She called her talk in Cleveland “Why Weep for Stones?” and built it into a riveting meditation on history, art, war and morals. Readers of her fiction – Shamsie won a 2010 Anisfield-Wolf prize for “Burnt Shadows” – will recognize the thematic confluence at once.
Standing in the ornate neo-Gothic Harkness Chapel of Case Western Reserve University, Shamsie drew her listeners into thinking about the political destruction of art, such as the desecration and damage in Palmyra, Syria, amid a civil war that has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives. Recent reports indicate that some of Palmyra’s irreplaceable ruins have survived the fighting.
“What do we celebrate when we celebrate ancient artifacts withstanding savagery?” Shamsie asked, before venturing a few answers in her mellifluous voice. “We celebrate the mere fact of endurance to begin with. We celebrate humanity’s search for beauty in every age and every corner of the globe. We celebrate the expansion of our own ways of seeing, the deepening of our understanding of beauty and art. We celebrate the dedication of the artists and artisans. We celebrate the work of those who preserve rather than destroy. We celebrate human curiosity.”
Shamsie, 43, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, knows a tension exists in valuing art in times of war. “There is no equation for calculating the value of a life against the value of a 2,000 year-old ruin,” she said. “The two acts of decimation cannot be seen in opposition . . . Or to put it another way, if you encounter someone who is going to dynamite a 2,000 year-old temple because they find it offensive you can be pretty sure they’ve killed some people on their way there.”
Such pithiness made Shamsie a highlight of the Cleveland Humanities Festival, which spent the first ten days of April “Remembering War.” The novelist wrote her fifth of sixth novels, “Burnt Shadows,” out of the foreboding of nuclear war threatened between India and Pakistan. The book begins with the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki, and ends in 2002 in a U.S. prison cell, where a character awaits being sent to Guantanamo Bay.
As the scope of “Burnt Shadows” indicates, Shamsie is deeply interested in history. She enlists it often in her writing, including frequent columns in the Guardian newspaper, to combat the amnesia that feeds toxic political impulses.
In 32 A.D., the wondrous temple in Palmyra “was dedicated to the Mesopotamian god, Bel, who is often identified with the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter; during the Byzantine Era the Temple was converted into a Christian church; in the 12th century the Arabs further converted it into a mosque,” Shamsie reminded her Cleveland listeners. “The people of different faiths who worshipped here over the centuries were separated by a great deal but they all recognized the majesty of the temple and were moved to incorporate it into their own belief system.”
Not so for ISIS, or, as Shamsie prefers, Daesh – a term this group has outlawed in the territories it controls. Daesh first desecrated the temple with public executions, then blew it up. Of course, some of this is propaganda. “After a point, the outside word stops being interested in the stories of human victims, but dynamite a 2,000 year old structure and you’re back in the headlines,” she said.
In Pakistan a decade ago, Shamsie started meditating on “why weep for stones” when she visited Peshawar, near Afghanistan at the foot of the Khyber Pass. Within the city, Taliban influence has grown, and her own family in Karachi was nervous about her visit.
The novelist bridled: “It seemed to me I was allowing a kind of propaganda victory to the Taliban in reducing that city primarily to their actions and their influence, and to have very little sense of everything in Peshawar that stood in opposition to their narrow-minded, small-hearted version of the world.”
She found it in the Peshawar Museum, where Shamsie entered “close to a state of rapture.” Nearby is a 2007 excavation trench revealing Peshawar as a continuously-inhabited city back to the 6th century B.C. Persians form the baseline. Then came Greeks, then Indo-Greeks, then Scytho-Parthians, then Kushans, then White Huns, then Mughals, then Sikhs and the British.
Being among Peshawar’s ancient artifacts “in a time when Pakistan is one of the epicenters of the battle within Islam . . . is to be reminded that there are two stories we can tell ourselves about the interaction of different cultures and beliefs,” Shamsie said. “One is the story of conquest and destruction. The other is the story of exchange and deepening knowledge. Both stories are true, but we get to choose which one we choose as our worldview, which one we bear in mind when we consider if we want to build walls or doorways.”
Shamsie first arrived in the United States 25 years ago as a college exchange student. What she found as a Pakistani and Muslim, she said, was welcome. She called on her audience – embroiled in national political rhetoric of walls and banishment – to remember that version of American hospitality, and themselves.
A 200-page book on the untimely death of a spouse hardly seems like it would make for light summer reading. But as I’ve devoured Elizabeth Alexander‘s new memoir, The Light of The World, I’ve discovered that there’s beauty in loss, there’s sparkle in remembrance.
