In the onslaught of titles published each year, friends of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards can deploy a powerful technique to sift the wheat from the chaff: Find the new work from those writers already in the canon. Here are some gems sitting atop the 2019 pile:
“Black Leopard Red Wolf” by Marlon James
The Jamaican American novelist most celebrated for “A Brief History of Seven Killings” goes genre. Actor Michael B. Jordan bought the film rights to this epic fueled by African mythology even before it published in February. The story — the first installment of a planned trilogy — spools out in beautiful sentences that coil around a hunter named Tracker. In nonlinear flashbacks, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone to find a disappeared boy, joining forces with a giant, a buffalo, a witch, a water goddess and a shape-shifting leopard. Following the child’s scent – Tracker “has a nose” – means trekking through forest, across rivers and through magical doors, beset by fantastical creatures. Tracker, we learn, is the red wolf of the title and the facts are murky. (“Truth changes shape as the crocodile eats away at the moon.”) This bloody quest-story is no escapism. As James told the New Yorker: “The African folktale is not your refuge from skepticism. It is not here to make things easy for you, to give you faith so you don’t have to think.”
“Everything Inside: Stories” by Edwidge Danticat
The author of “Clare of the Sea Light” and “Brother, I’m Dying” brought out in August her first short fiction collection in more than a decade. Known for precise, pitch-perfect sentences and a gift for juxtaposition, Danticat weaves eight Haiti-influenced stories of diaspora and longing. She pairs Cindy Jimenez-Vera’s insight — “being born is the first exile” — with Nikki Giovanni’s “We love because it’s the only true adventure” to frame the urgencies of quiet lives. One belongs to Elsie, a Miami home-health care worker, whose decency is no match to the manipulations of her ex-husband and former best friend. Another centers on a New York City teacher who is cheated of a final chance to meet her father before his late-life death. The last story, “Without Inspection,” covers 6.5 seconds as a construction worker falls toward oblivion. He realizes that “whatever he wanted he could have, except what he wanted most of all, which was not to die.”
“The Gilded Auction Block” by Shane McCrae
Following his essential poetry collection “In the Language of My Captors,” McCrae continues his investigation of U.S. freedom and its contradictions. In 23 poems, McCrae addresses the present American moment, and in some pieces responds directly to Donald Trump. The first poem, “The President Visits the Storm” starts with an epigraph from the 45th chief executive: “What a crowd! What a turnout!” — proclaimed to victims of Hurricane Harvey. And McCrae considers how the country has turned out. A poem titled “Black Joe Arpaio” begins “America you wouldn’t pardon me.” In another, McCrae stands up the exact language Carrie Kinsey used in a 1903 letter to Theodore Roosevelt about her brother – wrongly sold into forced labor – and transforms it through ear and syntax into a searing work of art. The poet also circles back to his white supremacist grandmother in Texas “who loved me and hated everybody like me.” She and her black grandson create a knot that grief cannot untie. It is a privilege to read his reckonings now.
“Grand Union” by Zadie Smith
The outlandishly gifted British novelist of “White Teeth” and “On Beauty” published her first short story collection in October. In 19 tales, she wheels through a dizzying constellation of topics, tones and fonts, writing about the future and the past. A reader can enter anywhere, like her bravura “The Lazy River,” an endlessly rotating watery amusement for tourists in Spain. Elsewhere, the writer spills blood in London even as the jaunty “Escape from New York” rifts on the urban legend that Michael Jackson ferried Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando out of the smoking debris of 9/11 in a rental car. And the marvelous “Words and Music” mediates on peak musical experiences as lived by two disputatious sisters. A couple of stories are closer to fragments, but several seem destined to become classics. Smith begins and ends with two mother-daughter stories — the first bristles with alienation, the last, “Grand Union” with the transcendence of generations.
“I: New and Selected Poems” by Toi Derricotte
The Pittsburgh poet co-founded Cave Canem, whose motto is “a home for black poetry.” This collection serves as a profound home for 30 new pieces as well as those swept from five earlier books across a span of 50 years. The title “I” comes from Derricotte’s son and is perfect for a writer sometimes characterized as a confessional poet, one who has mined the self to grapple with gender, race, identity, sex and spirit. In “Tender” she writes: “The tenderest meat/comes from the houses/where you hear the least/squealing. The secret/is to give a little wine before killing.” The collection, dedicated in part to “the mother and fathers – Galway, Lucille, Ruth and Audre” gestures toward the poetic ancestry of Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton (another Anisfield-Wolf recipient), Ruth Stone and Audre Lorde. In her acknowledgements, Derricotte writes, “I am most grateful to the universe for the community of Cave Canem. We imagined a place in which black folks were safe to write the poems they needed to write.” And so she has.
“A Long Petal of the Sea” by Isabel Allende
The beloved novelist, born in Peru, raised in Chile and now a resident of northern California, writes in her acknowledgements: “This book wrote itself, as if it had been dictated to me.” Indeed, this historical fiction contains unmistakable autobiographical notes. It begins with the Republicans loss of Spain and the marriage of convenience between fighters Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera in 1938. She is pregnant with the son of his slain brother and can only leave France aboard a ship for wounded fighters if she marries him. The ship sails to Chile and their bond of expediency begins a complicated family saga that crests with the catastrophic 1973 overthrow of the democratically-elected Chilean government, just as it radically altered the author’s life. Allende knows how to spin an engrossing story and to reward her readers with a savory and satisfying surprise for the 80-year-old Victor at the end.
“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead
The arrival of this latest novel from “The Underground Railroad” writer caused Time Magazine to enshrine him in July as “America’s Storyteller.” Seventeen years earlier, Whitehead picked up an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “John Henry Days.” The novelist returns to U.S. history for “The Nickel Boys.” It is based on a Florida reform school, the Dozier School for Boys, that warped the lives of thousands of children for 111 years. In the fictional treatment, Elwood Curtis is derailed from his path toward college and pitched into a facility where “all the violent offenders . . . were on the staff.” Turner is wiser to the rigged game and eats soap when forced labor becomes unbearable. Whitehead doesn’t dwell in horror, instead, pervasive racism soaks the novel’s ground, so there is nowhere to stand for either boy. In prose as clear as water, Whitehead traps his reader. Undergirding it all are the unmarked graves of close to 100 Dozier boys unearthed in 2014. Finally made unforgettable.
“Sightseer in This Killing City” by Eugene Gloria
This is Gloria’s first book since the Manila-born Midwestern poet won his Anisfield-Wolf prize for “My Favorite Warlord” in 2013. Known for taking months, and sometimes years, on a single poem, Gloria joins Shane McCrae in pondering the contemporary American moment. Deeply attuned to heritage and displacement, the new poems continue Gloria’s preoccupation with the arrivals and departures of ordinary people. The title poem reverberates from a Dallas hospital. The other 47 in this collection are concise, erudite and plain-spoken in language enriched by Gloria’s reading across continents and centuries. He samples Stevie Wonder and Shakespeare; Baudelaire and Al Green. In “Implicit Body,” the speaker commands “Call me Mr. Gone/who’s done made/some other plans./All that remains is nostalgia/and this aching torso of blue.”
