2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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Eighteen months after the Unite the Right racist violence wracked Charlottesville, the 25th anniversary of the Virginia Festival of the Book gathered thousands of thoughtful citizens and served as one way to gauge the civic temperature.

That temperature was decidedly warm among poet Rita Dove and novelists Esi Edugyan and John Edgar Wideman, the trio who closed the festival with their session, “A World Built On Bondage: Racism and Human Diversity in Award-Winning Fiction.” It was the second consecutive year the festival culminated in an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards panel.

“Esi is a wonder,” Dove effused when introducing Edugyan, whose latest novel Washington Black weaves a tale of freedom and adventure told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy of the same name. He begins his life in slavery on a Barbadian sugar plantation in the early 19th century. Edugyan received the Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction in 2012 for Half Blood Blues, a historical novel set to jazz in the folds of World War I and II.

The former United States Poet Laureate then turned to Wideman and told the audience, “I can’t remember a time — in my adult life — when I haven’t been accompanied by John’s work.” The 77-year-old nodded his head slightly as Dove rattled off his accomplishments, including a Rhodes scholarship, a MacArthur “genius” grant, all Ivy-League basketball player and an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize in 2011.

The esteemed panel spoke of beginnings and how the path toward success often creates a chasm between where you’ve been and where you’re headed. For Wideman, that divide began as a basketball player on the high school varsity team, a pursuit that eventually led him to the University of Pennsylvania and away from his Pittsburgh roots.  

“I felt quietly that I needed that,” Wideman said. “At home it was a world of women – my grandmother, mother, her friends. I loved it, but I wasn’t active in that world. I was listening. But I knew there was a different world for men . . . Where was that men’s world?”

He found that men’s world — rowdy, instructive — through sports. “Doing the things that made me successful in the world outside of my family was absolutely stepping away from that family,” Wideman said. “I could not sort that out, so I just pretended most of the time that it wasn’t happening. I blinded myself to it.”

That sort of isolation from one’s community presented itself as more of a cultural struggle for Edugyan, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who settled in Calgary, Alberta, the Canadian interior.

“I’m attracted to stories of people who are on the margins,” Edugyan, 41, said. “This comes out of my own history growing up a black woman in the prairies, in Alberta. Being born in Calgary, in the late 70s, where the black population has never been more than three percent.”

That dearth of community translated into her art: “I grew up with a huge feeling of isolation and almost of not having a community in that sense, and being sort of a constant outsider as I’m making my way through the world . . . That’s always been why I’m attracted to stories that are footnotes in the larger history . . . things that are sitting on the margins and looking at events through those eyes.”  

Does writing feel like home? Dove asked. “Books opened the doors to feeling at home in the world,” Edugyan replied. “You learn that others, people who are totally unlike yourself, are going through the same thing, feeling the same emotions. There’s a great comfort in that.”

Wideman noted that his ease with writing ebbs and flows. But above all, he told the audience, language is art.

“Nobody owns the language,” he said. “Language is entirely invent-able by each one of you, each one of us, the language is a collective phenomenon. . . That’s what I hope to prove to people like myself: You own the world. It belongs to you. Language is an instrument. Language dances. It dreams. It contains silence.”

When it came to the power of the written word to offer a reprieve from the current news cycle and political climate, both authors had their reservations.  

“Literature doesn’t solve problems,” Wideman told the audience. “Literature is the opportunity to think about problems, to invent in one’s own mind, and try to invent in other minds, a different world.”

“There’s no magic bullet novel that’s going to solve all our problems,” Edugyan quipped. “Empathy is important because we’re living in age right now where nobody is listening to anybody else. . .  We need to engage with lives and experiences that are totally different from what we are going through ourselves. That’s the only way we can mark a path forward.”

When one white man in the audience asked Edugyan if buying a copy of Washington Black “would count as reparations,” the crowded auditorium sat silent for a few moments amid the pointedness of his insult.

Edugyan called it a terrible question, but she nonetheless answered it.

“One thing you might get – having walked with this young slave boy for six years, totally unlike yourself – is empathy,” she said. “You might feel something for him. Maybe it doesn’t change the greater world, this experience of empathy, but it offers something so rare, the experiences of someone totally different.”

