Hours before accepting her 2015 Anisfield-Wolf award, Marilyn Chin claimed “activist poet” as her mantle: “I’ve been writing poetry to right the wrongs of the world, to express my Chinese-American sensibility, to work for this utopian American future.”
Chin, a professor at San Diego State University teaching this year at Smith College, collected the prize for Hard Love Province, her fourth volume of poetry. Juror Rita Dove praised her work as “icy yet inflamed.”
Chin explained the origins of “Peony” to the staff at the academy: “In Beijing, a student named Lin gave me a vase of huge, gorgeous peonies for my birthday. “I went away for a few days and returned to a disaster! The peonies had wilted so terribly that they made me cry. Alas, the shock of recognition. Buddha warned us about ‘old age, sickness and death.’ All living beings, poets and peonies alike, must meet our eventual demise!”
by Marilyn Chin
Why must I tell you this story, O little one
You’re just a bud-of-a-girl, who knows nothing
Now you are full-faced, bright as sun
Now you open your skirts pink, layered, brazen
Suffering is alchemy, change is God
Now you droop your head, heavy with rust
Sit, contemplate, what did Buddha say?
Old age, sickness, death, no one owns eternity
Detach, detach, look away from the sun
Let your petals fall aimlessly
He also reminded the audience at Playhouse Square that Hughes was still a teenager, newly graduated from Central High School in Cleveland in 1920, when he wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers. “Every time I think of an 18-year-old writing a poem that great,” Brown deadpanned, “I really hate Langston Hughes.”
Now Brown has returned to this “first poet” in his pantheon, publishing an evocative, moving post “To Be Asked for A Kiss” on the Poetry Foundation web site.
Suicide’s Note by Langston Hughes
The calm, Cool face of the river Asked me for a kiss
Brown ponders Hughes’ 14 words, written sometime before he was 24; the poet’s lifelong preoccupation with rivers and the meanings of suicide – as both noun and verb – in the single tercet, and in Brown’s own life, and the lives of young, gay black men.
In introducing Brown to Cleveland in September, Dr. Henry Louis Gates praised the Emory University professor, saying that the jury singled him out “for his penetrating and elegant portrayal of the complexity of human identity in a digital, multicultural universe, generally, and more specifically, the complexity of black identity, encompassing the multiple and competing claims and denials of African American masculinity and personhood.”
Brown’s most recent essay makes the case for Langston Hughes’ poetry as a wellspring of that masculinity and personhood. He makes the case – with a poem called Suicide’s Note – for Hughes’ immortality.
Marlon James begins his 2-minute video on racism with the following question: “Are you ‘non’ or are you ‘anti’?”
Published by the Guardian and viewed more than 10 million times, the video asks viewers to grapple with their own sense of personal responsibility when it comes to dismantling white supremacy. James broke down his thoughts on non-racism vs. anti-racism when he spoke at the Cleveland City Club September 12. Here is a handy video recap of his point to share with friends:
by Dr. Anand Bhat
In 2007, when I asked my driver in Caracas if evangelical Christianity had been making its way into the oil-rich jungles of Venezuela, he nodded, smiled, and said, “Yes, they say officially they are here for the Church of Pentecost, but I think they are here for the Church of the CIA.” In every developing nation, that nod and that smile and that second story represent the beginning of almost every great storytelling session I have had about recent history and current events.
Listen to me now. Me warn him… Long time I drop warnings that other people close, friend and enemy, was going get him in a whole heap o’trouble. Every one of we know at least one, don’t it? Always have a notion but never come up with a single idea. Always working plenty of scheme but never have a plan… Me not going name who but I warn the Singer…. Me love that man to the max. Me would take a bullet for the Singer. But gentlemens, me can only take one.
