Edwidge Danticat began her remarks in Cleveland by drawing attention to another artist, the painter Jacob Lawrence, whose migration series was on display last year at the Museum of Modern Art. Danticat, who has family in Brooklyn, New York, said she often walked the long rectangular room, soaking in the art as a way to reflect on the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charlotte, South Carolina.
“What kept me glued to these dark silhouettes is how beautifully and heartbreakingly Lawrence captured black bodies in motion, in transit, in danger, and in pain,” she said. “The bowed heads of the hungry and the curved backs of mourners helped the Great Migration to gain and keep its momentum, along with the promise of less abject poverty in the North, better educational opportunities, and the right to vote.”
Danticat won a 2005 Anisfield-Wolf Book award for her novel “The Dew Breaker” about political violence in Haiti and the consequences in New York. She returned to Cleveland to speak at Case Western Reserve as part of the Cuyahoga County Library’s Writers Center Stage series.
Case President Barbara Snyder praised both Lisa Nielson and Kaysha Corinealdi, Anisfield-Wolf SAGES scholars at Case, for their work teaching and mentoring on campus. Snyder then turned the lectern over to Corinealdi, who introduced Danticat from the breadth of her own scholarship on the Caribbean diaspora. Read her introduction, below.
Over the years I have had the great joy and honor to read and also share with my students a number of our guest speaker’s works. I can still recall my first readings of Krik? Krak! (1995) and The Dew Breaker (1998) and how with each story I asked myself, who is this Edwidge Danticat? How can she capture in such a nuanced and unflinching fashion the nature of being a young girl in a new country, the voices of ordinary women and men caught in the middle of brutal geopolitical and national events, the daily making of diaspora by exiles and migrants, and the experiences of parents, children and lovers having to make impossible choices and hoping that in time, they will find forgiveness, if not from within, at least from future generations.
I am not ashamed to say that in reading these stories and many of Danticat’s later works, I would find myself both eager and afraid, jubilant and sad, to turn the next page.
Teaching Edwidge Danticat’s work has likewise proven to be an inspirational and humbling experience. Few authors have the skill to elegantly navigate between fiction and non-fiction. Indeed, Danticat is one of a select group of writers to be honored for her work in both genres. It is this ability to illuminate the fictions in history and the historical resonance in fiction that most impresses my students.
Through her intricate story telling and her acute awareness of the histories that live with us, and the histories that at times haunt us, Danticat also dares us to include ourselves, our most vulnerable selves, in writing, living, and remembering history. This semester, in a course inspired by Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners, my students are reading Danticat’s memoir Brother, I’m Dying (2007). With a mixture of admiration and general curiosity, my students have wondered aloud about Danticat’s own journeys, her experiences with displacement, and her choice to write about love and responsibility in ways that crossed the boundaries of bloodlines and geography.
Today they had the opportunity to share some of these questions and observations with the writer herself, and in watching these exchanges I emerged an even greater fan of tonight’s speaker.
Before I turn over the stage to our speaker I must take the time to note some of her remarkable achievements. Edwidge Danticat is the winner of numerous awards, including the American Book Award (1999), the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize in Fiction (2005), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography (2007), a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant (2009), the Langston Hughes Medal by the City College of New York (2011), the One Caribbean Media Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (2011), and her latest novel, Claire of the Sea Light, was shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (2014).
In addition to her literary achievements, our speaker has over the years put into practice the notion of activist artists and artists as public intellectuals. In particular she has spoken out against dehumanizing portrayals of Haitians and Haitian Americans in the U.S. media, shed light on the deplorable conditions of U.S. immigration detention centers, urged us to mourn and collectively denounce violence against black bodies in the Americas, and most recently, helped educate the U.S. public about mass deportations and denationalization targeting Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.
Through her literary and public intellectual and activist work, our speaker gives us much to aspire to as readers, students, scholars, and concerned citizens of the world.
A. Van Jordanmade an October appearance at Market Garden Brewery’s Brews & Prose event, sharing snippets from his latest work, “The Cineaste,” in front of a packed crowd. We caught up with the Akron native for a brief chat on the personal significance of winning the 2005 Anisfield-Wolf award:
When the starter failed Tuesday in A. Van Jordan’s car, the poet leased a rental and made a deadline dash from Ann Arbor to Cleveland. He arrived in good time to read five poems for “Brews and Prose,” a monthly literary series at Market Garden Brewery that uses beer to try to ease art away from its academic moorings.
Jordan, 48, a University of Michigan professor, won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2005 for “M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A,” which explores the life of MacNolia Cox, the first black child finalist of the National Spelling Bee in 1936. She grew up in Akron, as did Jordan, who infuses his work with history, physics, and music.
A year ago, Jordan told an audience at Arizona State University, “I went to a kind of crappy high school where we didn’t read novels. We were reading out of readers.” But a summer library program widened his vision, as did the coffee shops of Washington, D.C., where Jordan worked as a young environmental reporter and discovered open mic nights.
“A brother who can write is far more threatening to the status quo—and I mean the Negro status quo as well as the white—than a brother with a gun and pants hanging off his butt,” he told an interviewer for Baltimore’s “Spectrum of Poetic Fire.”
In Cleveland, Jordan used his pleasing baritone to introduce listeners to his latest poetry collection, “The Cineaste.” The Rumpus reviewer, poet Sean Singer, called it Jordan’s “best book (so far).”
Its 25 poems each focus on a film, from “The Great Train Robbery” to “The Red Balloon” (introduced to young Van in that Akron library series) to “Blazing Saddles.” Jordan called the Mel Brooks comedy “one of the most brilliant films on racism in America” and launched into his piece that begins:
What is so funny about racism
is how the racists never get the joke.
