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.
The new novel from Laird Hunt, “In the House in the Dark of the Woods,” has the feel of a hymnal. It is palm sized and red, and it contains a story nestled in the Puritan Colonial era.
Hunt, 50, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2013 for “Kind One,” a haunting Civil War novel inspired by a short passage in Edward P. Jones’ masterpiece “The Known World.” Hunt is drawn to fable and journeys and psychological complexity. The new novel wastes no time entering the woods.
The first two sentences, in the voice of the narrator, are “I told my man I was off to pick berries and that he should watch our son for I would be gone some good while. So away I went with a basket.”
The woman goes missing, and Hunt excavates the ancient fears of women who abandon their families and women who are kidnapped and women who wander away without explanation. The epigram for the new work comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”:
Deep into that darkness peering,
Long I stood there
This eighth novel from Hunt, now a professor at Brown University, continues his assured, lyrical and disruptive storytelling. Readers who enter his fiction already know that these woods will be strange and harrowing indeed.
Laird Hunt, Wikipedia will tell you, “is an American writer, translator and academic.” True, as far as that goes. But readers of Hunt’s haunted, touched-by-the-fantastical fiction know it goes much deeper, and farther back.
Laird himself was a seventh-grade boy living in London who found himself abruptly transferred to his grandmother’s Indiana farm, about an hour from the spot where 40 years earlier the racist killings in small-town Marion were memorialized in souvenir postcards circulated around the world. Hunt said his family never spoke of these events within his earshot.
Indiana figures in all three novels in the triptych. “I am drawn to stories that are under-told, untold or under-represented in some way,” Hunt told a gathering at the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library. “All the narrators of these novels are women – perhaps an audacious decision.”
And all these voices are informed by the inflection and character and humorous cast of his grandmother’s speech in her youth. “When she was angry or tired, her accent thickened and she dropped words,” Hunt said. No actual person spoke the way his characters do, “but they are meant to evoke what a 21st-century ear might expect from the past, not a slavish imitation.”
Bobbie Louise Hawkins, a short story writer who mentored Hunt, cautioned him against overdoing the vernacular. Indeed, one of the most dated aspects of “The Red Badge of Courage,” Hunt said, was Hart Crane’s thick hand with dialogue that wound up sounding as if he “stuck a big hayseed in his mouth.”
For “The Evening Road,” Hunt returned to Marion – which he calls Marvel in the novel – for extensive research. The jail from which the lynched men were dragged is still standing. “The jail looks like a medieval castle, with turrets and gargoyles,” he said. “In the ‘80s, it was turned into condos, if you can imagine.”
Hunt managed to enter a side door into the condominium building, now gone slightly to seed, to discover some of the jail’s original tilework and iron gating – “it is really haunting.”
Flannery O’Connor would feel at home here, and her fiction influences Hunt’s. “Strange things occur in all of our minds when we’re telling stories,” he said. In “Neverhome,” the narrator Ash Thompson suggests that she and an African-American woman might share the road for a spell, a preposterous notion in 1862 or 1863. Some sixty years later, the road is still preposterous for the two narrators of Hunt’s most recent novel – one anxious to get to the lynching, one anxious to flee.
Pigs loom in all three books, a creature young Laird smelled often in his rural adolescence. “They just keep appearing,” he mused. “Clearly, something has moved into my psyche. They stay present in my fiction—victimized, repulsed and yet desired.”
Hunt said his novel in progress, centered on witches in the 17th century, already contains a pair of pigs, unsettled and up on their hind legs.
The Evening Road returns Laird Hunt to Indiana, where the Anisfield-Wolf winner lived on his grandmother’s farm during his high school years, and where his feel for the rural Midwest and its uncelebrated people has few equals in American literature.
This seventh novel springs from one of the nation’s most troubled wells. Hunt tells it over a single summer night, anchored in the bloody lynching of two men – Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp — in Marion, Indiana August 7, 1930.
“The events of that evening gave rise to the poem ‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol, which was made famous as a song by Billie Holiday,” Hunt, now 48, writes about the source of his new novel. “At least 10,000 people (some put the number as high as 15k) flooded into the medium-sized town to attend the lynching, while the considerable African-American population of the town either stayed indoors or got out of town. While I don’t know if any of my family members attended the lynching that day/night, I found it strange and troubling that in all the years I lived with my grandmother on the farm, I never heard a whisper about what was an event of national significance and implication.”
Into that silence flowed The Evening Road, a haunting and disturbingly lyrical novel told in the voices of three women: a red-headed, big-chested secretary named Ottie Lee Henshaw trying to reach the lynching; Calla Destry, a light-skinned, intelligent and angry adolescent caught up in the mayhem, and, for the final 13 pages, the “touched” Sally Gunner, known for conversing with angels after she took a blow to her head.
Hunt is marvelous at characterization – Neverhome, his Civil War novel, rests on the mesmerizing authenticity of Ash Thompson, an Indiana farm woman who passes as a man to fight for the Union. And Kind One, his Anisfield-Wolf winner, gives readers two sisters who overthrow their 19th-century bondage on a remote Kentucky pig farm, then chain up and work the owner in return.
