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.
Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) riders can now enjoy an even closer view of world-class art inspired by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards cannon as Phase II of INTER|URBAN was unveiled as part of Cleveland Book Week 2018.
Completed ahead of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the first phase of INTER|URBAN included murals, photographs and installations along the train tracks of the RTA’s Red Line, which connects downtown Cleveland with Hopkins International Airport to the west, and University Circle to the east.
This second phase of the project brings the art onboard the train cars, giving riders a more intimate and prolonged interaction with the art. We’re proud to have supported INTER|URBAN, a collaboration between the RTA, LAND Studio, and the Cleveland Foundation.
For Phase II, 25 artists – most of whom call Northeast Ohio home – were chosen from more than 200 applicants to create works inspired by five Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners: The Negro Speaks of Rivers, by Langston Hughes; The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson; The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies; Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon and The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman. Their art has been installed on 25 Red Line train cars.
If you haven’t already, we encourage you to ride the Red Line and experience INTER|URBAN for yourself. Learn more about the project in this short film, which premiered to the audience at the 83rd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Ceremony on September 27:
In 1970, Harvey Milk, a boisterous, restless New Yorker, turned 40 without a sense of having accomplished much. But in the handful of years that remained to him, Milk moved to San Francisco and remade American politics and identity.
Posthumously, his grin landed on a postage stamp, and the U.S. Navy, in which he served, is scheduled in 2021 to christen a logistics ship after him. Even before these two honors, Barack Obama in 2009 awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying, with a smile, “His name was Harvey Milk, and he was here to recruit us – all of us – to join a movement and change a nation.”
Obama was slyly riffing on Milk’s political catch-phrase – “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you!” – itself a clever subversion of the long-standing hysteria that gays sought to recruit straights into their beds.
But beneath these accumulating accolades was a complex man, writes historian Lillian Faderman in her elegant and informative new biography, Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death.
In her opening sentence, Faderman calls him “charismatic, eloquent, a wit and a smart aleck,” who was “one of the first openly gay men to be elected to any political office anywhere.” A year before his 1978 assassination, Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the city’s legislative council.
Faderman, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2016 for The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, is well-positioned to contextualize Milk’s life, or, as she sees it, his many lives: a macho high-school jock, a Navy deep-sea diver, a high school math teacher, a Wall Street securities analyst who leafletted for Barry Goldwater, an actor, a hippie, an associate producer, a gofer for a Broadway celebrity, a businessman and in mid-life, a progressive politician.
“For Harvey, being in politics was much like being in the theater,” Faderman writes. “His old Broadway pal Tom O’Horgan understood that: ‘Harvey spent all his life looking for a stage,’ Tom would later say, “and when he moved to San Francisco, he found it.”
This biography, a crisp 283 pages, is the latest entry in the much-honored Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press. Faderman knits Milk’s Jewish identity – his grandfather was a Yiddish-speaking peddler who emigrated from Lithuania – with his politics on behalf of the oppressed, from championing rent control to San Francisco’s disinvestment from apartheid South Africa.
And like his contemporary Philip Roth, who grew up in a suburban section of Jewish Newark, Milk’s childhood in his mother’s kosher house on Long Island was marinated in American Jewish identity.
The same photo used on the postage stamp graces the cover of Faderman’s book. It shows Milk in 1977 standing outside his Castro Street camera store. His tie is flipping over in the breeze, a campaign button nestles on his tweed lapel, his eyes hooded, his smile jaunty and – viewed from this century – slightly beatific.
With her signature meticulous research, Faderman reconstructs Milk’s life through interviews, unpublished documents, letters and archives. In clean, declarative sentences, she paints a fascinating portrait of a man who had real enemies, real sadness and an irreverent joie de vivre.
When Milk and his partner Scott Smith signed a lease in 1973 on the spot for their camera store, they hung a placard in their Castro St. window: “We are VERY open.” In their apartment, Milk placed in the window a lavender-leafed Wandering Jew, a symbol that he and Smith had found a home.
