasn’t contesting the validity of the call – but on the next play Williams turned that ankle.
“The amount of trauma black people carry around in their bodies because of racism is profound,” she said. “It throws the woman off.”
Charles Ellenbogen, an English teacher at Campus International School in Cleveland, said he appreciated how well Rankine taught, how intently she listened and how she spoke to students as individual human beings.
Rankine told them, “It’s good for you to know that you go out in the world and there will be people who don’t have your best interests at heart. It’s important to read to know that there are people who have negotiated this world successfully and happily. It can be done.”
Claudia Rankine and her “slender, musical book that arrives like a thunderclap” are coming to Cleveland, the first major literary event of the year.
Thanks to the Big Read of the National Endowment for the Arts and the moxie of the staff at Cleveland’s Center for Arts-Inspired Learning, residents of Cuyahoga County will have eight weeks to soak up the brilliance of Citizen: An American Lyric.
The book, which reached the New York Times bestseller list in 2014, is “a well-timed amalgam of poetry, essays and Serena Williams analysis,” according to Boris Kachka in Vulture. It is poised to launch a thousand local conversations.
“Citizen,” as critic Parul Sehgal writes, “is an anatomy of American racism in the new millennium.” Megan Thompson, special projects manager for the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning, quotes Sehgal’s line as one reason the book is a good fit to citizen readers – especially students — in northeast Ohio.
“We are not going to change the world in eight weeks,” Thompson said. “But our hope is that art will change some lives. And Citizen, first and foremost, is a work of art.”
At last count, 26 schools have signed up to teach “Citizen” and more than 50 public events are clustered around it. A finalist for both poetry and criticism, the book won a National Book Critics Circle prize in the poetry category.
She will kick off the initiative with a reading and conversation with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas at 7 p.m. January 23 in the Parma-Snow branch auditorium of the Cuyahoga County Library. Tickets are free; register here.
“Citizen began as a response to events happening in American culture,” Rankine says in her MacArthur interview in 2016. “The first piece in Citizen was written right after Katrina. I recorded all the CNN coverage and was fascinated by how racism colored the reporting. . .
“I call it An American Lyric because I see these pieces as a different kind of song,” she said. “Instead of ‘Oh say can we see,’ this is what I’m really seeing.”
Thompson said the brevity and discrete sections in Rankine’s book make it ideal for student readers. So does the author’s unusual – and arresting — incorporation of fine-arts photography, on museum-grade paper, so that images join her book’s investigation of racism in the United States.
The Big Read will spread to encompass library, museum and church book discussions and workshops, film screening and poetry slams.
Rankine’s kick-off will be livestreamed in multiple locations. And Lake Erie Ink will curate the original work of 20 student poets, finalists who will compete in a public poetry slam at the Cleveland Museum of Art Saturday, March 9.
And if you’ve already read Citizen, whet your appetite for the upcoming Big Read with this recent Krista Tippett interview, in which Rankine reveals the sentence that cost her most dearly in composing this work.
As we bid adieu to 2018, allow us to shine a last, lingering reading light on ten highlights: the year’s titles from Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners. It should surprise no one that several are already acclaimed as the best-of-the-year. All are worth reading.
“American Histories: Stories” by John Edgar Wideman
In the latest literary stroke from an American master, these 21 short stories “are linked by astringent wit, audacious invention and a dry sensibility,” according to one critic. Another calls them “irresistible” and “profoundly moving.” The first, “JB & FD” imagines conversations between John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Another tale takes up with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Still another, “Williamsburg Bridge,” rests with a man contemplating his intent to jump into the East River. When Wideman won an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement award in 2011, he told the crowd a writing life still lay ahead. Now 76, the former Rhodes Scholar from Pittsburgh and MacArthur “genius” recipient speaks the truth still.
