2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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An innovative virtual exhibition at Case Western Reserve University selects and showcases new local responses to Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards writing. Sponsored by the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, the exhibition features 10 new poems and essays responding to prompts from the Anisfield-Wolf award-winning canon.

Students and faculty from area universities created their own work based in Tracy K. Smith (“Wade in the Water”), Jesmyn Ward (“Sing, Unburied, Sing”), Tommy Orange (“There There”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“Stride Toward Freedom”). Three students from Tri-C reflected on two pieces from the public art Inter|Urban project, influenced by Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) and Junot Diaz (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”).

“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have been a part of Cleveland’s literary culture for over 80 years,” said Kurt Koenigsberger, director for the collaborative. “It’s really been within the last decade that local colleges and universities, largely with support from the Cleveland Foundation, have begun to take up the challenge that the Anisfield-Wolf Award-winners pose for the work we do in our institutions.”

For the past two summers, the collaborative has sponsored seminars to help Northeast Ohio faculty, artists and activists integrate Anisfield-Wolf books into their classrooms and community projects. The idea for an exhibition that engaged students directly was an easy next step, Koenigsberger said: “Creating a space that broadened our institutions’ understanding, appreciation, and celebration of work on race and racism seemed important to the work of our Collaborative, and to our Northeast Ohio community more generally.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a physical exhibition in March quickly transitioned to a virtual presentation. Switching to an online format had at least one benefit — most of the participants provided audio of their work, adding flavor and personality to the written word.

“The move to invite participants to record their work was a result of our students’ deliberations,” Koenigsberger said. “They were very eager that the public could hear how the poems and essays sounded in the authors’ own voices.”

Read (or listen) to the selections at the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative website.

Late at night and through eight grueling years, literature helped sustain the outgoing president of the United States.
In a wide-ranging interview with New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, Barack Obama reflected on the centrality of reading and the titles that have given him insight and solace, particularly in fiction.  He mentions just completing Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and putting Maxine Hong Kingston‘s “The Woman Warrior” on the Kindle of his older daughter Malia.
The conversation shows a deeply reflective man in the midst of shaping his second act. At 55, he leaves the White House a relatively young man, and he is eager to return to writing. Composing a memoir, drawn from journals Obama kept during his two terms as Commander-in-Chief, will be his first order of business.
Before transitioning into private citizen, Obama invited five novelists to break bread — Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz (all three Anisfield-Wolf award winners) along with Barbara Kingsolver and Dave Eggers — to hear their perspectives on the craft and compare notes on culture and storytelling.
“I figured after all my criticism of his policies I wouldn’t be high on his list for anything but clearly there’s room at his lunch table for dissent,” Diaz wrote on Facebook. “He burned with optimism and faith invincible.”
Much like Edith Anisfield Wolf, Obama believes in the power of the written word to better us:  “When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”

How does one structure a year in reading?

The New York Times published the answers of 47 writers and artists who reflected on the books they chose over the past year. Their responses create a fascinating skein of reading and thinking, and include essays from four Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards recipients. The entire conversation, which weaves from basketball hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to filmmaker Ava DuVernay to former House speaker Newt Gingrich to author Maxine Hong Kingston, is enlivening, a hopeful way to face into a new year.

Praise for “The Underground Railroad,” the stupendous fall novel from Anisfield-Wolf winner Colson Whitehead, threads through these reflections. Salman Rushdie read it; so did the YA-writer John Green, Anne Tyler and Judd Apatow.

Maxine Hong Kingston, who won a 1978 Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Woman Warrior,” came up with the longest and the widest-ranging list. She sampled Charles Darwin and Nora Ephron and Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas on Depression.”  He won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “Far from the Tree,” another landmark, luminous work of nonfiction.

Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust expended her entire essay praising “March,” the three-book graphic memoir by Congressman John Lewis recounting his formation in the crucible of Civil Rights. These books in turn are based on “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis’ classic accounting of his life, which won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1999.

