Watch Our New Jury Honor Our Class of 2024 In This Announcement Video


The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, presented by the Cleveland Foundation, today announced the winners of the 89th annual awards. The 2024 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:

“It is a great pleasure to recognize this year’s winners, who have used their unique voices and experiences to spark critical conversations,” said jury chair Natasha Trethewey, poet, memoirist and Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University. “This class joins past recipients, who include literary luminaries and contemporary thought leaders, in leveraging the power of words to explore and confront some of the most challenging topics facing us today.”

Trethewey, a 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for non-fiction, received a Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2007 and served as the nation’s 19th poet laureate from 2012-2014.

Members of the Anisfield-Wolf jury — Trethewey, Rita Dove, Peter Ho Davies, Tiya Miles and Steven Pinker — salute the new class. Watch the video below as they welcome the newest additions to the Anisfield-Wolf canon.

“This year’s winners join an Anisfield-Wolf canon of literature that has challenged the way that we think and inspired action in individuals around the world,” said Nicholas Roman Lewis, director of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.

This year’s award winners are among more than 260 recipients of the prize. Past winners include seven writers who won Nobel prizes – Ralph J. Bunche, Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, Gunnar Myrdal, Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott.

Nicholas Roman Lewis has joined the Cleveland Foundation as the Director of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Lewis, who has served as a literary agent and entertainment attorney, as well as an alumni relations leader at Yale University, will focus on increasing the visibility and impact of the Awards locally, nationally, and internationally.

The 2024 winners will be announced at a March 26 event with author and 2022 AWBA fiction winner Percival Everett, in partnership with the Cuyahoga County Public Library. The event is free and open to the public.

Lewis joins the Cleveland Foundation from Yale University, where he served as senior director for shared interest and identity groups for the Yale Alumni Association. He has also served as a literary agent for authors of several books, including “Ghetto Nation,” “A Love Noire,” “Darker Still,” Leanna Renee Hieber’s “The Eterna Files,” as well as award-winning author Cora Daniels and John Jackson’s “Impolite Conversations.” In addition, Lewis has worked as an attorney in the fields of theater, television, music, and film.

“Nicholas comes to the Foundation with unique and robust experience in publishing, entertainment and community engagement, as well as a successful history in building strong relationships across a diverse range of stakeholder groups,” said Lillian Kuri, president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation. “We are fortunate to welcome such a talented leader as we look to further elevate the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards while preserving its long-standing heritage.”

An Ohio native, Lewis received his Juris Doctorate from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Yale University.

“I am thrilled for the opportunity to build on the important work started by Edith Anisfield Wolf nearly 90 years ago,” said Lewis. “I believe in the power of literature to drive the conversation on social justice and look forward to expanding the reach of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards nationally and beyond.”

As previously announced, Karen R. Long will retire after an impactful 11 years leading the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Prior to her role with AWBA, Long spent an impressive 34-year career at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, including as book editor. She will remain with the Cleveland Foundation as a consultant through July 2024.

Updates to Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Jury

The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards welcomed several new jurors for 2024, as three jurors retired after years of dedication to AWBA, including long-time jury chair Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Retiring jurors:

  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr., literary critic and professor, Harvard University
  • Joyce Carol Oates, novelist, Princeton University
  • Simon Schama, historian and professor, Columbia University

The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards jury for 2024 is comprised of five award-winning authors and leaders in the literary and academic fields.

  • Natasha Trethewey, poet and memoirist, Northwestern University (jury chair)
  • Peter Ho Davies, novelist, University of Michigan
  • Tiya Miles, historian, Harvard University
  • Rita Dove, poet, University of Virginia (returning juror)
  • Steven Pinker, psychologist Harvard University (returning juror)

The eighth annual Cleveland Book Week brought five literary powerhouses — poet Saeed Jones, historian Matthew F. Delmont, novelists Geraldine Brooks and Lan Samantha Chang and lifetime achievement winner Charlayne Hunter-Gault — to unique venues all across the city.

Our in-person programming was facilitated by our partnerships with Karamu House, Dunham Tavern Gardens & Museum, Cleveland Police Mounted Unit, Asia Plaza, East Technical High School and the City Club of Cleveland.

