The Evening Road returns Laird Hunt to Indiana, where the Anisfield-Wolf winner lived on his grandmother’s farm during his high school years, and where his feel for the rural Midwest and its uncelebrated people has few equals in American literature.
This seventh novel springs from one of the nation’s most troubled wells. Hunt tells it over a single summer night, anchored in the bloody lynching of two men – Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp — in Marion, Indiana August 7, 1930.
“The events of that evening gave rise to the poem ‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol, which was made famous as a song by Billie Holiday,” Hunt, now 48, writes about the source of his new novel. “At least 10,000 people (some put the number as high as 15k) flooded into the medium-sized town to attend the lynching, while the considerable African-American population of the town either stayed indoors or got out of town. While I don’t know if any of my family members attended the lynching that day/night, I found it strange and troubling that in all the years I lived with my grandmother on the farm, I never heard a whisper about what was an event of national significance and implication.”
Into that silence flowed The Evening Road, a haunting and disturbingly lyrical novel told in the voices of three women: a red-headed, big-chested secretary named Ottie Lee Henshaw trying to reach the lynching; Calla Destry, a light-skinned, intelligent and angry adolescent caught up in the mayhem, and, for the final 13 pages, the “touched” Sally Gunner, known for conversing with angels after she took a blow to her head.
Hunt is marvelous at characterization – Neverhome, his Civil War novel, rests on the mesmerizing authenticity of Ash Thompson, an Indiana farm woman who passes as a man to fight for the Union. And Kind One, his Anisfield-Wolf winner, gives readers two sisters who overthrow their 19th-century bondage on a remote Kentucky pig farm, then chain up and work the owner in return.
The Evening Road runs closer to home, chronologically, although Hunt is still liquid with his coordinates: an old crone recounts a version of Kind One almost as a spell while she is fixing Ottie Lee’s hair. Ottie Lee herself is a foul-mouthed, small town beauty with a lecherous boss and a quarrelsome husband. She falls in with three men trying to reach Marvel, as Hunt calls the town. She has wit and resourcefulness, as well as a cruelty that seems rooted in the grim past.
“The world can shut your mouth for you sometimes,” Ottie Lee reflects, having stumbled on a Quaker prayer vigil that mixed blacks and whites. “Get so big right there in front of you that it won’t fit in your eyes.” She also hears out a politician, firing up a picnic crowd he plans to lead to Marvel. He calls the lynchings “a torch of clarity to burn bright across the countryside during hard days. . . It is a difficult thing, a harsh thing, but it will burn things clear. Bring us back into balance. The hardest things always do.”
After 140 pages, Hunt leaves Ottie Lee. The second half of the book belongs to 16-year-old Calla, whose parents died in a laundry fire and who is boarding with a foster family in Marvel. She has stubbornly defied them to meet a beau, and winds up alone on the road trying to leave, but not before the crowd envelopes her: “Some were laughing like it was a true carnival, and others had on hard faces like they were marching to war. Some didn’t have on any expression at all, like they were killed folk had clawed themselves out of the cemetery just to walk into town and look glass-eyed up into the courthouse trees.”
Calla commits three brazen acts of defiance as she travels, and Hunt lets readers ponder how she and Ottie Lee run in parallel and diverge. Sudden blooms of violence pock the story, even as Hunt refrains from depicting the murders in Marvel. Instead, Calla wonders why whites “thought they needed to lift people up into the air to kill them. Their saints and sinners both. . . I hadn’t read the papers yet, hadn’t heard any accounts to turn the sky of my memories black and send me drifting forward through the dark. That would be during the days to come.”
The Evening Road may be a bucolic title, but its beckoning is urgent. Once more, Hunt draws up sorrow and dark light from the murderous past. The politician’s mother says “place like this glues itself to your bones; you don’t scrape it off.” Rather like Hunt’s masterful new novel itself.
When Andrew Solomon went to Finland to promote The Noonday Demon, his ground-breaking 2001 book on depression, he landed on a leading morning television show.
