Watch Our New Jury Honor Our Class of 2024 In This Announcement Video


by Lisa Nielson

A colleague at the Cleveland Council on World Affairs generously nominated me for a professional exchange, sponsored by World Learning, that has me packing my bags for India.

But what about books? How do I prepare for my first visit to a place with over 4,000 years of history? While I’ve lived in Jerusalem and Damascus – no slouches in the antiquity department – the weight of time and the linguistic, environmental and cultural diversity of India are daunting. Armed with a list of helpful articles and suggested reading from the marvelous program director at World Learning, Dianne Neville, I went to the public library.

Because I’m a medievalist, everything past the 17th century is distressingly recent. My association with the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards helps me remember that the modern and contemporary are not foreign countries. The Anisfield-Wolf canon speaks with the past without flinching. It has helped me gaze directly at the present.

The Association of Small Bombs

  • The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan is my first stop in the present. A 2017 Anisfield-Wolf book award winner for fiction, Mahajan’s novel tracks the aftermath of a marketplace bombing in New Delhi. The novel begins with the statement “A good bombing begins everywhere at once.” Readers learn a Kashmir dissident has detonated the device and that a Muslim and Hindu family are irrevocably damaged. Tender, brutal and often wildly funny, the story follows the aftermath through the perspectives of the victims, survivors, families and the bombers themselves. Mahajan sheds light on religious tensions, politics, bureaucracy and corruption, making this novel a thoughtful companion to Katherine Boo’s journalistic masterpiece Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

  • Incarnations: A History of India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani (2016, Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This fascinating book traces India’s history through the lens of 50 people, some important historical figures, others obscure to me. I’ve met new poets, artists, musicians, scientists and religious figures. Sunil deftly wraps each story within a contemporary context – how a state continues to revere a certain figure, the religious implication of another – giving even the most ancient figures relevance. Khilnani, a scholar best known for The Idea of India, has inspired me to find and tackle the poetry of Basava (12th century), Kabir (15th century) and Mirabai (Meera, 16th century), who wandered North India singing love songs to Krishna.

  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012, Random House) by Katherine Boo. This much-honored book won a Pulitzer Prize and has been sitting on my mental “must-read” list for a year. Boo spent many years following the fortunes of the residents of Annawadi, a ramshackle settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels ringing the Mumbai airport. An American who won a MacArthur genius grant before writing this first book, Boo is masterful at seeing what so many Westerners would miss in the enterprising teen trash-picker, the girl who is managing to attend college, the slum-landlords and duplicitous nuns.

  • The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin Press, 2009) by Wendy Doniger. This title, recommended by a friend, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and represents the life’s work of a leading scholar on Hinduism. (Khilnani references her work as well.) As India grapples with the religion’s growing power within its contemporary politics, this fat book is timely. Doniger explores the intersection of the historical record with mythological worlds, examining Hinduism’s classic resistance to standardization. She considers how Sanskrit and vernacular sources are rich in knowledge of women and lower castes, and how animals are key to important shifts in religious attitudes.
  • Kama Sutra, Bhagavad Gita, sections of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Puranas, Laws of Manu. I’ll reacquaint myself with these beautiful foundational works as essential preparation for my travels.

Finally, my group will visit Lucknow, which was the center of a sophisticated courtesan culture well into the 19th century. I can’t wait. In my class on the courtesan, I teach Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Rusva (a pseudonym). One of the first novels written in Urdu, it follows the life of a fictitious Lucknow courtesan Umrao Jan. Steeped in lush images of the loves and tragedies of a courtesan life, Umrao Jan Ada immerses the reader in the social intricacies of Lucknow in the 19th century. (There are two wonderful Bollywood films, too.) The British shattered Lucknow’s culture in 1857 in defeating the Sepoy Mutiny, which was partly bankrolled by local courtesans. Rusva paints the effects of that history and colonialism well.

Lisa Nielson is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studies, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.