Watch all of this year’s programming below, in full:

2023 Ceremony Highlights

Saeed Jones at Karamu House

Saeed Jones‘ second poetry collection, “Alive at the End of the World,” contains 46 poems in a book Rita Dove calls “an aching reminder that a queer Black man leads a meta existence; he cannot live without thinking about living, constantly negotiating the everyday with an eye to the peril that can intrude at any time, from police violence to the minutest reactions from highbrow bigots.”

Geraldine Brooks at Dunham Tavern Museum & Gardens

Anisfield-Wolf Juror Joyce Carol Oates said Geraldine Brooks’ “Horse” was “a truly poignant tale and very richly developed.” Juror Rita Dove called it beautifully written: “I have nothing but praise for her evocative descriptions of Black jockeys and trainers.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault at The City Club of Cleveland

Charlayne Hunter-Gault first made history in 1961 when she desegregated the University of Georgia after she mounted a successful legal challenge that granted her admission. In 1963, the Georgia governor declared her marriage to University of Georgia classmate Walter L. Stovall, who was white, “a shame and disgrace.” The state’s Attorney General even threatened prosecution.

Charlayne has worked for The New Yorker, The New York Times, PBS, NPR, and CNN. She has received multiple awards, including an Emmy and Peabody for her distinguished work covering the Apartheid at PBS NewsHour. In her latest book, My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives, Charlayne chronicles her lifelong commitment to reporting on Black people in their totality, from the Civil Rights Movement to the election of Barack Obama, and beyond.

Lan Samantha Chang at Asia Plaza

Joyce Carol Oates called Lan Samantha Chang’s novel “The Family Chao”: “an outstanding work of fiction,” saying she had read nothing else of late as ambitious or accomplished. Rita Dove enjoyed the book’s multi-faceted nature.

Matthew F. Delmont at East Tech High School

Anisfield-Wolf Juror Steven Pinker praised Matthew F. Delmont’s “Half American” as a “book heroically researched, rich in historical detail, well organized and written. This will probably stand as the landmark treatment for years to come.”

by Charles Ellenbogen

Ray Carney has a problem any parent will recognize. The protagonist of “Crook Manifesto” – the second in Colson Whitehead’s Harlem trilogy — has a daughter, May, craving tickets to the Jackson 5 concert, which is sold out. Carney, a once part-time crook trying to become a full-time furniture salesman, still has connections and taps into them in exchange for a promise of concert tickets. He agrees to do a favor and, as any casual reader of crime novels can predict, this leads him into a much more tangled and serious situation than he anticipated.

Those seeking an innovative plot are better served by Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” (both won Pulitzer Prizes) or “John Henry Days,” which earned an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award more than 20 years ago.

Instead, “Harlem Shuffle” rewards readers with its language, character, setting, and commentary.

Of New York City (the very definitely a character), Whitehead writes in an Algrenesque style, “City like this, it behooves you to embrace the fucking contradictions.” Note the absence of the “In a” and the contradiction within the statement about contradictions; the same person uses the word ‘behooves’ and a profanity in one breath.

The camera doesn’t just stay on Carney, though. Whitehead places Pepper center stage in the second section of the novel. We first meet him when he’s working security: “His technique: glaring with his arms loosely crossed; lifting a skeptical eyebrow when civilians got too close to the perimeter; the occasional grunt to warn someone off. He was a six-foot frown molded by black magic into human form. It sufficed.”

This novel makes brilliant use of short phrases and punctuation. Consider those final two words “It sufficed.” The reader falls into rooting for Pepper. What places this novel squarely in the five-star ranks, though, is Whitehead’s commentary. While many crime novels might incidentally have a comment to offer about the wealthy class in Los Angeles, Whitehead’s trilogy is, in the end, a loving and critical history of Harlem.
On the surface, each of the three sections of this story are centered around an historical event – the last, in 1976, is infused with New York’s celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial. The upcoming holiday sets Carney scrambling for an advertising tie-in. One possibility? “Two hundred years of getting away with it.” Neither Carney nor Whitehead need to define “it.” It’s in the city’s and the nation’s DNA.

