In “Shine Bright,” music critic Danyel Smith makes it plain she wants “credit to be given where credit is due.”
Subtitled “A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop,” Smith puts the story of Black women singers into her shimmering pop music memoir, interweaving their stories with her own rise as one of the nation’s preeminent music writers. The result is intoxicating.
Scan the table of contents and the usual suspects are there: Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin. But Smith makes the inspired choice to include those with a smaller spotlight — among them 1960s girl group The Dixie Cups, Linda “Peaches” Greene of ‘70s duo Peaches & Herb, and Broadway songbird Stephanie Mills, who had a string of hits in the ‘80s.
An Oakland native, Smith, 56, received her first paid writing assignment in 1989 — covering a Natalie Cole concert for ten cents per word. By 1994 she had been named editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, making her the first woman to helm a national music magazine. A few years later she moved on to become an editor-at-large at Time, Inc, and editor at Billboard, The Root and ESPN’s The Undefeated.
That swift rise was at times scalding. Smith battled racism and sexism in multiple professional settings. “I hadn’t gone to NYU, or Columbia, or Brown,” she writes. “In fact, I had no college degree. I was unmoved by Basquiat. I did not view New York City as the center of the cultural universe. I could feel the energy, though, of fools feeling I was an inch too East Oakland, years before I was told.”
Music served then, as it has most of her life, as a balm; she came to lean even heavier into the beats and lyrics of her favorite artists. As a child, she dwelt in the shadow of her alcoholic stepfather, whose cruelty might have inadvertently pushed the young creative into a career as a writer.
Smith recalls an incident in sixth grade where her stepfather ripped out pages of her diary and burned them, angry that she had been writing about him. “You want to write something?” he dared her, pointing at a window. “Describe the fucking sunlight.”
This story is tucked into her chapter on Gladys Knight, who also navigated abusive men to achieve success. The chapters read like mini magazine profiles, with Smith inserting her story organically, an approach that might not have been tolerated at Billboard. At times, it can be a little disorienting (wait, what year was the interview with Janet?). But the richness is in the details — Smith dug up what sandwiches Gladys Knight ate at her tenth birthday party.
Smith shares that she was driven to create a more complete, truthful record: “What if no one ever gets [Black women] right? What if our spirits and stories are never truly known? It could so easily be that we — except for our songs, our art, our children — were never here at all.”
“Shine Bright” puts light on some of the complex Black women who make the immortal American music. By including herself, she helps readers understand why.
Joseph Earl Thomas expects to earn his doctorate in English from the University of Pennsylvania in 2024, but that road now leads through Cleveland, a town he will meet in August.
Thomas is the third Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards fellow in creative writing and publishing, named this week after an international search by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. The Philadelphia-centric writer, who grew up in the Frankford neighborhood, draws inspiration for his teaching from the essays of fellow Philadelphian Samuel R. Delany, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement prize in 2021.
Delany, 80, is a towering figure in science fiction and fantasy, as well as an important literary critic.
Typically, Thomas gives his students an exercise “in which they attempt to generate genre-less on one hand, and genre-maximalist sentences on the other, in order to better understand the relationship between the performance of craft and affective expectation as they exchange these sentences with each other,” he writes. “By giving students the confidence to improve upon the skills they already have, I would like to invite them to write, speak and think themselves and new communities into being.”
Grand Central will publish Thomas’ memoir “Sink” in February 2023. Thomas, who is 33, began writing this genre-bending exploration of a Black child’s interior life in his early 20s, although he gravely doubted that he could earn a living as a writer. Instead, he joined the U.S. Army, like many of his friends, for an income.
“I was broke, working a million different jobs and still struggling to make it,” Thomas said in a telephone interview. “Like many people, I turned to the military for training and stayed 13 years. I studied biology, my undergraduate degree.”
Thomas is currently at work on a novel that draws upon his experiences as a Baghdad-deployed medic and EMT. He won a Chautauqua Janus Prize for an excerpt of “Sink” and the Miami Book Fair Emerging Writers fellowship.
“I use the title ‘Sink’ because it calls to mind both the terrifying quality of sinking, despite everything, but also the physical thing, the sink where everything gets tossed out or clogged up in but is still pleasurable to watch when it’s working well,” Thomas said.
Hilary Plum, interim director of the CSU Poetry Center, reflected on the fellowship search she led that attracted more than 100 applicants: “Every two years, we’re honored to hear from wonderfully impressive and engaged emerging writers—who are also teachers, editors, scholars, critics, organizers—from around the country and world. To encounter this breadth and depth of literary work is a source of hope.”
