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.”
At 87, Toni Morrison is a direct woman. The Nobel laureate in literature has long contemplated her legacy, and the larger meaning of art, society and belonging.
The documentary captures the magisterial Morrison mulling the limits of language in 2006 as she curated an exhibit at the Louvre she also called The Foreigner’s Home. Its centerpiece is Theodore Gericault’s massive 1819 oil painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” created just three years after an actual shipwreck off the coast of Senegal that doomed dozens of 19th-century passengers from the lower classes.
“My faith in the world of art is not irrational and it’s not naïve,” Morrison told a Parisian audience. “Art invites us to take a journey from date to information to knowledge to wisdom. Artists make language, images, sounds to bear witness, to shape beauty and to comprehend . . . this conversation is vital to our understanding of what it means to be human.”
The writer explained that the title has two meanings – the foreigner at home, and the foreigner is home, flinging wide the questions of displacement and belonging. She noted that each individual finds oneself “being, fearing or accommodating the stranger.” She put these notions and the Gericault painting before street poets, playwrights, dancers, musicians, choreographers and novelists whom Morrison invited to the Louvre from around the corner, and around the globe.
Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian writer living in New York, lent her insights, and roughly ten years later, traveled to Morrison’s home in the Hudson River valley, to update and enlarge the conversation for the film. (Both women are recipients of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.)
In 2006, architect Ford Morrison traveled to France with his mother and filmed parts of the Paris gathering, then tucked the footage away. Morrison mentioned her desire to have something done with the materials to Jonathan Demme, her neighbor and friend who had directed the cinematic version of her novel “Beloved.”
‘She said, ‘Jonathan, I don’t want to deal with this, but do you know some nice, quiet folk who might want to deal with it?’” recalled Rian Brown-Orso, a co-director of the documentary and professor at Oberlin College.
Demme did. All three of his children attended Oberlin, where he met cinema professors Brown-Orso and Geoff Pingree. Demme helped the duo in their 2009 initiative to restore the Apollo Theatre in Oberlin.
The director agreed to executive produce the Morrison film project. “He thought at the time he’d either use HBO or he’d try us,” Pingree said. Brown-Orso created the hand-painted animation for The Foreigner’s Home and Pingree wrote the script.
But the task was complex and wound up taking five years. “Geoff and I spent two years logging and transcribing,” she said. “Some material was unusable; some had bad sound quality.”
The pair concluded they must ask Morrison to sit for the camera, violating one of her original conditions. Pingree wrote a passionate two-page letter in November 2014, making a case for a new interview. In their letter, the directors asked to build 20 minutes of archival materials into a film commensurate with the ideas Morrison explored. In the intervening years, questions around migration had become more urgent.
Demme and then Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, who had helped raise $350,000 for the project, predicted Morrison would decline. Instead, she agreed.
“We set the film up, and the first thing you hear is water,” Pingree said. “Then we hear [Morrison’s] voice. Then we see an animated boat with hand-drawn figures. They suggest anyone at sea, literally or figuratively offshore. So we begin asking, ‘Where will they land? Who’ll take them in? Where will they find anchor?’”
When The Foreigner’s Home debuted in North America with a screening in Miami in March, Pingree said a viewer approached him. “This 67-year-old white guy came up to say he was riveted. He said, ‘If I could have gotten my 20-year-old self to watch it, it would have changed my entire life.’ “
The man shook Pingree’s hand and melted back into the crowd.
For Brown-Orso, such a response indicates Morrison is sounding a warning, that her voice is prophetic: “Our task was to make a visual space to uphold the power of Ms. Morrison’s words.”
The film is dedicated to Demme, who died last year.
“The mission of art is the destruction of barriers and walls,” Morrison says, “the things that prevent people from connecting with their home or each other.”
McPhee, who has sharpened the reading lives of generations and taught hundreds of journalists at Princeton University, was gracious and brief in accepting the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement at the New School in Manhattan. He paid homage to former New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn, whose careful edit of McPhee’s first piece in 1963 was marked by Shawn’s deliberate words: “It takes as long as it takes.”