Based on “Harlem Shuffle” and “Crook Manifesto,” Whitehead seems to be aligned with James Baldwin, who wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

The corruption, the fires, the neglect, the architecture, the poor, the wealthy, the music, the food, the police, the criminals and the furniture – Whitehead sees them all as intertwined, all as part of the problem, as part of the legend. People, mostly white though sometimes Black, keep finding ways to profit off Harlem. As the city struggles with bankruptcy, even Hollywood finds a way to make money off people like Ray Carney. Just as he can’t stay away from his criminal past, none of the city’s elements can disentangle. It seems Carney and Whitehead wouldn’t want it any other way.

The ending, though, will leave you wondering how Carney will respond to New York in the upcoming third novel.

The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 88th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2023 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:

  • Geraldine Brooks, “Horse,” Fiction (Viking)
  • Lan Samantha Chang, “The Family Chao,” Fiction (W.W. Norton)
  • Matthew F. Delmont, “Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad,” Nonfiction (Viking)
  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Lifetime Achievement
  • ·Saeed Jones, “Alive at the End of the World,” Poetry (Coffee House Press)

Members of the Anisfield-Wolf jury — chair Henry Louis Gates Jr., poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates and psychologist Steven Pinker — salute the new class in the video below. 



Geraldine Brooks, 67, crafted her ninth book, “Horse” to imagine the relationship between Lexington, a legendary antebellum American racehorse, and his Black groom, Jarret, as the stallion rises to greatness. The novel toggles between the 1850s, the 1950s and 2019, where a pair of young D.C. intellectuals are caught up in the horse’s story through art and science. What resulted, according to Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr., is “a dazzling achievement, a brilliant example of how to turn historical events into a fiction that stands on its own.” Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for “March.” A native of Australia, she graduated from the University of Sydney before working as a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald. Brooks went on to earn her master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and worked as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She lives in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts and was named an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2016.


Lan Samantha Chang, 58, crafted “The Family Chao” – which earned a spot on Barack Obama’s 2022 summer reading list – as a comedic retelling of Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” through the lens of a dysfunctional Chinese-American family. They own a restaurant in small town Wisconsin until the patriarch is murdered and others rush to impose a sinister twist on their American dream. Anisfield-Wolf Juror Joyce Carol Oates extolled the novel as “an outstanding work of fiction”’ that she found to be exceptionally accomplished and ambitious. Chang has directed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for 17 years. She graduated from Yale University and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She herself is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. The American Academy in Berlin, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation all granted her fellowships. Earlier books include “All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost” and “Hunger.” She lives with her husband and daughter in Iowa City, Iowa.


Matthew F. Delmont, 45, is a historian whose “Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad” explores the vital contributions that Black men and women made to the United States’ victorious effort in World War II, only to return home to find segregation and racism athwart their schools, communities and jobs. “The role of African Americans in World War II rewrites our understanding of ‘the greatest generation’ in the ‘good war,’ given the shocking discrimination and harassment of millions of patriots willing to risk their lives in it,” Anisfield-Wolf Juror Steven Pinker notes. “The tension between the America-vs-Fascism clash and the White-America-vs-Black-America clash highlights the way in which humans belong to multiple overlapping coalitions, and how a recognition of these contradictions can lead to moral and historical shifts.” Delmont received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and his master’s and doctorate in American studies from Brown University. He is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College. He lives in Etna, New Hampshire, with his family.

Lifetime Achievement

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, 81, made history and chronicled it as a journalist, author and lecturer. Alongside her high school classmate, Hamilton Holmes, she desegregated the University of Georgia in 1961 amid taunts, tear gas, vandalism and a riot. She graduated in 1963, embarking on a storied career in journalism that began at The New Yorker. She was the first Black writer for “Talk of the Town.” The assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. interrupted a brief stint in graduate school and led Hunter-Gault to join the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C. She then went on to The New York Times – establishing the paper’s Harlem bureau – and then PBS, where she won numerous Emmy and Peabody awards. Hunter-Gault became NPR’s chief correspondent in Africa and then CNN’s Johannesburg bureau chief from 1999-2005. The following year, she published the book “New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance.” A Peabody citation declared that she “demonstrated a talent for ennobling her subjects, and revealed a depth of understanding of the African experience that was unrivaled in Western media.” Hunter-Gault, mother of daughter Suesan Stovall and son Chuma Gault, currently lives in Sarasota, Florida, with her husband, Ronald Gault.