The Lavender Graduation is an annual celebration that occurs on numerous campuses across the country, where graduating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and allied students are formally recognized and celebrated for their accomplishments. Last month, Anisfield-Wolf SAGE Fellow Lisa Nielson was honored during Case Western Reserve University’s ceremony with the Prizm Award, which honors faculty and staff members significant contribution to the LGBTQ+ community. Her acceptance speech is reprinted here with permission. 

In thinking about what I wanted to say this evening, I naturally gravitated to my identity as a teacher and scholar. To be effective as both, one also needs to be a storyteller. We connect to information and one another through our own experiences and the shared experience of learning. As a result, I see my role as not only teaching content, but to help students read, write and speak critically, and through that process enter the broader world conversation through their own stories. Apparently, my superpower is also to inspire guilt so they write their papers.

The stories I usually tell are funny, peppered with anecdotes about the colorful members of my family. I grew up in the LGBT community and the gay rights movement of the ’80s and ’90s. Whenever I enter a room and say “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” my students chuckle. Yet, when they ask me about my history and experiences, I give them a true but often carefully curated answer. I don’t want them to be discouraged by the dark things. What it meant to be raised by a mentally and physically disabled, queer, single parent.

At the recent “Faces of Immigration” program put on by the Muslim Student Association, I decided to tell a few of the other, less funny stories. After, one of my former students asked why I didn’t do that more often, as hearing my experiences might help students connect to the material I teach, and me. It never occurred to me they would want to know, or if it would even be appropriate to tell them.

My activist parents raised me to believe that gender was relative and everyone is bisexual. I didn’t know other people weren’t bisexual or didn’t believe the same thing until I hit puberty. For example, when I was about 6, I asked my parents if it were possible for men to marry men and women to marry women. We had been living for years in a house with a lesbian couple, Andy and Marietta, so it was a reasonable question. After a series of quick, furtive looks, my parents said, “Of course.” Satisfied that my options were indeed as open as hoped, I accepted that as truth.

When I was 13, my mother came out as a lesbian. She couched it in great ceremony, sitting me down and saying, with much gravity: “Sweetie, I’m gay.” My answer was something sensitive like, “So what else is new?” undoubtedly wrecking the moment. She had been hanging out at a bar called the Pussy Cat Club, seeing a great lesbian therapist, and was functioning again. I was happy she was happy. Yet, I knew that I couldn’t talk about my mother being gay outside the LGBT community. We could lose our home, she could lose her job, and I could be taken away by the authorities. “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” was not just a rallying cry; it was revolutionary. It was dangerous.

I wore my Lavender Menace t-shirt, Stop Heterosexism pin, and pink and black triangles all through high school. (This was before the rainbow.) I read Dykes to Watch Out For, Hothead Paizan, Audre Lorde. When my mom thought I might be having sex with, well, somebody, she gave me a copy of Lesbian Sex. It had a lurid pink cover with two bodies intertwined, and she handed it to me with the instruction to “just insert different parts as needed.” I was terrified to even open it and put it as far away from my bed as possible. My friends loved it, however, and probably read it cover to cover.

Our lives centered around women and the lesbian community. They gathered in our house for feminist meditation and Wicca, we went to their farms for bland vegetarian potlucks and midnight skinny dipping. In college, I participated in the first Coming Out Day and proudly marched in the first pride march in Bangor, Maine. Although the women around me were disappointed I seemingly preferred men at the time, they accepted me unconditionally. Sandra and Kath, Kathy, Deo, Melanie, Sandy: these were the women who took me to get my driving license, baked cakes for my birthdays, showed up at my concerts, gave me jobs, and helped when my mother was ill. They were – and are – my family.

As I grapple with this political moment and my bewilderment of how we got here, I have reflected more on the experiences that form me, and when I have been complicit in the system by keeping silent. As activists in the 80s and 90s said “silence=death” and we must again be vocal. The lesson I learned from my family is that my stories not just about me, but the people and community that raised me. They are my home. That we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.

Thank you.

Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studies, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.

The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards will expand its reach in 2015 with the addition of a second scholar at Case Western Reserve University teaching about racism and the awards literature, starting in the fall.  The Cleveland University posted a description of the fellowship this month.