“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown
Named to several best-of-the-year lists, this stunning collection grapples with the black body, especially the queer black body, in poems that combine bright music and “everything cut down.” Brown follows his “The New Testament,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf prize, with a meditation over 51 poems on masculinity, desire, violence and tradition: in poetry, in racism, even in the impulse to plant gardens. In the musical, compressed lines of “Dark,” Brown writes “I’m sick/of your hurting. I see that/you’re blue. You may be ugly/but that ain’t new.” The poet comes up with a new form, “the duplex,” which he designed to gut the sonnet. “The Tradition” is suffused with prickling self-knowledge, of a sense of this poet coming into his own. He addresses his own persona in “The Rabbits”: “I am tired/Of claiming beauty where/There is only truth.”
The typical story set in New Orleans begins and ends somewhere in the French Quarter, but Sarah M. Broom’s meaty new memoir “The Yellow House” stretches our attention seven miles east, to the neighborhood where she and thousands of others live beyond the glitz of the city’s most famous district.
Broken into four movements spanning nearly a century, “The Yellow House” is the story of connection, longing and migration. Who belongs to a city, Broom asks over 300 pages. Whose stories are worth capturing and telling?
She begins her family’s story with the title dwelling. The house sat for 50 years in New Orleans East, more than 40,000 acres developed in the 1950s. It was built on what was “largely cypress swamp, its ground too soft to support trees or the weight of three humans,” Broom writes. Still, NASA’s massive Michoud Assembly Facility went up in 1940, anchoring the idea of a vibrant community to young families.
These promises lured in Ivory Mae Broom, Sarah’s mother. Widowed at 19, a mother of two, she used $3,200 from the life insurance payout to purchase a small green house on Wilson Avenue in 1961. Over the next five decades, the household would swell to hold twelve children. Sarah is the youngest — her eldest sibling, Simon Jr, is thirty years her senior.
Broom, 39, captures the life of her family with vigor. Her storytelling is most vivid when she writes about her father Simon Broom, Ivory Mae’s second husband. He died when Sarah was just six months old, collapsing in the bathroom. But his presence looms large as the writer relies on interviews with her mother and various siblings to paint a portrait of a man she never knew.
“My father is six pictures,” she writes. “These photos can be shuffled around, pinned up on my wall in various configurations, held up high in the palm of my hand, and then dropped to the ground and still they are only six pictures.”
But the Yellow House (which got its nickname when Ivory Mae purchased yellow siding in the 1990s) was never quite the oasis the Brooms were seeking. The place somehow bogged down into a perpetual state of disrepair. Simon built a poorly constructed and incomplete addition to the back of the house, the walls exposed and the bathroom unfinished. The family took to “carrying boiled water through the house and to the bath in our red beans and rice pot.”
The house, as Sarah writes, became more of a shackle for her mother, trying to manage its upkeep while simultaneously raising 12 children on a nurse’s aide’s salary. Her refrain was “You know this house not all that comfortable for other people” whenever one of the children wanted to invite a friend home. Non-relatives rarely crossed the threshold during Sarah’s childhood.
The Katrina section, simply titled “Water,” is gut-wrenching. Most of the Brooms were safely out of harm’s way when the hurricane hit in August 2005, but two of her siblings, Carl and Michael, didn’t make it out of New Orleans East before the onslaught. Carl rode out the storm at his home, while Michael hunkered down at a girlfriend’s apartment.
“You thinking that’s mannequins floating by you, but when you get by it that body smell so bad, it then swoll up big,” Carl told his sister. “Man that ain’t no mannequin, that’s a dead body.”
The water knocked the Yellow House off its foundations and the city later abruptly bulldozed it, ending a chapter of the Broom history for good.
Post-Katrina, the memoirist takes a job in Mayor Ray Nagin’s office, lasting only six months as a speechwriter before burning out. “More and more I began to feel that I was on the wrong side of the fence,” Broom writes, “selling a recovery that wasn’t exactly happening for real people.”
Broom is a master at the minutiae, conjuring a neighborhood hovering below its potential, neglected by the powers that be. The house itself is so carefully depicted you can see the hand-sewn curtains and the frayed edges of the kitchen linoleum.
For all its attention to detail, “The Yellow House” is slow to ignite. Broom lingers in her mother’s and grandmother’s childhood too long, giving too many peripheral characters space that feels unearned. With such a wide family tree – Broom currently has 50 nieces and nephews – it’s impossible to flesh out each relative. Still, she brings to life those she knows best.
The memoir does balance personal narrative and journalistic inquiry, with Broom centering the city of New Orleans at every turn. The streets, the homes, the neighbors all feel grounded in time.
Her story, and the larger story of the Broom clan, is worth finding, well off the beaten path.
Readers of Eugene Gloria’s poems have a cultivated patience, a relationship with time. It has been seven years since the publication of his last book, “My Favorite Warlord,” winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
In 2013, Henry Louis Gates Jr. praised Gloria’s poetry by remarking on his own keen interest in genealogy. The Anisfield-Wolf jury chair located a kinship in the poet’s exploration of our origins “as a key to the present [that] is compelling, addictive, and – in the best circumstances – generative. It is this last quality that is evident on every page.”
Gloria, 62, is deeply attuned to heritage and displacement. Arrivals and departures cycle through all four of his considered, beautiful and nimble poetry collections.
“My Favorite Warlord” opens with “Water,” a 39-line poem that took Gloria five years to write. Reading it now, it seems to flow toward the new book, “Sightseer in This Killing City.” The poet Yusef Komunyakaa identified “a playful exactness” in Gloria’s first collection, “Drivers at the Short-Time Motel,” which remains just right describing this new work.
The speaker of the title poem, “Sightseer in This Killing City” is in Dallas:
When I arrived, I saw the grassy knoll
Down that killing square. My cousin sick
and so I came with only Roethke’s line:
‘On things asleep, no balm.”
This poem may be set in Texas, but the book’s sensibility is informed by the troubling ascendancies of Philippines President Rodrigo Duarte and the U.S. President Donald Trump, both elected in 2016. The title poem ends, “And tomorrow is the past,/a gurney’s wheels squeaking/dry and violent through contagious halls.”
Democracies in the hospital, perhaps, the world a place of contagion, which “smiles wide as elevator doors.” The dis-ease is clearly infectious, leaving the reader, like a voter, to puzzle this out.
Gloria, born in Manila as his parents’ youngest child, grew up on both sides of the Pacific Ocean after his family settled in San Francisco. He has traveled widely but has lived mostly in the Midwest, the last two decades as a professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.
In the 48 poems of “Sightseer in This Killing City,” there is an exquisite, erudite, yet plain-spoken care with language from a poet well-read across continents and centuries. Snippets of verse from William Shakespeare and Charles Baudelaire crop up; so does a line from an Al Green song.
Anisfield-Wolf winning poet Marilyn Chin observes that Gloria’s new book tells unsettling stories “that praise ordinary people.” This is exactly right, including people on buses and those waiting in terminals. Poet Rigoberto Gonzalez calls the experience “a blessing to have Eugene Gloria help us reckon with the troubles histories that shape America [and] the Philippines.”