The interviewer, “a gorgeous blonde woman, leaned forward and asked in a mildly offended tone, ‘So, Mr. Solomon. What can you, an American, have to tell the Finnish people about depression?’” the writer recalls in his newest work.
Clearly this 52-year-old writer, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2013, has serious wanderlust. Solomon has traveled to 83 of the 196 recognized nations in the world. “I’ve been to so many places, and seen so much, and sometimes it feels like a glut of sunsets and churches and monuments,” he admits.
But it is also clear that travel has helped form Solomon into a public intellectual. By the end of this book, he himself is setting off scandals in Ghana and Romania, largely via his reputation as an LGBT activist. Far & Away collects 28 essays from Solomon’s decades of globe-trotting, including one set in northern Bali called “Where Everyone Signs.” It is plucked from his chapter on deafness in Far From the Tree, his Anisfield-Wolf winner in nonfiction.
“I had started traveling out of curiosity,” Solomon writes, “but I came to believe in travel’s political importance, that encouraging a nation’s citizenry to travel may be as important as encouraging school attendance, environmental conservation, or national thrift.” A few pages later he elaborates, “When I was in Libya, the people I met who had an essentially pro-American stance had all studied in the United States, whereas those who were vehemently anti-American had not.”
As a young New Yorker studying in England, Solomon cops to some youthful callowness: “I confused, as many young people do, the glamour of being an outsider with the liberty to do or think whatever crossed my mind.” Serious travel taught the writer to grapple with ideas he would not have otherwise encountered: “When Chinse intellectuals spoke to me of the good that came of the Tiananmen massacre, when Pakistani women spoke of their pride in wearing the hijab, when Cubans enthused about their autocracy, I had to reconsider my reflexive enthusiasm for self-determination. In a free society, you have a chance to achieve your ambitions; in an unfree one, you lack that choice, and this often allows for more visionary ambitions.”
Today Solomon leads a highly political life at the helm of the Pen America Center, a venerable nonprofit that advocates for imperiled writers globally.
His new book has a dizzying array of datelines. The first essay, “The Winter Palettes,” stems from Solomon’s first reporting assignment abroad. In 1988, the British monthly “Harpers & Queen” sent him to the USSR to cover Sotheby’s first sale of contemporary Soviet art. It begins with a toast, and in a book of many toasts and parties, captures some of the intoxication swirled into art and social change.
“I am susceptible to that little moment of romance when a society on the brink of change falls temporarily in love with itself,” Solomon writes. “I’ve heard to same people speak of the great hope they felt when Stalin came to power and the hope they later felt when he died; others, of the hope they felt when the Cultural Revolution began and the hope they felt when it ended. . . Hope is a regular chime in political life.”
His last essay, “Lost at the Surface,” details a narrow escape from drowning while scuba diving off Australia. He wrote it last year for “The Moth.” Invariably, it is illuminating to look out through Andrew Solomon’s eyes – whether he is drifting in the open ocean or realizing in Cuba in 1997 that “If you want to get to know a strange country quickly and deeply, there’s nothing like organizing a party.”
Tom Pantic, a junior at Hiram College in Ohio, wanted to know how poet Eugene Gloria felt about being put in the Asian box.
“I’m OK with being grouped with Asian American poets – I’m very proud of that community,” he said. “It is a problem to be put on the ethnic shelf, with ‘American poets’ shelved elsewhere – that’s a problem for me. I’m happy to represent. I’m a Filipino poet but there are many other identities I inhabit.”
Gloria, now 58, was the youngest of six children when his family left Manila and settled in San Francisco. The first poem in “My Favorite Warlord” is called “Water.” It begins:
The street when I was five
was a deep, wide river
coursing through a shimmering city.
I had no need for proper shoes,
no need for long pants.
I didn’t yet know how to make
Conclusions and say, “Life’s like this . . .”
Gloria, who won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book award for “My Favorite Warlord,” read “Water” several times over three days in Hiram. He visited high school students, ate dinner with English majors and gave a warm, wry public appearance, part of a Big Read initiative this fall in Hiram. “It took me five or six years to finish ‘Water,’” he told those gathering in what was once the college library.