“A lifetime of writing. How did that happen?” asked McPhee, 87, as he accepted the prize. National Public Radio host Stacey Vanek Smith praised her mentor’s prose as “writing in the absence of intruding artifice.” She said she had thought at least 1,000 times of certain passages in “Coming into the Country,” McPhee’s classic work about the Alaskan backcountry.
Layli Long Soldier won in poetry for “Whereas,” mesmerizing the audience at the New School in Manhattan with a reading of a poem in which a grown daughter mistakes her father’s cry for a sneeze – having never heard him cry. She is a member of the Oglala Lakota nation and lives in Santa Fe.
Another first-time author, Carina Chocano, won in criticism for her 21 essays called “You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks and Other Mixed Messages.”
The funny, incisive Los Angeles writer said she formed the idea for this book in 2008 when, as a movie critic, she was imbibing a steady diet of pop images of women in film. “Still, I was afraid to write this book, a woman speaking against the official line.”
NBCC board member Walton Muyumba observed, “We seem to tell ourselves movie and TV stories, Chocano suggests, in order to perpetuate old lies about gender, generally, and women, specifically. In fact, we seem to find deep pleasure in their continuous repetition. . . Chocano doesn’t send the readers down the rabbit hole (we’re living in Wonderland already) so much as she uses these pieces like smelling salts to awaken us to our collective gas-lighting.”
Biography honored another kind of cultural exemplar: Laura Ingalls Wilder, captured in the marvelous book “Prairie Fires” by Caroline Fraser. Wilder transformed her family’s struggle with poverty, disappointment and loss into fiction that has never gone out of print, has been translated into 45 languages, and sold more than 60 million books, Fraser said. The “Little House” titles cemented American pioneer mythology with a darkly libertarian streak.
“Laura Ingalls Wilder endures,” notes NBCC board member Elizabeth Taylor, ”and now future generations can read Fraser’s marvelous biography and understand her vision of how Ingalls dreams of the frontier. Caroline Fraser has brilliantly recast our understanding of Laura Ingalls Wilders’ life and times, and affirmed her influence in shaping the myth of the iconic West.”
A dissemination of a different set of ideas is characterized in Frances FitzGerald’s “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.” It won in nonfiction. FitzGerald quoted Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s admonition as a potent form of prosperity theology: “If you pray for a camper, tell Him what color; you don’t make God do your shopping.”
Taylor writes, “In convincing detail, FitzGerald charts the evolution of evangelism from a religious to a political movement.” The author thanked Jerry Falwell and his church in Lynchburg, Va., for their welcome and patience with her journalism.
In autobiography, the London-based filmmaker Xiaolu Gau won for “Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China.” Critic Marion Winik describes it as “a thrilling, fist-pumping kind of story” about the author’s escape from cruelty and poverty in Communist China, salted with “a funny and entertaining disquisition” on why it is so hard for Chinese people to learn the English language.
Joan Silber won the fiction prize for “Improvement,” her seventh novel. It follows a single mother in New York, her four-year-old son, her free-spirited aunt and a boyfriend with plans to smuggle cigarettes across state lines. “There is not a wasted word in the novel’s 227 pages, which nevertheless contain multitudes,” writes NBCC board member Tom Beer.
“I’m always happy when someone describes my fiction as generous,” Silber said as she accepted the prize. “If nothing else, fiction reminds us that others have interior lives.”
For the first time in NBCC history, the winners across all six book categories were women.
There are 108 tally marks on the cover of The Fire This Time, the new essay collection that brings forth 18 perspectives from a new generation of writers, working in the tradition of James Baldwin. Each mark represents a black life lost too soon, a visual representation of the urgency of #BlackLivesMatter.
In the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, Jesmyn Ward went to Twitter to share her frustration, but found the platform too ephemeral. She was much more struck by the pertinence of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Ward, editor of this anthology, decided she wanted a book that “would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America.”