Writer Marlon James has won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf and Man Booker prizes by driving us past recent Jamaican history. In a cacophony of voices, versions, and views, James writes a fictional exploration into the 1976 assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley. In A Brief History of Seven Killings, quoted above, readers embark on a violent and entertaining ride through Kingston slum fights (sponsored by warring political parties) that become a Cold War flashpoint in Michael Manley’s Jamaica. Marley, perceived to be supporting the socialist People’s National Party, falls victim to that fateful winter election and the CIA. The book then shifts to the United States where Jamaican political gangs morph into nonpartisan drug smugglers, tolerated by intelligence communities willing to overlook drug money if it goes towards fighting socialism and communism. Until it gets out of hand.
The book, whose rights have been sold to HBO for a TV series, should do well as a long form television drama. A populous that once stood at the docks to snatch up the latest installment from Charles Dickens now awaits the latest weekly HBO serial, one of contemporary America’s strongest art forms. James’ novel fits the format with its motley mix of characters and politics (“Game of Thrones”) and urban and police violence (“The Wire”). As East becomes West, the West too has become East by picking up a taste for epic legends with endless sub-stories, ambiguous facts and no definitive, singular truth. All thrive on a range of viewpoints, versions and classes.
From the deceased MP to the barely intelligible ramblings of a crack-fueled shooter, readers absorb from top to bottom a long overdue cultural multiplicity in A Brief History of Seven Killings. No one knows who served Mr. Darcy tea, but we all know who serves Lord Grantham tea. All of this points to progress. It points to the widening of the literary establishment’s mind but not perhaps as wide as it celebrates.
James’s novel most reminds me of Vikram Chandra’s magnum opus, Sacred Games, about a Mumbai police investigation into an Indian mafia don. Thick with pages and characters, Sacred Games exposes the connections between the underworld, police, politicians, and the film industry. Chandra also leaps into the future and the past with intercalary chapters that covered Naxalite rebels, Indian secret intelligence and the Partition of British India. Few novels set in the developing world can parallel A Brief History in quite the same way.
Published to positive reviews, Chandra’s novel did not have the sales or impact other South Asian books did. Even compared to other literary and popular books about South Asia (Bookseller of Kabul, All the Beautiful Forevers, Three Cups of Tea, Shantaram), it never received critical or popular mass appeal. It is rare to find on bookshelves today.
Why A Brief History of Seven Killings and other South Asian novels would have similar trajectories while Sacred Games did not is clear to me. The former have appeals to Western sensibilities that the third does not. Three Cups of Tea (for example) has a strong element of Orientalism with the classic story of a Westerner coming to Asia and educating rural women. A Brief History of Seven Killings tells a story about music and a musician famous throughout the West that cannot help but arouse interest in the United States. American characters from Rolling Stone and the CIA help ease the transition into the unfamiliar worlds of Jamaican politics and Kingston slums. If the book was about an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Manley and not Marley, we may not be having this award or book review.
Meanwhile film and music references in Sacred Games were unabashedly Bollywood; secretive government agencies were the CBI not the CIA, and the bogeyman feared is Pakistan not Russia or Cuba. No one smuggles drugs to the United States or London. No white people, no Christianity, no Clint Eastwood references, and no colonialism at all!
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fantastic book, and it will make a fantastic HBO series given the novel’s natural similarity to the channel’s specialty—epic dramas. But Sacred Games moved me more deeply as it was a book deeply rooted in its culture and unapologetically Indian. Perhaps when we award books we should examine why some get attention and some do not and question the cultural biases we have against looking deeply into a truly “foreign” book. A truly open mind can wade into another world mentally without needing the props of the world it just left behind.
Richard S. Dunn spent 40 years researching and writing “A Tale of Two Plantations,” a scrupulous, revelatory archival investigation of some 2,000 people enslaved across three generations: roughly half on a Jamaican sugar plantation called Mesopotamia, and half on Mount Airy, a Virginia tidewater plantation growing tobacco and grain.