For the second consecutive year, Anisfield-Wolf award-winning authors will close the Virginia Festival of the Book.

On March 24, two maestros of fiction – Esi Edugyan (Washington Black) and John Edgar Wideman (American Histories) – will join poet Rita Dove to discuss how their historically-attuned writings pierce the legacies of racism. Dove, an Anisfield-Wolf juror and the University of Virginia Commonwealth Professor of English, will moderate.

She also led the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf panel at the Virginia festival, which movingly addressed the response of artists to racial violence, particularly the white supremacist mayhem in Charlottesville in August 2017. Anisfield-Wolf winners of that year – Tyehimba Jess, Peter Ho Davies, Margot Lee Shetterly, plus Dove – spoke to the urgent need to tell a complete American story, as Shetterly stressed, and to acknowledge that racism had shed blood on every particle of American soil, as Jess observed.

Davies noted that all of their Anisfield-Wolf winning books might be called by Shetterly’s title, “Hidden Figures,” as each of the writers excavated stories less told.

“An ethos of both mischief and deep truth-telling animates Washington Black and American Histories,” notes Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “It thrills me to have the chance to read and listen to three of the English-speaking world’s most talented writers: Edugyan with her genre-bending exploration of 19th-century slavery, exploration and freedom and Wideman with his latest collection of short stories, which start by inviting readers to eavesdrop on a conversation between John Brown and Frederick Douglass.  And I suspect we may hear a poem from Professor Dove too.”

Their session is called “A World Built on Bondage: Racism and Human Diversity in Award-Winning Fiction.” The trio will take  a multi-generational view on the stage of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 24.  (Novelist Kevin Powers is no longer able to participate.)

Wideman won the Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize in 2011, four years before the MacArthur Foundation recognized him with a “genius” grant. Edugyan received the A-W award for fiction in 2012 for Half Blood Blues, a story of intrigue set among American jazz musicians in Berlin before and after WW II.  It was a Man Booker prize finalist.

This program, which welcomes audience questions, will be free and open to the public.

As we bid adieu to 2018, allow us to shine a last, lingering reading light on ten highlights: the year’s titles from Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners.  It should surprise no one that several are already acclaimed as the best-of-the-year. All are worth reading.

“American Histories: Stories” by John Edgar Wideman 

In the latest literary stroke from an American master, these 21 short stories “are linked by astringent wit, audacious invention and a dry sensibility,” according to one critic. Another calls them “irresistible” and “profoundly moving.” The first, “JB & FD” imagines conversations between John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Another tale takes up with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Still another, “Williamsburg Bridge,” rests with a man contemplating his intent to jump into the East River. When Wideman won an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement award in 2011, he told the crowd a writing life still lay ahead. Now 76, the former Rhodes Scholar from Pittsburgh and MacArthur “genius” recipient speaks the truth still.

“Feel Free” by Zadie Smith

The exuberant, cerebral novelist collects her essays and landed on six best-of-the-year lists. She arranges the book into five sections: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf” and “Feel Free.” All the writing dates to the Obama administration. Maureen Corrigan describes the best of it, like Smith’s essay “Notes on Attunement” about disliking and then loving Joni Mitchell’s voice, as freeing. Also here is Smith’s much discussed essay on “Get Out,” in which she marks as fantasy “the notion that we can get out of each other’s way, mark a clean cut between black and white.” The cultural critic is often joyful, essentially saying art makes and marks freedom. Smith won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “On Beauty” in 2006.

“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight 

This magisterial biography argues that its subject was among most transformative figures of the 19th-century. It begins with President Obama speaking of Douglass’ “mighty leonine gaze” at the 2016 dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It ends with the Robert Hayden’s superb poem “Frederick Douglass” that asserts when freedom comes, it will be “with the lives grown out of his life, the lives/Fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.” Blight, a fluid, graceful writer and Yale historian, has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to this text. He won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012 for “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”

“Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” by Lillian Faderman 

In her crisp, beautifully researched biography, Faderman makes the case that Harvey Milk led many lives before he was martyred: Navy diver, math teacher, Wall Street securities analyst, Broadway gofer. Only in his final few years did he find his footing as a San Francisco politician. She begins by describing him as “charismatic, eloquent, a wit and a smart aleck,” and depicts a complex man with real enemies, real courage, real flaws and boundless energy. Much that animated Milk traces to his Jewish roots, making this portrait a snug fit in the Yale University Press’ acclaimed Jewish Lives series. Faderman won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Gay Revolution,” another definitive history, in 2016.