Saeed Jones, 37, is a Pushcart Prize-winning poet and writer whose first collection of poetry, “Prelude to Bruise,” was a 2014 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His 2019 memoir, “How We Fight for Our Lives,” won the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction. “Alive at the End of the World,” Jones’ second collection, contains 46 poems that sweep from strict verse to prose paragraphs. Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove calls the book “an aching reminder that a queer Black man leads a meta existence; he cannot live without thinking about living, constantly negotiating the everyday with an eye to the peril that can intrude at any time, from police violence to the minutest reactions from highbrow bigots.” Jones, who moved from New York City to Columbus, Ohio in 2019, received his bachelor’s from Western Kentucky University and his master’s from Rutgers University-Newark. He was the founding LGBTQ editor and the executive culture editor at BuzzFeed.

Filmmakers Leslia Asako Gladsjo and Sam Pollard wanted to make a documentary about the  Tulsa Massacre, the two days in 1921 when a white mob burned down 35 prosperous square blocks of Black businesses, churches, schools and homes, killing an estimated 300 Black residents. 

But as the 100th anniversary of the massacre generated more awareness, the long-time collaborators pivoted to tell a bigger story. 

“So for Sam and I, it was really important to say, wait, it wasn’t just Tulsa!” Gladsjo said via a Zoom interview from her home in New York City. “We wanted to seize this moment, where people were looking at the destruction of Black Wall Street and looking at how it’s a continuing pattern up until today.” 

So  the pair co-directed “Rise and Rebuild: A Tale of Three Cities,” a documentary following four residents of Atlanta, Chicago and Wilmington, N.C. as they work to reclaim Black neighborhoods after decades of systemic destruction and targeted violence.  

Gladsjo and Pollard have spent their respective careers documenting the Black experience in America, having first worked together in 2000 on a project for BET. Since then, Gladsjo has produced several historical projects, including 2019’s “Why We Hate” and 2016’s “Black America Since MLK” miniseries, while Pollard has worked on films chronicling the lives of Sammy Davis Jr, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, among others. 

But for this film, she said, they wanted to shift the lens to the present day: “We both wanted the background to be this continuing destruction of Black wealth, but also the unbelievable heroism of people who are doing something anyway.” 

Enter Erika Allen, one of four subjects in “Rise and Rebuild.” Allen is the co-founder of Chicago’s Urban Growers Collective, a sustainable farming nonprofit that provides more than 18,000 pounds of fresh produce each year to some of the city’s most food-insecure residents. 

“They built this huge green energy center, which is not only a place that’s encouraging farming and creating compost for all the farms around the city but it also produces electricity, green energy, that’s going into Chicago’s power grid that the community actually benefits from,” Gladsjo said. “All this out of what used to be a dump.”  

Over the course of a year, Gladsjo and Pollard followed Allen through Chicago’s South Side, alongside Wilmington realtor Brenda Dixon, Atlanta club owner Devon Woodson, and South Fulton mayor Khalid Kamau. In each city, the filmmakers tagged historians to provide context of the Black neighborhoods profiled. 

“As I started to read the history, the more angry I got. Without reparations, how can you have any conversation?” Gladsjo wondered. “In the film you can feel the hopefulness and the energy from people in the film, but any real effort to address this history has to start with reparations.”

For Gladsjo, the conversation is more personal than theoretical. 

“I’m Japanese-American and my grandfather was incarcerated during World War II,” Gladsjo shared. “We got a small reparations check — was it enough to make up for the fact that he wasn’t able to keep his business as a stonemason and his family didn’t have a breadwinner for those years? But we’re talking about a few years here, we’re not talking about generations.” 

Gladsjo continued: “It’s important to tell these stories but also to be sure that the foundation of the history was there so you don’t think ‘Everyone should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and start a little business and it’s all going to be great.’ No, the problem is the history, these generations of injustice that have continued every time Black communities have built something, which shows this incredible resourcefulness. But it’s been stolen. You have to acknowledge that first.” 

Watch “Rise and Rebuild” during Cleveland International Film Festival. Moviegoers can receive a $1 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: AWBA. This film is the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community match for 2023.

Join us Monday, April 3 as award-winning poet Adrian Matejka announces the new class of Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners.

Matejka won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2014 for The Big Smoke, a marvelous, nuanced, polyphonic exploration of the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion.