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is Dunn’s turn in front of the camera:
As Marilyn Chinbegan her acceptance speech for this year’s award for poetry, she looked out in the audience upon former poet laureate and jury member Rita Dove, thanking her for her sisterhood. Dove praised “Hard Love Province,” noting, “In these sad and beautiful poems, a withering portrayal of our global ‘society’ emerges – from Buddha to Allah, Mongols to Bethesda boys, Humvee to war horse, Dachau to West Darfu, Irrawaddy River to San Diego.”
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is Chin’s turn in front of the camera:
It was a brief passage in “Sula,” Toni Morrison‘s 1973 novel, that changed Marlon James‘ entire life: in it, Sula refutes the idea that her life choices only have value if affirmed by others. James realized: “I don’t owe anything to anyone. I didn’t have anything to prove. I could be the writer; I could be the artist. I could be the person that I want.”
James’ indebtedness to Morrison extends further into the Anisfield-Wolf canon—Edwidge Danticat, Arnold Rampersad, Wole Soyinka are among the winners he referenced as he accepted his prize for 2014’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings” at the sold-out awards ceremony at Playhouse Square.
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is James’ turn in front of the camera:
“My idols sat around and read my book, y’all,” Jericho Brown remarked from the podium at the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony. Moments later he launched into “Labor,” a piece featured in his 2014 collection, The New Testament.
As is our tradition, we caught up with Brown in a few quiet moments before this year’s ceremony to hear his thoughts on being honored with the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for poetry:
Poet Jericho Brown, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year, has written a 14-line poem that begins with the names of flowers and concludes with the names of men. He calls it “The Tradition.” Brown notes, “The poet’s relationship to language and form is an addiction where what’s past is present, a video on loop. Not watching won’t make what that video says about our future go away.”
He made this observation to accompany “The Tradition” as the American Academy of Poets sent it to some 300,000 readers August 7, part of its “Poem a Day” project, which has been distributing poetry digitally since 2006.
A native of Louisiana and a professor of English at Emory University, Brown will accept his Anisfield-Wolf prize in Cleveland next month for his second collection, “The New Testament.” He will read at Trinity Cathedral at 7 p.m. Wednesday September 9. The gathering in the nave is free and the public is welcome.
Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer. Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.
Anisfield-Wolf award winners are—almost by definition—civic minded.
They continue a generous tradition of adding extra public conversations each September in Cleveland. For those readers whose schedules don’t allow them to attend the awards ceremony or who want more than one chance to hear these gifted writers, here are the details:
Historian Richard S. Dunn will give a multi-media presentation on his landmark book, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia at 5 p.m. Wednesday September 9 at the Baker-Nord Center of Case Western Reserve University. Dunn spent more than four decades researching thousands of individuals over three generations, yielding ground-breaking insights into daily plantation life.
The first three events are free. Registration is requested for the Dunn presentation. Those keen to hear Marlon James at the City Club should buy a lunch ticket or tune into the broadcast on WCPN 90.3 FM.
“I want to hear you say there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Martin Luther King,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer lectured community activist Deray McKesson in a now infamous four-minute interview.
“You are suggesting that broken windows are worse than broken spines,” McKesson answered, contrasting property damage with the injuries that killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody.
The cable network renowned for ambitious storytelling has optioned the rights to Marlon James’latest novel, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year in fiction. The book paints a complex portrait of Jamaica, hinged on the1976 assassination attempt on reggae legend Bob Marley and told in more than 30 distinct narrative voices.
James will adopt the script along with Eric Roth, who won an Academy Award in 1994 for the screenplay of “Forrest Gump.” No premiere date has been released.
James, an English professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., will take a yearlong sabbatical to concentrate on the adaptation. He told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that transitioning his work to the small screen represents an opportunity for more character exposition.
“There are some characters in the book who are minor who I’d love to dig into in a bigger way,” he said. “And I know that Jamaica may be wary that the main character, Josey Wales, is a gangster, a bad man. But you can look to New Jersey to see how they deal with ‘The Sopranos.’ They don’t take pride in the criminality, but they look at the show and say, this [setting] is a place of deep, meaningful stories.”