The Evening Road runs closer to home, chronologically, although Hunt is still liquid with his coordinates: an old crone recounts a version of Kind One almost as a spell while she is fixing Ottie Lee’s hair. Ottie Lee herself is a foul-mouthed, small town beauty with a lecherous boss and a quarrelsome husband. She falls in with three men trying to reach Marvel, as Hunt calls the town. She has wit and resourcefulness, as well as a cruelty that seems rooted in the grim past.
“The world can shut your mouth for you sometimes,” Ottie Lee reflects, having stumbled on a Quaker prayer vigil that mixed blacks and whites. “Get so big right there in front of you that it won’t fit in your eyes.” She also hears out a politician, firing up a picnic crowd he plans to lead to Marvel. He calls the lynchings “a torch of clarity to burn bright across the countryside during hard days. . . It is a difficult thing, a harsh thing, but it will burn things clear. Bring us back into balance. The hardest things always do.”
After 140 pages, Hunt leaves Ottie Lee. The second half of the book belongs to 16-year-old Calla, whose parents died in a laundry fire and who is boarding with a foster family in Marvel. She has stubbornly defied them to meet a beau, and winds up alone on the road trying to leave, but not before the crowd envelopes her: “Some were laughing like it was a true carnival, and others had on hard faces like they were marching to war. Some didn’t have on any expression at all, like they were killed folk had clawed themselves out of the cemetery just to walk into town and look glass-eyed up into the courthouse trees.”
Calla commits three brazen acts of defiance as she travels, and Hunt lets readers ponder how she and Ottie Lee run in parallel and diverge. Sudden blooms of violence pock the story, even as Hunt refrains from depicting the murders in Marvel. Instead, Calla wonders why whites “thought they needed to lift people up into the air to kill them. Their saints and sinners both. . . I hadn’t read the papers yet, hadn’t heard any accounts to turn the sky of my memories black and send me drifting forward through the dark. That would be during the days to come.”
The Evening Road may be a bucolic title, but its beckoning is urgent. Once more, Hunt draws up sorrow and dark light from the murderous past. The politician’s mother says “place like this glues itself to your bones; you don’t scrape it off.” Rather like Hunt’s masterful new novel itself.
Hunt, 46, had just met with Abrahamson in Canada, where the director is set to film Emma Donaghue’s suspenseful bestseller “Room.” Hunt told his Cleveland audience, gathered in the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, that he and the Irish director hit it off and are excited about bringing “Neverhome” to film.
It tells the story of Ash Thompson, formerly Constance Thompson, who leaves her Indiana farm disguised as a Union soldier to join the Civil War. Hunt said hundreds of women, both in the North and South, took up arms – some for love, some for money, some for adventure. If they were discovered, they were often accused of spying or insanity and drummed out, only to walk down the road and join another regimen. “One of the women did this seven times,” he said.
A warm audience greeted Hunt in Beachwood with a close reading of the text. “It is such a pleasure to be back in this room,” he said. “I associate it with one of the happiest weeks of my life.” A year ago Hunt accepted his Anisfield-Wolf award for “Kind One,” a mediation on revenge and slavery set on an antebellum Kentucky pig farm.
The new novel, like “Kind One,” springs organically from its opening sentence: “I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” Hunt said he wrote the book in a blistering three weeks from the spark of that sentence, and then spent two-and-a-half years refining it. He worked to stay true to the “understated fierceness” of that single narrative voice, and to pay attention to the ways voice can conceal and reveal gender.
Asked why the reader has no solid sense of the physical Ash Thompson, Hunt observed that the Civil War was fought largely by boys, whose character was still indistinct, especially in photographs. And he mentioned David Hodges’ essay on the dilemma of historical fiction – no character says: “Now I will put on my hobnailed boots.”
And although Hunt’s scholarship ran deep and wide, he wanted the voice of the opening sentence to be the reader’s gateway – not photographs, not military maneuvers, not all the accumulated frames readers keep at hand for this war. The voice itself is a hybrid, he notes, “not exactly a 19th-century voice, but informed by it.”
And, if Element Pictures executives have their way, one day soon readers will hear it in an actor’s mouth.
Laird Hunt’s transfixing new novel “Neverhome” unspools in the voice of a Civil War soldier. It works upon the reader like a haunting. The narrator is Ash Thompson, a young woman passing as a man into the uniform of the Union.
The opening line: “I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” Ash Thompson—born Constance—is telling us about her young husband Bartholomew and her strong desire to leave their Indiana farm to see the world: “I wanted to drink different waters, feel different heats. Stand with my comrades atop the ruin of old ideas. Walk forward with a thousand others. Plant my boot and steel my eye and not run. I said all of this to my dead mother, spoke it down through the dirt: there was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark. We both of us, me and Bartholomew, knew what my mother would have said in response and it was like she was saying it each time I asked her what she thought.