The new collection’s first poem, “Implicit Body,” ends stunningly by re-purposing a rift from a Stevie Wonder song. Gloria writes: “Call me Mr. Gone / who’s done made / some other plans./All that remains is nostalgia/and this aching torso of blue.”
One innovation is a persona Gloria calls Nacirema. The poet explains that the name “comes from artist Michael Arcega’s clever use of nomenclature as a way of examining Filipino American identity as well as his repurposing of Horace Miner’s essay ‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,’ from American Anthropologist, 1956.
The issue of the magazine published a few months before little Eugene was born in the capital city. It is a continuing pleasure to dwell in the worlds, and work, that child has wrought.
The cover of Jericho Brown’s new poetry collection, The Tradition, features a young black boy, perhaps 10 years old, surrounded in a lush field of flowers, ocean waves at his back.
It’s beauty is evident, but it intimidated Brown when he first saw it. “It’s so gorgeous and it does speak directly to the poems,” he told The Rumpus. “I kept wondering, “Are these poems good enough for this goddamn cover?”
Let that answer be an emphatic yes.
This work, stitched together over 51 poems, is a meditation on grief, violence, fatherhood, trauma, sexuality and beauty. The Tradition is his third book, the follow-up to 2014’s The New Testament, which won the Anisfield-Wolf award in poetry.
For this new book, Brown laments the pain of heartbreak, family erosion, gun violence, and self-exploration.In “Riddle,” he sneers at white supremacy, evoking the wail of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, as the vocalization of its destruction: We do not know the history/Of this nation in ourselves. We/Do not know the history of our/Selves on this planet because/We do not have to know what/We believe we own.
He plays with religion and racism in “Stake,” which begins: I am a they in most of America/Someone who feels lost in the forest/Of we, so he can’t imagine/A single tree. He can’t bear it.
In The Tradition, Brown centers what he calls “the duplex,” a new poetry form he originated that “guts the sonnet” and experiments with structure over 7 couplets, beginning and ending with the same line. The first of these poems appears in the first section and builds tension over its 14 lines:
A poem is a gesture toward home. It makes dark demands I call my own.
Memory makes demands darker than my own: My last love drove a burgundy car.
My first love drove a burgundy car. He was fast and awful, tall as my father.
Steadfast and awful, my tall father Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.
Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark Like the sound of a mother weeping again.
Like the sound of my mother weeping again, No sound beating ends where it began.
None of the beaten end up how we began. A poem is a gesture toward home.
“[The sonnet’s] been pushed down my throat the entirety of my life,” Brown said. “There is something in me that doesn’t like that, and doesn’t trust that, because I’m a rebellious human being. I need to be a rebellious human being because I’m black and gay in this nation and in this world which has not been good to me or anybody like me.”
Each section of The Tradition draws readers forward, hungrily. The pacing is intentional, though it’s still hard to catch your breath. It’s an intimate collection that prides itself on its vulnerability. Readers who pick up a copy will be awed, from cover to closing stanza.
The new novel from Laird Hunt, “In the House in the Dark of the Woods,” has the feel of a hymnal. It is palm sized and red, and it contains a story nestled in the Puritan Colonial era.
Hunt, 50, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2013 for “Kind One,” a haunting Civil War novel inspired by a short passage in Edward P. Jones’ masterpiece “The Known World.” Hunt is drawn to fable and journeys and psychological complexity. The new novel wastes no time entering the woods.
The first two sentences, in the voice of the narrator, are “I told my man I was off to pick berries and that he should watch our son for I would be gone some good while. So away I went with a basket.”
The woman goes missing, and Hunt excavates the ancient fears of women who abandon their families and women who are kidnapped and women who wander away without explanation. The epigram for the new work comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”:
Deep into that darkness peering,
Long I stood there
This eighth novel from Hunt, now a professor at Brown University, continues his assured, lyrical and disruptive storytelling. Readers who enter his fiction already know that these woods will be strange and harrowing indeed.
“John Woman,” the newest novel from prolific and philosophical Walter Mosley, arrives today telling the story of a fugitive genius.
It begins with Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVII – “Who will believe my verse in time to come” – and ends 36 chapters later with a mystery, its central character missing. Detectives find blood of more than one type on a New York City park bench.
In between is the story of a character born Cornelius Jones, the son of an Italian-American sensualist and an older, self-taught black intellectual. The novel opens as Lucia Napoli is describing her youthful wanton desires to her 12-year-old son, whom she calls CC. The boy mostly lives with his father Herman, a silent film projectionist in New York’s East Village. As Herman’s health fails, Cornelius takes over the job.
Five years later, father near death and mother in the wind, Cornelius becomes entangled in a murder and reinvents himself as John Woman. Brilliant in the classroom, he launches an intellectual movement – centered in Herman’s ideas — that grapples with the slipperiness of history. John Woman prospers, holding forth and breaking rules at a fictional southwestern American university.
Mosley, who studied political theory, is drawn to the difficulty of knowing history. “When I decided to write about this phenomenon I did so by constructing the novel of ideas – ‘John Woman’ (Grove Atlantic, 377 pp, $26),” he says.
“Understanding that this was to be a novel and not a treatise I gave my character a history in which he committed a crime that had to be hidden. There is no mystery about who committed the murder. There is no detective that solves a crime. Indeed, the reader might feel that no crime has been committed. ‘John Woman’ is a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”
Mosley spent nearly 20 years thinking about this novel. He described his own father, Leroy, who was a supervisory custodian in the Los Angeles Public Schools, as a “Black Socrates.” His mother, Ella Slatkin Mosley, was a Jewish clerk whose ancestors emigrated from Russia. In 1951, the state of California refused to issue the couple a marriage certificate. Their only child was born the next year.
Young Walter grew up in Los Angeles and wrote dozens of critically acclaimed novels, translated into some 25 languages. He is celebrated for his Easy Rawlins stories, and won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” detective fiction also set in tough South Central Los Angeles.
“Though I am known as a mystery writer that genre has never been the only expression of my writing career,” Mosley says in the publicity materials for his new novel. “I have published over 55 books since 1990. Less than half of these have been mysteries.
“I write books to fit the story and the subject I’m interested in. And so when I wanted to tell a tale about the blues and the bluesman Robert Johnson I wrote the literary novel ‘RL’s Dream’ in which Mr. Johnson served as the negative space. When I felt pressed to write about the impact and the internal struggle of dementia I wrote ‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.’”
Mosley, 66, has lived in New York City since 1981. “John Woman” begins and ends in that town, full of moral complexity even as its 377 propulsive pages fly along. Its author describes it as a political novel.
In 1970, Harvey Milk, a boisterous, restless New Yorker, turned 40 without a sense of having accomplished much. But in the handful of years that remained to him, Milk moved to San Francisco and remade American politics and identity.
