Brooklyn, N.Y. — The Brooklyn Book Festival—a celebratory, cerebral, free event that runs one Sunday in September—attracted tens of thousands of readers, and this year, a spike of controversy.

Anisfield-Wolf jurors Rita Dove and Joyce Carol Oates read from their work, soaking up warm applause, while two recent fiction winnersJunot Diaz and Kamila Shamsiesigned a petition calling on the festival to sever its support from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

“It is deeply regrettable that the Festival has chosen to accept funding from the Israeli government just weeks after Israel’s bloody 50-day assault on the Gaza Strip, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians – including 500 children – dead,” asserts the petition, distributed by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel. “Sustaining a partnership with the Israeli consulate at this time amounts to a tacit endorsement of Israel’s many violations of international law and Palestinian human rights.”

The nub of the criticism centered on a small aspect of the festival: the sponsorship of Israeli writer Assaf Gavron by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Gavron, whose much-lauded novel, “The Hilltop,” will publish in the United States in October, participated in a panel entitled “A Sense of Place: Writing From Within and Without.”

Diaz, who won both a 2008 Pulitzer Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” stayed away, as did the Pakistani writer Shamsie, who won for the novel “Burnt Shadows” in 2010. But a number of the signatories—New Yorker writers Elif Batuman and Sasha Frere-Jones, author Greg Grandin and essayist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts—also participated as speakers at the festival.

So did two other Anisfield-Wolf winners, Zadie Smith, a Londoner who won in 2006 for her novel “On Beauty” and James McBride, whose best-selling memoir “The Color of Water” earned the prize in 1997 and whose most recent book, “The Good Lord Bird” surprised the bookies by winning a National Book Award last year.

Appearing on the main stage with other poets laureate, Dove praised 19-year-old Ramya Ramana, who recited a moving piece called “A Testimony in Progress.”  For her part, Ramana described Dove as one of her essential inspirations.

In a panel titled “Influence of the Real,” Oates spoke of her latest story collection, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” in which an elderly Robert Frost is visited by a disturbing young woman in the title story. “Each of these stories jolted me awake,” said the critic Alan Cheuse, “like a bark from a monstrous dog.”

Meanwhile, an affable James McBride appeared on a panel with novelist Jeffery Renard Allen, whose dense and beautiful historical novel “Song of the Shank” scored a cover review this summer in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times Book Review.

“I wanted to do something different,” McBride said of his comic slavery novel. “Many books about race are [dropping his voice to sing] ‘Ohhh, Freedom, Ohhh Freedom.’ I didn’t want to read that book.  I wanted to write to the common place. I was thinking about the kid who reads Spider-Man comics.”

Photo credit: Belem Destefani
Photo credit: Belem Destefani

Allen, whose “Song of the Shank” has comic elements, said a famous black writer told him that the makers of the film “12 Years a Slave” forgot that black people like to laugh.  Allen added that Langston Hughes entitled one of his novels, “Not Without Laughter.”

McBride, who allowed that he’d “had my buns toasted” over his irreverent portrait of Frederick Douglass in “The Good Lord Bird,” said that the sainted abolitionist lived under one roof with his black wife and his white mistress, a set-up that the writer found “too delicious” to pass up.

The festival, now in its ninth year, awarded McBride its BoBi prize for “an author whose body of work exemplifies or speaks to the spirit of Brooklyn.”

Chances are, Joyce Carol Oates’ latest work is unlike anything you’ve ever read before. “The Accursed” takes readers on a wild ride through Princeton, N.J., in the years 1905-1906, viewed through a host of characters who are all struggling with their own demons as the result of the Curse (always capitalized).

In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, the Princeton University professor and Anisfield-Wolf jury member completed an interview with the Seattle Times in which she explored some of the themes in the book more in depth. Oates began writing the novel in the 80s and left it alone for more than 20 years while pursuing other projects. She came back to it a few years ago and emerged with a novel some are calling Oates’ best work yet.

As Stephen King said in his New York Times review, this book just might be “the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel: E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ set in Dracula’s castle. It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it.” His review is fun, which is always a good sign for the book at hand. He showcases the complex and ambiguous nature of the novel, leading readers down a path he himself isn’t 100% sure exists and feeling comfortable without a firm grasp on the truth Oates presents. But such complexities often make for good storytelling.

Read an excerpt of “The Accursed” here and let us know if this title makes your list of books to read. 

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.

Weil said:

“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.

Anisfield-Wolf jury member Joyce Carol Oates explains how writers can get in touch with the core of their characters, using examples from her book, The Gravedigger’s Daughter. “If you allow your people to talk, they will express themselves in a way that the writer might not have thought of,” she says. “I give my students an assignment to create people talking to each other and my students say, “I don’t know these people.” I tell them, you have to listen.”

Check out the video below and let us know which characters from literature you most deeply resonated with. 

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: 

Edwidge Danticat

Top Ten List for Edwidge Danticat

  1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston 
  2. The Stranger by Albert Camus 
  3. Germinal by Emile Zola 
  4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 
  5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison 
  7. Night by Elie Wiesel 
  8. The Color Purple by Alice Walker 
  9. The Trial by Franz Kafka 
  10. Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain

Joyce Carol Oats

Top Ten List for Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
  2. Ulysses by James Joyce 
  3. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner 
  4. The Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson 
  5. The Stories of Franz Kafka by Franz Kafka 
  6. The Red and the Black by Stendhal 
  7. The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence 
  8. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence 
  9. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville 
  10. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 
Are any of these books on your top 10 list? Share your favorites in the comments below! 

We’re so pleased to share this bit of good news about Anisfield-Wolf jury member Joyce Carol Oates!

From Oregon State:

Joyce Carol Oates, celebrated author and National Book Award winner, will receive Oregon State University’s inaugural Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement in May.

The biennial award is given to a major American author who has created a body of critically acclaimed work and who has – in the tradition of creative writing at OSU – been a dedicated mentor to young writers. The honorarium for the award is $20,000, making the new Stone Prize one of the most substantial awards for lifetime literary achievement offered by any university in the country.

The award will be presented to Oates at a special event at on Thursday, May 10, at thePortland Art Museum Fields Ballroom beginning at 7:30 p.m. OSU Distinguished Professor of English Tracy Daugherty will conduct an on-stage interview with Oates. A reception and book signing will follow. Tickets are available at:https://pam.spotlightboxoffice.com/purchase/step4?ticketID=63600

“Joyce Carol Oates is that rare literary figure who, over the course of an extraordinarily productive literary career, has also given generous attention and energy to young writers,” said Marjorie Sandor, director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at OSU. “Unflagging in her support for literary magazines and presses, she has enriched and enlivened our nation’s cultural life.”

Please join us in congratulating Joyce on this terrific accomplishment!

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.