“In the House in the Dark of the Woods” by Laird Hunt 

Every good book list should contain a fable, and the gifted Hunt delivers a stellar haunting with his latest, palm-sized novel. It opens in colonial New England with the classic trope: a woman goes missing in a forest. Hunt, a Brown University professor, lets his eighth novel excavate ancient fears of females kidnapped, women straying and maternal abandonment. But here the central figures narrates her own agency: “Through the dark woods I walked, thinking less and less of my son and of my man.” Hunt creates rapt historical fiction, as he did in “Kind One,” his Anisfield-Wolf honored novel from 2013. It serves as the start of a profound Midwestern trilogy, including “Neverhome” and “The Evening Road.”

“Invisible” by Stephen L. Carter 

Subtitled “The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,” this biography of the author’s grandmother astonishes. Eunice Hunton Carter, herself the granddaughter of slaves, was 8 in 1907 when she declared she wanted to be a lawyer “to make sure the bad people went to jail.” A team of 20 crackerjack attorneys assembled to convict Lucky Luciano; the other 19 were white men. Thanks to Carter’s strategy, the prosecution won. The author, a Yale law professor, realized while writing this book that an earlier novel had been an unsuccessful homage to this formidable, intimidating Harlem original. In 2003, he won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”

“John Woman” by Walter Mosley 

The author thought about this political and philosophical thriller for 20 years. It contains a murder and a disappearance, but it is not, Mosley says, a mystery. Instead it centers on a boy, Cornelius Jones, who is 12 as the story begins. His father is a silent film projectionist in the East Village; his mother is a sensualist backing out of Cornelius’ life. Five years later, Cornelius reinvents himself as “John Woman” and starts an intellectual movement drawing on his father’s notions of the slipperiness of history. The author, who won his Anisfield-Wolf prize in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” describes his new book as “a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”

“A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems” by Marilyn Chin

In her first book since winning a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for “Hard Love Province,” Chin draws together 30 years of dazzling, transgressive, witty work as an activist poet. “From the start of my career I waxed personal and political and have sought to be an activist-subversive-radical-immigrant-feminist-international-Buddhist-neoclasical nerd poet,” she writes from her home in San Diego, where she teaches comparative literature at the state university. Chin is masterful at making pain both visible and less tragic by throwing it into a cheeky, double-vision, East-West light. She writes to her grandfather, on his 100th birthday, “This is why the baboon’s ass is red.”

“A Shout in the Ruins” by Kevin Powers

The author of the deeply moving debut novel “The Yellow Birds,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book award in 2013, shifts his story-telling onto his home turf of Richmond, Va. He unspools two intertwined tales – one set at the end of the Civil War; the second steps off 90 years later as construction for the Richmond-Petersburg turnpike dismantles the city’s African-American neighborhood. Powers has said that he is drawn to stories of communities responding to violence. Called “gorgeous, devastating” in The New York Times, the novel suggests readers grasp that “the truth at the heart of every story, that violence is an original form of intimacy, and always has been, and will remain so forever.”

“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan

This picaresque yet deeply haunting third book from a brilliant Canadian author landed on ten best-of-the-year lists. She won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2012 for her equally stunning “Half-Blood Blues,” a European war novel set to a jazz beat. Both books were short-listed for the Booker Prize. In “Washington Black,” Edugyan begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados, where her title character is an 11-year-old who escapes bondage in a hot-air balloon piloted by the master’s brother. The story is an original in the derring-do explorer’s genre, probing self-invention, betrayal and the gradations of freedom — particularly as it limits both men. And the writing here moves like clear water across landscape and dialogue.

Riders heading to downtown Cleveland on the RTA’s Red Line may have noticed quite a few more pops of color adorning the city landscape over the past two weeks. The colors have a story, and each story comes from a work or writer in the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award canon.