Posthumously, his grin landed on a postage stamp, and the U.S. Navy, in which he served, is scheduled in 2021 to christen a logistics ship after him. Even before these two honors, Barack Obama in 2009 awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying, with a smile, “His name was Harvey Milk, and he was here to recruit us – all of us – to join a movement and change a nation.”
Obama was slyly riffing on Milk’s political catch-phrase – “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you!” – itself a clever subversion of the long-standing hysteria that gays sought to recruit straights into their beds.
But beneath these accumulating accolades was a complex man, writes historian Lillian Faderman in her elegant and informative new biography, Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death.
In her opening sentence, Faderman calls him “charismatic, eloquent, a wit and a smart aleck,” who was “one of the first openly gay men to be elected to any political office anywhere.” A year before his 1978 assassination, Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the city’s legislative council.
Faderman, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2016 for The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, is well-positioned to contextualize Milk’s life, or, as she sees it, his many lives: a macho high-school jock, a Navy deep-sea diver, a high school math teacher, a Wall Street securities analyst who leafletted for Barry Goldwater, an actor, a hippie, an associate producer, a gofer for a Broadway celebrity, a businessman and in mid-life, a progressive politician.
“For Harvey, being in politics was much like being in the theater,” Faderman writes. “His old Broadway pal Tom O’Horgan understood that: ‘Harvey spent all his life looking for a stage,’ Tom would later say, “and when he moved to San Francisco, he found it.”
This biography, a crisp 283 pages, is the latest entry in the much-honored Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press. Faderman knits Milk’s Jewish identity – his grandfather was a Yiddish-speaking peddler who emigrated from Lithuania – with his politics on behalf of the oppressed, from championing rent control to San Francisco’s disinvestment from apartheid South Africa.
And like his contemporary Philip Roth, who grew up in a suburban section of Jewish Newark, Milk’s childhood in his mother’s kosher house on Long Island was marinated in American Jewish identity.
The same photo used on the postage stamp graces the cover of Faderman’s book. It shows Milk in 1977 standing outside his Castro Street camera store. His tie is flipping over in the breeze, a campaign button nestles on his tweed lapel, his eyes hooded, his smile jaunty and – viewed from this century – slightly beatific.
With her signature meticulous research, Faderman reconstructs Milk’s life through interviews, unpublished documents, letters and archives. In clean, declarative sentences, she paints a fascinating portrait of a man who had real enemies, real sadness and an irreverent joie de vivre.
When Milk and his partner Scott Smith signed a lease in 1973 on the spot for their camera store, they hung a placard in their Castro St. window: “We are VERY open.” In their apartment, Milk placed in the window a lavender-leafed Wandering Jew, a symbol that he and Smith had found a home.
Such details animate Faderman’s book. During Milk’s first quixotic run for the Board of Supervisors, “the San Francisco Examiner featured a picture of him that made him look like a weird cross between a hippie and a Hasid, with long sideburns that could be mistaken for peyas.”
Milk actually printed the word “soap” on a wooden box and held forth from atop it in a little plaza on Castro Street. Legendary newspaper columnist Herb Caen quipped that Milk “was running for Supervisor on the homo ticket, and I don’t mean homogenized.”
From these unpromising beginnings, Milk doggedly moved from the fringes to the center of municipal power. “His energy had no limit.”
As with “The Gay Revolution,” Faderman has provided the general reader a marvelous, new, definitive text, the first biography of Milk with footnotes. In a political era when the democratic institutions of the United States are stressed, it is illuminating to read a careful account of one complicated, flawed and exceptionally brave man who used them to advance justice.
A few months before fellow-Supervisor Dan White stalked and shot Milk dead, Harvey Milk made a tape recording. “If a bullet should enter my brain,” he said, “let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
A Shout in the Ruins has a ring to it – both as a book and as a title that a poet would craft.
Novelist Kevin Powers spent six years writing his lyrical and violent story set in “the ruins” of Richmond, Virginia, the place where he was born and raised. The author anchors one narrative strand in the ruins of the Civil War; the second unspools 90 years later, during the ruins of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike construction that knocked apart the old Jackson Ward neighborhood of the city.
Readers can glimpse a thematic through-line from Powers’ fierce and luminous first book, The Yellow Birds, an elegiac story centered on a U.S. soldier named John Bartle returning from the Iraq war. It won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, as well as the PEN/Hemingway award.
“I will probably always be interested in the way that violence affects communities, how people respond to those sort of situations and how people put a life together when not all the pieces are intact,” Powers said in 2013 in Cleveland. As a teenager, he served as U.S. army gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq.
A Shout in the Ruins has a deep feel for blood-soaked Virginia. It becomes a multi-generational look at racism and intimacy in the context of war and ruin, American edition.
The story follows two couples: Rawls and Nurse, young people enslaved and in love, and their owners, Emily Reid Levallois and Antony Levallois, bound in marriage and unhappiness and treachery. Levallois is the region’s major landowner – his plantation is called Beauvais – and he sows menace in every direction.
As the book opens, Beauvais is burned, Emily either a ghost or an escapee from that place. The narrative scrolls backward to her midsummer birth, with Rawls as a little boy in the yard watching his mother rock the newborn, a “strange girl who would so influence the rest of his life.”
A few pages later, Rawls begins his nighttime courtship of Nurse, who asks him, “Why do you have a gait like a hobbled dog?” He shows her his feet, both big toes “docked,” or sliced off in childhood after he tried to escape. As the couple sits with this, “the common noises of the night returned. The nightjar’s solemn whistle. A fox scream in the distance. The world painted in shades of gray and lit solely by reflection.”
A mere 15 pages into the novel Powers has nestled beauty and horror together.
The second chapter pivots to George Seldom, an elderly black man losing his house to the 1956 turnpike construction. George takes his displacement as the cue to travel – with a copy of The Negro Traveler’s Green Book – toward a memory of the North Carolina cabin of the woman who raised him from a foundling.
At mid-book, the reader learns how George’s history links to Rawls, Nurse and the Levalloises; George never does. Powers alternates the two narrative threads in a way that complicates all their stories.
When Rawls, still enslaved, is brought home by a group of four white men enraged by him, only Antony Levallois is clear about punishment. The other three “had lived a long time under the assumption that the threat of retribution was enough of a deterrent to keep the course of their lives moving in a predictable direction. And further, their hesitance to use violence to enforce their mastery over those they owned was a sign of a deep well of kindness and loyalty that characterized the tangled knot of the relationships of all involved. Among the five men gathered beneath the colorless buds of the sycamore tree, only two were free of this illusion.”
Those two are Levallois and Rawls, “who had decided long before that a kind master was a terrible master to have.”
Powers bring a psychological acuity to A Shout in the Ruins. These insights and their consequences spill through all his characters, reaching George Seldom a century later, reaching Powers’ readers now.
Another son of Richmond, Tom Wolfe, put The Yellow Birds on par with All Quiet on the Western Front. Wolfe died last month at age 88. Let’s hope that Little, Brown & Co., which published both men’s work, delivered an early manuscript to the elder literary lion in time for him to read it.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, is no stranger to resistance. Her searing new memoir, “When They Call You a Terrorist,” makes that plain.