His latest work, Last on His Feet, is a graphic biography returning again to Johnson and his 1910 fight against Jim Jeffries, dubbed the “Battle of the Century.”

He’ll appear at the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s Parma-Snow branch to read selections from his work and announce the winners of the 88th Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.

Adrian Matejka is the Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry at Indiana University Bloomington. He is the author of four collections of poems, including The Big Smoke and Map to the Stars. His latest collection of poems is Somebody Else Sold the World, published in July 2021. 

Matejka resumes the pre-pandemic tradition of bringing former winners to Cleveland to announce and celebrate the new class. Jericho Brown (2015, poetry) and Marlon James (2015, fiction) returned to Cleveland in 2019 and 2018, respectively, to make the announcement.

This event begins at 7 pm and is free and open to the public. Books will be available for purchase and signing courtesy of Mac’s Backs.

Looking for some new titles to pick up? Check out some recent releases from Anisfield-Wolf award winners – you already know the writing is deft and the topics strong. Here are just a few gems we suggest sit atop your 2023 pile:

Lillian Faderman delivers yet another scrupulously researched historical volume with “Woman: The American History of an Idea.” In 400 pages, Faderman seeks out the fluid contours of womanhood, from American Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet to rapper Cardi B.

The title character of Isabel Allende’s latest novel is Violeta Del Valle, a centenarian whose life is bookended by pandemics. In the epistolary novel addressed to an essential character in Violeta’s life, the reader follows the narrator from her birth to her last moments, a witness to the last hundred years of upheaval.

Prolific poet Victoria Chang delivered three books since the start of the pandemic — the Anisfield-Wolf award-winning “Obit” in 2020, “Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence and Grief” in 2021 and this year’s “The Trees Witness Everything.” She read from the latter during this year’s Cleveland Book Week celebration, describing the book as an experiment with different syllabic forms, including Japanese wakas. She also explored these volumes on our podcast.

Mohsin Hamid probes identity, culture and belonging in “The Last White Man,” in which the white protagonist awakens to discover his skin has turned “a deep and undeniable brown,” setting off a chain of events in which other white people, too, find their skin darkened. The Aspen Words Literary Prize just named the book to its fiction longlist, with the winner announced on March 6, 2023.

Namwali Serpell‘s highly anticipated second novel “The Furrows” plunges the reader into tragedy — 12-year-old Cee lost her younger brother in a drowning incident when the pair are together. His body was never found, leading to an unresolved haunting for Cee, her parents and family friends. Tope Folarin of The Atlantic hailed it as “a book about how imagination and love and faith can help you escape a furrow.” Editors named this novel to a dozen best-of-the-year lists.

The second installment in Marlon James‘ Dark Star fantasy trilogy, “Moon Witch, Spider King”, debuted to critical acclaim in February. A twisting tale of African mythology and history, James assured readers that the sequel stands on its own — they can read this or the first installment, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” in either order.

Finally, for readers drawn to the topic of friendship, consider Kamila Shamsie’s “Best of Friends.” Two girls in Karachi grow into very different women in London, but whose pasts come round to confront them. Questions of loyalty and principle stand athwart their long-buried bond, and whether they can renew what they meant to one another as girls.

For the third year, our literary celebrations continue with a one-hour awards documentary featuring our 2022 winners: Percival Everett (fiction), Donika Kelly (poetry), George Makari (nonfiction), Tiya Miles (nonfiction), and Ishmael Reed (lifetime achievement). 

Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosts.

Book lovers gathered in person for the first time since 2019 to celebrate Cleveland Book Week this fall, with a variety of events taking place Sept. 9-16 featuring past and present Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winners.  

In case you missed them, or would just like to enjoy again, you can watch recordings of author events showcasing 2022 poetry winner Donika Kelly, 2022 fiction winner Percival Everett, 2022 nonfiction winner George Makari and 2021 poetry winner Victoria Chang, as well as the full recording of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony held on Sept. 15 at the Maltz Performing Arts Center.  

Check out highlights from the awards ceremony:

Donika Kelly

2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards poetry winner Donika Kelly discussed the healing power of poetry and her award-winning work “The Renunciations” at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland on Sept. 14.