Inter|Urban, the collaboration among the City of Cleveland, the Cleveland Foundation, North East Ohio Area Coordinating Agency, RTA and LAND studio, has filled the 19-mile stretch from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and into downtown Cleveland with bright, vibrant murals. Coming up in time for the Republican National Convention in July will be two photo installations. All the art is inspired by Anisfield-Wolf texts and writers.

Seventeen artists from around the world converged on Cleveland in June for a public art blitz, creating an outdoor gallery and anchoring installations at the airport and Terminal Tower. Eight artists are based in Cleveland, with the others representing South Africa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, Hawaii, and Florida.

“This marvelous project moves the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards out into the city, showcased through original art spaced along the everyday paths of thousands of commuters,” said Karen R. Long, who manages the prize. “We expect the murals and the photography to start important conversations and serve as gateways to the books themselves, and the galvanizing ideas they contain.” 

View the artworks below and hear from the artists in their own words how each piece came to be. Photos, unless otherwise specified, taken by Brandon Shigeta:

ARTIST: Aaron De La Cruz INSPIRATION: “Sophie Climbing the Stairs,” a poem from Dolores Kendrick’s The Women of Plums, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1990, and consist of poems in the voices of slave women:
ARTIST: Aaron De La Cruz
INSPIRATION: “Sophie Climbing the Stairs,” a poem from Dolores Kendrick’s The Women of Plums, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1990, and consist of poems in the voices of slave women. LOCATION: Lorain Avenue underpass

San Francisco muralist Aaron De La Cruz drew inspiration from a selection of Dolores Kendrick’s “Sophie Climbing the Stairs,” about an enslaved woman sneaking off to read. The passage evoked a memory of his parents speaking in Spanish to keep their conversations a mystery to the young De La Cruz and his brother. Drawing off the theme of literacy, his mural features deconstructed letters and punctuation marks. 


 

ARTIST: Alan Giberson  INSPIRATION: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, a 1966 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner  LOCATION: W.25th and Columbus Street
ARTIST: Alan Giberson
INSPIRATION: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, a 1966 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner
LOCATION: W.25th and Columbus Street

Cleveland artist Alan Giberson’s mural came from a brief scene in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when a New York Times reporter meets the civil rights leader for the first time. “Noblesse Oblige” is a French phrase referring the responsibility of those with privilege to extend generosity to those less fortunate.  The artist, who specializes in hand-painted signage and gold-leaf lettering, was eager to tackle this project. “This was a big challenge, being the largest thing I’ve ever painted.” 


 

ARTIST: Amber Esner INSPIRATION: The End by Elizabeth Alexander from American Sublime. The poet won for Lifetime Achievement in 2010. LOCATION: East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station
ARTIST: Amber Esner
INSPIRATION: The End by Elizabeth Alexander from American Sublime. The poet won for Lifetime Achievement in 2010.
LOCATION: East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station

Amber Esner, a Cleveland illustrator, was struck by Alexander’s ode to the dissolution of a relationship, as she lists the items left behind after a breakup. “My concept is based around the process of how people deal with loss by letting go of — or holding on to — specific objects,” she writes. 


 

margaret kimball mural
ARTIST: Margaret Kimball INSPIRATION: Martha Collins, White Pages The poet won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2007 for Blue Front. LOCATION: W.25th and Columbus Street

Cleveland illustrator and writer Margaret Kimball drew upon Martha CollinsWhite Pages, a collection of untitled poems that explore white privilege and the ongoing racial divide in America. Kimball latched on to the repetition of the phrase “Yes, but” within the poem and used a minimalist color scheme to make one word prominent—YES. “The word is inclusive and strong and in this case has no strings attached, nothing to interrupt it,” Kimball writes.


 

louise chen
ARTIST: Louise “Ouizi” Chen INSPIRATION: “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1993 for her story collection that contains “Eleven.” LOCATION: Overpass Pillars, beneath I-480 & I-71. Photo by Louise “Ouizi” Chen

If you happen to be in the passenger seat as you’re driving to and from Cleveland Hopkins airport, take a look around to see if you can spot these 35-foot tall overpass pillars, designed by Detroit artist Louise Chen. “The totem pillars are a celebration of the way cultures represent themselves in the language of ornament, with design inspired by many different cultures spanning the world,” she writes. 