Another graphic work attracted the praise of Junot Diaz, who kicks off the New York Times compilation recommending “Ghetto Brother,” a history of a multiracial Bronx, drawn and created by Julian Voloy and Claudia Ahlering. Diaz, who won an Anisfield-Wolf for his novel “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” also highlighted another nonfiction title: Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.”  Diaz writes that “Lowery more or less pulls the sheet off America” in a book subtitled “Ferguson, Baltimore and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement.”

James McBride, whose 1997 memoir “The Color of Water” is still taught widely in universities, strikes a bluesy note in an essay that divides books “into categories like saxophone players.” He read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and then — to shake off some of its disturbing currents – turned to the manuscript for “Two and Two,” a forthcoming memoir from Rafe Bartholomew. McBride highly recommends this portrait of New York’s oldest saloon.

Samantha Power, who won both a Pulitzer and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “A Problem of Hell,” read books last year that illuminated her work as the United States ambassador to the United Nations: Madeline Albright’s “Madame Secretary” and Clark Clifford’s “Counsel to the President.”

The list from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was flavored by two Anisfield-Wolf winning authors: “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “Charcoal Joe,” the latest detective novel from Walter Mosley. The basketball legend also read poetry, specifically “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet. Meanwhile sublime novelist Colm Toibin read 2013 Anisfield-Wolf honoree “My Promised Land.” Toibin described Ari Shavit’s nonfiction work as giving him “an increased sense of the complexity of Israeli heritage.”

Back in the United States, filmmaker Jill Soloway thought about making a pilot as she read “You Can’t Touch My Hair” by Phoebe Robinson.  And Jacqueline Woodson recently held up her copy on PBS’s “News Hour” as a galvanizing book from 2016.

However one navigates a year, it is bettered by the company of a good book. The selections in this compilation are a bracing place to start.

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.”

Five winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book award in fiction are standing up to publicly, “as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.”

They join Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove and more than 400 writers who list eight reasons to decry Trump’s candidacy, published as an open letter on LitHub.

The novelists include this year’s winner Mary Morris (The Jazz Palace), as well as Junot Diaz (The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior), Nicole Krauss (Great House) and Anthony Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena).

“Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another,” states the open letter as grounds for resisting Trump’s candidacy.

Those signing include the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn, the “Dear Sugar” advice columnist Cheryl Strayed and Cleveland poet Philip Metres.

The letter’s final justification states “Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response.”

Lyz Lenz, an Iowa blogger about parenting and pregnancy, contributed an essay, posted on Lithub alongside the open letter, suggesting that William Faulkner was prescient in creating the corrupt character Flem Snopes. Her essay is subtitled “On William Faulkner, White Trash, and 400 Years of Class War.”

“America is burning,” she writes. “You might not see the flames, but you can smell the smoke. And we’ve been set on fire by one man – Donald Trump, a Flem Snopes of our modern-era.”

More than 200 prominent authors—among them Anisfield-Wolf winners Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie—have publicly objected to the PEN American Center’s decision to present French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo its Free Expression Courage award.  Gunmen aggrieved by the magazine’s depiction of Islam targeted the controversial Paris weekly in January and killed a dozen people.

The signatories of an April letter to PEN argue that power and privilege must be considered when defining courageousness in satire: “The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.” One of the critics is former PEN American president Francine Prose.

Defending the decision, her successor, Andrew Solomon, co-wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, noting that, “Satire is often vulnerable to being construed as hate.” Solomon, who won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf prize in nonfiction for “Far From the Tree,” expressed respect for those criticizing the award, but argues their emphasis is misplaced.

“I think that if we don’t endorse people who are taking these courageous stances,” Solomon told NPR, “if we don’t recognize the enormous personal risks they’re taking and if we don’t fully acknowledge that in taking that risk they keep a public discourse alive that otherwise is in danger of being entirely closed down, that we miss the purpose of standing up for free speech.”

Charlie Hebdo editor Gérard Biard is expected to accept the award on behalf of the magazine at PEN America’s annual gala in Manhattan May 5.

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.”

Wither the best book list? Inherently inane and crazy-making, these are also undeniably good conversation starters.