“The students from both local high schools and Hiram College . . . came away with a new understanding of the power of poetry to convey deep emotions, to comment on social issues, or just to crystallize a moment in time,” noted Gloria’s host, Professor Kirsten L. Parkinson, who directs the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature at the college.
“How unfortunate to think I have an ‘in’ because my name is exotic enough,” Gloria in an interview said after his reading. “Mostly I feel sad. This is another instance of – racism is probably too strong – of misperception. Poetry is an opportunity for me to be honest about my identity. I like what [anthology editor] Sherman Alexie called it, ‘colonial theft.’ ”
Alexie made the controversial decision to keep Hudson’s poem in the 2015 anthology; Gloria plans to incorporate this episode into the discussion of the creative writing workshop he leads at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.
“I like to go to Indianapolis occasionally to take care of my Asian needs – fish sauce, good rice,” Gloria riffed in his gentle, mellifluous voice. He then read “Here, On Earth,” adding, “yes, happy poems are possible.”
The October evening in Hiram served as a welcome tour of “My Favorite Warlord” with Gloria providing insights into individual poems. He began the book sparked by an observation from Susan Orleans, who suggested that boys of 10 define the man they will become at 40. Gloria realized that at 10 he was a schoolboy at St. Agnes Elementary School in the Haight Asbury neighborhood in 1967, a fascinating spot in a momentous year. So he began writing poems constellated around 1967, but as he worked, “My Favorite Warlord” developed a parallel meditation on Gloria’s father, inflected with an interest in the 16th century Japanese warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
“It became an accidental book in that I was conflating my thoughts about Hideyoshi with meditations on my father,” Gloria told a DePauw University staff writer. “People assume that ‘my favorite warlord’ is my father, which really isn’t the case. But I don’t mind the mistake, because on some level I was thinking about both of them as one thing.”
For his part, Pantic loved the poem “Allegory of the Laundromat,” also a favorite of Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Pantic quoted the final line in his introduction of Gloria:
Who gives a whit about the indelicate balance of our weekly wash?
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.
Hunt, 46, had just met with Abrahamson in Canada, where the director is set to film Emma Donaghue’s suspenseful bestseller “Room.” Hunt told his Cleveland audience, gathered in the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, that he and the Irish director hit it off and are excited about bringing “Neverhome” to film.
It tells the story of Ash Thompson, formerly Constance Thompson, who leaves her Indiana farm disguised as a Union soldier to join the Civil War. Hunt said hundreds of women, both in the North and South, took up arms – some for love, some for money, some for adventure. If they were discovered, they were often accused of spying or insanity and drummed out, only to walk down the road and join another regimen. “One of the women did this seven times,” he said.
A warm audience greeted Hunt in Beachwood with a close reading of the text. “It is such a pleasure to be back in this room,” he said. “I associate it with one of the happiest weeks of my life.” A year ago Hunt accepted his Anisfield-Wolf award for “Kind One,” a mediation on revenge and slavery set on an antebellum Kentucky pig farm.
The new novel, like “Kind One,” springs organically from its opening sentence: “I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” Hunt said he wrote the book in a blistering three weeks from the spark of that sentence, and then spent two-and-a-half years refining it. He worked to stay true to the “understated fierceness” of that single narrative voice, and to pay attention to the ways voice can conceal and reveal gender.
Asked why the reader has no solid sense of the physical Ash Thompson, Hunt observed that the Civil War was fought largely by boys, whose character was still indistinct, especially in photographs. And he mentioned David Hodges’ essay on the dilemma of historical fiction – no character says: “Now I will put on my hobnailed boots.”
And although Hunt’s scholarship ran deep and wide, he wanted the voice of the opening sentence to be the reader’s gateway – not photographs, not military maneuvers, not all the accumulated frames readers keep at hand for this war. The voice itself is a hybrid, he notes, “not exactly a 19th-century voice, but informed by it.”
And, if Element Pictures executives have their way, one day soon readers will hear it in an actor’s mouth.