A Reckoning with Shared History: Lynching and Percival Everett’s “The Trees” 

2022 fiction winner Percival Everett joined Black Environmental Leaders at St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic Parish to discuss his novel “The Trees” at a community event commemorating the 1911 lynching of John Jordon.

George Makari at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens 

Nonfiction winner George Makari discussed the roots of xenophobia with Case Western Reserve University Department of History Chair and Theodore J. Castele Professor Dr. Jonathan Sadowsky at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens.

Ishmael Reed

This year, the multilingual poet, publisher, novelist, playwright, cartoonist, and lyricist became an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award lifetime achievement award recipient. He spoke at the City Club of Cleveland’s Friday Forum to discuss his life and career. 

An Evening with Victoria Chang

2021 poetry winner Victoria Chang shared readings from her book “Obit” in Lake View Cemetery’s Community Mausoleum. 

2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Ceremony 

Watch the full recording of the awards ceremony honoring the 2022 class: poetry winner Donika Kelly, nonfiction winners George Makari and Tiya Miles, fiction winner Percival Everett and lifetime achievement winner Ishmael Reed.  

“Fantasy drives us all,” declares Professor Valentino L. Zullo, the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Post-Doctoral Fellow in English and Public Humanities at Ursuline College. He begins this fall. 

Zullo should know. A psychotherapist in psychoanalytic training at the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center, Zullo is a scholar and a national authority on comics. The 33-year-old has gravitated toward the physical act of drawing and story-making since his mother first took him from their home in Chardon, Ohio to a comics bookstore, where Sonic the Hedgehog called out. 

As the son of immigrants, comics also helped him learn English. 

“It was quite difficult at times,” Zullo said of his childhood, “being Middle Eastern, being queer, especially after September 11, when language like ‘terrorist’ was coming at me. It’s a tough town, although with lovely people there.” 

Arriving at Kent State University was a revelation, particularly the class in 18th-century English literature, which stretched his mind in fresh, challenging ways. At one point, Professor Vera Camden asked students to list books they liked reading. After giving an answer he thought she’d want, Zullo hesitated, then added, “If you want to know the truth, really, I enjoy reading comics.”  

Camden’s response: “Why don’t you study comics?”

Those five words, Zullo said, altered the course of his life. “That’s the teacher I want to be,” he said, “someone who can listen and see a future for me.” 

In 2016, Camden and Zullo staged a highly successful Wonder Woman symposium at the Cleveland Public Library. That year, Zullo became the first scholar-in-residence for the Ohio Center for the Book, a job he did so vibrantly that the center decided to make the position permanent.  

Zullo, meanwhile, earned a Master of Social Work at Case Western Reserve University and began to teach at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where the creative use of the physical space in the classroom inspired him.  He has organized comics-making workshops in the Rising Star roastery. The grittiness of Cleveland and the making of such stories strikes Zullo as kismet. 

“How can we find narratives that students didn’t know were there?” he asks. “How do we organize ourselves to push back against oppression instead of falling into despair? How do we avoid the doom-scrolling and use our strong feelings for good?” 

Ursuline English Professor Katharine Trostel said Zullo was a knock-out as a candidate for the Anisfield-Wolf fellowship. She said, “When I read the following lines in Dr. Zullo’s job materials, I knew that he was the perfect fit for Ursuline: ‘My teaching philosophy ultimately finds its origins in my identity as a first-generation college student, a queer child of immigrants, whose relationship with the humanities gave me personal freedom.’  

“We welcome his enthusiasm for the public humanities, his deep belief in the transformative power of language, and his commitment to teaching and mentoring a new generation of civically engaged Clevelanders.”  

Zullo lives with his partner, Steve Jacobs, a swim coach at Shaker Heights High School, and their five rescued animals: two dogs and three cats. One cat, Azar, is named for the Farsi word for fire. 

Since 2016, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have hosted Cleveland Book Week, to celebrate its past and present winners and showcase Greater Cleveland’s diverse literary and literacy community.

The Great Lakes African American Writers Conference (GLAAWC, pronounced “glossy”) joined Book Week in 2018.

This year, Literary Cleveland’s annual Inkubator Writing Conference has joined to make the 2022 festival the largest and most collaborative literary celebration yet.