 

nosego
ARTIST: Nosego INSPIRATION: A. Van Jordan’s “The Atom and Hawkman Discuss Metaphysics” from his 2007 collection, Quantum Lyrics He won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2005 for his collection M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. LOCATION: Temple Façade, east of Tower City Station

The Philadelphia-based artist describes this piece, titled “Unmask,” as “a visual metaphor about self-awareness, self-reflection and perception.”


 

ARTIST: Osman Muhammad INSPIRATION: Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (2011) by David Eltis and David Richardson & A Holocaust Called Hiroshima by Ronald Takaki, who won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1994  LOCATION: East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station
ARTIST: Osman Muhammad
INSPIRATION: Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (2011) by David Eltis and David Richardson & A Holocaust Called Hiroshima by Ronald Takaki, who won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1994
LOCATION: East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station

Cleveland artist Osmad Muhammad used his mural to make a statement about national and global atrocities. The burning woman in foreground is a reference to Hiroshima and the burning ships depict the slave trade throughout the Americas.


 

ARTIST: Ryan Jaenke  INSPIRATION: Montage of a Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes  LOCATION: W.25th and Columbus Street
ARTIST: Ryan Jaenke
INSPIRATION: Montage of a Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes
LOCATION: W.25th and Columbus Street

Published in 1951, Langston HughesMontage of a Dream Deferred reads like a jazz record, full of conflicting rhythms and short bursts of animation. Cleveland artist Ryan Jaenke took Hughes’ melody and translated it to this mural on Cleveland’s west side.  Hughes won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1954.


 

ARTIST: Jasper Wong  INSPIRATION: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2008  LOCATION: Old Abutment West, east of Tower City Station
ARTIST: Jasper Wong
INSPIRATION: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2008
LOCATION: Old Abutment West, east of Tower City Station

Jasper Wong, Hawaiian artist and co-curator of the Interurban project, explored the themes of luck that featured prominently in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He peppered his mural with black cats and broken down cars (symbols of bad luck) and rabbits (symbols of good luck).


 

ARTIST: Ellen Rutt INSPIRATION: “The Danger of a Single Story” -- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2009 TED talk She won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” in 2007.
ARTIST: Ellen Rutt
INSPIRATION: “The Danger of a Single Story” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED talk She won an
Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” in 2007. LOCATION: Underpass pillars on I-90W

Detroit artist Ellen Rutt used bold geometric patterns to transform these underpass pillars. Her “Patchwork Cleveland” mural was inspired by Adichie’s call to avoid “making generalizations about culture based on a singular experience or limited knowledge.” When Rutt moved to Detroit in 2011, she quickly realized the broader narrative about the Rust Belt city was flawed. “It was in Detroit, surrounded by amazing street art, that my interest in murals grew from awe­filled admiration, to an unstoppable desire and ultimately, an incredibly important part of my art practice,” she writes.  


 

ARTIST: Darius Steward INSPIRATION: The Rain by John Edgar Wideman, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 LOCATION: New East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station
ARTIST: Darius Steward
INSPIRATION: The Rain by John Edgar Wideman, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011
LOCATION: New East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station

A Cleveland native, Darius Steward is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art. His mural features yellow as a primary color, the prominent color from John Edgar Wideman’s short story, “The Rain.”


ARTIST: Faith47  INSPIRATION: Language as a boundary by Wole Soyinka.   He won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1983  for his memoir Ake: The Years of Childhood, and again for Lifetime Achievement in 2013.  LOCATION: Old Abutment East
ARTIST: Faith47
INSPIRATION: Language as a boundary by Wole Soyinka. He won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1983 for his memoir Ake: The Years of Childhood, and again for Lifetime Achievement in 2013.
LOCATION: Old Abutment East

South African artist Faith47 brought her international murals to Cleveland as part of her Psychic Power of Animals series, which attempts to “bring the energy of nature back into the urban metropolis.”

“There’s an inherent irony in recreating nature on cement, so the series is a nostalgic reminder of what we’ve lost but also an attempt to reintegrate that into the present,” Faith47 writes on her website. “We have become so distanced from nature, so these murals are an attempt to reconnect us with the natural world.”