Such details animate Faderman’s book. During Milk’s first quixotic run for the Board of Supervisors, “the San Francisco Examiner featured a picture of him that made him look like a weird cross between a hippie and a Hasid, with long sideburns that could be mistaken for peyas.”
Milk actually printed the word “soap” on a wooden box and held forth from atop it in a little plaza on Castro Street. Legendary newspaper columnist Herb Caen quipped that Milk “was running for Supervisor on the homo ticket, and I don’t mean homogenized.”
From these unpromising beginnings, Milk doggedly moved from the fringes to the center of municipal power. “His energy had no limit.”
As with “The Gay Revolution,” Faderman has provided the general reader a marvelous, new, definitive text, the first biography of Milk with footnotes. In a political era when the democratic institutions of the United States are stressed, it is illuminating to read a careful account of one complicated, flawed and exceptionally brave man who used them to advance justice.
A few months before fellow-Supervisor Dan White stalked and shot Milk dead, Harvey Milk made a tape recording. “If a bullet should enter my brain,” he said, “let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
by Lisa Nielson,Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University.
I was taking an internet break from my pile of books in the National Library of Jerusalem this summer when a news article caught my eye. It reported the Jerusalem Pride Parade was going to kick off in about four hours — at 6 p.m. July 21, 2016 — in a park not far from where I was living. A year earlier, an ultra-orthodox fanatic stabbed six people at the march. One of the victims, Shira Banki, was 16 when she died. This time, the police were taking no chances. They blocked streets so participants could only join from certain points; they kept counter-protesters off the parade route and they prevented the family of the young girl’s killer from coming to Jerusalem.
I walked home, put on my purple “LGBT? Fine with Me!” shirt and joined the thin stream of people picking a way through the twisting back alleys and side streets of modern Jerusalem to reach the start. A crowd milled, waiting to go through security. Later I learned the organizers ran out of wrist bands. As I stepped into the park I found hundreds of people – shouting over pounding pop music, greeting friends, hoisting signs, draping flags. Some wore drag; some wore wings, some wore not much, but everyone seemed busy taking pictures with their phones. There were families with babies, soldiers in uniform, and visitors from outside Israel like myself.
My mother came out as a lesbian when I was 13. She did so at one of the toughest and most confusing times of her life, in conservative Salt Lake City. I remember being incredibly proud of her, yet too young to understand the importance of her decision. So my mom liked to sleep with women? Big deal.
Nevertheless, I found out we were not safe. Authorities might take me away from her; she could lose her job. Even worse, she could also be forcibly hospitalized. We knew a lesbian, I’ll call her Susan, who called a confidential hotline one night in desperation. The hotline worker called the police. We took care of her daughter while hospital staff gave her intensive drug and electro-shock therapy. Not long after her discharge, Susan killed herself – I never learned what happened to her child.
As the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case, I read each new crop of winning books, and this spring I was especially thrilled to find Lillian Faderman’s book, The Gay Revolution, on the list. It was enlightening, sorrowful and uplifting. I had grown up in the movement and yet there was much I didn’t know.
At 16, I had the pink triangle on my bag, a “Stop Heterosexism” pin on my hat, and was reading Audre Lorde. While in college, I helped carry the banner in the first Pride Parade in my tiny town of Bangor Maine, and participated in early local meetings of PFLAG. I was vocal supporting my LGBT friends and celebrating National Coming Out Day when it was still new. At times, I was harassed or criticized for my stance; others simply assumed I was a lesbian and dismissed me. Both responses taught me a great deal, as well as my own privileged position.
I am not a lesbian.
Like all the other identities in my life, I skirt close to the edge without being part of any. My mother laughingly called me her “heterodyke” and a number of women in the community were interested in me, but I turned out to be (perhaps disappointingly) straight. It didn’t matter to my LGBT community at all, which taught me another valuable lesson about tolerance and acceptance.
As I wavered about joining the Jerusalem Pride parade that afternoon in the library, I thought about my personal history and the historical weight of Faderman’s book. But it was the notion of my students that decided me. What would they like to see? How could I bring this experience into the classroom?