Literary Cleveland will kick off the 2022 Book Week with the Inkubator Writing Conference, with online literary panels running September 6-8. The in-person component returns to the downtown Cleveland Public Library September 9-10. The organization will hold free writing workshops, panel discussions, craft talks, readings, and more to empower writers, advance artistic dialogue, celebrate literary excellence, and amplify local voices. 2022 speakers include Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards events will take place September 14-16, with the ceremony to be held Thursday, September 15 at the Maltz Performing Arts Center.

The 2022 AWBA winners coming to Cleveland are:

  • Percival Everett for “The Trees” (Fiction)
  • Donika Kelly for “The Renunciations” (Poetry)
  • George Makari for “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia” (Nonfiction)
  • Tiya Miles for “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake” (Nonfiction)
  • Lifetime Achievement winner Ishmael Reed

The series of Book Week programs will be capped off by the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference on September 17, which will relocate this year to its new home at the Cleveland Public Library, Main Branch in downtown Cleveland. The conference will feature the prolific award-winning author Walter Mosley as the Langston Hughes Literary Keynote, along with free music, spoken word, lectures, panel discussions, and much more celebrating the African and African American literary arts. Additionally, a Sunday Brunch on September 18 features two-time James Beard Award-winning culinary author Toni Tipton-Martin and local celebrity chef Eric Wells.

Mark your calendar now for these engaging events and more as the calendar evolves with further details.

In “Shine Bright,” music critic Danyel Smith makes it plain she wants “credit to be given where credit is due.”  

Subtitled “A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop,” Smith puts the story of Black women singers into her shimmering pop music memoir, interweaving their stories with her own rise as one of the nation’s preeminent music writers. The result is intoxicating.  

Scan the table of contents and the usual suspects are there: Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin. But Smith makes the inspired choice to include those with a smaller spotlight — among them 1960s girl group The Dixie Cups, Linda “Peaches” Greene of ‘70s duo Peaches & Herb, and Broadway songbird Stephanie Mills, who had a string of hits in the ‘80s. 

An Oakland native, Smith, 56, received her first paid writing assignment in 1989 — covering a Natalie Cole concert for ten cents per word. By 1994 she had been named editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, making her the first woman to helm a national music magazine. A few years later she moved on to become an editor-at-large at Time, Inc, and editor at Billboard, The Root and ESPN’s The Undefeated. 

That swift rise was at times scalding. Smith battled racism and sexism in multiple professional settings. “I hadn’t gone to NYU, or Columbia, or Brown,” she writes. “In fact, I had no college degree. I was unmoved by Basquiat. I did not view New York City as the center of the cultural universe. I could feel the energy, though, of fools feeling I was an inch too East Oakland, years before I was told.”  

Music served then, as it has most of her life, as a balm; she came to lean even heavier into the beats and lyrics of her favorite artists. As a child, she dwelt in the shadow of her alcoholic stepfather, whose cruelty might have inadvertently pushed the young creative into a career as a writer.  

Smith recalls an incident in sixth grade where her stepfather ripped out pages of her diary and burned them, angry that she had been writing about him. “You want to write something?” he dared her, pointing at a window. “Describe the fucking sunlight.”  

This story is tucked into her chapter on Gladys Knight, who also navigated abusive men to achieve success. The chapters read like mini magazine profiles, with Smith inserting her story organically, an approach that might not have been tolerated at Billboard. At times, it can be a little disorienting (wait, what year was the interview with Janet?). But the richness is in the details — Smith dug up what sandwiches Gladys Knight ate at her tenth birthday party. 

Smith shares that she was driven to create a more complete, truthful record: “What if no one ever gets [Black women] right? What if our spirits and stories are never truly known? It could so easily be that we — except for our songs, our art, our children — were never here at all.”  

“Shine Bright” puts light on some of the complex Black women who make the immortal American music. By including herself, she helps readers understand why.

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 VQRN+1Gulf CoastThe 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.



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 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 Allende has created a lifetime’s body of work full of essential reads.

Violeta,” her latest novel, is no exception, out now from Ballantine. Written in her native Spanish and translated by Frances Riddle, she uses the story of one woman’s life to take the reader through communities, countries, conflicts, and continents.