“Feel Free” by Zadie Smith
The exuberant, cerebral novelist collects her essays and landed on six best-of-the-year lists. She arranges the book into five sections: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf” and “Feel Free.” All the writing dates to the Obama administration. Maureen Corrigan describes the best of it, like Smith’s essay “Notes on Attunement” about disliking and then loving Joni Mitchell’s voice, as freeing. Also here is Smith’s much discussed essay on “Get Out,” in which she marks as fantasy “the notion that we can get out of each other’s way, mark a clean cut between black and white.” The cultural critic is often joyful, essentially saying art makes and marks freedom. Smith won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “On Beauty” in 2006.
“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight
This magisterial biography argues that its subject was among most transformative figures of the 19th-century. It begins with President Obama speaking of Douglass’ “mighty leonine gaze” at the 2016 dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It ends with the Robert Hayden’s superb poem “Frederick Douglass” that asserts when freedom comes, it will be “with the lives grown out of his life, the lives/Fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.” Blight, a fluid, graceful writer and Yale historian, has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to this text. He won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012 for “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”
“Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” by Lillian Faderman
In her crisp, beautifully researched biography, Faderman makes the case that Harvey Milk led many lives before he was martyred: Navy diver, math teacher, Wall Street securities analyst, Broadway gofer. Only in his final few years did he find his footing as a San Francisco politician. She begins by describing him as “charismatic, eloquent, a wit and a smart aleck,” and depicts a complex man with real enemies, real courage, real flaws and boundless energy. Much that animated Milk traces to his Jewish roots, making this portrait a snug fit in the Yale University Press’ acclaimed Jewish Lives series. Faderman won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Gay Revolution,” another definitive history, in 2016.
“In the House in the Dark of the Woods” by Laird Hunt
Every good book list should contain a fable, and the gifted Hunt delivers a stellar haunting with his latest, palm-sized novel. It opens in colonial New England with the classic trope: a woman goes missing in a forest. Hunt, a Brown University professor, lets his eighth novel excavate ancient fears of females kidnapped, women straying and maternal abandonment. But here the central figures narrates her own agency: “Through the dark woods I walked, thinking less and less of my son and of my man.” Hunt creates rapt historical fiction, as he did in “Kind One,” his Anisfield-Wolf honored novel from 2013. It serves as the start of a profound Midwestern trilogy, including “Neverhome” and “The Evening Road.”
“Invisible” by Stephen L. Carter
Subtitled “The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,” this biography of the author’s grandmother astonishes. Eunice Hunton Carter, herself the granddaughter of slaves, was 8 in 1907 when she declared she wanted to be a lawyer “to make sure the bad people went to jail.” A team of 20 crackerjack attorneys assembled to convict Lucky Luciano; the other 19 were white men. Thanks to Carter’s strategy, the prosecution won. The author, a Yale law professor, realized while writing this book that an earlier novel had been an unsuccessful homage to this formidable, intimidating Harlem original. In 2003, he won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”
“John Woman” by Walter Mosley
The author thought about this political and philosophical thriller for 20 years. It contains a murder and a disappearance, but it is not, Mosley says, a mystery. Instead it centers on a boy, Cornelius Jones, who is 12 as the story begins. His father is a silent film projectionist in the East Village; his mother is a sensualist backing out of Cornelius’ life. Five years later, Cornelius reinvents himself as “John Woman” and starts an intellectual movement drawing on his father’s notions of the slipperiness of history. The author, who won his Anisfield-Wolf prize in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” describes his new book as “a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”
“A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems” by Marilyn Chin
In her first book since winning a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for “Hard Love Province,” Chin draws together 30 years of dazzling, transgressive, witty work as an activist poet. “From the start of my career I waxed personal and political and have sought to be an activist-subversive-radical-immigrant-feminist-international-Buddhist-neoclasical nerd poet,” she writes from her home in San Diego, where she teaches comparative literature at the state university. Chin is masterful at making pain both visible and less tragic by throwing it into a cheeky, double-vision, East-West light. She writes to her grandfather, on his 100th birthday, “This is why the baboon’s ass is red.”