 

ARTIST: Brendan Monroe INSPIRATION: The Boat by Nam Le   This short story collection won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2009. LOCATION: Mirrored wall
ARTIST: Brendan Monroe
INSPIRATION: The Boat by Nam Le This short story collection won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2009.
LOCATION: Mirrored wall

San Francisco artist Brendan Monroe took cues from the dangerous sea voyage in Nam Le’s The Boat as he created this expansive mural.  Look closely and you can see a child overboard.


 

ARTIST: Katy Kosman INSPIRATION: The short story "5 Dollar Bill" from Dorothy West's collection The Richer the Poorer. West won our lifetime achievement award in 1996. LOCATION: New East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station
ARTIST: Katy Kosman
INSPIRATION: The short story “5 Dollar Bill” from Dorothy West’s collection The Richer the Poorer. West won our lifetime achievement award in 1996.
LOCATION: New East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station. Photo by Amber Esner

“My father and I had a complicated relationship like the one in the story,” Kosman wrote, “and he died when I was fairly young, but he taught me most of the lessons I use now in my everyday life.”


pat perry by brandon shigeta
ARTIST: Pat Perry INSPIRATION: Edith Anisfield-Wolf, founder of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards

 

If Edith Anisfield Wolf were alive today,” Detroit artist Pat Perry wrote, “I think she’d be encouraging us all to take direct aim at the great moral and social crises of our time. I can earnestly say that I think she’d be proud to see folks employing ideals taught to us by the past, in order to tackle issues of the present.”

The world of publishing is changing right before our eyes, with established authors choosing to go the self-publishing route. Anisfield-Wolf’s very own John Edgar Wideman chose to self-publish his collection of short stories, Briefs, with Lulu.com in 2010. Check out this video of young actor Theron Cook giving a steady performance of one of his stories, “Bananas.”

Good evening. I’m Ronn Richard, president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you to the 76th annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony.

I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to see a full house for our opening night here in Playhouse Square.We will always think back upon our years at the Cleveland Play House with nostalgia. But the change in venue didn’t slow demand for almost 1,000 tickets, most of which were snapped up the first week. That’s a testament to the respect this prize commands – and to you. Never let it be said that any group anywhere can out-read Clevelanders!

I want to extend a special greeting to our internet audience. We’re streaming our ceremony live, thanks to a collaboration between Playhouse Square and Ideastream.The webcast will be posted on our retooled website, www.Anisfield-Wolf.org, which I urge you to check out. Also be sure to visit our new Twitter feed, YouTube channel, and Facebook page. I think you’ll be amazed at what you see.

The revamped site is a bookworm’s delight. You’ll find information on every winning title and author dating back to the first award in 1936. You’ll be able to access data you could never get before. If you want to know which winners have Pulitzer prizes or MacArthur fellowships, it’s right there at your fingertips.On our new blog, you can submit questions and comments as well. Whatever you want to do, it’s easy. We’re very excited about this upgrade, and we think you will be, too.

Introduction of Poet

For the last three years, we’ve celebrated not only our winning authors, but also an emerging young poet from our own backyard. This recent tradition continues tonight with Essence Cain, a sixth-grade student at Miller South School for Visual and Performing Arts, just down the road in Akron.

Essence will recite a poem she and her classmates wrote for “Speak Peace,”an international youth arts program created by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center. American children in the program wrote poems in response to paintings created by Vietnamese children.

You’ll see tonight’s poem and the painting that inspired it on the screen behind us. They’re part of an exhibit currently touring the United States. It’s my pleasure to present Essence Cain with “In the Flower Market.”

Thank you, Essence. Your parents, Terri and Doran, and your mentor, Nicole Robinson, are here tonight, and I’m pretty sure you’ve made them the proudest people in the room. Please join me in another round of applause for Essence and for the classmates she so ably represents.

Introductory Remarks

We gather here tonight, just days after the 10-year remembrance of one of the most villainous crimes in recent history, perpetrated against our nation and humanity – a mass murder that wiped out almost 3,000 innocent lives in less than two hours. I’m sure that for you as for me, the commemorative events of recent days reawakened the shock and horror we all felt as the smoke and debris from the collapsed Twin Towers blotted out the sun on what had begun as a picture-perfect day.

Back then, as details of the hijackers and their plot emerged, a simple question formed in our minds: How could anyone hate that much? Regrettably, the years since have shown that the hijackers and their co-conspirators had no monopoly on hatred.