The results are mostly successful. The Fire Next Time contains a broad spectrum of essays that tackle everything from Phillis Wheatley’s mysterious marriage to Rachel Dolezal’s recent identity hoax, an engaging concoction of both the historical and contemporary. Eleven of the 18 pieces are original, with the rest published between 2014 and 2015.
The Fire This Time opens with Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition,” a 14-line poem that links the imagery of a brilliantly colorful meadow with the brutal deaths of John Crawford, Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Its early inclusion instructs us to get unsettled. (Brown won an Anisfield-Wolf book award last year for The New Testament.)
After a sturdy and moving introduction, the book falls into three parts – Legacy, Reckoning and Jubilee. In “Da Art of Storytellin’” Kiese Laymon’s fuses of his grandmother’s 30 years of hard work at a chicken processing plant with the Southern stank of Outkast’s Atlanta classics. Emily Raboteau criss-crossed four of New York’s boroughs to capture anti-police brutality murals in “Know Your Rights!” Isabel Wilkerson, who won a 2011 Anisfield-Wolf award for her Great Migration history, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” revisits 150 years of U.S. history in a slim three pages called“Where Do We Go from Here?” Her precise retelling comes with parting encouragement: “We must know deep in our bones and in our hearts that if the ancestors could survive the Middle Passage, we can survive anything.”
Still, reading most of these essays feels heavy. The collective thesis is that Black life in America, like Claudia Rankine posits in her essay, is “the condition of mourning.” But as Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote to his son, echoing the advice of generations before him: “That this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within all of it.”
Edwidge Danticat, who took home an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2005 for The Dew Breakers, closes the book with a powerful message to her two young daughters, born in the “Yes We Can” era of Barack Obama’s first presidential run. Danticat, born in Haiti and raised partly in New York, offers a view of refugee status — a position held both by immigrants and some U.S. citizens: “The message we always heard from those who were meant to protect us: that we should either die or go somewhere else.”
Still, Danticat fortifies her daughters against this, encouraging them to seek joy: “When that day of jubilee finally arrives, all of us will be there with you, walking, heads held high, crowns a-glitter, because we do have a right to be here.”
Edwidge Danticat began her remarks in Cleveland by drawing attention to another artist, the painter Jacob Lawrence, whose migration series was on display last year at the Museum of Modern Art. Danticat, who has family in Brooklyn, New York, said she often walked the long rectangular room, soaking in the art as a way to reflect on the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charlotte, South Carolina.
“What kept me glued to these dark silhouettes is how beautifully and heartbreakingly Lawrence captured black bodies in motion, in transit, in danger, and in pain,” she said. “The bowed heads of the hungry and the curved backs of mourners helped the Great Migration to gain and keep its momentum, along with the promise of less abject poverty in the North, better educational opportunities, and the right to vote.”
Danticat won a 2005 Anisfield-Wolf Book award for her novel “The Dew Breaker” about political violence in Haiti and the consequences in New York. She returned to Cleveland to speak at Case Western Reserve as part of the Cuyahoga County Library’s Writers Center Stage series.
Case President Barbara Snyder praised both Lisa Nielson and Kaysha Corinealdi, Anisfield-Wolf SAGES scholars at Case, for their work teaching and mentoring on campus. Snyder then turned the lectern over to Corinealdi, who introduced Danticat from the breadth of her own scholarship on the Caribbean diaspora. Read her introduction, below.
Over the years I have had the great joy and honor to read and also share with my students a number of our guest speaker’s works. I can still recall my first readings of Krik? Krak! (1995) and The Dew Breaker (1998) and how with each story I asked myself, who is this Edwidge Danticat? How can she capture in such a nuanced and unflinching fashion the nature of being a young girl in a new country, the voices of ordinary women and men caught in the middle of brutal geopolitical and national events, the daily making of diaspora by exiles and migrants, and the experiences of parents, children and lovers having to make impossible choices and hoping that in time, they will find forgiveness, if not from within, at least from future generations.
I am not ashamed to say that in reading these stories and many of Danticat’s later works, I would find myself both eager and afraid, jubilant and sad, to turn the next page.