Laird Hunt’s transfixing new novel “Neverhome” unspools in the voice of a Civil War soldier. It works upon the reader like a haunting. The narrator is Ash Thompson, a young woman passing as a man into the uniform of the Union.
The opening line: “I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” Ash Thompson—born Constance—is telling us about her young husband Bartholomew and her strong desire to leave their Indiana farm to see the world: “I wanted to drink different waters, feel different heats. Stand with my comrades atop the ruin of old ideas. Walk forward with a thousand others. Plant my boot and steel my eye and not run. I said all of this to my dead mother, spoke it down through the dirt: there was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark. We both of us, me and Bartholomew, knew what my mother would have said in response and it was like she was saying it each time I asked her what she thought.
“Go on. Go on and see what you got.”
So the reader and Ash are launched. Toward the end of the story, an educated woman in Springfield, Ohio takes in the remnants of this subterfuge and murmurs, “Penelope gone to the war and Odysseus staying home.” Ash can only reply, “Ma’am?”
Indeed, some dozens, perhaps hundreds, of American women chose to bind their breasts and fight instead of wait during the War Between the States. On the pages of “Neverhome,” they occasionally recognize each other. Hunt credits, “most crucially,” in his acknowledgements “An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1865” by Lauren Cook Burgess.
As erudite as Hunt is, and as careful his research, “Neverhome” casts the powerful spell of fiction, hurtling its reader into “the stripped and battle-burned land” as lyrically as the best war novels. Hunt, 46, a University of Denver professor in Boulder, Col., won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award last year for “Kind One,” a slavery-shadowed story anchored on a Kentucky pig farm. (He will return to Northeast Ohio to speak about “Neverhome” at 7 p.m., Tuesday, September 23 to the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.)
Hunt has a gift for rural voices and rural ways, and for teleporting us into the mid-19th century American landscape. The thrill of “Neverhome” is akin to the one Robert Olmstead delivered in “Coal Black Horse,” and, like Olmstead’s, the cadences of Ash Thompson can be almost Biblical:
“Nor did I, nor any of those around me I am proud to say, slow down when the cannon fire grew so hot it seemed like the injury was already being done to us before we had fairly arrived and that we were already part of the world’s everlasting grief and glory, and we could see the trees crashing down destroyed in the heights and hear the sound, from all quarters, of hurt men letting the air out of their throats.”
The reader, mesmerized, swallows whole that singular beautiful sentence. There are many others. The vocabulary in “Neverhome” is perfect – plain and strange and tuned as true as a pitch fork. Hunt is a student of stories and story-telling, and he mixes fable and song into “Neverhome,” even more than he did in “Kind One.”
And though “Neverhome” is not about slavery, the peculiar institution casts its evil pall here. Ash comes upon bloody shackles in an abandoned shack, and later a dilapidated gallows near “a old slave-selling emporium.” Cross-dressing affords Ash some life-saving trickery, and it provides Hunt some plot twists that feel proto-contemporary. Hunt is interested in the human mysteries – one being sex. Another is aggression, and the damage the aggressor does to self in the pursuit of another’s blood and pain.
So Hunt, like Homer, sets his protagonist on a road to war. She, like the Greek king, is cunning. She, like he, is captured. Song is made of their stories and so is woe. Eventually, Odysseus returns after long years to Ithaca.
In this spare, splendid novel, readers will burn to know if Ash Thompson can find her way home.
The magisterial Wole Soyinka turned 80 this week, and—once again—the world is listening.
In London, the Royal African Society hosted “Wole Soyinka at 80,” a retrospective on the life of the Nobel laureate and Anisfield-Wolf winner, exploring his influence in politics and letters. As a young man, the Nigerian playwright and poet attempted to broker peace during the 1967 Biafran War, becoming a political prisoner and spending 22 months in solitary confinement. He wrote “The Man Died” out of that experience.
For the retrospective, Soyinka joined editor and critic Margaret Busby to reflect on his upbringing and the relationship between politics and culture. He has spent more than 50 fierce years campaigning against Nigerian despotism, often with a price on his head. Soyinka’s critique of Western smugness and corruption has been just as withering.