Think about it: On September 10, 2001 – when most Americans had yet to become acquainted with Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden – could any of us have foreseen the intensity of anti-Islamic sentiment that we struggle with to this day?

The bitter fruit of this harvest of hate is all around us. On this side of the Atlantic, it surfaces whenever some publicity-driven zealot threatens to burn the Koran, or some shameless politician spews sinister warnings of a stealth campaign to establish an Islamic Republic of America. Meanwhile, across Europe, violence flares. It would be far too simplistic to blame this summer’s street riots in Britain on multiculturalism, as some have done.

But few would argue that immigration has stoked popular fears and strident political rhetoric aimed at Muslims in particular. Bigotry and intolerance poison our airwaves. Each day, we’re bombarded with decidedly uncivil discourse that seeks to divide and discriminate according to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, political affiliation, even physical and cognitive ability.

These are the human rights issues of our time, here and now. We can trace their evolution through the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. In earlier decades, the winning titles dealt largely with racial injustice and anti-Semitism in America and Europe – topics that will never lose their relevance.  But in the last 15 years – and post-9-11 in particular – new voices have joined the chorus. They bring different experiences and perspectives that mirror the diversity of today’s global society. Thus, we get glimpses of the world through the eyes of immigrant and first-generation authors who trace their ancestry to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Vietnam, Somalia, and Nigeria.

I think this inclusiveness would please Edith Anisfield Wolf. Edith loved literature, and she saw it as a catalyst to spark dialogue, which she believed was essential to bridging distrust and misunderstanding. In our contentious society, where opposing sides compete to shout each other down, Edith inspires us with her quiet, steadfast belief in the power of the written word to help shape a better world.

Taylor Branch, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf prize and a lifetime achievement award, put it far more eloquently than I could when he said, and I quote: “The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards … summon minds and hearts to ponder the relationship of human beings to those perceived as ‘the other.’ No purpose opens such vast heartache, and abiding hope, in the cause of democratic justice for our world.”

Edith’s vision endures. Now, it’s up to us to confront the prejudices that define our own times. Whether the current controversy is about the siting of a mosque, the accessibility of a public venue, a promotion denied due to sexual orientation, or yet another throwback to Jim Crow, the question our inner voice should be posing is: “Where is the Edith in me?”

Introduction of Guests and Winners

Before yielding the podium, I’d like to recognize a few special guests.

I’d like to salute Charles Bolton, the deeply dedicated chair of the Cleveland Foundation’s Board of Directors, and all current and past board members who are here tonight. Please stand and accept the community’s thanks for your outstanding service.

Finally, I have the great honor of sharing the stage with one of Cleveland’s leading ladies, in every sense of the phrase: Dee Perry, senior host and producer of WCPN’s daily magazine talk show, “Around Noon.” If you’ve spent any time around Cleveland, you know Dee. Her soothing voice has graced the local broadcasting scene since 1976. She’s made her radio home at WCPN, Cleveland’s public radio station, since 1989. Radio isn’t her only medium. Dee also hosts and produces “Applause,” the weekly arts and culture series on WVIZ/PBS.

Yesterday, we learned that our Anisfield-Wolf jury chair, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, was ill and would be unable to travel here to serve as our emcee, a role he has filled the past eight years. We needed a pro, and we needed one now. We immediately thought of Dee, who has long been a rock-solid supporter of this event. She graciously agreed to step in – and added that she was thrilled to have the opportunity. Dee, we are just as thrilled to have you up here. Welcome to the Anisfield-Wolf stage, and thank you.

Earlier this year, Dr. Gates and four nationally renowned jurors reviewed more than 200 submitted works before selecting just four that they deemed worthy of the prize. Tonight, we will listen to and celebrate the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf honorees:

Our lifetime achievement award goes to author John Edgar Wideman, whose body of work includes:

Now, here to tell you more about tonight’s winners, ladies and gentlemen, please join me in greeting tonight’s emcee, Dee Perry.