Teaching Edwidge Danticat’s work has likewise proven to be an inspirational and humbling experience. Few authors have the skill to elegantly navigate between fiction and non-fiction. Indeed, Danticat is one of a select group of writers to be honored for her work in both genres. It is this ability to illuminate the fictions in history and the historical resonance in fiction that most impresses my students.
Through her intricate story telling and her acute awareness of the histories that live with us, and the histories that at times haunt us, Danticat also dares us to include ourselves, our most vulnerable selves, in writing, living, and remembering history. This semester, in a course inspired by Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners, my students are reading Danticat’s memoir Brother, I’m Dying (2007). With a mixture of admiration and general curiosity, my students have wondered aloud about Danticat’s own journeys, her experiences with displacement, and her choice to write about love and responsibility in ways that crossed the boundaries of bloodlines and geography.
Today they had the opportunity to share some of these questions and observations with the writer herself, and in watching these exchanges I emerged an even greater fan of tonight’s speaker.
Before I turn over the stage to our speaker I must take the time to note some of her remarkable achievements. Edwidge Danticat is the winner of numerous awards, including the American Book Award (1999), the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize in Fiction (2005), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography (2007), a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant (2009), the Langston Hughes Medal by the City College of New York (2011), the One Caribbean Media Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (2011), and her latest novel, Claire of the Sea Light, was shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (2014).
In addition to her literary achievements, our speaker has over the years put into practice the notion of activist artists and artists as public intellectuals. In particular she has spoken out against dehumanizing portrayals of Haitians and Haitian Americans in the U.S. media, shed light on the deplorable conditions of U.S. immigration detention centers, urged us to mourn and collectively denounce violence against black bodies in the Americas, and most recently, helped educate the U.S. public about mass deportations and denationalization targeting Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.
Through her literary and public intellectual and activist work, our speaker gives us much to aspire to as readers, students, scholars, and concerned citizens of the world.
Writer Ruth Behar and poet Richard Blanco have launched Bridges to/from Cuba, an ambitious collaborative fueled by 20 years of friendship. The duo has started an online forum for poets, authors and scholars to “lay bare the laughter and sorrow of being Cuban.”
As geopolitics shift, these two Cuban Americans call out for literature, writing, “For it is not simply a political and economic embargo that needs to be ‘lifted,‘ but also the weight of an emotional embargo that has kept Cubans collectively holding their breath for over fifty years.”
The two are uniquely positioned to lead. Blanco, inaugural poet for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, has brought out two memoirs on his life as a young, gay, Latino immigrant. Born to Cuban-exiled parents and raised in Miami, Blanco’s poetry threads through themes of cultural identity and belonging. New Yorker Ruth Dehar, born in Cuba, teaches anthropology at the University of Michigan. In the early 1990s, Behar was editor of Bridges to Cuba, a groundbreaking anthology featuring voices in the Cuban Diaspora, including many second generation writers.
The pair crafts a beautifully symbolic first post, a fusion of two poems: “The Island Within,” for Ruth Behar (by Richard Blanco) and “The Island We Share,” for Richard Blanco (by Ruth Behar). Read along here.
On a freezing, overcast March day, the writer Jesmyn Ward made her first foray to Cleveland. She barely smiled as she stood behind a lectern in brown leather boots, red corduroy pants and a gray sweater set. Yet several in her audience at Cleveland Public Library murmured that the piercing, prepared remarks Ward read should be published immediately. Others were visibly moved and brimming with questions.
Ward, 36, who won a National Book Award for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones,” spent the morning with Cleveland students from Glenville High School and the afternoon exploring the question of who is allowed to speak: “We all feel inadequate when faced with a blank page, an empty canvas or a silent instrument. We must battle self-doubt or negative introspection with every sentence, every punctuation mark.”
Growing up poor and black in rural Mississippi, Jesmyn wore hand-me-down clothes and ate meals stretched by food stamps. She envied classmates who could buy Scholastic books, even as she walked to the library, gravitating toward headstrong protagonists: Mary in “My Secret Garden” and Cassie in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” and Claudia in “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.”