“Prose writer Joseph Earl Thomas is stunningly innovative with his inimitable memoir of childhood, ‘Sink,’” Plum said. “He writes across genres, his work omnivorously informed — by the structures and insights of video games, Black Studies, fantasy and sci-fi, digital life, realities of race and economic inequality, the speculative building of possible worlds — and committed to creating new forms. We’re thrilled to welcome his writing, teaching, editing, and community work to Cleveland.”
Thomas receives a two-year appointment to teach one class per term, focus on his writing and hone his editing hand at the poetry center, which publishes several books per year. His first course for undergraduates will be on multi-genre creative writing.
His own work has appeared or is forthcoming in VQR, N+1, Gulf Coast, The Offing, and The Kenyon Review. He earned an MFA from The University of Notre Dame and has received fellowships from Fulbright, VONA, Tin House, and Bread Loaf.
For “Sink,” Thomas said, “I try to take as seriously as possible the subjectivity of Black kids, to depict the thoughts and feelings of childhood as important in and of itself, a mode of life we all shared. I try to make an argument that we should takes these subjective worlds of childhood as seriously as the philosophical feelings of adults.”
Thomas has a son, Joseph Jr., 11, who has read “Sink,” and a daughter, Leah, 9.
He follows the 2018 inaugural Anisfield-Wolf fellow Leila Chatti, author of “Deluge,” currently the Mendota lecturer in poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the 2020 fellow, Kamden Hilliard, whose first full poetry collection, “MissSettl,” arrives from Nightboat at the end of May 2022.
The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 87th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2022 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:
Percival Everett, “The Trees,” Fiction
Donika Kelly,“The Renunciations,” Poetry
George Makari, “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia,” Nonfiction
Tiya Miles,“All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake,”Nonfiction
Ishmael Reed, Lifetime Achievement
All five members of the Anisfield-Wolf jury — chair Henry Louis Gates Jr, poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, historian Simon Schama and psychologist Steven Pinker — salute the new class in the video below.
ABOUT OUR WINNERS
Percival Everett is an experimental writer of novels, short stories and poetry. “The Trees” opens as a comic story in Money, Miss. before morphing into a metaphysical commentary on lynching, racism and police brutality – a mystery tied to the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till. “This is a wickedly clever novel of ideas in the guise of genre fiction, a combination of mystery, thriller, police procedural and absurdist comedy,” said Anisfield-Wolf Juror Joyce Carol Oates. Read more…
Donika Kelly graduated from Southern Arkansas University and went on to earn her MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers and a doctorate in English from Vanderbilt University. Her first book of poetry, “Bestiary,” won the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award. “The Renunciations” responds to her childhood trauma and exists in part to recast its meanings. It also speaks to a wife and lover exiting the speaker’s life. Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove lauded these poems: “Several mini-sequences are woven throughout; their periodic reappearance – the “Dear –” erasures, Self-Portraits, Sightings, Oracles – acts as a subtle yet devastating reminder of the cycle of violence. I returned to Kelly’s book, and she set me gasping anew. This is poetry of the highest order.” Read more…
George Makari is an historian, psychoanalyst, and psychiatrist whose “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia” was a Bloomberg Best Nonfiction Book of 2021. The text is a riveting investigation into the history of an idea, xenophobia, which was declared the 2016 word of the year by Dictionary.com. The word, unlike antisemitism and racism, puts the emphasis on the perpetrator — not the victim — of these irrational fears, bigoted hatreds, and indefensible acts. “We see countless books that consider instances of racism,” Anisfield-Wolf Juror Steven Pinker notes. “Very few seek to understand it as a phenomenon to be studied and analyzed. ‘Of Fear and Strangers’ does that, free of cliché and jargon.” Read more...
Tiya Miles is a public historian who wrote the 2021 National Book Award-winning “All That She Carried” after learning about a plain cotton sack discovered at a flea market near Nashville. “All That She Carried” traces the history of three women, Rose, her daughter, Ashley, and her great-granddaughter, Ruth, who embroidered 10 lines of their matrilineal story of coming out of slavery on the sack. “I found it enormously illuminating, incredibly moving – it made me think in fresh ways about this long and difficult and challenging history,” writes Anisfield-Wolf juror Simon Schama. Read more…
Ishmael Reed — a poet, novelist, playwright, lyricist, cartoonist, musician and founder of small presses and publications — has remade literature. He has done so across six decades with satire, curiosity, teaching and an increasingly global reach. Known as “Uncle Ish” to his many admirers, the 1998 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient remains a fierce critic of the tokenism of multi-cultural artists and of establishment media. The New Yorker magazine positioned Reed in 2021 as “a canonical author of the 20th century and an underground voice of the 21st.”