“A Shout in the Ruins” by Kevin Powers
The author of the deeply moving debut novel “The Yellow Birds,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book award in 2013, shifts his story-telling onto his home turf of Richmond, Va. He unspools two intertwined tales – one set at the end of the Civil War; the second steps off 90 years later as construction for the Richmond-Petersburg turnpike dismantles the city’s African-American neighborhood. Powers has said that he is drawn to stories of communities responding to violence. Called “gorgeous, devastating” in The New York Times, the novel suggests readers grasp that “the truth at the heart of every story, that violence is an original form of intimacy, and always has been, and will remain so forever.”
“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan
This picaresque yet deeply haunting third book from a brilliant Canadian author landed on ten best-of-the-year lists. She won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2012 for her equally stunning “Half-Blood Blues,” a European war novel set to a jazz beat. Both books were short-listed for the Booker Prize. In “Washington Black,” Edugyan begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados, where her title character is an 11-year-old who escapes bondage in a hot-air balloon piloted by the master’s brother. The story is an original in the derring-do explorer’s genre, probing self-invention, betrayal and the gradations of freedom — particularly as it limits both men. And the writing here moves like clear water across landscape and dialogue.
When Jesmyn Ward took the stage with Ayana Mathis, each novelist glanced around the warm, lush Maltz Performing Arts Center in Cleveland and toward the hundreds of faces turned in their direction.
“Here we are,” said Mathis, “two black women on a stage, two writers able to talk with each other; it’s really a beautiful thing.”
Bathed in applause, Mathis acknowledged that this wasn’t their first public duet. When contacted about staging a conversation, Ward, winner of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, requested Mathis, whose debut novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” garnered an Oprah Book Club selection in 2012.
Seated comfortably, each in boots and black trousers, the pair gave an intimate master class in the craft of fiction, part of the Skirball Writer’s Center Stage series produced by the Cuyahoga County Public Library.
“It deepens my understanding of how invested slave owners and white plantation owners were in the institution of slavery,” she said.
“It was foundational history,” said Mathis, who grew up in Philadelphia.
“Foundational, exactly,” Ward replied. “It allowed them to build what they saw as an idealized version of society for themselves. I feel that, that past, and it allowed me to make my characters richer.”
Mathis, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., observed that Americans have a contentious relationship with poor people. Ward responded, “I grew up poor, my family has been poor, both sides. All those generations in southern Mississippi have lived in poverty.”
“I’m reacting in some ways to the negative, preconceived notions people have about poor people: they are spoken about but never spoken to,” Ward said. “One reason I am so attracted to writing first-person point-of-view is because then the characters speak for themselves.”
“Hmm, hmm, hmm,” affirmed Mathis, whose own fiction focuses on characters who otherwise might go unremarked. She brought up William Faulkner, who, like Ward, created a fictional rural Mississippi county populated with poor folk.
Ward said that she revisits “As I Lay Dying” and “Absalom, Absalom!,” soaking up Faulkner’s lyricism.
“But I don’t think he serves his black characters well,” she said. “They are not given the rich interior lives, and I am very aware of that. He doesn’t allow them the same humanity and complicated quality that Faulkner’s white characters possess. I am always thinking about my characters — I feel them, feel for them, and I feel conscious of the ways black characters are short-changed in his work. I don’t know if readers who aren’t writers notice this.”
Both women spoke about their aversion to outlining fiction; how they find the characters they create surprising them, chuckling about its almost mystical coloring. “The process of writing the rough draft is very intuitive,” Ward said. “It’s as if the character is next to me telling me things. . . I feel real sympathy for children made to bear adult burdens. I tell stories about them because I am very interested in how they survive, how they are marked.”
Ward has said once she discovered how to enter “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” with Pop and JoJo slaughtering the goat for the boy’s 13th birthday, the writing flowed. Her next novel is set in New Orleans – her first venturing outside Mississippi – in the late 1830s, early 1840s during the domestic slave trade. She said she has its beginning in hand.