The individual who is hired will join Dr. Lisa Nielson, a pioneering partner to the book awards. She has been instrumental in bringing Anisfield-Wolf literature into the university canon. A classically-trained musician and scholar, Nielson has won major grants and two university teaching awards since she became the first Anisfield-Wolf SAGES scholar in the fall of 2011.

Her success has bred much success: students who take multiple courses from her, and who have completed original research on some of the writers awarded the prize in the past 80 years. Nielson holds a “bad movie night” for students and ad hoc discussion sessions on Friday afternoons.

In 2014, Nielson wrote a moving essay about her work in the classroom during the last three years, admitting that teaching about racism keeps her up at night:

Listening to my students, I find a generation that thinks creatively about politics, gender, race, sexualities.  They consume music and media differently than I do and express themselves in new ways. Their desire for inclusion and capacity for acceptance astonishes me; they inspire me to think more fluidly about myself. They have changed me profoundly as a teacher and as a human being. 

Edith Anisfield Wolf created the book awards to recognize literature dedicated to fostering conversations about tolerance and cultural acceptance. Through these books and my students, I am constantly working to hear what I think was her real message: Listen.

By Lisa Nielson, Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow

Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studes, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.

In the fall of 2013, during the first week of my first-year college seminar, “Reading Social Justice: The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards,” the students and I read Rita Dove’s haunting poem Trayvon, Redux.

As we discussed the poem and the killing of Trayvon Martin,one of the students stated, “Everyone is racist.” There was an immediate uproar. Perhaps I should have intervened, but I wanted to hear what the group had to say. Several students related startling stories of racial and gender discrimination, told casually because such experiences were almost routine: Being profiled at the airport.  Placed “accidentally” into the remedial or honors class by high school teachers based on their ethnicity.  Propositioned by strange men with “yellow fever.”

Others talked about stereotypes related to being bi-cultural or agonized about their privilege. Questions like “What kind of Asian are you?” and observations like “Your English is really good” were familiar to many.  It was incredible to hear such honest reports of these young lives even as my heart was breaking.

I am obsessed with identity.  What makes us who we are? How are those choices mediated by family, friends, and society at large? Growing up in an educated, activist family molded my politics towards social justice, yet the rootlessness of our lives also generated bone-deep fear. Where did I fit in the world? Like many Americans, I am a cultural and ethnic hybrid. I use my ambiguity purposefully in the classroom, as it is difficult to tell “what” I am. My mother is Egyptian and Finnish, adopted into a family that so violently denied their Jewish heritage, they changed their name and converted to a militant Christianity. My father is mostly of Norwegian extraction, raised partially in England and later Washington, DC by my linguist grandfather and activist grandmother. Which identity was appropriate?  Who was my community?

Locating community, I have always believed, is a powerful avenue on the road to social change. We do not have to like or fully understand one another to build bridges, but we do need to have the blocks upon which to build. The books honored by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards become some of those blocks, made out of the interstitial places between communities. The prizes have been quietly establishing vital connections for nearly 80 years. As the Anisfield-Wolf Fellow to the SAGES (Seminar Approach to General Education Scholarship) program at Case Western Reserve University, I’ve had the privilege not only of being connected to the awards, but to engage questions of identity and change with talented and diverse students.

The classes I teach are related to my own research, including a course on the courtesan, the harem, and world slavery. In all my classes, we read widely, listen to music, discuss taxonomies of gender and sexualities, and confront racism, religious assumptions and social class. I ask the students to craft their own definitions for tolerance, acceptance, diversity, and gender; challenge them to see “discovery” and “progress” through different lenses. We use the board to map stereotypes that underscore our cultural fears and study the continued justifications for dehumanization, slavery, and racism.

Last year, I taught the first class at Case Western Reserve University focused on Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winning books and authors. It grew out of discussions and collaboration with Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards and Arthur Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars program at CWRU. In this class, the students initiated the conversation about their identities and how society responds to difference. I had to fight my instinct to offer platitudes or attempt to shelter them.