“Reed is one of the most extraordinary and fearless authors in the great tradition of American satire. He is also, without question, the godfather of Black postmodernism, and one of the most continuously innovative and prolific writers at work today,” said Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. Reed serves as a distinguished professor at California College of the Arts. Read more…
Look for interviews with the class of 2022 in the upcoming season of The Asterisk*, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards podcast.
A 2014 road trip to a North Carolina brewery sparked the idea for Aaron Hosé’s film, “One Pint at a Time.” The documentary will screen twice at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April.
The Florida-based filmmaker and his wife/producing partner Brigitte took a weekend trip to Asheville, where the couple fell in love with craft beer. (Farmer Ted’s Cream Ale from Catawba Brewing Company was the specific brew that lit the flame.) But as the Hosés continued to explore their new shared passion over the following year, the director noticed something felt amiss.
“When you consider the amount of people of color who are beer consumers, that makes up one third of the consumer market, yet you have less than one percent of Black people who own breweries, that doesn’t seem to make sense,” Hosé said in a phone interview. “That was the jumping off point for me to make the film about the Black experience in craft beer.”
Over the course of four years, Hosé and his team followed three Black-owned brewing companies as they perfect their recipes, hunt for brick-and-mortar locations, and expand their brew into new territories.
“I like being as observational as I can,” Hosé said. “You’re actually filming people’s lives as they grow. They’re evolving as human beings and professionals. You want to be open to sticking it out as long as it takes.”
Hosé swept the country, traveling from New Haven, Connecticut, where dance instructor Alisa Bowens-Mercado launched Rhythm Brewing Co., to Tampa, Florida, where Huston Lett co-founded Bastet Brewing, named after the Egyptian cat goddess.
Hosé interspersed the journey of the brewers with beer industry experts, who discuss the beverage’s African origins.
One standout is the crew behind Cajun Fire, a brewery attempting to set roots in New Orleans East. Founder Jon Renthrope started dabbling in craft beer after Hurricane Katrina and after founding his company in 2011, is still working on a physical location. The company’s plans to build a cultural hub — an on-site brewery with space for a community garden, event space and cultural museum — have been met with resistance, with neighbors lobbying for a change in local codes to prevent the brewery from being built.
While the challenges accumulate, the wins get camera time as well. It’s incredibly satisfying to watch Lett mingle with customers in his own brewery after seeing him begin the film in his garage.
For Hosé, the progress is the point. His goal is for viewers to question their own habits: Are there local brewers they could support?
“Look around and investigate,” Hosé said. “Show them some love. That’s one of the ways we’ll move the needle in the right direction.”
Watch “One Pint at a Time’‘ Friday, April 1 at 5:05 pm or Saturday, April 2 at 12:05 pm. Tickets are $14 for film festival members; $16 for others. Moviegoers can receive a $1 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: AWBA. This film is the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community match for 2022.
For most of her childhood, professor Daisy Hernández, believed her aunt Dora Capunay Sosa died from eating a contaminated apple. It wasn’t until adulthood that she understood the disease that killed her aunt and ten thousand others each year: chagas.
Hernández tells her aunt’s story in “The Kissing Bug,” an intimate, meticulous investigation into an illness that disproportionately affects the Latinx community.
Chagas, named after the Brazilian doctor who described it in 1909, is similar to Lyme disease in that it is not the insect itself that harms the heart and digestive system, but the parasite it carries. These triatomine bugs or “kissing bugs” are found in warm, rural regions, flourishing in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America and South America.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates nearly 300,000 people in the U.S. live with the parasitic infection, nearly all of them immigrants. Another six million carry it outside these borders. But it’s infuriatingly unpredictable — after decades of study, doctors still can’t pinpoint which patients will develop life-threatening symptoms.
In the opening chapter, Hernández, a Miami University professor, explains that the parasite can live in the body undetected for decades, “quietly interrupting the electric currents of the heart, devouring the heart muscle, leaving behind pockets where once healthy tissue existed.”
In some cases, like her Aunt Dora, it will also attack the digestive system. After an exploratory surgery in Colombia, doctors told Hernández’ family that Dora’s large intestine had grown to the point she “had enough for 10 people.”
“This could have easily been a 700-page book,” Hernández said, speaking to an attentive audience at Hiram College in late March. She spent seven years researching not only her family history but crisscrossing the country to find patients and doctors to speak on the history of this little-understood, marginalized disease.
“It is really challenging because you have to not only find a patient but find a patient willing to spend hours with you,” Hernández said. “And in my case, I wanted to interview them over the course of several years.”