Violeta Del Valle is the title character, a centenarian whose life is bookended by both pandemics. In the epistolary novel addressed to an essential character in Violeta’s life, the reader follows Violeta from her birth to her last moments, a witness to the last hundred years of upheaval. She was a child who could not be controlled, an “expert in a variety of afflictions,” who goes from mimicking her mother’s “eternal illness” to an eventual old woman who credits her own good health to living a life “proudly ignoring any and all ailments.”

Born in a mansion in Chile’s capital, Santiago, Violeta and her family are exiled from the only city she knows after a tragedy brought on by a combination of global politics and her father’s underhanded business dealings. She comes of age in the quiet Southern countryside, a setting that will become a center of atrocity, later, during the country’s bloody revolution. When her first husband won’t grant her a divorce, she’s devastated that she cannot marry her lover, the father of her two children.

But the estrangement from her husband, whose connections to cruelty lay deeper than expected, gives her the financial freedom to build a life connected to men without being controlled by them. It’s a life led in Chile and then all over the world — with scenes in Cuba, Miami, California, Norway — but one punctuated by grief, the high stakes of country and kin intertwined through the powerful personal narrative in which Allende excels. In one instance, at the height of the coup, Violeta asks her ex-lover, Julian Bravo, to use his military connections to smuggle their adult son out of the country; his sneer on whether he was successful—or helped at all—amplifies Violeta’s despair.

The novel is a heroine’s journey, feminine in its cyclical darkness, born of blood and smelling like death. Violeta navigates the underworld, filled with men who are criminals and kingpins, mobsters and militants, pilots and priests, Nazis and the occasional good guy.

But, remember, Violeta emphasizes to her reader, the good ones never win.

On this point, I disagree with the title character. In the relationships Violeta values the most, the characters choose right even when the odds don’t look good. What I love about Allende’s work is that she populates her books with people who are deeply affected by each other, yes, but also by the time in which they live and the groups whose values they uphold, by each character’s capacity to change against the backdrop of historic and systemic injustice designed to retain power. Violeta’s grandson is one example, the rebellious boy who nearly gets expelled from Catholic school and then, with the revolution all around him, becomes a Jesuit priest, modeled on the real-life Chilean hero, Felipe Berríos del Solar, to whom Allende co-dedicates the book.

Violeta is a complicated and imperfect narrator, a character neither free of sin, ambivalence, nor bile. As she explains in her first letter:

I imagine someday, when you are old and less busy, you might want to stop and remember me. You have a terrible memory since you’re always so distracted, and that defect gets worse with age. I think you’ll see that my life story is worthy of a novel, because of my sins more than my virtues. You have received many of my letters, where I’ve detailed much of my existence (minus the sins), but you must make good on your promise to burn them when I die, because they are overly sentimental and often cruel. This recounting of my life is meant to replace that excessive correspondence.

We see Violeta on both the wrong side of history and on the front lines of justice. I loved how her love changes her (in ways I didn’t expect), how her humor and her drive create a shield of resilience, and how she discovers, as she puts it, “courage is contagious and that there’s strength in numbers; what you can’t do on your own can be achieved together, the more the better.”

That courage comes not in the absence of death, but in a grief so deep even decades of “military machismo” cannot stamp it out. The threads of grief and death hold the novel taut, as in much of Allende’s best work.

“Violeta,” written in a time of deep communal grief, was also inspired by a personal one, the death of Allende’s mother, with whom she shared thousands of letters. Allende has walked more than her fair share of miles down the path of grief, and her experience shows. Violeta’s big moments rocked me, but it was the small ones that devastated me, a simple phrase like “I love you more than anyone in this world,” that made me long for my own late mother to untangle Allende’s themes together. Grief and motherhood, the choices we make that define us, who we’ve loved, how and where we’ve lived, and those we’ve left behind, all tango on the page in a way that cracked me open. In a way that allowed me to feel what I’ve mostly kept at bay during this pandemic time of solitude and isolation.

Maybe it’s because I cradled the book in bed, reading straight until dawn, but Allende’s words moved my nebulous feelings—floating somewhere in the periphery—directly into my center, the most intimate and rewarding reason that I read.

Brandi Larsen serves as the board president for Literary Cleveland and writes books and essays. She is the co-writer of UNCULTURED: A Memoir, forthcoming from St. Martin’s.

Recitatif,” a rare Toni Morrison short story, arrives in book form today with a rigorous, close reading from London critic and novelist Zadie Smith.

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.