The next time we met, I thanked them for their honesty and gave them some of my own. I affirmed that we live in a culture of institutionalized racism, sexism, classism and homophobia, and these systems color everything we do, think and see. We must confront the edifice of what Ta-Nehisi Coates recently (and rightfully) called the foundation of white supremacy in the United States, and, arguably, the world.  We need to stop justifying our past, and instead bear witness and listen. If we could do so with compassion, respect and acceptance, even when we ourselves feel threatened or ashamed, then we will start to inhabit change. Using Anisfield-Wolf books as their workshop, that is precisely what the students created over the course of the semester. They instituted their own community of change.

When I am asked how I teach in this arena and why, I experience an acute sense of panic.  There is no clear answer. Why do I teach things that keep me up at night?  Because I am part of the system. I am culpable. And I’m absolutely furious that my young, brilliant students are regularly degraded by racism, sexism, religious intolerance and homophobia. What is different in my approach? Are my materials different?  Do I use clever assignments or cutting edge technology? What I do is I stop talking. Every morning, before each class, group and meeting, every night, I tell myself: “Stop. Listen. It’s not you, it’s about them.” I try to hear the ideas and experiences of my students and meet them where they are in their lives.

Listening to my students, I find a generation that thinks creatively about politics, gender, race, sexualities.  They consume music and media differently than I do and express themselves in new ways. Their desire for inclusion and capacity for acceptance astonishes me; they inspire me to think more fluidly about myself. They have changed me profoundly as a teacher and as a human being.

Edith Anisfield Wolf created the book awards to recognize literature dedicated to fostering conversations about tolerance and cultural acceptance. Through these books and my students, I am constantly working to hear what I think was her real message: Listen.

In the harem, women did not go naked. Nor did they wear flimsy, see-through harem pants.

Despite the panting Western imagination, so memorably examined by Edward Said in his 1978 book “Orientalism,” the classic Western fantasy of the harem never existed in fact, reports Lisa Nielson, the Anisfield-Wolf scholar at Case Western Reserve University.

“The harem is the symbol of the Orient – women lounging, indolent, beautiful, passive objects,” Nielson said during an October lecture on “Improvisation and Transgression: Musicians of the Harem,” given for the Baker-Nord Center on Humanities at Case.

In the artistic imagination of Western painters, harems contained reliable tropes: feathers, the hookah, an exotic despot, unclothed women and often musicians. “Clothes are a sign of status, and playing musical instruments and smoking while naked is actually not that comfortable,” joked Nielson, who teaches a SAGES course on the women’s quarters in history and in the Western imagination.

Perhaps the Western nonsense reached its nadir, she said, in the 1965 Elvis Presley vehicle, “Harum Scarum.” This movie, in which Presley plays an American singer enlisted by sinister forces in the assassination of an Arab king whose daughter he loves, is so dreadful that Nielson said she “bought it for a dollar and I paid too much.”

Nielson stressed that there is much to discover about the historical harem, which is only one specific form of gender segregation among many. Such segregation is found in the Bible, ancient Greece, China, Korea, India, and Europe. The word “harem” as a reference to the women’s quarters is specific to Ottoman Empire; other cultures had different terms and rules for these spaces. Moreover, Nielson noted, “the women of the women’s quarters were highly educated, skilled, and, often quite ruthless.”

The role of the musician was one of entertainer and intermediary in the harem, reports Nielson, who earned her doctorate in ancient musicology and gender studies. As in the West, there was a struggle in Islam over whether music stirs indecency or represents a pathway to the divine. “In the West, angels play music and intercede for us,” Nielson observed. “Music itself is the intermediary. Among Sufis, music was a way of getting closer to God. Therefore, the musician, who was frequently a highly skilled member of the women’s quarters, had access to the ruler’s body and soul.”

We are very far from harem pants, indeed.

Lisa Nielson, Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Case Western Reserve University’s SAGES program, was profiled in the Plain Dealer’s “My Cleveland” column. In it, she talked about the ease of Northeast Ohio compared to her previous stint in New England and her favorite way to spend time outside of the classroom. Previously on the blog, Lisa shared her thoughts on David Livingstone Smith’s Less Than Human and how it changed her curriculum.