One patient, Carlos, slept next to a stack of overdue bills from mounting medical costs, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with his three brothers. Hernández met him as a patient whose heart had been decimated by the disease; she later served as his interpreter at an appointment following a successful heart transplant.
“The Kissing Bug” is Hernández’ third book, after serving as co-editor of 2002’s “Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism” and releasing her memoir “A Cup of Water Under My Bed” in 2014.
“The continuity for me has been Latinx communities and intersectionality and racial justice issues,” she noted.
Hernández quoted a piece of advice from writer Cherrie Moraga: “Some of us have to write the memoir first because we have to clear everything out so a different story can come through. I definitely felt that way with ‘A Cup of Water.’ A memoir of growing up with this immigrant family, with being queer, of having an alcoholic parent, really difficult dynamics, being the first in my family to go to college and have that experience in the U.S….I needed to write all of those stories so I could have space for other stories. I could not have written this book before my memoir.”
Hernández shared that a deleted chapter on America’s link between citizenship and access to health care might find its way into her next book: “Don’t hold me to that, if seven years from now you see me with a very different book,” she joked.
Early this year, Hernández became the first Latina to win the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, which recognizes a book for its originality, merit, and impact, and for breaking “new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence.”
What connects American Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet across 400 years to rapper Cardi B? The answer, for Lillian Faderman, is the concept of womanhood, as she explores in her sharp, scrupulously-researched new book, “Woman: The American History of an Idea.”
Faderman, a professor emerita at California State University, Fresno, draws a line across 500 pages between the two icons. And she brings the same exhilarating vigor found in her 2015 book, “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle.” It earned the Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction prize the following year.
“Woman” began in questions that Faderman’s adolescence posed to her. Born in 1940, the author recalls her junior high school classmates with their “short, tight skirts and see-through nylon blouses” in open rebellion against the mid-century television norms of women like Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver.
The most unruly ones ended up at the Ventura School for Girls, where they were sent to charm classes and church services meant to “reform the girls by inculcating in them the dominant culture’s ideal of womanhood.” This book wonders “how, when and why had that ideal of woman been created.”
Faderman wastes no time sharing who created the ideal: “For centuries, the men with the megaphones did not simply describe ‘woman,’ they prescribed who she must be. They left out of their prescription those who were beneath their concern.”
Faderman begins in the 17th century, exploring the Puritanical influences on white women in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the tyranny Black women faced on forced-labor estates in the Deep South, alongside the leadership some Indigenous women assumed in their nations. The scholar shifts her lens masterfully throughout the book, contrasting the experiences of privileged women with those disenfranchised. A standout is her chapter on women in higher education, full of nuggets such as the fact that Spelman College was named after Laura Spelman Rockefeller, Ohio abolitionist and wife of John D. Rockefeller.
Finalized over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, “Woman” touches on its still-unfolding effects on women’s economic agency. “The pandemic forced a recognition of how tenuous the expansion of women’s lives beyond the bounds of domesticity might be,” Faderman writes, noting the number of daycare centers that had shuttered. “Women can move out into the world only if they are childless or if their young children can be watched over.”
“Woman” closes with an examination of the ways womanhood has morphed within the last 20 years, touching on the expansion of gender identity among Gen Z and the ascent of Vice President Kamala Harris. There is no tidy conclusion.
Perhaps that’s the point, as Faderman writes in the epilogue: “It remains to be seen whether ‘woman’ will always be the default concept that takes hold in times of duress or whether ideas of ‘woman’ have now mutated so completely that there will never be a long return to the prison of gender.”
Readers rooting for the latter would do well to take up this book.
By Brandi Larsen
Isabel Allendehas 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 Larsenserves 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.
The title is a French word for a music that hovers between song and ordinary speech.
In the story, Roberta and Twyla are roommates at a shelter for orphaned or otherwise homeless youth. Their lives unfold over the next 40 pages. Morrison is opaque about which girl is Black and which is white, but sprinkles details: they’re both poor, one has a sick mother, the other’s mother is a woman who “dances all night.”
The girls meet again and again as they grow up, begin families and continue to hold on to memories of their four months together at the shelter.
The short story published in a 1983 collection called “Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women.” Morrison wrote in 1992 that her goal was to craft “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”
The result is uncomfortable, as Morrison surfaces her readers’ impulse to scan each page, each bit of dialogue, for a racial clue. Just when you think you’ve settled on an answer (Twyla’s white, you assert confidently), another paragraph makes you double back.
Even knowing Morrison’s aim, it’s difficult to detach from our deep socialization. Race matters, we know it matters, and to remove it feels like our roadmap has been snatched. We’re driving blind.