Yet, as I joined the crowd, I realized I was there for a wholly different reason. This was my community. I needed to be there, for me. As we started to march, I started to cry, and the tension of two months of intense work in an armed city began to ease. I held out my phone so I could film every second. Sure, I took pictures for others, but to be honest, it was all for me.
Some 6,000 miles from my apartment in Cleveland, I had arrived home.
Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University.
From the Playhouse Square stage, Lillian Faderman began her acceptance of this year’s nonfiction award with a story of how she discovered she won. After Faderman received an email from jury chair Henry Louis Gates requesting her phone number, her wife Phyllis Irwin remarked that he must be soliciting support for the Hilary Clinton campaign.
Neither considered that he would be reaching out to tell her she had won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf prize for The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle. The skepticism was appropriate, Faderman remarked: “In the past, writers of LGBTQ history have seldom been recognized outside of our community as worthy of awards. So I’m doubly grateful to the AW jury for believing the time has come to regard LGBTQ history as part of American history.”
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the busyness of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is Faderman’s reflection on what the award means to her:
When Lillian Faderman spoke at the City Club of Cleveland this September, she ably distilled her ample Anisfield-Wolf winning history, “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle,” into a half-hour presentation with 20 minutes of questions. Her audience was diverse, and several members expressed awe over a 76-year-old pioneer who came out as a lesbian in 1956.
Among the listeners were 14 young adults enrolled in a seminar on philanthropy in America — all first-year students at Case Western Reserve University.
“Lillian Faderman has long been a hero of mine and her work has informed my own research on early modern women,” said their professor, Barbara Burgess-Van Aken. She called her decision to bring the class “a shamelessly selfish choice which I justified by thinking that I would be giving students exposure to a different sort of nonprofit organization. Little did I realize that Lillian’s topic would spark so much passion among my students.”
Here are snippets of their responses:
One aspect of her talk that I was very interested in was the transition of the movement from being secretive and submissive to being loud and determined. It was very interesting to hear about the secret groups LGBT members would form. Prior to today, I had a vague knowledge of the history of the LGBT movement, but I did not know many of the actual details. It is pretty amazing to see how small acts of bravery here and there soon led to marches and riots.
It was surprising to hear, however, that people can be fired due to their sexual orientation. I most certainly could believe this to be true years ago, but I was not expecting it to still be true. —Claire Nordt
Lillian Faderman’s speech felt more like having a conversation with a person than listening to a scripted talk. —David Kerrigan
One aspect that I enjoyed was that she went through the very early stages of the LGBT revolution. It surprised me that people back in the 1950s would rather be called communist than gay. I know this was during the McCarthy era where it was very, very dangerous to be communist, which made it even more surprising. I like how she did not just tell us this information, but she illustrated it with statistics, evidence, and anecdotes.—Karthik Ravichandran
My visit to the Cleveland City Club and Lillian Faderman’s talk was very enlightening. I actually was hesitant about the course that the talk would take; I didn’t know if it would be a boring speech that would go on a tangent rant, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was a very intellectual and heartfelt speech. —Hemen Aklilu
Ms. Faderman has obviously gone through a lot in her lifetime and it is amazing that she has had the courage and will to do all the work she has to help educate so many people on gay rights. Her presentation was very professional but at the same time very personable.—Kyle Lewis
The City Club of Cleveland hosted an honest and ethical ceremony where the voices of many were summed up by one incredible woman who has done her best to engage, educate, and empower those who listen to her to recognize the hardships that this community has faced and to realize all that there is left to go to truly free these people.—Jacqueline Abraham
Lillian Faderman’s speech was both informative and incredibly interesting. I personally did not know much about the history of gay rights and learned a lot from the experience. It really saddens me that United States history has so much bigotry ingrained in it. We are not really educated about the history of gay rights. In high school, I learned about African Americans’ struggle for equal rights, Native Americans’ plight involving the taking over of their land, and the racism Hispanics face. Never did I learn about the LBGTQ struggle. It is absolutely appalling to me that this demographic received so much hate.—Michael Rowland