By Lisa Nielson, Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow

Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studes, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.

I was introduced to “Less than Human” last fall when I had the pleasure of hearing David Livingstone Smith speak at the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony and at Case Western Reserve University the next day. His presentation was riveting, and I felt myself vacillating between awe at the breadth of his work and shock at the horror of what humanity has done through dehumanization.

Judging from the taut silence as the awards audience of 800 heard Smith speak, they had a similar reaction. Listeners occasionally gasped as Smith told the story of Ota Benga, a Batwa (“pygmy”) tribesman, who was bought from a slave merchant in what was then called the Congo Free State and put on exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.

Eventually, Benga was put on display at the newly opened Bronx Zoo, sharing a cage with an orangutan. Black clergy protested, and, “buckling under the pressure of controversy, zoo authorities released Ota Benga from his cage, and allowed him to wander freely around the zoo, where jeering crowds pursued him,” Smith said.

The story ends with Benga succumbing to madness, and putting a bullet through his own heart.

In reflecting on this anecdote and the book, I was struck by Smith’s observation that for all that has been written about genocide, war, and dehumanization, little scholarship centers on why and how. Why have we not studied this process? Does our discomfort prevent us? Or are we afraid of what we might find?

Using an interdisciplinary approach, Smith not only goes into the philosophical and historical development of modes of dehumanization, but how religion, science and biology have been used to bolster both the practice and justification of demeaning others. By delving into how humans identify and react to difference, he also reflects on the cognitive and emotional processes we use.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for me was his inclusion of research into human biology, cognitive science and the animal world.  His synthesis of the biologic and psychological impulses behind our ability to dehumanize in comparison to similar species, such as chimpanzees, made a great deal of uncomfortable sense. He finds: 1) we are biologically wired to categorize strangers as “other”, 2) because of our propensity to order our world according to our perception of kinds and essences, there is a definable process we adhere to when categorizing who is “us” and “not us,” 3) as a result, we are all capable of extreme violence or cruelty given the right push, and 4) we are unique in the animal kingdom for so doing.

Smith doesn’t stop there. He confronts us with the reality that perpetrators of genocide are not outliers or “monsters” but often just like us. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil,” he points out that we all have the capability to dehumanize, and argues that we must work to recognize and refute these impulses if we are to rise above them. Since these are complex social and psychological constructs, the same ability that allows us to dehumanize can also help us overcome our innate, and arguably submerged, hard-wired reactions to difference.

The evidence Smith uses to craft his theory shows that our propensity to dehumanization comes out of a complex of biology, social pressure, psychology around real and perceived danger, politics, and propaganda. Yet, our ability to reflect and make the better choice offers some hope for change.  Such change, however, requires effort. As Smith notes in his conclusion, we have barely tried.

As the first Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow, I have worked to incorporate explorations of race and diversity into my teaching. When I designed a class on world slavery, it allowed me to introduce books that have won the prize. This spring, I added Smith’s book to my reading list, and began the first week of class with his chapter on slavery, “The Rhetoric of Enmity.”

Student reaction has been profound. The students immediately took to his ideas and incorporated them into their essays and final projects. Some have offered insightful critiques and suggestions for expanding on his theory, while others have used his ideas as a basis from which to interrogate past and present constructions of race, class, sexuality and gender.

Though Smith doesn’t focus specifically on slave systems or gender in “Less than Human,” his outline of the process of dehumanization has changed the way I think about and teach slavery. Is slavery inherently a dehumanizing process, through the fact of being owned? Are there slave systems where this is not the case?  How can dehumanization be applied to issues of gender and sexuality? And, in considering the continuation of dehumanization tactics today: What more can I do to help my students critically assess the social and cultural messages they receive?

If we accept that we are all prone to certain kinds of essentialist thinking, it is vital that we give students every tool to challenge their own assumptions, and to listen empathetically to others. This type of intellectual discipline takes a lot of effort, and we need people who can and are willing to do the work. My students at Case have that will and ability, and they inspire me to hope.