Khan-Cullors, along with organizers Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, created the call to action after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager Zimmerman killed as the adolescent walked alone back to his father’s home from a trip to a convenience store.
The author was the one to punctuate their grief with a three-word hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter.
Her story begins in Van Nuys, the largely Mexican Los Angeles neighborhood notorious for an overbearing police presence. Born third of four children, she writes of growing up as her mother worked 12-hour days and law enforcement constantly harassed her two older brothers.
When her brother Monte, just two years older, became a teen, he began exhibiting signs of schizoaffective disorder, which led to multiple stints of incarceration. During it all, his mental illness went mostly untreated. Reading about Monte’s struggle is heartbreaking and frames Khan-Cullors’ social justice work.
The author, now 33, became a community organizer in her teens. She benefited from a magnet high school that focused on social justice, and training through the Strategy Center – which helped partly demilitarize the Los Angeles police department in 2016.
At 272 pages, “When They Call You a Terrorist” is less a story about the Black Lives Matter movement than the day-to-day realities of living in a country where that declaration even has to be made. The co-founders and members of Black Lives Matter committed to 11 guiding principles, the first being that the United States must “end all violence against black bodies.”
“We are firm in our conviction that our lives matter by virtue of our birth, and by virtue of the service we have offered to people, systems and structures that did not love, respect or honor us,” Khan-Cullors writes. The three co-founders of the movement wanted their work to “spread like wildfire.”
The movement, of course, has its critics. The “They” in the title refers to some entities, most notably the FBI, which listed “black identity extremists” in 2017 as a terror threat. Perhaps surprisingly, Khan-Cullors spends just a paragraph on her direct rebuttal: “Terrorism is being stalked and surveilled simply because you are alive. And terrorism is being put in solitary confinement and starved and beaten. And terrorism is not being able to feed your children despite working three jobs. And terrorism is not having a decent school or a place to play.”
Once the movement took off, Khan-Cullors was miffed by the greater visibility men enjoyed that the founders did not. “Opal, Alicia and I never wanted or needed to be the center of anything,” she writes. “We were purposeful about decentralizing our role in the work. But neither did we want or deserve to be erased.”
In this way, she observes, history repeats itself: “…like the women who organized, strategized, marched, cooked, typed up and did the work to ensure the Civil Rights Movement, women whose names go unknown and unnamed.”
It is therefore disappointing that Khan-Cullors includes very little about her relationship with her co-founders, Alicia Garza or Opal Tometi, both before and during their public ascent. Perhaps she prefers that they speak for themselves, but her book would be stronger had readers been given a glimpse.
Still, “When They Call You a Terrorist,” co-authored with Asha Bandele, is stirring. The collaboration between the two feels organic, and the writing flows with an easy rhythm.
“I didn’t think I had a story inside of me,” Khan-Cullors told The Root. “Because oftentimes for black women, the role that has been relegated to us is to be the container for someone else’s story. We’re the partner, the extra in someone else’s tale.”
The pages of Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” smell of Mississippi.
Set in the same fictional town, Bois Sauvage, as her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel, “Salvage the Bones,” her latest fiction returns to tell again of family bonds, tested by unresolved trauma and unrelenting Southern poverty. She undergirds the sense of place with a seven-line epigraph from Derek Walcott’s “The Gulf.”
At the heart of “Sing” is Jojo, a 13-year-old narrator focusing on his budding manhood. His role model? Pop, whose days are spent taking care of his cancer-stricken wife, Mam, Jojo’s toddler sister Kayla, and to a lesser extent, his daughter Leonie, Jojo’s mother.
Ward, a Mississippian and Tulane University professor, excels with a narrative that knits together three generations with precision. So much is in the details: early on, she establishes Leonie’s place in the family with Jojo’s decision to address his mother by her first name.
“Sometimes I think I understand everything else more than I’ll ever understand Leonie,” he says to himself as he watches his mother fumble on his birthday with a tiny baby shower cake and “the cheapest ice cream, the kind with a texture of cold gum.”
Both Jojo and Kayla are estranged from their father Michael, a white oil rig worker turned meth dealer, who’s finishing up a three-year bid at the state penitentiary. But when he’s released, Leonie insists that her two children and a family friend make the drive to bring him home. An unexpected visitor joins them on the journey, heightening a fraught trek.
The bond between Jojo and Kayla is the emotional core of the novel. Even Leonie knows she is on the outside looking in. When she spies them napping together, jealousy takes hold: “…a part of me wants to shake Jojo and Michaela awake, to lean down and yell so they startle and sit up so I don’t have to see the way they turn to each other like plants following the sun across the sky.”
Her efforts fluctuate in trying to be the mother she thinks her children deserve: one minute she’s hunting in the field for a homegrown remedy to ease her daughter’s sudden illness, the next she’s gone missing, with no clue to her whereabouts. Despite this, and despite her drug use, Leonie comes off as a sympathetic character. Her chapters are frustratingly good.
One compelling character, Leonie’s late brother Given, could have used more airtime. He appears in the book mostly as a ghost, haunting Leonie when she’s high. But he’s a dynamic figure, even from the afterlife, and Ward could have tucked in a bit more of his life before his untimely death.
This month, she received two pieces of recognition for her storytelling: one, being named a finalist again for the National Book Award and two, a selection as a MacArthur Fellow, with its $625,000 no-strings-attached award. (She responded to the latter on Twitter with a Prince gif.)
Ward has a page-turner on her hands, a slow burn of a book that dives deep into the waters of the South, exploring race and class in the context of memory. Of everything that happens to us, what leaves a scar? What holds us hostage?
Those scars are on full display in “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” and its colors are heartbreaking – and beautiful.
Viking, 207 pp, $22
In Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel, “What We Lose,” grief shadows every page. But like Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Light of the World,” another examination of life amid a death, it is compelling.
A loosely autobiographical story, this book is about the pain of losing a mother. Like her protagonist Thandi, Clemmons, 32, is the child of a South African mother and African-American father, born and raised in Philadelphia with summers and long vacations spent in Johannesburg. And just like Thandi, Clemmons left college to help with her mother’s care in her remaining days.
“What We Lose” explores grief, cultural identity, politics, colorism, and love through stream-of-consciousness vignettes. A creative writing professor at Los Angeles’ Colburn Conservatory of Music and Occidental College, Clemmons conjures Thandi to express complicated emotional terrain:
“Loss is a straightforward equation: 2-1=1. A person is there, then she is not. But a loss is beyond numbers, as well as sadness, and depression, and guilt, and ecstasy, and hope, and nostalgia—all these emotions that experts tell us come along with death. Minus one person equals all of these in unpredictable combinations. It is a sunny day that feels completely gray, and laughter in the midst of sadness. It is utter confusion. It makes no sense.”
At its core, “What We Lose” is a novel about what anchors us. Thandi finds the answer shifts: familial ties sustain her in one period, the love of close friends in another. Once she has lost her mother, however, the greatest anchor of her young life disappeared. Thandi is an intriguing character, at once impulsive and afraid, searching for something to steady her: “Each day I feel less like the person I was the day before, my body hurtling so fast in one direction that my mind cannot keep pace.”