For those engaged by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the extremist Boko Haram, Soyinka also places the splinter group’s recent killings and kidnappings in historical context (34:20 mark).
Powers, who grew up in Richmond, Va., enlisted the day after he turned 17. He served as a U.S. Army machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005. Those years informed “The Yellow Birds,” a first novel that writer Tom Wolfe called “the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab wars.” Private Bartle is its narrator.
The new book contains 34 poems that well out of war, bafflement and remembrance, often speaking of mothers. They touch on rifles, men in bars, stretches of Texas and Nebraska and West Virginia. The book is dedicated to “my friends from the Boulevard.”
When Powers spoke in Cleveland last September, he said he hadn’t kept a journal as a soldier, that he didn’t have the stamina or mental reserves. But the books his mother mailed him were a lifeline, and he wrote some letters. Almost three years ago, a friend brought out one that he’d sent to her.
“I could see the point in the letter where I almost opened up, but didn’t,” he said.
In his penultimate poem, “A Lamp in the Place of the Sun,” Powers concludes with four short lines in plain language: “How long I waited/for the end of winter./How quickly I forgot/the cold when it was over.”
“Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting” is the first book of poetry that Little, Brown & Co. has published in 30 years.
The potency of literature went on vivid display in early November when readers gathered around the writers who won this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prizes. They started with an intense and intimate two-hour session at Sinclair Community College in downtown Dayton.
“I need to give a shout-out to Wendell Berry, whose ‘The Gift of Good Land’ was one of the most important books of my life,” boomed Sinclair President Steven Lee Johnson, turning to the celebrated Kentucky author in praise of the 1981 essay collection, one of Berry’s 50 titles.
A bit later, a woman in a pink sweater rose, lifted her chin to Berry and fiercely declared, “Your words have changed my life, over and over. I carry your books when I am sad and frightened and they have changed things for me.” She paused, looked at the 300-member audience. “How awesome is that?”
Berry, 79, in Dayton to accept his distinguished achievement award, decided to address the fervor. “When people say my writing has changed their life, I feel complimented, but also a little frightened,” he said. “I didn’t sit down to change anybody’s life.” His eyes sought out the woman. “I think my book spoke to something in you that changed your life. That is to your credit and you should not give the credit to me.”
Nevertheless, credit abounded at the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a legacy of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that negotiated a stop to the Bosnian War. Established a decade later, the award seeks to recognize literature as “an enduring and effective tool for fostering peace.” It is now eight years old.
“The writers who win see the sincerity of the people who come and the people who work on this,” said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of the awards. “There is an entire community dedicated to peace and literature and the connection between the two.”
Pat Fife, a teacher at suburban Dayton’s Kettering-Fairmount High School, said her students were studying human trafficking with a class of like-minded students in Bosnia. Both groups read Ben Skinner’s “A Crime So Monstrous” about “modern-day slavery.” It won the 2009 Dayton prize.
“I thought it might be a little controversial, but people have been more than willing to engage it,” Fife said. Her students linked up with a nearby Methodist Church that works to fight human trafficking.
In Dayton, Solomon declared that “human diversity matters just as much as species diversity.” He noted that roughly 50 years ago Time magazine could denigrate gays as sub-human and the Atlantic Monthly could recommend exterminating infants with Down Syndrome. “I wanted to understand how something universally understood as an illness turned into an identity,” he said.
Such transformation doesn’t arrive all at once. One man took Solomon aside in Dayton and demanded the writer admit that “this gay rights thing has gone too far.” Solomon quietly told the stranger he would not admit that.
The author, who received a thunderous ovation at the awards ceremony, riffed on his title. “What parent hasn’t looked at their child,” he asked, “and said, ‘What planet did you come from?’”
Growing up, Solomon read and admired Berry’s poetry, and Berry said, for his part, he was thunderstruck in 1963 by Harry Caudill’s nonfiction classic “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” a story about rural poverty that mattered.
