On a recent sunny Sunday morning, four celebrated American writers rose early to meet for breakfast and chew over the merits of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“I worked as a Kentucky Fried Chicken hostess,” said novelist Louise Erdrich, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for A Plague of Doves. “And I’ll just say it: the secret ingredient is sugar.”
Marlon James, whose ambitious new book about Jamaica, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is already anointed one of the best of 2014, insisted that KFC tastes better when eaten outside the United States.
“It is a joy to be back in Dayton and to be with such fantastic writers,” declaring Adam Johnson, who won a Pulitzer for The Orphan Master’s Son, his tour-de-force story set in modern North Korea. The Stanford University professor said that such warm, KFC-infused chatter “can only happen in Dayton.”
The fourth member of the impromptu breakfast club, Gilbert King, saw “Devil in the Grove,” his narrative of a game-changing civil rights battle in Jim Crow Florida, win a surprise nonfiction Pulitzer in 2013. He stayed mum, however, about fast-food chicken.
All four writers relished one another’s company and the rest of the throng convened for the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an outgrowth of the Bosnian Peace Accords negotiated in 1995 at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base outside Dayton.
Begun in 2006, the initial Dayton prizes attracted “about 13 people for the first gathering,” said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of an honor that elevates literature fostering “peace, social justice and global understanding.”
Just eight years later, more than 300 readers assembled to hear Johnson, who won for fiction last year; James, who did the same in 2010 for his first novel The Book of Night Women; King, last year’s runner up in nonfiction and Erdrich, the winner of this year’s Richard Holbrook Lifetime Achievement Prize. The lines were longest to speak to her.
“Part of my work has been to tell stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things,” Erdrich said. “My role is to be there as a writer and never to judge my characters — to understand the basis of behavior when it is cruel.”
Wearing a warm smile and dark, modest clothes, Erdrich’s beautiful posture reflected a kind of moral erectness. “I am not a peaceful writer; I am a troubled one, longing for peace,” she told the organizers. She declined to pose with a book when a reader coaxed her, and she rejected the notion that writing centers her.
“No, I don’t think it helps me find personal peace,” she said. “But I am addicted to the joy that comes over me when I write a good paragraph, or even a good sentence.”
Erdrich, 60, described taking her first plane flight from her North Dakota home to attend college at Dartmouth, where the school teams were still informally called Indians. “The outrage and the uproar that happened at this Ivy League college at changing their name was shocking to me, but after many years, they did it.”
She noted that the University of North Dakota has finally retired its “Fighting Sioux” moniker and reported that sportscasters in her hometown, Minneapolis, won’t even say the “R word,” the nickname of the Washington, D.C. football team. Its roots lie in the bounty hunters were paid in the 1860s for dead Native Americans.
Also on stage at Sinclair Community College was this year’s fiction winner, Bob Shacochis, sporting a silver mane of hair, a wry smile and an open-throated shirt. His novel The Woman Who Lost Her Soul ranges over 700 pages, 50 years and four continents as it explores the unintended consequences of American foreign policy. Shacochis, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Haiti, told the audience in downtown Dayton that the “woman” in the title is the United States.
The nonfiction winner, Karima Bennoune, grew up partly in Algeria and partly in the Midwestern United States. Her book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, draws on global fieldwork and penetrating interviews to document hundreds of instances of resistance to radical Islam. Bennoune, a professor of international law at the University of California-Davis, decried how little is known about the resisters, and called to task Westerners on both the left and right who exaggerate and distort the stories of people in Muslim countries. She pointed to her father’s courageous resistance to censorship in his Algerian classroom, and the Afghanis who fought for the lives of their cultural treasures against the Taliban as if the statues “were their children.”
“If you want to know what Muslims think, you may want to ask them, Bill Maher,” she said pointedly in Dayton. “God bless Ben Affleck in calling out Maher, but he is wrong to say ISIS couldn’t fill a AA ballpark in Charlotte, because it could. Bill and Ben should actually start talking to people who know more about this than we do.”
As the runners-up in fiction and non-fiction took the microphone – Margaret Wrinkle for “Wash” and Jo Roberts for “Contested Land, Contested Memory” – they enhanced an intellectually vigorous, warm, collegial session. Wrinkle, a seventh-generation daughter of slave-holders, spoke about the spiritual underpinnings of her slavery fiction, and Roberts spoke eloquently about listening to all types of people ensnared in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Publisher, editor and composer Christopher Cerf, who moderated, beamed at the end. “As someone who has heard about the death of publishing far too much, as you can see, it is not dead yet, and not dead in the cause of peace.”
The potency of literature went on vivid display in early November when readers gathered around the writers who won this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prizes. They started with an intense and intimate two-hour session at Sinclair Community College in downtown Dayton.
“I need to give a shout-out to Wendell Berry, whose ‘The Gift of Good Land’ was one of the most important books of my life,” boomed Sinclair President Steven Lee Johnson, turning to the celebrated Kentucky author in praise of the 1981 essay collection, one of Berry’s 50 titles.