In short, searing sections, Clemmons makes us feel as if we, too, have suffered a loss. She dabbles with visual devices to hit different emotions; in one chapter Thandi draws a graph to mathematically depict her unrelenting grief.
A moving novel with few extraneous passages, “What We Lose” is a stellar read from an author with a strong perspective. She studied at Brown and Columbia, where she was mentored by Paul Beatty and helped found Apogee Journal.
Every once in a while, someone comes along – think Garrison Keillor, Richard Pryor, Spalding Gray – who defies any of our conventional notions of genre, so something has to be invented for them. Meet the newest member of the group – Tyehimba Jess.
Jess, who this spring won both an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a Pulitzer for poetry, has definitely written a book that contains pieces that seem like poetry, but even that term, as expansive as it is, seems limiting here. This book also contains artwork, posters, interviews, music (the Fisk Jubilee Singers) and history. This book is so full of life that at more than 200 pages, I still never wanted it to end. Even Jess’ author notes are marvelous.
We meet Scott Joplin, Henry “Box” Brown and Booker T. Washington, among others. But I think the most memorable character is Wildfire and the account of her introduction to academic and community life in Oberlin, Ohio, and her brave and bold exit. In this untitled poem, Jess brings us gently, even optimistically, into Wildfire’s new surroundings:
“1862. Wildfire lay not far from the campus of Oberlin, where her older brother had sent her to learn how to mold herself into a brown survival of whiteness.”
In addition to the searing phrase “a brown survival of whiteness,” the use of the word “mold” here seems deliberate, to connect to the previous poem, “Forever Free,” which is about the work of the sculptor, Edmonia Lewis.
What a thing it is
to be delivered
from hardship’s rubble,
of the world.
To raise up
on one’s own pedestal
Like most great literature, Olio makes me want to read more (a biography of Scott Joplin that Jess includes in his bibliography), see more (the sculpture of Edmonia Lewis) and listen more (I’ve been playing ragtime in my car since I started this book).
Friday, September 8
Tyehimba Jess, 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Award Winner, poetry, Olio 5:30 p.m.
Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy – Eagle Academy in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
how to get over — the debut poetry collection from t’ai freedom ford — is part instruction manual, part black culture guidebook and part handing the mic to everyone from Harriet Tubman to Rodney King.
“Every single word I write is under the auspices of my ancestors,” ford declares. The Cave Canem graduate gives them their say in 57 poems covering nearly 250 years of pain and beauty.
ford, who teaches English in a New York City high school, leans into poetry with urgency—read this and read it now. She divides her book into four sections – Live, Lie, Love, and Die – each building on the architecture of the segment before. The 16 poems that comprise “Die” are the strongest of the collection. If you pick up how to get over, read “autopsy of a not dead father” first.
Anisfield-Wolf poetry winner Tyehimba Jess praises the collection for its message of deliverance: “This book has come just in time for all us who’ve been under the gun, under false pretense, under arrest, under the influence, and burying our hearts underground.”
Film festival goers might have seen ford in the recent documentary “The Revival: The Women and the Word,” where she hit the stage nightly on an eight-city tour along with four other artists. There, her poetry stood out for its vibrancy and punch; here, that energy continues and ripples from chapter to chapter.
“Namesake” is one standout, grappling with the politics of what we answer to:
the name too old for you — already rust in the mouth of a newborn torn
from some grandmama’s past her fast legacy simmering in the ground
& sometimes the name don’t sound right in your bones gathers in the
joints & aches before the rain comen vibrates your spine toward curve
& sometimes the name you don’t deserve — too grand for all your regular-
ness it blots you invisible
She gives readers an abbreviated look at her family tree in “big bang theory,” giving praise to the matriarch of the Ford family, Lillie Mae, and the children she birthed:
she buried all the men with Jesus
on her breath. and when her big-boned
self big-banged to dust, we didn’t call
it death. we called it magic.
Like Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” ford elevates pain into introspective art, carefully connecting the dots between what it means to be black and what it means to be free. how to get over rejoices in the space where both are possible.
by Charles Ellenbogen
This Anisfield-Wolf award winner is absolutely stunning.
From its riveting opening pages until the truth of its conclusion, Karan Mahajan takes us through a stunning story of small bombs, both the ones used by terrorists and the ones encountered in everyday life. I think what’s new here is that Mahajan, as the perfectly designed cover demonstrates, connects the bombs in ways we rarely get access to, let alone appreciate.
What’s also new and both bold and necessary is that Mahajan takes us inside the lives of these terrorists. He accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making us, if not like them, then at least understand them, both on a personal and political level. It is in these sections that he asks the most difficult and urgent questions, and I hope Anisfield-Wolf plans to host some conversations about this book even before the author arrives in Cleveland for this year’s awards ceremony. (You must know that sensation of having finished a book and looking around immediately thinking, “Who else has finished it? I must talk to someone about this book. Now!”)
And please don’t think that Mahajan lets anyone in this story elude his hard questions. There are no angels in India, either.
In my enthusiasm for the content of the book, I don’t want to neglect Mahajan’s writing. He has passages, some as short as a phrase and others as long as several pages, that are just breathtaking in their precision and use of language. Unless I am teaching a novel, I rarely read with a pencil in hand. This time I did and my annotations and exclamation points fill this book.
The only fault with this book is mine. I know so little about India. It is not necessary to have much background knowledge to immerse yourself in this book, but I would love a suggestion of something to read to give me that background knowledge so I can appreciate it on another level when I return to it.
Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy – Eagle Academy in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
The blazing new novel from Mohsin Hamid opens with this sentence: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”
In “Exit West,” Nadia is “always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular in a flowing black robe,” a garb she will wear throughout her life. When Saeed meets her, they are taking an evening class on corporate identity and product branding, which seems like a sly reference to Hamid’s marvelous 2013 book “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.”
Saeed watches the robed Nadia don a motorcycle helmet and swing a leg over her motorbike before rumbling off. Later, over their first coffee, he is surprised to learn she doesn’t pray. Asked why she then wears religious garb, Nadia smiles over her cup at Saeed and says: “So men don’t f*** with me.”
In his taut and profound fourth novel, Hamid picks up the classic boy-meets-girl storyline and weaves it into a nuanced, melancholy love story of global significance. At age 45, the Anisfield-Wolf winner for “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” has delivered a story at once familiar and utterly new, a fable unlike any yet told.
In a tale inhabited by militants, migrants and cell phones, Hamid introduces his first element of magical realism: dark, door-like portals that the reader gradually realizes are opening up around the world. As is his wont, Hamid never names the couple’s home city. But as the place succumbs to “sandbagged checkpoints and razor wire,” helicopters, then howitzers and infantry, Saeed and Nadia reluctantly decide to pay a smuggler to move them through a portal.
