2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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by Jessica Yang

I was five when I came to the U.S. from China. My first experiences of America were formed in a predominantly white town where I could count the number of non-white classmates on one hand. Other children asked me why my eyes were so small, whether I ate dogs, and why my lunch of homemade dumplings smelled weird. I chose to bury these memories because I wanted to believe the world was a better place.

“The trick was to understand America, to know that America was give-and-take. You gave up a lot but you gained a lot, too.” That observation comes from Chimamanda Adichie’s short story, “The Thing Around My Neck.” I discovered it in a first-year seminar at Case Western Reserve University, an experience that helped awaken me to the power in sharing things that make us uncomfortable.

As the class progressed, I found comfort in being both Chinese and American. Zadie Smith writes in “Speaking in Tongues” of her “proper” English: “This voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place–this is not the voice of my childhood…A braver person, perhaps, would have stood firm, teaching her peers a useful lesson by example: not all lettered people need be of the same class, nor speak identically. I went the other way. Partly out of cowardice and a constitutional eagerness to please.”

The seminar discussions made me feel less alone in my immigrant experiences; they also allowed me to face the more difficult feelings I’ve had. The things around my neck that make me different aren’t exclusionary, even if they may seem that way at first. I started to see new connections.  

The Anisfield-Wolf seminar, taught by Dr. Lisa Nielson, fostered the importance of difference and diverse stories. I started to write more about the need for Asian-American writers and stories in the media. I found purpose in writing and strength in multifaceted identities.

In talking about the readings in class, I realized that discussions about race and identity were pursuable once someone brought light to them, even if these questions were hard to explore. It changed the way I approached my Asian-American identity and the topics I address.  I found power in owning the negative memories, admitting that they happened and starting a dialogue about the experiences.

I am now six years removed from that seminar and a graduate of Case, currently in medical school. Still, the themes of these two readings from that class accompany me. I didn’t have to be less Chinese to be more American. Now I find comfort, despite the confusion, in the hyphen that exists in Chinese-American.

Jessica Yang was one of the members of the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf SAGES seminar in 2013. She graduated from CWRU in 2017 with a dual degree in biochemistry and psychology, and a minor in biology.  An avid reader who is dedicated to exploring questions of identity, Jessica has been a blogger and freelance writer since high school and is currently finishing her first year of medical school at Rowan University in New Jersey.

by Dr. Anand Bhat

In 2007, when I asked my driver in Caracas if evangelical Christianity had been making its way into the oil-rich jungles of Venezuela, he nodded, smiled, and said, “Yes, they say officially they are here for the Church of Pentecost, but I think they are here for the Church of the CIA.”  In every developing nation, that nod and that smile and that second story represent the beginning of almost every great storytelling session I have had about recent history and current events.

Listen to me now.  Me warn him… Long time I drop warnings that other people close, friend and enemy, was going get him in a whole heap o’trouble.  Every one of we know at least one, don’t it?  Always have a notion but never come up with a single idea.  Always working plenty of scheme but never have a plan… Me not going name who but I warn the Singer…. Me love that man to the max.  Me would take a bullet for the Singer.  But gentlemens, me can only take one.

Writer Marlon James has won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf and Man Booker prizes by driving us past recent Jamaican history.  In a cacophony of voices, versions, and views, James writes a fictional exploration into the 1976 assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley.  In A Brief History of Seven Killings, quoted above, readers embark on a violent and entertaining ride through Kingston slum fights (sponsored by warring political parties) that become a Cold War flashpoint in Michael Manley’s Jamaica.  Marley, perceived to be supporting the socialist People’s National Party, falls victim to that fateful winter election and the CIA. The book then shifts to the United States where Jamaican political gangs morph into nonpartisan drug smugglers, tolerated by intelligence communities willing to overlook drug money if it goes towards fighting socialism and communism.  Until it gets out of hand.      

The book, whose rights have been sold to HBO for a TV series, should do well as a long form television drama.  A populous that once stood at the docks to snatch up the latest installment from Charles Dickens now awaits the latest weekly HBO serial, one of contemporary America’s strongest art forms. James novel fits the format with its motley mix of characters and politics (“Game of Thrones”) and urban and police violence (“The Wire”).  As East becomes West, the West too has become East by picking up a taste for epic legends with endless sub-stories, ambiguous facts and no definitive, singular truth.  All thrive on a range of viewpoints, versions and classes.       