In most settings, racists stick out
like Count Basie’s Orchestra in the middle
of a prairie, just as awkward as he is . . .
One of the most moving poems in “The Cineaste” is “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing,” the title of a 1987 movie by Patricia Rozema about unrequited lesbian longing. It begins, “Often, I find myself in situations/for which there are not adequate epigraphs.” Jordan read it in Phoenix, and in Cleveland. Here is a video clip – the poem begins at 2:45:
When we see Haiti in the news, it is often downtrodden and negative. Edwidge Danticant, our 2005 winner for fiction, tries to bring a different light to Haiti through her work. In a 2011 interview on PBS, shortly after the Haiti earthquake of 2010, Danticat talks about the side of Haiti we rarely get to see. “The beauty surprises people sometimes. The physical beauty of certain parts of Haiti, the beauty of the arts – the music, the paintings, the literature – that Haiti, I want people to also know.”
In our rush to get to Thanksgiving dinner, we missed the anniversary of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” 2011 winner Isabel Wilkerson reminded us through a post on her Facebook page (she’s just FULL of wonderful factoids about African American history), including a rare photo of Samuel L. Jackson (third from left), who starred in the play as Boy Willie.
It was 25 years ago today, Nov. 23, 1987, that the August Wilson play, The Piano Lesson, made its world premiere, starring Samuel L. Jackson (3rd from left) as Boy Willie, at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The play would win the Pulitzer Prize. In its scenes play out the legacy of slavery and the Great Migration…. Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh from Mississippi in 1936 and clashes with his sister, Berniece, who had migrated north.
The conflict is over an upright piano, which held the history and secrets of the family’s hardships in the South. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy the land where their ancestors had toiled as slaves and sharecroppers. The sister wants to keep the piano because of the sacrifice at which it had come and the memory it contains.
The playwright August Wilson was a product of the Great Migration — his grandmother walked from Spears, N.C. to Pittsburgh. The play was inspired by a collage called “Piano Lesson” by another child of the Migration, the artist Romare Bearden….
2005 Anisfield-Wolf winner Edwidge Danticat visited the Tavis Smiley show on PBS to discuss her latest work, Create Dangerously. She discusses the origins of the book’s title, the difference between immigrant artists and American-born artists, and whether art should be considered a luxury or necessity.
2005 winner Geoffrey C. Ward‘s latest book covers familiar ground—history—but also gives readers insight into his family history. The book is titled, A Disposition to be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States (quite a mouthful!). The focus of the story is on the life of Ferdinand Ward, Geoffrey’s great-grandfather—the Bernie Madoff of the late 19th century.
Geoffrey Ward cuts his great-grandfather no slack. He describes a whiny, bullying, self-pitying narcissist who, once caught, didn’t even try to justify his behavior. The best things to be said about Ferd Ward are that he was reckless and ruthless enough to be worth reading about. And that when he tried to kidnap Clarence Ward, Geoffrey’s grandfather, he at least had some kind of reason. Clarence’s mother, Ella, had died; Ferd wanted access to her estate even if he had to steal his terrified boy in the process. Yet, somehow, “A Disposition to Be Rich” is written without malice.
Tell us – will you check out Ward’s latest work? Do you think you could have written a book that airs out the family’s dirty laundry?
We honored Ward with the 2005 award for nonfiction for his gripping account of what happens when your talent is outshadowed by the color of your skin and the times you live in. In 2005, Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward teamed up to produce a documentary on Johnson’s life, which can be seen in its entirety below. Click here for a synopsis.
We’ve been in a real August Wilson mood around here lately and with good reason. Residents of Northeast Ohio (our neck of the woods) will have the chance to see five of Wilson’s plays from his Pittsburgh Cycle, his ten-play cycle on the Black experience in the 20th century.
The website and corresponding book, “The Top Ten,” tackles that very question, asking celebrated writers to list their favorite 10 books. It’s so simple yet incredibly fascinating to see which authors select which books and what genres they love.
A few of our own Anisfield-Wolf authors have been featured on the site—Joyce Carol Oates and Edwidge Danticat. Check out their picks below:
Top Ten List for Edwidge Danticat
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Germinal by Emile Zola
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Night by Elie Wiesel
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Trial by Franz Kafka
Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain
Top Ten List for Joyce Carol Oates
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson
The Stories of Franz Kafka by Franz Kafka
The Red and the Black by Stendhal
The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence
Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Are any of these books on your top 10 list? Share your favorites in the comments below!
In this interview, 2005 Lifetime Achievement Award winner August Wilson gives his opinion on everything from African-Americans visiting to Africa to whether the Cosby Show was realistic for its time. There aren’t many interviews with Wilson available, so we hope you take some time to listen to his passionate views on race and culture. Let it spark a conversation today.
2005 Anisfield-Wolf Award winner Edwidge Danticat gets emotional after receiving the Langston Hughes medal at the 2011 Langston Hughes Festival, celebrating writers from the African diaspora. Past winners of the Langston Hughes medal include Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Ralph W. Ellison, August Wilson, and Derek Walcott—all Anisfield-Wolf Award winners as well! As Danticat said during her emotional acceptance speech, “My life, for reasons that only the universe fully understands has been one in which I always feel I am walking in the footsteps and on the shoulders of giants.” Congratulations to Ms. Danticat for a well-deserved honor!
In the video below she talks about the history and the power of storytelling in Haitian culture and talks about her new book, “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.”