“Exit West” moves forward – in very short, moving passages — to other distinct spots on the planet – Mykonos, Greece; Sydney, Australia; Tijuana, Mexico; Tokyo, Japan; La Jolla, California; coastal Namibia, London, Buenos Aires, Argentina and Amsterdam. In these last two cities a garden shed becomes a portal that connects two elderly men, unable to speak one another’s languages, who nonetheless grow fond. A war photographer witnesses “their very first kiss, which she captured, without expecting to, through the lens of her camera, then deleted, later that night, in a gesture of uncharacteristic sentimentality and respect.”
Hamid gives this vignette a lovely gravitas in eight short paragraphs; he is poetic as he suggests that untold beauty might arise on occasion if we could foil the arbitrariness of geography. In 2013, the writer told National Public Radio’s Morning Edition that he takes “six or seven years to write really small books. There is a kind of aesthetic of leanness, of brevity.”
So “Filthy Rich” was only 228 pages; “Exit West” is 231. Yet the novel is made of long, cool, scalloped sentences – one runs 276 words and still the reader hardly notices.
Hamid is emphatically a political writer; he anticipates and imbues “Exit West” with the present-day crisis. Rich countries are busy building walls even as refugees flee their “drone-crossed skies” by the millions. As these migrants emerge in new places, drones and satellite surveillance follow. Some violence travels with them and some violence awaits, new nights of shattering glass.
Nadia and Saeed respond differently to the threats; a great pleasure of “Exit West” is these characters’ complexity – alone, together and across time. Hamid’s portrait of them as a couple feels as authentic as anything fiction has mustered in the new millennium.
The writer gave Lit Hub an interview last year on “Exit West,” one of the most anticipated novels of 2017. He said, “I understand that people are afraid of migrants. If you’re in a wealthy country, it’s understandable that you might fear the arrival of lots of people from far away. But that fear is like racism: it’s understandable, but it needs to be countered, diminished, resisted.
“People are going to move in vast numbers in the coming decades and centuries. Sea levels will rise, weather patterns will change, and billions will move. We need to figure out how to build a vision for this coming reality that isn’t a disaster, that is humane and even inspiring.”
“Exit West” reads as a portal to that possibility.
Coretta Scott King begins her posthumous new memoir with a terrific metaphor: “Most people know me as Mrs. King. The wife of, the widow of, the mother of, the leader of. . .Makes me sound like the attachments that come with my vacuum cleaner.”
When she died in 2006 at age 78, 12,000 people came to her eight-hour Georgia funeral, including four U.S. presidents. In this sweeping memoir “My Life, My Love, My Legacy” King details her rise from a restricted childhood in Marion, Alabama, to become one of the most visible leaders of the Civil Rights movement. But as King plainly states, most people were still unable to separate her legacy from her husband’s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
She writes that this never bothered her: “We did not have a his-and-hers mission. We were one soul, one goal, one love, one dream. The movement had become embedded in my DNA. It was not something I could choose — or refuse.”
As a young girl in the segregated south, she encountered injustice early. When she was 15, racists burned her family’s Alabama home to the ground on Thanksgiving. Huddled around the melted vinyl, her father instructed them to pray for the arsonists. This incident was “my first taste of evil, the kind that shows up at your door in such a way that you can never forget its smell, its taste, its sting.”
She moved north soon after, enrolling at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she received her first taste of life outside of Jim Crow. Her studies then took her to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she met Martin, a charismatic doctoral student who declared on their first date she would make a great wife.
They married in 1953 and had four children in succession — Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice. King found it difficult to balance caring for young children and her music career while her husband was often orchestrating demonstrations, but she refused to be a stay-at-home mother. “I love being your wife and the mother of your children,” she shared with her husband one day, “but if that’s all I am to do, I’ll go crazy.”
Throughout the book, King bristles at being reduced to a background player. Her Freedom Concerts, well-attended international affairs in which she would use her classically trained voice to sing and tell stories about the movement, were one of the main fundraisers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She notes that she was the one who first began collecting her husband’s speeches and notes, the first to intuit their value. She was brave and outspoken in ways her husband couldn’t be, she wrote, noting that she began speaking out against the Vietnam War years before he felt comfortable doing so.
But her presence in the movement wasn’t always well-received. One incident, in which she accompanied the men to the gate of the Kennedy White House in a limousine, only to have to hail a cab back to the hotel, particularly stung. Men at the top, including her husband, were often reluctant to give female leaders public credit. In this memoir, she praises organizers Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Juanita Abernathy and others for their ability to lead from the shadows.
For the most part, King’s memoir is beautifully written but cautious. She veers away from controversial topics such as her husband’s rumored extramarital affairs or the in-fighting between leaders. When she becomes introspective, on the verge of sorrow, she doesn’t linger there. Sadness and pity are luxuries she sets aside here, despite the horrors she endured.
King mentions just a few vacations with her husband during the height of the movement, always noting that they were “following doctor’s orders.” Toward the end of her life, she took a few trips with good friends Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, and Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of Medgar Evers. The trio offered each other a particular sisterhood. When they were together, their main goal was to “enjoy not being in charge of anything,” King wrote.
King closes the book with a call to action: “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it with every generation.” This book may very well be the blueprint.
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.
But the Virginia writer knew this convention to be false. She grew up surrounded by blacks in STEM. Her father spent 40 years working in NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Her aunts and uncles overwhelmingly made their way into engineering and technology. To Shetterly, “the face of science was brown like mine.”
It makes sense, then, that her first book, “Hidden Figures,” was sparked by a visit home, when her father casually mentioned that her former Sunday school teacher, Kathleen Land, worked for NASA as a mathematician. Shetterly, 47, followed that thread and spent the next several years researching these little-known “human computers,” women who, for decades, were tucked away in footnotes, their contributions to flight and space exploration gathering dust.
“Hidden Figures” brings four particular women out of the shadows — Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden.
Through careful interviews and painstaking research, Shetterly tells their stories. The book begins in 1943, with the country in the throes of World War II. A labor shortage and concurrent pressure from civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph forced the government to put out the call to women of all races to work as mathematicians at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics — the predecessor to NASA.
As each woman — Vaughan, Johnson, Jackson and Darden — joined these ranks, she was shown to racially separate facilities and lunchrooms. Shetterly asks readers to imagine “the chutzpah it took for an African-American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the moon.”
But these women pushed back in ways both significant and measured. One colleague, Miriam Mann, would swipe the “colored computers” sign off their designated lunchroom table every day, daring supervisors to put it back. Jackson found herself telling her boss’ boss that his numbers were incorrect, only to have him come to apologize after he realized she was right.
Incidents of resistance also show up in the movie adaptation of the book, starring Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson. (Darden, who didn’t join NASA until 1967, doesn’t appear in the film.)
All three deliver solid performances, making the viewer comfortable in a world where equations run off the tongue as easily as a recipe in more conventional fare. While Henson’s character receives most of the screen time, it is Monae’s character that elevates the film above a one-note exercise. Jackson’s story — fighting to become the first African American aeronautical engineer at NASA — is worthy of a film of its own.
Both the movie and book make us wonder: How much promise and potential was lost in the teeth of Jim Crow? How much help did Jim Crow give the Russian’s space program?
Eddie has just escaped from the farm; Eddie also has no hands.