From the deceased MP to the barely intelligible ramblings of a crack-fueled shooter, readers absorb from top to bottom a long overdue cultural multiplicity in A Brief History of Seven Killings. No one knows who served Mr. Darcy tea, but we all know who serves Lord Grantham tea.  All of this points to progress.  It points to the widening of the literary establishment’s mind but not perhaps as wide as it celebrates.  

sacred gamesJames’s novel most reminds me of Vikram Chandra’s magnum opus, Sacred Games, about a Mumbai police investigation into an Indian mafia don.  Thick with pages and characters, Sacred Games exposes the connections between the underworld, police, politicians, and the film industry.  Chandra also leaps into the future and the past with intercalary chapters that covered Naxalite rebels, Indian secret intelligence and the Partition of British India.  Few novels set in the developing world can parallel A Brief History in quite the same way.  

Published to positive reviews, Chandra’s novel did not have the sales or impact other South Asian books did.  Even compared to other literary and popular books about South Asia (Bookseller of Kabul, All the Beautiful Forevers, Three Cups of Tea, Shantaram), it never received critical or popular mass appeal.  It is rare to find on bookshelves today.    

Why A Brief History of Seven Killings and other South Asian novels would have similar trajectories while Sacred Games did not is clear to me.  The former have appeals to Western sensibilities that the third does not.  Three Cups of Tea (for example) has a strong element of Orientalism with the classic story of a Westerner coming to Asia and educating rural women.  A Brief History of Seven Killings tells a story about music and a musician famous throughout the West that cannot help but arouse interest in the United States.  American characters from Rolling Stone and the CIA help ease the transition into the unfamiliar worlds of Jamaican politics and Kingston slums.  If the book was about an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Manley and not Marley, we may not be having this award or book review.

Meanwhile film and music references in Sacred Games were unabashedly Bollywood; secretive government agencies were the CBI not the CIA, and the bogeyman feared is Pakistan not Russia or Cuba.  No one smuggles drugs to the United States or London.  No white people, no Christianity, no Clint Eastwood references, and no colonialism at all!

A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fantastic book, and it will make a fantastic HBO series given the novel’s natural similarity to the channel’s specialty—epic dramas.  But Sacred Games moved me more deeply as it was a book deeply rooted in its culture and unapologetically Indian.  Perhaps when we award books we should examine why some get attention and some do not and question the cultural biases we have against looking deeply into a truly “foreign” book.  A truly open mind can wade into another world mentally without needing the props of the world it just left behind.

Anand Bhat grew up in Texas and practices medicine in Cleveland.  He blogs at bhatany.wordpress.com.

by Sally Wiener Grotta

A recent Anisfield-Wolf blog post asked, “What Biases Are You Carrying?” In the blog, Attorney Louise P. Dempsey  used the following riddle as part of a lunch talk:

A man and his son were in a car accident. The critically injured man had to be helicoptered to the hospital. His son was rushed by ambulance to the same hospital. When the boy was wheeled into emergency surgery, the surgeon looked at him and said, “I can’t operate. This is my son.”

The blog then asked the question, “How is this possible?”

If you haven’t heard that anecdotal test before, consider your answer for a few moments before continuing to read.

I’ve seen the riddle before. So, I knew the answer. Of course, the surgeon was his mother. But even steadfast feminists (including Dempsey) have been known to not get the answer right away.

Though my previous knowledge of the answer invalidated the test for me, I can’t pretend that I am that of that very rare (probably non-existent) breed that has no bias. My comment on the Anisfeld-Wolf blog was, “Prejudice and bias is human nature. How we handle it in our lives is a measure of our commitment to a just, balanced human society.”

People are tribal by nature. We’re comfortable with what we know, and tend to prefer being with people similar to ourselves. Like most folks, I feel awkward whenever I’m thrown into a crowd of strangers. If those strangers are heavily tattooed and pierced, or particularly raucous, or sporting t-shirts with “offensive” slogans, I really don’t know how to relate to them. I assume from their appearance that whatever I would want to talk about would be far beyond their experience or interest. And that is my loss, because I miss the opportunity to learn from them, have fun with them, and thereby experience a wider perspective of our human existence.

But prejudice is a two-way street. I’m sure those tattooed rowdies would rather I simply stayed away rather than invade their space.