The poet lost her husband, painter and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus (pronounced Fee-kray Geb-reh-yess-oos) in April 2012, days after his 50th birthday. Their 15-year union produced two sons, Solomon and Simon, and a cozy life in Connecticut, where Alexander is a professor at Yale University. She composed “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration; a year later she won the 2010 Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize.
Light does not begin with her husband’s passing, with Alexander preferring we get to know the man before we get to know the ghost. We get to peek into their daily courtship, the mundane aspects of a relationship—leaving for work, waiting up for a partner to get home—taking on a heightened importance. She paints a portrait of a man filled with pride for his Eritrean heritage and an extended family that spanned the globe. Still fresh from her loss, she decided to write this memoir to “fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget.”
Alexander insists that she knew she would marry her husband at first sight, confiding that she felt a “visceral torque” after laying eyes on her future beloved. But perhaps more powerfully, Alexander is able to show how much her husband loved her, how much of his life was dedicated to bringing light to hers.
Readers holding their breath for the details of Ghebreyesus’ death should know that it comes quickly. Here, the pain and uncertainty of death arrive fresh, even though we know what story we signed up to read. Alexander wrestles with the brutal unfairness of it all: “The slim one who eats oatmeal and flaxseed is the one who dies, while the plump one who eats bacon unabashed stays alive.”
Their story is overwhelmingly and achingly beautiful, with passages that elevate ho-hum Sunday dinners to love-drenched culinary affairs. (The inclusion of a few of Ghebreyesus’ best recipes only tease the senses; I’ve got my eye on the shrimp barka.) Their whole lives were art, from the music to the food to the telling of it all—it is a fitting tribute that one of her husband’s paintings adorns the cover.
“What are the odds that we would end up in the same place and fall in love?” she mused. “Once upon a time, halfway around the world, two women were pregnant at the same time in very different places and their children grew up and found each other.” What are the odds, indeed.
More than 200 prominent authors—among them Anisfield-Wolf winners Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie—have publicly objected to the PEN American Center’s decision to present French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo its Free Expression Courage award. Gunmen aggrieved by the magazine’s depiction of Islam targeted the controversial Paris weekly in January and killed a dozen people.
The signatories of an April letter to PEN argue that power and privilege must be considered when defining courageousness in satire: “The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.” One of the critics is former PEN American president Francine Prose.
Defending the decision, her successor, Andrew Solomon, co-wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, noting that, “Satire is often vulnerable to being construed as hate.” Solomon, who won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf prize in nonfiction for “Far From the Tree,” expressed respect for those criticizing the award, but argues their emphasis is misplaced.
“I think that if we don’t endorse people who are taking these courageous stances,” Solomon told NPR, “if we don’t recognize the enormous personal risks they’re taking and if we don’t fully acknowledge that in taking that risk they keep a public discourse alive that otherwise is in danger of being entirely closed down, that we miss the purpose of standing up for free speech.”
Charlie Hebdo editor Gérard Biard is expected to accept the award on behalf of the magazine at PEN America’s annual gala in Manhattan May 5.
For the first time in history, two inaugural poets shared the same stage and spoke about what the experience meant for their lives. Earlier this month, 2009 Inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander (also an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement winner in 2010) and 2013 Inaugural poet Richard Blanco spoke at Yale University, with Blanco making his first public appearance since inauguration.
“I felt a little less exposed with 800,000 people than I do right now,” Blanco joked in front of the small Yale audience. The two spoke about feedback after delivering the poem, Blanco’s writing style, and what role poetry can play in the political realm. The conversation between Alexander and Blanco begins at the 29:30 mark.
Have your debut novel selected as Oprah’s second selection in her book club and you must expect for your life to change, as Ayana Mathis is now finding out. Once The Twelve Tribes of Hattie received the literary world’s highest blessing from Ms. Winfrey, her publisher rushed it to bookstores to capitalize on the wave of publicity soon to follow. Now, Mathis’ name is on the lips of readers’ everywhere, with Oprah even comparing her to the all-time great, Toni Morrison.
Twelve Tribes is a book looking at generations of a family after their matriarch migrates from Georgia to Pennsylvia in search of a better life. In taking a fictional look at the world Isabel Wilkerson told so well in her acclaimed Warmth of Other Suns, a nonfiction piece, Mathis gives it to us straight – no fantasy, just cold-hard truth. The family goes through more than its fair share of heartache throughout the story. As Mathis says in the below interview with Mathis and Winfrey, perhaps identifying the suffering is our way of releasing pain in our lives. Take a look at the interview and tell us what you think.
Martin Luther King III spoke on CBS “This Morning” about his father’s legacy and what it means to have the Inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr Day coincide.
On the eve of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, Yale University hosted a live chat with Elizabeth Alexander, whose “Praise Song Of The Day” was her selection at his first inauguration. Watch the video above for her thoughts on what it’s like to be selected to have a part in such a tremendous day.