Amazon has posted the latest iteration: its best “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.” It includes two Anisfield-Wolf prize novels: Junot Diaz‘ “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” as well as James McBride’s memoir “The Color of Water.” Also on the list is the immortal “Invisible Man” from Ralph Ellison, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Landmark Achievement, and books by Anisfield-Wolf recipients Edwidge Danticat and Louise Erdrich.

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 LeBlanc for 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.

 

 

 

Fresh off the paperback release of his newest work, This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz swung by Cleveland State University in October for its Cultural Crossings seminar. We caught up with our 2008 fiction winner for his reflections on winning an Anisfield-Wolf award. “It puts you in remarkably excellent company,” Diaz said, and we couldn’t agree more. 

2008 Winner Junot Diaz Speaks On Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards from Anisfield Wolf on Vimeo.

Junot Diaz did not dress up for his talk.  He wore black jeans, worn boots and his white shirttails out beneath a charcoal sweater, front and back. On an October Friday afternoon, he walked into the terraced auditorium at Cleveland State University, and leaned companionably against the wall, sipping coffee out of a disposable cup as Professor Antonio Medina-Rivera introduced him.

Medina-Rivera ran through Diaz’s dizzying credentials: a full professor at M.I.T., a 2012 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow, a Pulitzer Prize for his vibrant first novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which also won an Anisfield-Wolf book award.  In addition, his host reported, Diaz volunteers at Freedom University, a new institution that attempts to meet the needs of undocumented college students in Georgia.

The 44-year-old Diaz took the stage and gradually built a case for embracing ambivalence and imperfection.  “I am never trying to be right,” he said. “I’m trying to be the launch pad for somebody to be righter.” He mocked the preening persona-building on Facebook.  He smiled and joked, even as he delivered some withering political remarks. Here is one sample:

“The elites are running rough-shod over us. They are engineering forced income transfers to the top. Elites are gutting the middle class, and that gets a shrug. But say, ‘A Mexican is taking your job,’ and everybody has an opinion.”

Diaz read the same passage from “Oscar Wao” that he selected in 2008 when he appeared at the Cleveland Public Library: three pages at the start of Chapter Two that describe Oscar’s sister Lola called to the bathroom by their mother to feel for a lump in the matriarch’s breast.  It is a gorgeous passage, and one of the few stretches in the book without profanity or explicit sexual asides.

When Diaz finished, a student asked him if he thinks in Spanish.  The writer was born in Santo Domingo, a third child in a neighborhood without electricity. His mother brought him to Parlin, N.J., to rejoin his father when he was six.

“Spanish is my birth language, and everything that means,” Diaz answered. “English is my control language, and everything that means.  I can’t be super-smart in Spanish.  In Spanish, I am less guarded.”

Asked how he perfected Lola’s voice, Diaz observed that poor children come-of-age in front of each other, in packed living quarters.  In the comfort of the American middle class, adolescence happens privately behind closed doors.

“Most of us have so many aspects of ourselves, it is almost impossible to reconcile,” Diaz said, recounting his own years pumping iron as a young man, only to be caught out for his nerdy, Dungeons and Dragons-loving side by a dorm mate at Rutgers.  There he fell under the literary influences of Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros, even as he worked full-time delivering pool tables, washing dishes, and pumping gas to cover tuition.

Diaz poked fun at peers who name Charles Dickens when asked who is their favorite author. He made a point of praising contemporaries – Ruth Ozeki for her new novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” and Edwidge Danticat for “Claire of the Sea Light” calling it “unbelievable, the best one she has done.”  (Danticat won an Anisfield-Wolf award for “The Dew Breaker” in 2005.)

Everyone, Diaz claimed, is searching for the place where “all the parts of us can be present and safe.”  For him, that place was reading.  “I write because I love books,” he said. “Writing is just my expression of my excess love of reading.”

Still, he warned his listeners against unbridled enthusiasm. “Love something too much and you know the kind of kids you raise. . .

“It is OK to be involved in a practice you are ambivalent about. Some of the best parents are ambivalent about being parents. . . I am deeply ambivalent about the craft of writing.  Anyone who grew up in the shadow of the (Dominican Republic) Trujillo dictatorship can’t see stories as only good. There is a cost to everything. I am always aware of the shadows that lurk in every artistic practice, and I’m always troubled by them.”