Acknowledgments

Thank you, Dee. To all six of our 2011 honorees, thank you for inspiring us with the beauty of your language, the rigor of your research, and your commitment to your craft. You’ve given us an unforgettable evening. I think our jury has outdone itself again. In addition to Skip Gates, this amazing group includes Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker, and Simon Schama. Our thanks to them for helping us sustain the legacy of a cherished daughter of Cleveland: Edith Anisfield Wolf.

I also want to acknowledge Mary Louise Hahn, the prime mover behind this event. Each year, she brings her passion for literature, her deep knowledge of the prize’s heritage, and her delightful sense of humor to steer us to safe harbor. Mary Louise, please stand and be recognized. Mary Louise would be the first to say she gets by with a little help from her friends. Thanks to the Cleveland Foundation board and staff, with a special nod to Cindy Schulz, Elizabeth McIntyre, and Terry Pederson of our Public Affairs team.

We’re fortunate to partner with some first-class organizations that have rallied around this event. To begin, many thanks to Playhouse Square for accommodating us this evening. We value our close tie with the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University, where David Eltis and David Richardson lectured yesterday. Afterward, the center hosted a reception for them and for Lisa Nielson, the first Anisfield-Wolf/SAGES fellow, who will lead several classes dedicated to issues of race and diversity. Welcome to Cleveland, Lisa. We’re so pleased to have you here. For many years, we’ve enjoyed strong support from the Cuyahoga County Public Library and the Cleveland Public Library, which houses the complete collection of Anisfield-Wolf winners. A Cultural Exchange is our hard-working, award-winning book sale partner.

I hope you caught our honorees today on Ideastream. Our nonfiction winners were hosted by Mike McIntyre on “The Sound of Ideas.” Our fiction winners and John Edgar Wideman were guests on “Around Noon” with none other than Dee Perry. The community interaction continues at noon tomorrow when Isabel Wilkerson – whose book made President Obama’s vacation reading list – will speak at the Cleveland City Club’s renowned Friday forum.

Presentation of Prizes

Now, it’s my pleasant duty to present our honorees with their 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. In addition to a monetary stipend, each winner receives a signature glasswork hand-crafted exclusively for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards by the artisans of Streets of Manhattan, a creative glass studio in Cleveland. Our winners’ glass mementos reflect the colors of their book jackets.

Please stand for a final round of applause as our honorees receive their prizes.Thank you for being here tonight. We hope to see you again next year. Please travel safely.

CLEVELAND, Ohio (April 12, 2011) – The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of the 76th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards www.Anisfield-Wolf.org

They are:

  • Nicole Krauss, Great House, Fiction
  • Mary Helen Stefaniak, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, Fiction
  • David Eltis/David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Nonfiction
  • Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Nonfiction
  • John Edgar Wideman, Lifetime Achievement

“The 2011 Anisfield-Wolf winners are notable for the unique way each author addresses the complex issues of race and cultural diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, who serves as jury chair. “The books and authors honored this year stand out, not only for their creative and wide-ranging approach to difficult subject matter, but also for their underlying faith in our shared humanity.”

“Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf created this book prize more than 75 years ago because of her conviction that the issue of race was the most critical dilemma facing the United States. It was her fervent desire to break down stereotypes and encourage civil discourse so that future generations would be more appreciative of human diversity,” said Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronald B. Richard. “This prize remains a fitting testimony to the vision of a woman truly ahead of her time.”

About the Anisfield-Wolf Prize

The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored in Cleveland on September 15 at a ceremony hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker and Simon Schama also served on the jury. The Cleveland Foundation has administered the book awards since 1963, upon the death of its creator, Edith Anisfield Wolf. The Anisfield-Wolf prize remains the only juried American literary competition devoted to recognizing books that have made an important contribution to society’s understanding of racism and the diversity of human cultures.

About the Cleveland Foundation

Established in 1914, the Cleveland Foundation is the world’s first community foundation and the nation’s second-largest today, with assets of $1.87 billion and 2010 grants of nearly $85 million. The foundation improves the lives of Greater Clevelanders by building community endowment, addressing needs through grantmaking, and providing leadership on vital issues. Currently the foundation proactively directs two-thirds of its flexible grant dollars to the community’s greatest needs: economic transformation, public education reform, human services and youth development, neighborhoods, and arts advancement.

For more information on the Cleveland Foundation, visit www.ClevelandFoundation.org.