Smith notes this conundrum in the introduction: “If race is a construct, whither blackness? If whiteness is an illusion, on what else can a poor man without prospects pride himself? I think a lot of people’s brains actually break at this point. But Morrison had a bigger brain.”
The women collide into each other on scenarios that give readers space to examine their own biases. Is the waitress more likely to be black? What about the mother protesting school integration? Who would be more likely to be on their way to see Jimi Hendrix? Part of the fun is recognizing where bias falls short and commonality emerges.
“Morrison constructs the story in such a way that we are forced to admit the fact that other categories, aside from the racial, also produce shared experiences,” Smith concludes. “Categories like being poor, being female, like being at the mercy of the state or the police, like living in a certain zip code, having children, hating your mother, wanting the best for your family. We are like and not like a lot of people a lot of the time.”
Startling that what was true in 1983 feels fresh almost 40 years later.
As a child in Atlanta, Ayana Gray constantly faced a difficult choice – she could either read fantastical stories about magic and grand adventures but that had few characters of color, or she could read books with Black and Brown characters filled with racism and trauma.
The decision was exhausting. But the tension helped create “Beasts of Prey,” a debut novel that will anchor her Pan-African fantasy trilogy.
“I’m an African American woman, and I know my ancestors came from Africa, but I don’t know where,” Gray told a Cleveland audience. “So, I wanted to write a story that honored the entire continent.”
About 75 listeners assembled to hear Gray at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo this fall just as Beasts of Prey published. “I love zoos, and I’m so happy to be here,” said Gray. “I care about animals, wildlife, and conservation.”
There, amid the camaraderie of school children, final sound checks, and attendees finding their seats, an unexpectedly intimate moment unfolded in the RainForest building.
Gray, alone on stage, delicately turned over a copy of Beasts of Prey, tenderly examining the front and back covers before gently flipping through the first few pages. To a casual observer, Gray may have looked like one of thousands of YA readers. Instead, she is the creator of one of 2021’s most anticipated novels.
Before she was a writer, Gray was a reader. “Reading got me into writing, allowing me to expose myself to as many voices as I could.” For Gray, reading was a way to learn other people’s stories, as well as share her own. “I was frustrated when people didn’t understand me.”
Part of her story stretches to her studies in history and culture as an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas. She spent a semester in Ghana, focusing on decolonization, the Pan-African movement, and the sub-Saharan continent. Gray said she “saw Black excellence and power in a way [she] has never seen before – and it felt magical. . . It was a powerful trip. Not many people know how much history is in Ghana.”
Once she returned to the United States, Gray began writing Beasts of Prey. Throughout the coming-of-age quest story, Gray subtly honors African figures by naming characters after historical revolutionaries. Her own quest to write these characters into existence, particularly the protagonist Ekon, was not smooth. But she experimented with his masculine perspective and eventually came to identify most with Ekon.
Gray’s younger brother, Corey, served as an inspiration for Ekon –although Gray told the audience she would never admit it to him. While Corey is now an adult who stands over six feet tall, Gray still remembers him as a child with a gentle soul and Thomas the Tank Engine pajamas. From an early age, Gray noticed how her brother was perceived in school, and how his behavior was framed differently than his white classmates. “I saw the expectations that were placed on him as a little Black boy. There wasn’t room for him; he had to change himself. I wanted to write a story where boys like him can exist just as they are,” she said.
Gray said her novel included no race-related trauma: “The characters have lots of problems – but racism isn’t one of them. The bad things that happen to them are not because they’re Black, but because they’re going on an adventure.”
The author called for a broadening of the fantasy genre. “People from all walks of life deserve magical adventures – Black people, other people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people.” Gray said she wanted to add to the developing cannon of inclusive literature. “We don’t just need one book – we need a whole shelf of options.”
To that end, Gray has already finished writing the second installment of her Beasts of Prey trilogy. It should arrive in 2022, with the capper in 2023. Netflix is adapting the first book, which Clubhouse Pictures and Brian Unkeless will produce, with Melanie Cooper as the screenwriter.
Meanwhile, Gray said she plans to continue telling magical stories with Black characters. “I have a ‘plot bunnies’ folder,” she said. “[My ideas] are distracting and they hop around.”
The novelist also intends to expand her mentorship of other Black authors, including through innovative virtual competitions such as Pitch Wars, of which she is the managing director.
“So many authors reached back to help me, and it’s important to pay that forward, to lift the ladder as we climb,” Gray said. “I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
In a career spanning nearly 60 years and encompassing over 40 publications, Samuel R. Delany has written memoirs, novels, literary criticism, and personal essays. But he is most frequently cited as a foundational figure in the genre of science fiction for sweeping, dystopian tales like 1975’s “Dhalgren” and inventive, interstellar fantasies like “Babel-17,” published in 1966.