A bit later, a woman in a pink sweater rose, lifted her chin to Berry and fiercely declared, “Your words have changed my life, over and over. I carry your books when I am sad and frightened and they have changed things for me.” She paused, looked at the 300-member audience. “How awesome is that?”
Berry, 79, in Dayton to accept his distinguished achievement award, decided to address the fervor. “When people say my writing has changed their life, I feel complimented, but also a little frightened,” he said. “I didn’t sit down to change anybody’s life.” His eyes sought out the woman. “I think my book spoke to something in you that changed your life. That is to your credit and you should not give the credit to me.”
Nevertheless, credit abounded at the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a legacy of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that negotiated a stop to the Bosnian War. Established a decade later, the award seeks to recognize literature as “an enduring and effective tool for fostering peace.” It is now eight years old.
“The writers who win see the sincerity of the people who come and the people who work on this,” said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of the awards. “There is an entire community dedicated to peace and literature and the connection between the two.”
Pat Fife, a teacher at suburban Dayton’s Kettering-Fairmount High School, said her students were studying human trafficking with a class of like-minded students in Bosnia. Both groups read Ben Skinner’s “A Crime So Monstrous” about “modern-day slavery.” It won the 2009 Dayton prize.
“I thought it might be a little controversial, but people have been more than willing to engage it,” Fife said. Her students linked up with a nearby Methodist Church that works to fight human trafficking.
In its eight years, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize has overlapped often with the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Both have honored Chang-Rae Lee, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, Ha Jin, Chimamanda Adichie and Isabel Wilkerson. And this year, each jury hit upon the same book in nonfiction: Andrew Solomon’s magisterial “Far From the Tree.”
In Dayton, Solomon declared that “human diversity matters just as much as species diversity.” He noted that roughly 50 years ago Time magazine could denigrate gays as sub-human and the Atlantic Monthly could recommend exterminating infants with Down Syndrome. “I wanted to understand how something universally understood as an illness turned into an identity,” he said.
Such transformation doesn’t arrive all at once. One man took Solomon aside in Dayton and demanded the writer admit that “this gay rights thing has gone too far.” Solomon quietly told the stranger he would not admit that.
The author, who received a thunderous ovation at the awards ceremony, riffed on his title. “What parent hasn’t looked at their child,” he asked, “and said, ‘What planet did you come from?’”
Growing up, Solomon read and admired Berry’s poetry, and Berry said, for his part, he was thunderstruck in 1963 by Harry Caudill’s nonfiction classic “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” a story about rural poverty that mattered.
Maaza Mengiste, Dayton’s first runner-up in 2011 for her novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” said she had been greatly influenced by Tim O’Brien, who was on hand as last year’s distinguished achievement winner.
“Peace is a shy thing,” O’Brien told the crowd. “It doesn’t brag about itself. We are at peace in this room and we take it for granted. It’s by its absence that peace is known. Peace is a value we don’t feel until the wolf is at the door.”
Fiction winner Adam Johnson spoke eloquently about the wolf’s stranglehold on North Korea, also captured in his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son.” He asked the Dayton audience to imagine the isolation on the northern half of the peninsula, separated from its own literature. “Not a single play or poem has been smuggled out of North Korea in 60 years, unlike, even, the worse days of the Russian gulag.”
Closer to home, nonfiction runner-up Gilbert King explored “Devil in the Grove,” a harrowing, 1949 Florida case of racial injustice. It also won a Pulitzer Prize this year and centers on the legal mastery of a young Thurgood Marshall.
The crusading lawyer “was never surprised by the verdicts in the South,” King observed. “But he did say, ‘sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.’”
International outrage over the “Grovewood boys” case in Florida helped raise the cash that supported the NAACP’s work on Brown vs. Board of Education, King said, ushering forward a new America.
Berry, lionized by O’Brien’s introduction, brought the crowd back to Earth. “There is a certain comedy in hearing one’s self praised,” he said. “I am embarrassed that I have nothing to present but me.”
“In a time that spends so many words and dollars upon conflict, it is encouraging to be noticed for having said a few words in favor of peace.” ~Wendell Berry
The Dayton Literary Peace Prize announced that Wendell Berry is the 2013 recipient of the Richard Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, named for the late U.S. diplomat who brokered the 1995 Dayton peace accords.
A novelist, essayist, poet, farmer, and activist, Berry has spent his literary career exploring issues ranging from sustainable agriculture to national security. He was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and protested the nation’s post-9/11 international strategy. Among his many honors, Berry received the National Humanities Medal in 2011 from President Barack Obama, and in 2012 was named the 2012 Jefferson Lecturer, the highest government honor for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.
The only international peace prize in the United States, the Dayton award recognizes literature that promotes peace, social justice, and global understanding. Former winners of the Holbrooke lifetime achievement award include author Barbara Kingsolver, civil rights historian Taylor Branch, and peace activist Elie Wiesel.
Tim O’Brien, the 2012 Holbrooke recipient, will present this year’s award to Berry at the ceremony on November 3 in Dayton, Ohio.