Remaining enclosed in our safe tribal circles is like staring in a mirror. Nothing much changes in our reflection, other than the slight variations of age and circumstances. Without the stimulation of contrary discussions or new perspectives, we become staid, unable to synthesize new thoughts. Living only in the status quo is bad for us personally, as well as economically, scientifically and societally. We need strangers and their fresh interpretations to generate new ideas and instigate growth. But turning our gaze outward, beyond the closed doors of our personal circles, can be frightening. Not only for the strangeness of the experience, but because we may be rebuffed — or worse — by those strangers we are attempting to approach.

Fear of the unknown, fear of being hurt, of being on the receiving end of prejudice, often keeps us in our place. Victims of bias and prejudice, in turn, can become biased and prejudiced about “those others” – anyone similar to the perpetrators of their pain or shame. But you don’t have to have personally experienced hatred or unkindness to buy into the escalating cycle of bias begetting bias, leading to prejudice, devolving into bigotry and cruelty. Consider those raucous tattooed biker-types I mentioned above. My discomfort with them is founded not only on their strangeness to me, but on oft-circulated stereotypes of “those kind of people” being foul-mouthed bullies and even physically violent.

As our communities become more diverse, we have increasing opportunities to either burrow into our safe habitats, lashing out periodically in fear at strangers who dare to invade our world, or we can reach beyond ourselves to discover new ideas, new hopes, new friends.

No, we cannot free our inner thoughts or instincts from inherent bias. But if we keep a national conversation open and talk honestly with each other, if we restrain ourselves from being mesmerized by our own reflections and seek to know, understand, learn from strangers, we can make our world something much greater than a collection of loosely connected, mutually distrustful tribes.

This post originally appeared on Grotta.net. Republished with permission. Sally Wiener Grotta’s new novel, Jo Joe, challenges readers to consider the sources and painful ramifications of prejudice, bias, and preconceptions. 

by Chris Stevens

As a proud product of a Historically Black University (Delaware State, Class of 2007), I’ve watched with nervous eyes in recent months as 125-year-old St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., prepares to close June 30 after years of struggling to stay afloat financially. Howard University, according a board of trustee member, is in danger of the same fate.

The impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is undeniable. A recent study in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported:

  • One in five African-American college graduates earned their degrees at HBCUS.
  • Black colleges graduated nearly all black students (90 percent) who earned bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields between 2006 and 2010.
  • Black colleges produce half of all black public school teachers, half of all future lawyers, and eight in 10 black judges.

HBCUs have long had a history of making do. But the politics surrounding the disparity in funding and resources between HBCUs and traditional colleges and universities must be addressed. 

Most HBCUs exist because of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 that pushed for colleges focused on agricultural and mechanical education, especially in Southern states. Those colleges eventually became universities with larger academic concentrations serving a predominately Black population.

Even with assistance from the federal government, most HBCUs haven’t been able sustain themselves financially or raise a national profile. (Notable notable exceptions include Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, and Florida A&M.) On the whole, many HBCUs have more in common with schools like Atlanta’s Morris Brown College, which struggled to raise $500,000 to keep from closing in 2011.

One reason HBCUs struggle is the difficulty of fundraising toward endowment and the day-to-day costs of running a university. At HBCUs, almuni giving hovers under 10 percent; the national average for all schools is 14%. Another component is the frequent failure of municipal and state governments to allocate the same funds and resources to HBCUs that are afforded to traditional schools.

During my previous job as a sports writer for the Dover Post, the government reporter got in from a budget meeting for the state of Delaware with the official numbers for the fiscal year available. I asked him how much the state was giving the University of Delaware, and he responded with $113 million. Then I asked for the Delaware State University allocation, which was a grand total of $32 million. That disparity is the norm for HBCUs, especially in Southern states like Mississippi and Georgia, where officials haves either tried to consolidate or close Black colleges in recent years.

The mission of HBCUs (educating Blacks in order to help them succeed in a world in which we are still the minority) is as relevant today as it was in the Jim Crow era. We as HBCU alumni have to do a better job of giving, which will help city, state, and federal officials see our schools are viable and deserve equal funding and resources to compete with traditional colleges. 

As Morehouse president John Silvanus Williams, Jr said in an NPR interview this year, “There is no question that we need HBCUs. We just need them to do what they do better.”

Chris Stevens is a writer, podcaster, and social media consultant based in Wilmington, Delaware. He is a 2007 graduate of Delaware State University.