But Delany, known to his friends as Chip — a nickname he gave himself as a child in summer camp — is also a fearless pioneer of gay literature. His memoir, “The Motion of Light in Water,” reveals a life that ran counter to the mainstream culture of the 1960s, including a string of homosexual relationships, during his 19-year marriage to poet Marilyn Hacker.
Science fiction allows space for transgressive worlds in ways that realist genres may not. Look at his Triton, a society on Neptune’s moon free of sexual and gender normativity, or the post-apocalyptic world of the Fall of the Towers trilogy, which is set far in a future in which distinguishing races based on melanin is impossible.
For creating fantastic new worlds that invite us to better reckon with the real ones in which we find ourselves, Samuel R. Delany is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Set in a fictional New York City public housing project in 1969, “Deacon King Kong” begins with a shooting. But former journalist James McBride’s tragicomic novel is not a whodunit but rather a whydunit.
Written with warmth and tenderness, McBride infuses each of his characters with intricate backstories that humanize and intertwine them — from the old, bumbling church deacon who pulled the trigger, to the feared, but talented, young drug dealer he shot, from Italian mobsters to Irish cops to black church ladies. This is not a story of urban isolation but rather of connected and human cacophony.
As he did in his memoir, “The Color of Water” (which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for non-fiction in 1997), McBride again richly imagines the love, violence, and everything in between that forge a community.
For his multilayered and generative understanding of the multitudes of humanity, James McBride is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction.
Four Anisfield-Wolf poets distilled their lines into an hour-long symphony of 15 voices. All are chancellors of the American Academy of Poetry, the host of the performance.
The first to speak, Ellen Bass, began with the 30-word poem of Langston Hughes called “Island:”
Wave of sorrow, Do not drown me now:
I see the island Still ahead somehow.
I see the island And its sands are fair:
Wave of sorrow, Take me there.
“I often think how Langston Hughes could never have known that his poem, written from his own sorrow, would sustain an oldish white lesbian living in a beach town in California so many years later,” Bass said. “I never stop being amazed that poetry can reach across distance and time.”
Bass read two of her own poems, including “How to Apologize,” and let her voice flow into Natasha Trethewey’s. The 2021 Anisfield-Wolf winner for her memoir, “Memorial Drive,” read a single poem called “Quotidian.” It, like her memoir, centers on her mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough.
“In my work I’ve always been concerned with the intersections between personal and public history, our national collective memory — with its omissions, erasures — our cultural amnesia and the enduring need for justice for all,” Trethewey tells the online audience.
Her poem is preceded by a 1964 epigraph from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which as good citizens we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
The poem gives glimpses of Turnbough’s daily life as a young woman around the time of Black’s quotation. She is newly in love with Eric Trethewey, who will become the poet’s father. The final words in “Quotidian” are from Turnbough’s own letter: “’Got to run,” she wrote, ‘have to get downtown to register to vote.’”
Marilyn Chin, Anisfield-Wolf winner in 2015 for “Hard Love Province,” lends her jaunty voice from her sunlit San Diego home to recite “Lockdown Impromtku,” a haiku series.
It begins: “Boyfriend snoring on the yoga mat/who are you smooching in the underworld?” The speaker sees “stone by stone democracy crumbling/into a race war.” Still, “year after year, the pear tree blossoms.” Chin smiles, presses her palms together and bids her listeners “be safe.”
Kevin Young, 2018 Anisfield-Wolf winner for “Bunk,” sits more formally in a book-lined office and holds up his most recent title, “Stones.” The director of the Smithsonian’s African and African American Museum tells listeners that most of the new book is about Louisiana, from which both branches of his family hail.
He begins with the first poem, “Halter,” which itself begins with “Nothing can make me want to stay in this world.” He flips forward to “Dog Star,” in which a boy looks into the night sky, and concludes with “Russet,” which Young says is thinking about graveyards and letting go.
The penultimate poet in the presentation is Tracy K. Smith, the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf recipient for “Wade in the Water.” Her first poem, “Mothership,” is an offering to and commemoration of the poet Kamilah Aisha Moon. It circles into space and the unknown spirit that preoccupies Smith. She concludes with her sweeping, anthem-like piece, “We Feel Now a Largeness Coming On” from her new collection, “Such Color.”
Smith is followed by Joy Harjo, who has taken up Smith’s mantle and is the current U.S. Poet Laureate. Harjo thanks poetry itself “for taking us through these times.” She begins, “The world will keep trudging . . .”