In an Art Works podcast hosted by the National Endowment of the Arts, Isabel Wilkerson describes what life was like for African Americans at the turn of the century, at the beginning of the “Great Migration” from the southern states to the northern. It is almost hard to believe that we are only sixty years from this type of lifestyle:
“…many of us believe that we have an understanding of it based on the pictures that we might have seen of the black and white water fountains, for example. But in many ways, that was just the least of it. That was, in some ways, probably what many of them might have been able to live with, considering all that they were really up against. From the moment they would awake in the morning to the moment that they turned in for the night, there were reminders, rules, protocols, expectations, limits, restrictions on every single thing that they might do. In Birmingham, for example, it was against the law for blacks and whites to play checkers together. In courtrooms throughout the South, there was a black Bible and a white Bible to swear to tell the truth on. That meant that if a black person were to take the stand, they could not swear to tell the truth on the same Bible that had just been used for the white eyewitness who might have just testified, so they’d have to stop everything and find a different Bible for that person to use, so that in every sphere of life, anything that could be conceived of was put into law. There were separate staircases, separate telephone booths. Also, interesting enough, one that many young people respond to more than anything is the idea, the fact that an African American motorist was not permitted to pass a white motorist on the road, no matter how slow that motorist might be going. And of course, because a caste system in itself is in some ways hard to maintain–and it lasted for 60 years by law, and longer than that by tradition– it was difficult to maintain. And so therefore, the way to enforce it required violence, and so every four days, somewhere in the South during the time period we’re discussing, the early years of the migration– the early decades of the migration, I should say– there was a lynching of an African American once every four days. And that was what was necessary in order to maintain this caste system, which in some ways was untenable.”
We highlighted the reboot of Oprah’s book club (dubbed Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 as a nod to the newly added interactive elements) with her first pick, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Now she’s announced her next selection, Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Oprah said, “Not since Toni Morrison have I read a writer whose words have moved me this way.”
Oprah Announces Her Second Pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0
This masterful debut novel was so astonishing that Oprah had to share it with the world. Watch to find out what Oprah loved so much about Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Learn more about how you can participate in Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
The answer, as 2010 winner Isabel Wilkerson would like you to know, is that they are all products of the Great Migration. Over the past few months, Wilkerson has been sharing the stories of influential African Americans on her Facebook page, connecting the dots between the past and the present.
Take a moment to browse the stories and let us know: Did you know about this piece of history? Have you read The Warmth of Other Suns? Is it a book you’d recommend to others?
Also take a look at Wilkerson’s “Democracy Now” segment, where she talks about the influences of the Great Migration, including it’s impact on jazz music and Motown.
With the 2012 election cycle behind us (phew!), the focus has again shifted to our elected officials actual job responsibilities and the path our country will take over the next few years.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently profiled the work and legacy of William Julius Wilson, one of our nation’s preeminent sociologists. In exploring his work in the area of race and poverty, the article asked a pointed question: Given all that we know from Wilson’s research and the research of the sociologists who came after him, what, exactly is the end game? What should the government do about poverty?
…Recent research has convinced Wilson that Americans support a level playing field. In speaking about public policy, people should frame programs as vehicles for the poor to help themselves, he now believes. They should spell out problems. And they should not shy away from talking about race.
But for progress to happen, there must be a political will, Wilson says.
“If you don’t recognize that a problem exists,” he says, “you’re not going to do anything.”
Do you agree with Wilson? What do you think should be done about poverty in America?
The 2012 election cycle was filled with a bombardment of political ads, 24-hour news cycles dissecting every possible angle, and an overwhelming sense of hype surrounding who will be our next batch of elected representatives. Some of our winners got in on the action and made a few comments about the election as well.
Junot Diaz, who has been writing consistently about the Latino effect in this year’s election, wrote a special message on his Facebook page. “Obama WINS!” he wrote shortly after the race had been called. “The Latino community came out BIG for Obama. Very proud of my community, very proud of all the new voters, the very proud of all the Obama supporters who put in the time and the hard work to make this happen.”
Never one to shy away from his passions, David Livingstone Smith took the opportunity to remind people of the atrocities happening in East Africa. “While we’re celebrating, they’re dying. How about urging our newly elected officials to take notice?”
Isabel Wilkerson, whose 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, was selected as a top five book pick by President Obama, gave a brief history lessons for her fans on her Facebook page. “‘The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’ Those words, the 15th Amendment, were ratified in 1870. NINETY-FIVE years passed before it was acted upon. Poll taxes, literacy tests and lynchings barred black southerners from voting. It wasn’t until Aug. 6, 1965, when, after decades of protest and violence, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act ‘to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution,’ that everyone was actually permitted to vote.”