“Their environments were other worlds where I hid from the heat or my mother or my father or some other grown-up in my life,” Ward remembered. When her father lost his job at the local glass factory, her family moved in with Ward’s maternal grandmother. Fourteen people wedged into the house in coastal DeLisle, Mississippi—Jesmyn, her parents, two sisters and a brother; a cousin; her grandmother’s four sons and three daughters; plus the matriarch herself: “It was the first and only time I lived with so many people I loved.”
Ward’s fiction and her arresting 2013 memoir, “Men We Reaped,” beckons readers into this community. The title comes from Harriet Tubman: “We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was the dead men we reaped.”
The memoir centers on the October 2000 killing of Ward’s teenage brother Joshua by a drunk driver, and the violent, early deaths of four other young black men in their circle. Now a professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama, Ward said she keeps returning to the site of her story — despite the poverty, racism and lingering damage from Hurricane Katrina, whose wrath Ward makes memorable in “Salvage the Bones.”
An active blogger and Twitter user, Ward identifies with communities on the margins. When a Cleveland reader – speaking for her book club — asked repeatedly if Ward was trying to foment social change, the author mildly eschewed the grandiose: “I hope that it changes the way readers think about people like me. If I can affect one reader, then by word-of-mouth, that makes a change over time.”
“The word ‘salvage’ is so close to ‘savage’,” Ward told her listeners. “It connotes resilience, fierceness and courage.” She describes her novel’s pregnant, teenage narrator, Esch Batiste, brushing off the ants and standing up after the hurricane, as the only thing she could do. “This is savage – you make a future from it, you tell your story, you survive.”
Ward said that when Hurricane Katrina cornered her own family, she swam to escape alongside her pregnant sister. The Wards sheltered in a tractor in an open field during a Level Five hurricane, she said, while a white farm family refused to take them in.
The Cleveland audience listened intently. One man called Ward’s voice “a smooth, velvet instrument.” One woman compared her writing to that of Edwidge Danticat, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book award in 2005 for her novel “The Dew Breaker.” (Ward allowed that she had loved Danticat’s work since the novel “Krik? Krak.” ) A professor from Kent State University said she had added Ward to her syllabus.
Ward stressed the necessity of discipline and craft; she said her characters Skeeter and China (a pit bull) came out of a writing exercise during her MFA years at the University of Michigan. Still, Ward said, “my mother sometimes thinks I should return to school and study nursing. She is suspicious of writing.” Ward said her first stabs were stilted attempts to write about cellos and lives she didn’t know. “I was young and black and poor and a girl and I didn’t believe there was anything about my life worth exploring.”
She broke that barrier with a college entrance essay. It opened the door to Stanford. Like all of Ward’s work, it said “We are here. This is what life is like for us. Hear us.”
Wither the best book list? Inherently inane and crazy-making, these are also undeniably good conversation starters.
Of course, it is strange to see “Kitchen Confidential” make the cut, and the bizarre assertion that “Portnoy’s Complaint” is Philip “Roth at his finest.” The Amazon list tilts toward best-sellers, rather than an author’s best work.
Working another vein is the redouble Cosmopolitan Magazine, which has offered its list of the 10 best books to read after a breakup. Junot Diaz makes this list, too, this time for “This is How You Lose Her,” his sexy, harrowing short story collection. Surprisingly, he is joined by Adrian Nicole LeBlancfor her gold-standard of domestic reporting, “Random Family.” Cosmo editors give the somewhat spurious reason that the book is an absorbing distraction. May we add: and much more.
It’s something that most of us in America take for granted—the right to an education.
We don’t think about what it must feel like to be denied one of the most basic rights, until events like the attempted assassination attempt of 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai at the hands of the Taliban puncture our collective consciousness. She was a vocal advocate for education for girls in Pakistan, who had dreams of becoming a doctor. While Malala will make a full recovery and return to her advocacy work, she is not alone in her fight for access to education.