The complete presentation is available here:
Born in Mississippi on Confederate Memorial Day in 1966, Natasha Trethewey’s existence was the result of an interracial marriage, still illegal in the state at the time of her birth. In richly poetic prose, the former US Poet Laureate captures the collective trauma evinced by growing up Black in a society where Black lives matter most as a bolster to white supremacy.
But “Memorial Drive” is also the powerful story of personal tragedy: the murder of her mother in 1985, at the hands of her abusive ex-husband. Trethewey blends her own self-reflection with her mother’s concrete and straightforward account of violence, reproduced from the police record. A portrait of the writer emerges from the transcription of her mother’s voice.
For turning wounds into words that memorialize a life both trapped by and transcendent of its circumstances, Natasha Trethewey is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction.
In “Obit,” poet Victoria Chang prefers the stark, objective language of the journalistic obituary form to the elegy, overflowing with sorrowful and often florid language.
The immediate spark for these poems was her mother’s death in 2015. But Chang’s obituaries memorialize not just people but also lost things—appetite, language, control. Printed in narrow columns as if clipped from a newspaper, these pieces are interspersed with shorter pieces, giving multiple forms to a single voice’s expression of loss.
For giving strikingly original language to the universal experience of grief, in a year in which too many lives have been lost, Victoria Chang is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Poetry.
We’re all too familiar with the recitation of Black history—both in the US and globally—as an unrelenting catalog of sorrow and loss: slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality and other structural racisms. But in “Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War,” historian Vincent Brown presents a different, far more nuanced story, detailing the strategic, political revolt orchestrated by enslaved West Africans in Jamaica in the 18th century.
Even in the dire world of Caribbean slavery, Brown reminds us that Black people were actors in their own story. Brown meticulously plumbs the archive to split open the received British wisdom about the revolt, to represent the enslaved as engineers of a revolt that, though “put down,” in fact destablilized the institution of Atlantic slavery and propelled it toward its eventual abolition.
For rewriting the traditional telling of a brutal era of history, Vincent Brown is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction.
Pittsburgh fiction writer Deesha Philyaw dedicated her award-winning short story collection to her daughters “and for everyone trying to get free.”
That search for freedom marinates each of the nine narratives in “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” named in 2020 a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of The Story Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award.
“I started off writing novels about dissatisfied women,” she said of her earliest drafts. “The early characters were church ladies but I didn’t think of them that way. They were simply women conjured from my memory, and I drew them into my imagination.”
In “Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” the stories are delightfully sexy and compelling. In one, a covert love affair between a pastor and a member of his congregation spans a decade and many, many pans of peach cobbler. In another, a reluctant art teacher finds herself entangled with a scientist. Closing the book is a daughter who finds herself struggling to care for a mother with dementia, who is fixated on the lead singer of The O’Jays.
Writing started as a creative escape for the self-described “stay at home mom with a toddler who never napped.” Philyaw began pouring out short stories and longer fiction pieces, but after her first divorce, she switched to more lucrative avenues — freelancing for magazines, consulting for nonprofits and governmental agencies and teaching at a local college, often at the same time.
Early on, she got advice from a mentor that transformed her view on publishing. “Your growth as a writer is more important than getting published,” she remembers being told. “All of us write terrible first drafts. When you stop resisting revision and welcome it as the only way to make your drafts less terrible, you’re growing as a writer.”
Pittsburgh essayist Damon Young, author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” introduced Philyaw at the conference. He described his friend as a literary Stephen Curry. “She gets better every year,” Young said. “Deesha is an example of how mastery isn’t a static dynamic. It’s a living and breathing process. Mastery involves work.”
That camaraderie between Philyaw and Young extends to a bevy of writers in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. “We are intentionally in community with each other,” she said, noting the famous falling out between Harlem Renaissance contemporaries Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. “It’s individual writers deciding to be good kinfolk to each other and abandoning the scarcity mindset that says ‘There can only be one.'”
Among the Church Ladies’ fanbase is actress and producer Tessa Thompson, who is adapting the collection for a series on HBOMax. Philyaw is scripting the series with co-writer Tori Sampson: “I want to be able to answer all of the burning questions [about these characters] but add some new complications as well.”
As she closed, Philyaw pushed back on an “age ceiling” in publishing. “I was 49 when ‘Church Ladies’ came out. It took me 20 years to get here. While it may have happened sooner, I’m glad I didn’t rush to publish a book that I didn’t love. But I feel I published the best book I could because I had been growing as a writer over these twenty years. I’m glad I didn’t give up when it got hard.”
Join the Ursuline College community for an afternoon conversation with former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, winner of the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction.
Her memoir, “Memorial Drive,” explores her mother’s life and death and the abiding tie between the two women. Trethewey writes of how her mother came to die at the hands of a former husband when the author was 19, as well as the Mississippi context that formed and informed both women.