Whoever you supported and whatever your political leanings, we hope you took advantage of your right to vote and made a difference in this election cycle!
We talk about all things dealing with race and diversity here at Anisfield-Wolf but there is one subject we haven’t explored much — the rise of hip hop. In this quick video from Big Think (one of favorite sources of videos of all the people you’d want to hear from), 2012 winner Elizabeth Alexander talks about the nuances of African American poetry and the link to hip-hop music. Check it out and let us know what you think.
Book clubs have tended to be a very private thing. Intimate gatherings among friends, book clubs were a simple time to reflect and discuss whatever work happened to have your group’s attention at the moment. With Oprah’s new book club, the experience has been magnified. Featuring webisodes with the authors and an ongoing Twitter conversation, Oprah hopes to take her book club (dubbed Oprah’s Book Club 2.0) to the next level. Check out the first webisode with Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild.
Do you like this type of book club? Will you be participating?
2010 Lifetime Achievement winner Oprah Winfrey (do we even need to say her last name?) had big news to share – she’s ready to bring back her insanely popular book club, ready to tackle an all new landscape. Check out the video above and get the details on what Oprah has up her sleeve.
She’s planning to include reader’s tweets (using the hashtag #OprahsBookClub), Facebook posts and Instagram photos in a social media wrap-up on Oprah.com. The first selection is Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the story of one woman’s trek along the Pacific Coast—on foot. Check out Oprah’s Twitter feed to learn more.
We don’t know what the weather is like where you live, but this weekend it’s going to hot and humid. Just the thought of 90-degree temperatures sends us scrambling inside for the air conditioning and a good book.
Kamila Shamsie is one of the few female authors of the 90s who managed to get Pakistan on the literary map. Shamsie’s Kartography is a literary masterpiece and her passion and love for her city Karachi is evident in her every sentence, page and chapter.
Of Hamid’s Moth Smoke:
Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke told the story of a marijuana-smoking ex-banker in post-nuclear-test Lahore who falls in love with his best friend’s wife and becomes a heroin addict. It was published in 2000 and quickly became a hit in Pakistan and India.
When you reach a level in your career when you can go by one name—Oprah—it’s safe to say that you’ve made an impact in your industry. And Oprah’s so influential that her industry is the world. She’s touched almost every avenue—education, books, TV, film, magazines, philanthropy. The only self-made African American female billionaire, she has a line of accomplishments a couple miles long. Here’s some of her most impressive stats (some facts and figures provided by PBS):
An estimate of the amount Oprah has reportedly given of her own money to charitable causes. Oprah has raised more than $51 million for charitable organizations through her show, including education. Her charitable organizations are said to be worth $200 million.
48 million viewers
The estimated number of viewers who watched her show every week in the U.S.
Number of books sold since they were selected by Oprah and then discussed and promoted on Oprah’s Book Club. That’s according to a Fordham University marketing professor who has made an estimate. Of the 70 books she singled out, 59 made it to the USA Today bestseller list.
Number of Twitter followers
Number of Facebook fans
Number of schools built around the globe by her Angel Network.
Oprah’s impact on the world of literature can not be understated. It is estimated that Oprah’s Book Club was instrumental in selling more than 30 million books. Her impact continues to be felt. In one of her last episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” students at the KIPP Believe Prepatory School in New Orleans were in a newly refurbished library after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but they didn’t have any books. In honor of Oprah, Target worked to restock and redesign their library, as well as 24 other school libraries around the country.
Each week, we’ll be helping you to get to know our winners better (what a great bunch they are) and highlighting the best of their work, interviews and essays. This week we’re highlighting Oprah Winfrey, 2010 winner for lifetime achievement.
Now, we wavered a bit on highlighting Oprah because she is so well known. With her talk show ending its 25-year run in 2011 and Oprah taking the reins of her new channel, OWN, the media has been covering Oprah from every angle, dissecting her influence on the world at large.
But we at Anisfield-Wolf selected Oprah to win the 2010 Anisfield-Wolf award for lifetime achievement because of her impact on the world of literature. She keeps innovating and striving to change the world and that’s something we can get behind. Learn more about Oprah in her 2008 Standford commencement address where she posits, “Inner wisdom is greater than wealth.”
Kamila Shamsie spent most of her formative years living in Karachi, Pakistan, a sprawling city on the coast where “you can live your entire life without ever glimpsing the sea.” Shamsie gives a wonderfully poetic description of her hometown in the latest issue of Newsweek:
If there’s one word used more often than others to characterize the city by those who love it, it’s “resilience”—the ability to endure suffering without breaking—but Karachi is full of broken people who have long since ceased to be astonished at discovering new ways to break. And the unbroken develop carapaces that allow them to endure the suffering of others. This isn’t resilience, it’s survival.