“Go on. Go on and see what you got.”
So the reader and Ash are launched. Toward the end of the story, an educated woman in Springfield, Ohio takes in the remnants of this subterfuge and murmurs, “Penelope gone to the war and Odysseus staying home.” Ash can only reply, “Ma’am?”
Indeed, some dozens, perhaps hundreds, of American women chose to bind their breasts and fight instead of wait during the War Between the States. On the pages of “Neverhome,” they occasionally recognize each other. Hunt credits, “most crucially,” in his acknowledgements “An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1865” by Lauren Cook Burgess.
As erudite as Hunt is, and as careful his research, “Neverhome” casts the powerful spell of fiction, hurtling its reader into “the stripped and battle-burned land” as lyrically as the best war novels. Hunt, 46, a University of Denver professor in Boulder, Col., won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award last year for “Kind One,” a slavery-shadowed story anchored on a Kentucky pig farm. (He will return to Northeast Ohio to speak about “Neverhome” at 7 p.m., Tuesday, September 23 to the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.)
Hunt has a gift for rural voices and rural ways, and for teleporting us into the mid-19th century American landscape. The thrill of “Neverhome” is akin to the one Robert Olmstead delivered in “Coal Black Horse,” and, like Olmstead’s, the cadences of Ash Thompson can be almost Biblical:
“Nor did I, nor any of those around me I am proud to say, slow down when the cannon fire grew so hot it seemed like the injury was already being done to us before we had fairly arrived and that we were already part of the world’s everlasting grief and glory, and we could see the trees crashing down destroyed in the heights and hear the sound, from all quarters, of hurt men letting the air out of their throats.”
The reader, mesmerized, swallows whole that singular beautiful sentence. There are many others. The vocabulary in “Neverhome” is perfect – plain and strange and tuned as true as a pitch fork. Hunt is a student of stories and story-telling, and he mixes fable and song into “Neverhome,” even more than he did in “Kind One.”
And though “Neverhome” is not about slavery, the peculiar institution casts its evil pall here. Ash comes upon bloody shackles in an abandoned shack, and later a dilapidated gallows near “a old slave-selling emporium.” Cross-dressing affords Ash some life-saving trickery, and it provides Hunt some plot twists that feel proto-contemporary. Hunt is interested in the human mysteries – one being sex. Another is aggression, and the damage the aggressor does to self in the pursuit of another’s blood and pain.
So Hunt, like Homer, sets his protagonist on a road to war. She, like the Greek king, is cunning. She, like he, is captured. Song is made of their stories and so is woe. Eventually, Odysseus returns after long years to Ithaca.
In this spare, splendid novel, readers will burn to know if Ash Thompson can find her way home.
While Laird Huntwas in Cleveland for the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf ceremony, we managed to nab him for a brief interview during his busy day of press and pre-show preparation. Hunt was honored for Kind One, his 2012 novel that explores oppression on a rural Kentucky pig farm. (In interviews he often reveals that the idea for the book came from a nugget in another Anisfield-Wolf winner’s work—Edward P. Jones‘ The Known World.) Find out how Hunt reacted when he got the call from Dr. Gates and what he thinks the award means to his career moving forward.
Laird Hunt is the author of five novels and one short story collection. His latest book, Kind One, won the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction. In a video interview with Rain Taxi, Hunt describes being moved by a short passage in Edward P. Jones‘ The Known World, which prompted him to start writing Kind One:
“He describes this anecdote about a woman who lives in this imaginary county he’s constructed, who lives with her husband and two female slaves. One day the husband comes up dead and the slaves turn the tables on her and enslave her in turn. And then it’s over and never mentioned again. But I got really interested in what would happen if this woman, many years later, describes what happens, with the idea of placing her voice somewhere in the slippery middle between victim and oppressor.”
Watch the full interview here:
Kind One was also a 2013 finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Hunt lives in Colorado with his wife, poet Eleni Sikelianos, and daughter. (Fun fact: Hunt was helping his daughter with a project on Martin Luther King Jr when he received the call that he had won the Anisfield-Wolf award.) He is currently on the faculty of the University of Denver’s Creative Writing Program.
“The 2013 Anisfield-Wolf winners are exemplars who broaden our vision of race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, there is exceptional writing about the war in Iraq, slavery on a Kentucky pig farm, the Filipino experience in the U.S., and the complexity of families in which a child is radically different from parents.”
Gates directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. He praised the singular achievement of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian whose writing won a Nobel prize in 1986, three years after he won an Anisfield-Wolf award for his memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood.
Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronald B. Richard said this year’s winners reflect founder Edith Anisfield Wolf’s belief in the unifying power of the written word.
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards rose from the philanthropic vision of one woman who realized that literature could advance the ongoing dialogue about race, culture, ethnicity, and our shared humanity,” Richard said.
The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored in Cleveland Sept. 12 at a ceremony at the Ohio Theatre hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. Stay tuned this week as we profile each of our 2013 winners.