“When my backstory was written, my mother entered it only as a footnote, or an afterthought – as simply a ‘victim’ or ‘murdered woman,’” Trethewey told the New Yorker. “It really hurt me because her role in my life, in me becoming a writer, was being diminished or erased. I just decided that if she was going to get mentioned then I was going to be the one to tell her story, and to put the important role she played in my making in its proper context.”
Ursuline English Chair Katharine Trostel participated in the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative summer session on teaching “Memorial Drive,” and brought the idea of a campus read of Trethewey’s new classic back to her liberal arts college. Administration and faculty agreed it was an ideal text, especially during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Hear Trethewey share the story of “Memorial Drive” October 28. This virtual event is open to the public, and registration is required.
Mary Fecteau is a senior producer at Ideastream Public Media and director of the 2020 and 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards documentaries. Below, she reflects on the experience of working with the awards staff to pivot from an in-person ceremony to documentary in order to celebrate past two Anisfield-Wolf award classes.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, many of the events I expected to cover as a senior producer for Ideastream Public Media dried up.
Meanwhile across Euclid Avenue, Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, was weighing what to do about the 2020 ceremony. For years, the in-person event brought a crowd of book lovers to Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. But in a year like 2020, she had to get creative. Together, we created an Emmy Award-winning documentary, which was distributed nationally on PBS.
Well, 2021 has turned out to be just as unpredictable as last year, and we were determined to make something just as memorable. After all, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has been a Cleveland tradition for 86 years.
It’s been cited as Cleveland’s best kept literary secret. Founded by visionary philanthropist and poet Edith Anisfield-Wolf in 1935, it has the distinction of being the only American book award designed specifically to recognize works addressing issues of diversity, race and our appreciation of human cultures.
Although many Clevelanders haven’t heard of it, it’s a big deal in the literary world. So frequently is it awarded to African American luminaries, it’s often referred to as “the Black Pulitzer.” Past winners include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison.
This year’s honorees are a fitting addition to that illustrious winners circle: Victoria Chang for “Obit,” her haunting book of poems; historian Vincent Brown for “Tacky’s Revolt,” a rewriting from the ground up of an episode in the Atlantic slave trade; Natasha Trethewey for “Memorial Drive,” a memoir at once clear-eyed and heartrending; James McBride, for his vibrant work of fiction “Deacon King Kong”; and Samuel R. Delany, the lifetime achievement honoree, for his robust, fearless, and genre-spanning body of work, which includes science fiction novels, memoirs and essays.
My colleague, Shelli Reeves, and I spent our summer filming with these brilliant writers in their hometowns. We perused the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Samuel Delany (he’s partial to the Cézannes), crashed James McBride’s band practice at his Brooklyn church, and dug through police records with Natasha Trethewey (some of which served as source material for her memoir).
Our goal was to create an experience for the viewer that is as moving and inspiring as the in-person Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, but it’s also a rare glimpse of writers at the top of their craft, recounting their process. And, of course, it’s once again hosted by the magnetic Henry Louis Gates Jr.
You can watch it September 14 at 9 p.m. on WVIZ/PBS or online. Get a short taste below:
Cleveland Book Week features a one-hour documentary with historian Vincent Brown, poet Victoria Chang, memoirist Natasha Trethewey, novelist James McBride, and lifetime achievement recipient Samuel R. Delany. Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosts.
“The 2021 documentary is intimate, crisp and time well spent with five beautiful minds,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “For viewers who loved last year’s documentary, this second installment is glorious. It both renews and challenges the ways we see the world.”
Stream the documentary via the above video at any time.
Journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson, an authority on the Great Migration and the anthropology of caste, will anchor the Cleveland Foundation’s annual meeting with a keynote conversation Monday, August 23. Guests can register to hear Wilkerson at 7 p.m. here.
Sixty-one years after the writer was born in Washington, D.C., Wilkerson has observations worth attending: about why India and the United States have proven especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, about the traces of caste detectable in this year’s summer Olympics and how she thinks about the January 6 insurrectionists carrying the Confederate flag into the Capital.
“The freedom to be able to decide for oneself what to do with your God-given talents is a very new phenomenon for African-Americans in this country,” Wilkerson observed in 2015 on a visit to Cleveland. She asked her audience to ponder all the wasted human potential through 12 generations of slavery on American soil.
Wilkerson sees these times of pandemic and reckoning as a signal moment to live up to what Martin Luther King Jr. called the citizenry to do, another chance to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.”
The writer will join Daniel Gray-Kontar, founder of Twelve Literary Arts, in a discussion of what Clevelanders might do now.