Perhaps my favorite question that was asked was about what the proper terms to reference the gay community were. There are so many things out there and it’s hard to know as an outsider what the majority prefers. It can be extremely hard to follow and her response about both gay and LGBT being acceptable was very helpful. It was nice to see her take a light-hearted approach about the acronyms and how many there are to this day. — Anna Goff
I very much enjoyed Lillian Faderman’s idea that the black power movement of the 1960s inspired the gay rights movement to rise up and take action. I had never thought of this connection before, so it was interesting to hear her perspective on it and the influence she believes it has…. In general I was a little disappointed that she didn’t talk about the AIDS epidemic in more detail because personally I feel that it was a large part of the gay rights movement in the twentieth century. To her benefit however, someone did ask a question based on AIDS, which gave her a chance to say how important it was to the struggle for civil rights. —Claire Howard
The most interesting thing at this event was whether or not queer people should be considered a minority group. Some people think that gay people are not minorities because there is only one simple difference that divides them from the rest of this heteronormative society. But wouldn’t that be the case for all minority groups? We are humans with variations in race, nationality, ability, etc. These things are just simple differences like sexuality. People are not in a minority group because they feel like they are oppressed. They are in these groups because they are oppressed. Any minority group, whether it be queer or disabled people, has to try harder in order to succeed in a society that does not acknowledge their human rights. —Mya Cox
I have spoken at a Rotary Club event, and it was much more informal and simple. This event almost seemed like a small-scale TED talk to me. Upon looking at Ms. Faderman, I expected a serious, bland, but informative speech. Instead, Ms. Faderman was light-hearted, charismatic, and very informative in her speech. She started by saying, “I am going to recap my 800+ page book in a 30 minute talk.” Rather than spitting facts or quotes from her novel, she took the listeners on a trip through the history and important events of the LGBT fight.—Rohith Koneru
Faderman also mentioned that a lot of hate came from the religious side of things. Now I cannot deny that a lot of those against the LGBT community have association with religion but I was raised Catholic and believe in that faith. I went through Catholic schooling from preschool all the way through high school and not once was a taught to hate the LGBT community.—Jeremy Hill
One other notable topic I liked was her discussion of the media portrayal of gay men as rapists and lesbians as killers. While those no longer exist in the media today, the stereotypes of gays being pedophiles and the like still exist, and TV shows and movies hardly portray LGBT characters at all, and those that do usually make a huge deal out of them. ..
A final note was that I loved the picture of Frank Kameny shaking hands with President Obama in the Oval Office because in that one picture and that one gesture, the viewer is able to see just how far the gay rights movement has come and the progress that has been made towards true equality.—Tom Schlechter
Everyone–both pro or anti LGBT–could feel the passion and struggle of the community and actually sympathize with them. I do feel like I have learned something new about the community’s struggle and the fracture it encountered on a whole another level. I respected her passion and dedication to something she truly believed in even though it has been a long hard brutal fight until this point.
As a gay male, the whole presentation affected me on an emotional level. Also, I was pleased that she was not dismissive of other cultures and opinions, which a lot of people tend to do, but instead focused more on the story of the LGBT individuals. Generally, people have a tendency to make their group seem better than others, but Faberman was very respectful towards those of other groups. —Karthik Ravichandran
We have to work hard to make sure everyone has equal rights. The fact that people are still being discriminated against is terrible. We need to band together and change this. —Michael Rowland
Following in our tradition, each of our winners will speak at the awards ceremony, and each will talk and read separately in a second, more intimate setting in Northeast Ohio. Mark your calendars and make plans to join us in September for a string of these illuminating events, designed to bring readers and winners into each other’s orbits.
Mary Morris, The Jazz Palace South Euclid-Lyndhurst Branch, along with jazz pianist Jackie Warren and jazz trumpeter Kenny Davis
Cuyahoga County Public Library Wednesday, September 14
Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle “A Very Long and (Almost) Victorious Battle: The Struggle for Gay Civil Rights”
The City Club of Cleveland Friday, September 16, noon Register here