The new film, “Girl Rising,” explores the lives of nine young women around the world, each one fighting for a chance to get the education that is the key to their future. Presented by 10×10, a social action campaign, the film features nine different stories written by nine different authors. Our very own Edwidge Danticat, a 2005 winner for fiction, contributed the portion of the film that focuses on Wadley, a young Haitian girl who is determined to get an education, even after she is repeatedly turned away from her schoolhouse.
I, for one, can’t wait to see this film. Go to GirlRising.com to learn more about the movie, find a screening near you and buy tickets. The film opens on March 7.
When we see Haiti in the news, it is often downtrodden and negative. Edwidge Danticant, our 2005 winner for fiction, tries to bring a different light to Haiti through her work. In a 2011 interview on PBS, shortly after the Haiti earthquake of 2010, Danticat talks about the side of Haiti we rarely get to see. “The beauty surprises people sometimes. The physical beauty of certain parts of Haiti, the beauty of the arts – the music, the paintings, the literature – that Haiti, I want people to also know.”
Several Nobel laureates, Libraries Without Borders and dozens of authors believe so. They are petitioning for books to be considered crucial in disaster relief. Among those who have signed the petition are Anisfield-Wolf winners Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Joyce Carol Oates and Edwidge Danticat.
Patrick Weil, chairman of Libraries Without Borders, says they are urging the UN to consider “nourishment of the mind” a fundamental resource in disaster relief. This first came about after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, when the organization was contacted about rebuilding a destroyed library.
“The first priority is life, but when life is secure, what can people do if they are staying in a camp? They cannot do anything, and they can become depressed. Once life is secured, books are essential. They’re not the first priority, but the second…They are so important. They’re the beginning of recovery, in terms of reconnecting with the rest of the world, and feeling like a human being again.”
In the video above, get an overview of Libraries Without Borders and UNICEF’s efforts to bring literature to distressed areas of Haiti. For more information, visit urgencyofreading.org.
“There’s no one writing in the English language today who more precisely and passionately articulates the exile’s experience than Edwidge Danticat.” And so begins Henry Louis Gates’ introduction of our 2005 winner. In this 2012 video, Danticat discusses her work and exile, what it means to be an immigrant artist, and responsibility to one’s home country. This event was co-presented by Cambridge Forum, Harvard Bookstore, and Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute.
2005 Anisfield-Wolf winner Edwidge Danticat visited the Tavis Smiley show on PBS to discuss her latest work, Create Dangerously. She discusses the origins of the book’s title, the difference between immigrant artists and American-born artists, and whether art should be considered a luxury or necessity.
The website and corresponding book, “The Top Ten,” tackles that very question, asking celebrated writers to list their favorite 10 books. It’s so simple yet incredibly fascinating to see which authors select which books and what genres they love.
A few of our own Anisfield-Wolf authors have been featured on the site—Joyce Carol Oates and Edwidge Danticat. Check out their picks below:
Top Ten List for Edwidge Danticat
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Germinal by Emile Zola
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Night by Elie Wiesel
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Trial by Franz Kafka
Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain
Top Ten List for Joyce Carol Oates
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson
The Stories of Franz Kafka by Franz Kafka
The Red and the Black by Stendhal
The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence
Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Are any of these books on your top 10 list? Share your favorites in the comments below!
2005 Anisfield-Wolf Award winner Edwidge Danticat gets emotional after receiving the Langston Hughes medal at the 2011 Langston Hughes Festival, celebrating writers from the African diaspora. Past winners of the Langston Hughes medal include Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Ralph W. Ellison, August Wilson, and Derek Walcott—all Anisfield-Wolf Award winners as well! As Danticat said during her emotional acceptance speech, “My life, for reasons that only the universe fully understands has been one in which I always feel I am walking in the footsteps and on the shoulders of giants.” Congratulations to Ms. Danticat for a well-deserved honor!
In the video below she talks about the history and the power of storytelling in Haitian culture and talks about her new book, “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.”