Maaza Mengiste, Dayton’s first runner-up in 2011 for her novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” said she had been greatly influenced by Tim O’Brien, who was on hand as last year’s distinguished achievement winner.
“Peace is a shy thing,” O’Brien told the crowd. “It doesn’t brag about itself. We are at peace in this room and we take it for granted. It’s by its absence that peace is known. Peace is a value we don’t feel until the wolf is at the door.”
Fiction winner Adam Johnson spoke eloquently about the wolf’s stranglehold on North Korea, also captured in his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son.” He asked the Dayton audience to imagine the isolation on the northern half of the peninsula, separated from its own literature. “Not a single play or poem has been smuggled out of North Korea in 60 years, unlike, even, the worse days of the Russian gulag.”
Closer to home, nonfiction runner-up Gilbert King explored “Devil in the Grove,” a harrowing, 1949 Florida case of racial injustice. It also won a Pulitzer Prize this year and centers on the legal mastery of a young Thurgood Marshall.
The crusading lawyer “was never surprised by the verdicts in the South,” King observed. “But he did say, ‘sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.’”
International outrage over the “Grovewood boys” case in Florida helped raise the cash that supported the NAACP’s work on Brown vs. Board of Education, King said, ushering forward a new America.
Berry, lionized by O’Brien’s introduction, brought the crowd back to Earth. “There is a certain comedy in hearing one’s self praised,” he said. “I am embarrassed that I have nothing to present but me.”
At the conclusion of this year’s ceremony, a number of Nigerians in attendance approached our lifetime achievement winner Wole Soyinka, for a chance to get close to the man they admired. A few bowed in his presence. He returned their kindness, speaking with a few before being whisked away to the book signing. We spoke with Soyinka to hear his thoughts on being honored for a lifetime of work and what it means to get that type of reception at this point in his career:
Eugene Gloria‘s My Favorite Warlord earned praise from the Anisfield-Wolf jury for his “vivid and striking” work examining masculinity, identity, and heritage. His 2012 collection of poetry helped him snag his latest literary prize, the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for poetry. Prior to this year’s ceremony, we talked to Gloria about what winning the award meant to him and where he sees his career headed next.
Kevin Powers‘ The Yellow Birdshas been called a “beautiful and horrifying trance of a book,” an unnerving look at the cruelty and arbitrary nature of war. He spoke with us in the calm before this year’s ceremony, happy to accept the award that in recent years has gone to Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Hear his remarks below:
While Laird Huntwas in Cleveland for the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf ceremony, we managed to nab him for a brief interview during his busy day of press and pre-show preparation. Hunt was honored for Kind One, his 2012 novel that explores oppression on a rural Kentucky pig farm. (In interviews he often reveals that the idea for the book came from a nugget in another Anisfield-Wolf winner’s work—Edward P. Jones‘ The Known World.) Find out how Hunt reacted when he got the call from Dr. Gates and what he thinks the award means to his career moving forward.
We caught up with Andrew Solomon a few hours before the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf ceremony to ask him his thoughts on being honored for his transformative work, 2012’s Far From The Tree. “To win something that is fondly called the ‘Black Pulitzer’ has particular meaning to me,” Solomon would go on to say later at the ceremony.
Hear his quick thoughts on winning an Anisfield-Wolf award, the politics of identity, and the march toward acceptance.
Kevin Powers didn’t flinch when the novelist Thrity Umrigar asked him a pointed question—had he considered incorporating substantial Iraqi characters in his much-honored novel “The Yellow Birds”?
Power’s first book, an impressionist portrayal of combat and its consequences during the Iraq War, won an Anisfield-Wolf book prize this year for fiction. The National Book Award cited it as “an urgent, vital, beautiful novel that reminds us through its scrupulous honesty how rarely its anguished truths are told.”
Umrigar, a professor of creative writing at Case Western Reserve University best known for her novels “The Space Between Us” and “The World We Found,” politely asked if Powers had thought to write a story that “would give the Iraq people agency?”