Then the sober mood broke. In a different conversation, Diaz allowed that he had been texting pictures of Cleveland.  He sent one to his buddy Christopher Robichaud, a lecturer in ethics at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  Robichaud grew up in Euclid and Chardon, and graduated with a degree in philosophy from John Carroll University.  The two men bonded over “tabletop role-playing games, horror movies, superhero comics,” Robichaud said.

And yes, he answered Diaz: the structure the writer photographed was indeed the West Side Market that Robichaud had described in their chats about childhood.

One of our most accomplished, “visible” authors has to be Junot Diaz, hands down. He is at ease on the campus of MIT (where he teaches English) as he is headlining a conference on race and culture. He is also a very vocal supporter for immigration reform and champions the rights of undocumented immigrants who are seeking a fair path to citizenship. (See more of our immigration coverage here.) 

Recently Diaz was on the Colbert Report, going “toe-to-toe” with Stephen Colbert on opportunities for immigrants and giving viewers an overview of Freedom University, a volunteer organization in Georgia that provides post-secondary instruction to undocumented immigrants barred from attending five of Georgia’s most competitive schools.  

Diaz is on the board of advisors for Freedom University and took some of Colbert’s ribbing as he explained the concept of this new volunteer “university.” Be sure to watch to the end to see the surprise gift Colbert asks Diaz to take back to campus. 

As the U.S. economy continues to crawl toward recovery, more and more people find themselves at the library. Filled with resources, computers, books and programs, the local library is often one of the only places people can go to get their information needs met, and unlike most online sources, there are real live people there to offer assistance.

Writers tend to be very vocal champions for libraries, particularly these days as funding is cut while demand is highest. Earlier this year, during an author visit to his local library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Junot Diaz spoke for a few minutes on the importance of libraries, particularly as it relates to his success as an author. “I can directly attribute who I am as a writer, an artist, as a thinker..from my early, early experiences in my school and town library.” Watch his entire remarks below.

We’re keeping it light this week—we know everyone is busy with family and friends and the wonderfulness of the holiday season. In honor of Christmas being around the corner, we found this interview with Junot Diaz on American Public Media about his connection to his culture and how he celebrates Christmas. We particularly liked this quote about the connectedness of the holidays: 

I think part of sitting down and sharing a meal with family and with the community is that food is a remarkable bonding force. When I think of that state that we loved to achieve. That state where you’re together with people you love, that you care about, who are your relatives.

For a shining evening, or for a shining day, you are able to achieve communion. It’s kind of a peace with each other. It’s kind of sharing. It’s kind of communication. It’s kind of, just, being in each other’s presence. And I think what helps us to achieve that is the dishes that we grew up with, the dishes that are familiar, the dishes that have always meant solidarity and family.

And let me tell you, after a tough, tough year, nothing lifts the spirit — nothing lifts the soul — like attempting to achieve communion. What better way than to eat a whole bunch of awesome food that says family, says community, says home, says love?

We completely agree. 

Happy holidays, everyone! 

If you haven’t read it already, Junot Diaz’ This is How You Lose Her is a terrific collection of short stories that reaffirmed NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani belief that Diaz has “one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction.”

Multiple book critics have deemed Louise Erdrich’s new novel the best she’s written and that’s saying a lot as her other 13 novels have been widely praised for her extraordinary storytelling skills. Watch a quick video of Erdrich discussing her latest.

Do we need to say more about Toni Morrison? We don’t think so. We’ve enjoyed her many interviews this year while on the promotion trail for her latest book, Home, and she was candid in her views on racism, her legacy, and President Obama. Home shines a harsh light on an era we tend to idealize and Ms. Morrison would have it no other way.

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.