Those are among the first two things we learn in James Hannaham’s outstanding, tense and underappreciated novel, Delicious Foods (underappreciated despite winning the 2015 PEN/Faulker Award). Having established that frame, Hannaham recounts the events that led to that point using the voices of three narrators: Eddie, his mother Darlene and Scotty. I am going to avoid explaining who Scotty is.
It suffices to say that Hannaham takes a risk here that in other hands might have come across as a gimmick; here, it works. Darlene, having lost her husband Nat to a brutal act of racist violence (an act for which Darlene blames herself), spirals downward and severs the relationship with her son.
Darlene’s obsession with the loss of her husband and her role in it is not the only kind of enslavement in this story. She becomes, by all accounts, a pretty unsuccessful prostitute and falls under the spell of a self-help book. This allows her to be seduced by representatives from Delicious Foods, who promise her excellent accommodations and wages in exchange for her work on their farm. We are not fooled; Darlene, without telling Eddie, is. As soon as she arrives, she finds herself in another kind of slavery, one akin to the logistics of sharecropping. She doesn’t know where she’s been taken. That’s part of how the company controls her. Her accommodations are far from luxurious and her wages are abysmal. In fact, by the time she wakes up the next morning, she already owes the company money. And she can’t make the phone call to her son to tell him where she is.
And Eddie wants to know. Despite all of her frustrations with her, Eddie loves his mother. Hannaham explains in this elegant passage:
He remembered eating a certain brand of chocolate sandwich cookie that matched her complexion, not the deep brown of stained wood but lighter and ruddier, like cedar-bark chips. She had grace, and painted her finger and toenails a respectable shade of plum. A night sky of faint dots spread across her face. . . He remembered sitting in her lap and tracing these constellations. . .
After wandering among the people of the night, Eddie finds the same representatives from Delicious Foods and is reunited with his mother. The problem becomes that he, too, cannot leave the farm. And his mother doesn’t always want to.
In addition to taking us back to both the slavery and sharecropping eras, Hannaham’s descriptions of life on the farm resonates with the conditions that farmworkers face today. Some of the farmworkers dream about the plates and mouths where the food they pick will end up. How often, Hannaham seems to be asking, do we really acknowledge the labor that brings us our food? Where have you gone, Cesar Chavez?
Darlene gets increasingly drawn into life of the farm. Eddie, despite finding himself favored by the farm’s owner and therefore a prime candidate for an overseer position, becomes increasingly desperate to escape. And while his desperation does lead to his escape, it also explains – in a prolonged scene that is both horrible and true – why, when we first meet him, he is driving with no hands.
In what I first thought was a mistake, the story does not end there. Both Darlene and Eddie have to continue living and find a way back to each other. Like the readers, they are haunted by their experiences with Delicious Foods. Like the readers, they know their lives will never be the same. Life will not suddenly be easy. Hannaham – who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and teaches at Pratt Institute – does not let them, or us, off of the hook.
Delicious Foods, like Emma Donoghue’s Room, demonstrates the incredible power of the love between a parent and child while they are both ensnared in very dismal circumstances. But in the end, there is hope. Hannaham writes of Eddie: “He had to survive. He had to live. He was free.”
Hannaham – who earned his MFA at the University of Texas at Austin – has written a new kind of Southern Gothic. Flannery O’Connor would be proud. Thanks to Hannaham’s understated prose, the power of the novel sneaks up on you. And it does not go away.
Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy – Eagle Academy in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” took home the Man Booker Prize for 2016, making him the first U.S. author to win the British award. The satirical novel, whose plot kicks off from an absurd trial that puts resegregation and slavery before the Supreme Court, was a unanimous choice for the judges. Historian Amanda Foreman, jury chair of the prize, called Beatty’s work “a novel for our times.”
“The Sellout is one of those very rare books: which is able to take satire, which is a very difficult subject and not always done well, and plunges it into the heart of contemporary American society with a savage wit of the kind I haven’t seen since Swift or Twain,” Foreman said. “It manages to eviscerate every social taboo and politically correct nuance, every sacred cow. While making us laugh, it also makes us wince. It is both funny and painful at the same time.”
This marks the second major award for “The Sellout,” as it collected the National Book Critics Circle prize in March. Below, the review from our own Karen R. Long, a member of the NBCC jury:
Try reading the first paragraph of The Sellout aloud. Better still, in public. It begins “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything” and it ends describing our narrator handcuffed and sitting on “a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”
As the poet Kevin Young points out in The New York Times, this bit “takes the beginning of Ellison’s Invisible Man’(‘I am an invisible man. No, not some spook . . .’) and spoofs it beyond belief.” Indeed, the satire of Paul Beatty corkscrews its reader into one stunning contortion after another, until it feels as if every social construct is splayed and strangled, caught like a codfish in the reader’s own horrified throat.
“Horrifying” is one of my margin notes. So is “outrageous,” “incendiary” and “tour de force.” The vehicle delivering this is the dazzling voice of the narrator, raised in a neglected “agrarian ghetto” on the outskirts of Los Angeles where he grows prize watermelon and omnipotent marijuana. (After he passes a blunt to a group of surfers, “shaggy, aboriginal, blond-haired white boys, damn near as dark as you,” one says: “Incredible bud, dude. Where’d you get this shit?” Answer: “I know some Dutch coffee shop owners.”)
In this way Beatty serves cake and eats it: confirming and blowing up an expectation in the same sentence, pretty much sentence by sentence. The protagonist’s father treats his son as a life-long demented experiment; he is known as “The Sellout!” during roll call of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, where our narrator scarfs down a “batch of Oreo cookies.”
California plays the bass line in this painful music; here is one passage I marked tour de force: “If places like Sedona, Arizona, have energy vortexes, mystical holy lands were visitors experience rejuvenation and spiritual awakenings, Los Angeles must have racism vortexes. Spots where visitors experience deep feelings of melancholy and ethnic worthlessness. Places like the breakdown lane on the Foothill Freeway, where Rodney King’s life, and in a sense America and its haughty notions of fair play, began their downward spirals. Racial vortices like the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where misbegotten trucker Reginald Denny caught a cinder block, a forty-ounce, and fucking centuries of frustration in the face. Chavez Ravine, where a generations-old Mexican American neighborhood was torn down, its residents forcibly removed, beaten, and left uncompensated to make room for a baseball stadium with ample parking and the Dodger Dog. Seventh Street, between Mesa and Centre, is the vortex where in 1942 a long line of buses idled as Japanese-Americans began the first step toward mass incarceration.”
Taking a page from Dave Chappelle, our narrator decides the solution lies in racially segregating the local middle school and reinstituting slavery on his own spread. The weird and terrible thing: it goes well. The novelist Mat Johnson praised The Sellout, telling the New York Times: “Hordes on Twitter spend all day arguing and denouncing each other over perceived identity slights, racial or otherwise. Beatty’s work is a beautiful reminder that sometimes you can say more by laughing at yourself than by screaming at everyone else.”
Maybe so. But if a joke is “the truth that’s gone out and got drunk,” this brilliant novel makes a case for Carrie Nation, looking for an ax to sober the place up.