Powers, 32, nodded vigorously, standing at a lectern on the Case campus, and said he’d weighed that question. “Because I’m telling this single soldier’s story, I wanted to be true to his perspective, his inability to understand the larger picture,” Powers said of his narrator, Private John Bartle. “I wanted to stay true to the distance, the chasm that exists, in an unformed young person, not capable of these interactions.”
Powers himself joined the U.S. Army the day after he turned 17, serving as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He was deployed “outside the wire,” backing up infantry and cavalry in units trying to find Improvised Explosive Devices before they found their targets.
Thoughtful, soft-spoken and given to the “y’alls” of his Richmond, Virginia upbringing, Powers took 20 minutes to read the final chapter of “The Yellow Birds” to his Baker-Nord Center audience. It awakened in several veterans a desire to speak about the burdens they bury, and carry, from the killing they did and the dying they witnessed. The atmosphere was tense, and Powers listened long and intently. Three times he responded to statements from veterans with a quiet “absolutely.”
Occasionally, Powers said, someone will object. They will note that “War is hell” and assert there is nothing new to say. But, “it still feels necessary to me,” he said. “Until we can say, ‘War was hell,’ then somebody needs to keep saying it. We shouldn’t have the excuse that we didn’t know how bad it was.”
The writer assured his listeners that the specifics of “The Yellow Birds” “are very different from my own experience,” but acknowledged that he drew upon his own guilt and shame and attempts to make sense of his memories in crafting the novel.
“I spent four years writing it, more or less, in isolation,” he said. “I didn’t know if anyone would publish it or read it.” He often wrote until 3 a.m., persisting, he said, because writing was the way he makes sense of the world.
“I can’t separate reading and writing,” he said. “If I wasn’t a reader, I wouldn’t be a writer. I simply have never found a better way of dealing with the confusion I feel when confronted with the world.”
Powers didn’t keep a journal as a soldier, saying he didn’t have the stamina, or the mental reserves. But the books his mother mailed him were a lifeline, and he wrote some letters. About two years ago, a friend showed him one that he’d sent to her.
“I could see the point in the letter where I almost opened up, but didn’t,” he said.
Next April 1, Powers will publish his first collection of poetry, “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.” And he has begun work on a second novel, set in hometown Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and the ashes of the Civil War.
He notes, “I will probably always be interested in the way that violence affects communities, how people respond to those sorts of situations and how people put a life together when not all the pieces are intact.”
Under the slogan “ideas worth spreading,” the annual TED conferences began in 1990, and have showcased a clutch of Anisfield-Wolf winners. The latest is Andrew Solomon, the 2013 winner for nonfiction, who took the stage in April at TEDMED, an annual program of medical innovators and thought leaders under the TED banner. His talk, “How Does An Illness Become An Identity?” drew from his book Far From The Tree, in which Solomon examines how families adapt – or not — to their children’s unique identities.
He begins by noting the seismic shift of societal attitudes toward homosexuality within a generation. Being gay was called “a pathetic, second-rate substitute for reality” by Time magazine in 1966. Today, marriage equality is endorsed by the president of the United States.
In “Far From the Tree,” Solomon explores ten other conditions, including dwarfism, deafness, Down Syndrome and autism, and asks whether they are illness or identity. The answers are multi-faceted, and stay close to families grappling with children who are radically different. Some reject and harm these offspring, but some find a means of love that allow children and families to gain a new, collective identity.
For Solomon, this is not theoretical territory. He says:
I decided to have children while I was working on this project. Many people were astonished and asked, “How can you decide to have children while you’re studying everything that can go wrong?” And I said, “I’m not studying everything that can go wrong. What I’m studying is how much love there can be even when it appears everything is going wrong.”
Let us know: Have you read Solomon’s Far From The Tree? What do you think of the themes he explored in this talk, with regard to society’s increasing acceptance of conditions (dwarfism, Down Syndrome, homosexuality, etc) that were previously deemed inferior?
Eugene Gloria’s 2012 poetry collection, My Favorite Warlord, won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf prize for poetry. Born in Manila, Phillippines, Gloria uses My Favorite Warlord’s 35 poems to explore Filipino heritage, samurai, fathers, masculinity, and memory.