Both Mathis and Ward tell stories of family and young people, for whom sympathy is easily extended. Ward said she had to pause in writing “Sing” one-third of the way in because of her hostility to Leonie’s failings as a mother. Ward realized that she needed to pause to better understand the wellspring of Leonie’s pain, and made it concrete in the death of Leonie’s brother.
“There were times when I still disliked her,” Ward admitted, “but I love her. Leonie’s great character flaw is she can’t sit with her loss, can’t sit with her grief. So she lashes out, uses substances.”
Mathis observed dryly that readers judge mothers harshly; “fathers are allowed to go out more.” She then asked Ward if she saw her writing in the Southern Gothic tradition.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” started as a road story, Ward said, but once she began researching Parchman Farms, the Mississippi state penitentiary, she realized she needed to make the boy inmate Richie a ghost. “He had to have some of the power he’d been denied in life,” she said of this character’s agency, “so ok then, we’re going to have to make a ghost story work.”
As far as genre, Ward said, “There is so much suffering. Part of what Southern writers are struggling against is the past, our obsession over the past. History has its weight on what we see. Southern Gothic might be writers trying to wrestle with the veneer of gentility, over the crime of slavery,” she said, “what made southern life possible started with the genocide of indigenous people, the crime that enabled that civilization to flourish.”
Each book, Ward said, teaches her how to write it: “Writing ‘Sing’ made me feel like I had taken a seat at the table and now I am loathe to let it go.”
The new novel from Laird Hunt, “In the House in the Dark of the Woods,” has the feel of a hymnal. It is palm sized and red, and it contains a story nestled in the Puritan Colonial era.
Hunt, 50, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2013 for “Kind One,” a haunting Civil War novel inspired by a short passage in Edward P. Jones’ masterpiece “The Known World.” Hunt is drawn to fable and journeys and psychological complexity. The new novel wastes no time entering the woods.
The first two sentences, in the voice of the narrator, are “I told my man I was off to pick berries and that he should watch our son for I would be gone some good while. So away I went with a basket.”
The woman goes missing, and Hunt excavates the ancient fears of women who abandon their families and women who are kidnapped and women who wander away without explanation. The epigram for the new work comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”:
Deep into that darkness peering,
Long I stood there
This eighth novel from Hunt, now a professor at Brown University, continues his assured, lyrical and disruptive storytelling. Readers who enter his fiction already know that these woods will be strange and harrowing indeed.
Poet Toi Derricotte, whose 1998 prose publication “The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey” remains a pillar of American literature, has not been idle. The University of Pittsburgh Press will bring out a new book of her poetry, “I,” in March of next year.
Derricotte, 77, an emeritus professor at the University of Pittsburgh, co-founded Cave Canem in 1996, a revolutionary space for black writers. Nikky Finney calls it to this day “the major watering hole and air pocket for black poetry.”
“The Black Notebooks,” comprised of Derricotte’s journal entries from more than 20 years, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction in 1998. Two years ago, Derricotte introduced her friend, poet Rita Dove, in Cleveland for a celebration of 30 years of Dove’s work. Sociologist Orlando Patterson called that night one on the great gatherings of his life.
Listen to Derricotte read her new poem, “The blessed angels,” here:
How much like
angels are these tall
gladiolas in a vase on my coffee
table, as if in a bunch
whispering. How slender
and artless, how scandalously
alive, each with its own
humors and pulse. Each weight-
bearing stem is the stem
of a thought through which
aspires the blood-metal of stars. Each heart
is a gift for the king. When
I was a child, my mother and aunts
would sit in the kitchen
gossiping. One would tip
her head toward me, “Little Ears,”
she’d warn, and the whole room
went silent. Now, before sunrise,
what secrets I am told!—being
quieter than blossoms and near invisible.
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