The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 80th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2015 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners heighten our perceptions on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, we honor ground-breaking research into the lives of specific families enslaved on two New World plantations, a tour-de-force fictional portrayal of Jamaica spun in multiple voices, poetry from both coasts that is erotic and grave, and the indispensable, morally towering scholarship of David Brion Davis.”
Gates directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. He praised David Brion Davis as a foundational scholar whose Problem of Slavery trilogy is an essential work on the cultural, political and intellectual history of Western slavery and abolition. Joining Gates in selecting the winners each year are poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama.
Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronn Richard said the breadth of topics taken up by this year’s winners is gratifying, and reflects founder and donor Edith Anisfield Wolf’s belief in the power of the written word to elevate and enlighten.
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards rose from the philanthropic vision of one woman who realized that literature could advance our thinking and beliefs about race, culture, ethnicity, and our shared humanity,” Richard said. “We are proud to showcase books that are beautifully written and enhance the urgent, national – and local – conversations around race and cultural difference.”
Past winners include four writers who went on to win Nobel prizes – Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka.
Meet Our 2015 Winners
Jericho Brown, The New Testament, Poetry
In the language of the blues and the Bible, poet Jericho Brown crafts 40 poems for The New Testament, a meditation on race, masculinity and gay sexuality. Anisfield Wolf juror Rita Dove calls this book “a reminder that outrage is a seductive disease — we would rather rage or weep than find a way to love in spite of the pain. Brown’s poems brim with love for this damaged world without letting the world off the hook.” And poet Rae Armantrout adds her praise, noting: “Like the other new testament, it’s about what love can do.” Brown teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.
Marilyn Chin, Hard Love Province, Poetry
Hard Love Province is the fourth collection of poetry from Marilyn Chin, whose book mourns the loss of a beloved in a world that seems inured to suffering. “In these sad and beautiful poems, a withering portrayal of our global ‘society’ emerges – from Buddha to Allah, Mongols to Bethesda boys, Humvee to war horse, Dachau to West Darfu, Irrawaddy River to San Diego,” observes Dove. Among the 23 poems are One Child Has Brown Eyes and Black President. Adrienne Rich described Chin’s work as “powerful, uncompromised and unerring.” Born in Hong Kong, Chin is a professor at San Diego State University.
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, Fiction
In scalding yet musical language, A Brief History of Seven Killings hinges on the true 1976 attempt to assassinate reggae legend Bob Marley. Novelist Marlon James just calls him The Singer, and sets this character among a pinwheel of voices: CIA agents, child gangsters, a Rolling Stone reporter, drug dealers, corrupt politicians and a woman seriously diverted by one night with the musician. Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates praised the “superb risk-taking” of James, whose story brims with profanity, violence, dialect, tenderness and cruelty. James teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, Nonfiction
More than 40 years in the making, A Tale of Two Plantations is a scrupulous, revelatory archival investigation of some 2,000 people enslaved across three generations: roughly half on a Jamaican sugar plantation called Mesopotamia, and half on Mount Airy, a Virginia tidewater plantation growing tobacco and grain. Richard S. Dunn, a University of Pennsylvania historian, uses his findings to ask about enslaved motherhood, the effects of interracial sex on the meaning of family and how individuals fared upon emancipation. Oates calls the book magisterial, noting, “It is refreshing to encounter a historian who doesn’t include a forced conclusion.”
David Brion Davis is a preeminent American historian whose 1967 book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, earned an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. It anchors a groundbreaking trilogy that culminated last year in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which in March won the National Book Critics Circle award. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin writes that Davis’ influence is deep, having changed “traditional approaches to intellectual history by embedding ideas in social and political action and institutions.” Born in Denver in 1927, Davis is an Army veteran who retired from Yale University in 2001. He lives in Connecticut.