Publishers Weekly praised the work, noting that Gloria “sets himself confidently against injustice, in favor of inquiry, amid the eclectic language of contemporary scenes.”
Gloria has written two other books of poems—Hoodlum Bird (2006) and Drivers at the Short-Time Motel (2000). His honors and awards include an Asian American Literary Award, a Fulbright Research Grant, a San Francisco Art Commission grant, a Poetry Society of America award, and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches creative writing and English literature at DePauw University.
The road home from war is a long journey to rediscover who you are. Author Kevin Powers, who signed up for the Army at 17 and spent time as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, wrote his award-winning novel, The Yellow Birds, as a way to help him process what he had experienced on the front lines.
“I started initially writing poems about the war,” he said during an interview with PBS NewsHour. “I’ve been writing poems and stories since I was about 13. And I realized that I needed a larger canvas to say what I wanted to say, to answer the question that people were asking me, which was what was it like over there.”
In the novel, we see life in a war zone through the eyes of 21-year-old private John Bartle. He is tasked with watching over Murph, a younger solider with less experience. Through startling imagery, Powers gives civilians a glimpse at the sacrifices service members make while protecting our freedoms. Powers explores the themes of helplessness and fear, of the harsh inequity on the battlefield, and of the struggle to rediscover “normal” after the tour of duty has ended.
The Yellow Birds won the 2013 PEN/Hemingway award for first fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Powers holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin.
Culled from more than 40,000 pages of interview transcripts, Andrew Solomon‘s Far From The Tree takes an exhaustive look at families where the child’s identity is considered to be on the margins of society.
Within the book, Solomon considers how parents navigate the world when a child is deaf, autistic, a dwarf, a criminal, a protégée, has Down Syndrome, and four other identities. Solomon highlights the struggle and beauty in each family’s story, sharing how parents come to accept their children amid the differences that threaten to come between them. The book chronicles the immense love of family, the quest toward a more compassionate world, and the beauty of diversity in all forms.
In deliberations for this year’s awards, juror Steven Pinker wrote: “This is a monumental book, the kind that appears once in a decade. It could not be a better example of the literature of diversity.”
In a recent interview on the ThinkPiece blog, Solomon commented on the major theme that runs through all his books:
My topic ever since I began, and I started work on my first book when I was twenty-four, has been the large question of how people are able to turn the experience of adversity into triumph. And how people transform the perception of their own life experience in order to achieve that point of view. A lot of that work is about pain. It’s really about what people do with pain. It’s about the idea that when you have an experience that is sad or painful, you needn’t say that life is over and there’s no point in going on. You can rather say, “I wish I didn’t have this experience, but I’m going to try to build something out of it.”
Anyone interested in the book should take a moment to visit the website, FarFromTheTree.com, a visually stunning complement. For example, you’ll find videos and resources for each of the themes explored in the book, including the book trailer (shown above), which does much more justice to the book than we could put into words.
Solomon is also the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which won the 2001 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was named one of the 100 best books of the decade by the London Times. Solomon lives with his husband and son in New York City and London.
Laird Hunt is the author of five novels and one short story collection. His latest book, Kind One, won the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction. In a video interview with Rain Taxi, Hunt describes being moved by a short passage in Edward P. Jones‘ The Known World, which prompted him to start writing Kind One:
“He describes this anecdote about a woman who lives in this imaginary county he’s constructed, who lives with her husband and two female slaves. One day the husband comes up dead and the slaves turn the tables on her and enslave her in turn. And then it’s over and never mentioned again. But I got really interested in what would happen if this woman, many years later, describes what happens, with the idea of placing her voice somewhere in the slippery middle between victim and oppressor.”
Watch the full interview here:
Kind One was also a 2013 finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Hunt lives in Colorado with his wife, poet Eleni Sikelianos, and daughter. (Fun fact: Hunt was helping his daughter with a project on Martin Luther King Jr when he received the call that he had won the Anisfield-Wolf award.) He is currently on the faculty of the University of Denver’s Creative Writing Program.