Few writers get the opportunity to be popular and well-regarded, particularly with readers’ fickle attention spans. But Junot Diaz seems to be hitting on both fronts. Diaz wrote a message of thanks to all his fans this year on his Facebook page. His list of accolades for his latest book, This is How You Lose Her, is quite impressive: 

Now with the long tour over the new book is finally starting to come to life–God knows when it will get done but it’s starting to pull on me again. If it takes off I might be signing off facebook in a couple of weeks in order to focus on its full-time and will be back in late summer in time for the fall paperback tour madness. Again: thanks one and all. Also: my publisher sent along this list and I’m super-grateful to all the editors who pulled for this book of stories. Mil gracias. And so without further ado:

Finalist for the National Book Award

New York Times Sunday Book Review: 100 Notable Books of 2012

EW Top 10 Best Fiction of 2012

Time Magazine Top 10 Books of 2012

Huffington Post Best Books of 2012

Book Page Best Books of 2012: named #1 Best Book of 2012

Kirkus Best Books of 2012

Amazon Best Books of the Year: Editor’s Top Picks for 2012

Slate Best Books of 2012

Barnes and Noble “Favorite Books of the Year” Top 15 Fiction pick

Los Angeles Public Library Best Fiction of 2012

Globe and Mail Top 100 Book of the Year: Top 29 Picks for International Fiction

Booklist Editor’s Choice for Best of 2012

Newsday 10 Best Books of 2012

Barnes and Noble Best Books of 2012: Fiction

Kansas City Star Top Fiction Pick for 2012

Saint Louis Post-Dispatch 50 Favorite Books of 2012

Financial Times Best Books of 2012

LA Times Holiday Book Gift

 

2008 winner Junot Diaz recently wrapped up his book tour for his latest book, This Is How You Lose Her, at the Facing Race conference in Baltimore last week.

He wrote to his fans: 

“So many extraordinary activists, so many brilliant youth. Thanks to all the organizers who made it happen and to all the already-tired participants that patiently endured my keynote. You seriously rock! In other news tonight was the last day of the tour. Basically two straight months on the road, two months I was very lucky to have…It was better than anything I could have imagined. Thanks to everyone who supported the work, who advocated for the new book, who took time to come to the readings. Thanks to all the booksellers to all the librarians to all the teachers who often often brought their students to the events. Thanks to my Dominican/Caribbean peoples for always representing and for so often inviting me to their family home for a sancocho. You have no idea how that touched me. Thanks to all readers everywhere! You made this journey possible.”

We do believe he has earned some well-deserved time at home for a bit! Read about our other coverage of Diaz’ latest book at the link

The 2012 election cycle was filled with a bombardment of political ads, 24-hour news cycles dissecting every possible angle, and an overwhelming sense of hype surrounding who will be our next batch of elected representatives. Some of our winners got in on the action and made a few comments about the election as well. 

Junot Diaz, who has been writing consistently about the Latino effect in this year’s election, wrote a special message on his Facebook page. “Obama WINS!” he wrote shortly after the race had been called. “The Latino community came out BIG for Obama. Very proud of my community, very proud of all the new voters, the very proud of all the Obama supporters who put in the time and the hard work to make this happen.”

Never one to shy away from his passions, David Livingstone Smith took the opportunity to remind people of the atrocities happening in East Africa. “While we’re celebrating, they’re dying. How about urging our newly elected officials to take notice?”

Isabel Wilkerson, whose 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, was selected as a top five book pick by President Obama, gave a brief history lessons for her fans on her Facebook page. “‘The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’ Those words, the 15th Amendment, were ratified in 1870. NINETY-FIVE years passed before it was acted upon. Poll taxes, literacy tests and lynchings barred black southerners from voting. It wasn’t until Aug. 6, 1965, when, after decades of protest and violence, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act ‘to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution,’ that everyone was actually permitted to vote.” 

Whoever you supported and whatever your political leanings, we hope you took advantage of your right to vote and made a difference in this election cycle! 

 

 

 

Junot Diaz made a lively appearance at Google’s headquarters for its “Authors @ Google” interview series. Watch the video above and listen as Diaz reads the introduction to one of the short stories in his book, This is How You Lose Her. 

We keep on telling you how terrific 2012 is shaping up for Junot Diaz and the accolades keep coming. Today, he and fellow Anisfield-Wolf award winner Louise Erdrich were named as 2012 National Book Awards finalists.