Poet and novelist Louise Erdrich, wiping tears from her eyes, accepted the National Book Critics Circle Award Thursday night for her latest work, LaRose, before a cheering audience at New York’s New School auditorium.
LaRose tells of two families linked by tragedy, based on a story Erdrich heard about a gun accident long ago. “And of course the story was only two lines long: ‘A man killed a boy. The man gave up his son to be raised by the other family,’ “Erdrich told Kirkus Reviews. “I never thought I’d write about it, but the story stayed with me.”
The book is “an arresting, discerning, nimble novel that takes the entirety of Native American history in its grasp,” said critic Colette Bancroft as she introduced the prize. “Within that destiny, Erdrich is saying there is room for love and laughter and forgiveness with your ancestors whispering to you all the while.”
LaRose is dedicated to Erdrich’s daughter, Persia, who accompanied her mother to Manhattan. The younger woman has – unlike her parents — become a speaker of the Chippewa language and now teaches at a Native American immersion school.
Erdrich, one of the nation’s most celebrated storytellers and winner of a 2009 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for A Plague of Doves, has accepted many prizes. But at age 62, the Minneapolis bookstore owner brought an urgency to the stage as she called on writers and truth-seekers.
“The truth is being assaulted, not only in our country, but all over the world,” Erdrich said. “There is a great rush of deceit, and more than ever, we have to look into the truth. . . so let us dig into it, and go back to our offices and our rooms or wherever we write, and let us be fierce and dangerous about the truth. And let us find in that truth the strength to bear the truth, and the strength to demand the truth of our government.”
Margaret Atwood, honored with the NBCC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, joked about being allowed south across the Canadian border. Then she struck a similar chord to Erdrich’s.
“Never has American democracy felt so challenged,” observed Atwood, who has witnessed her dystopian classic, A Handmaid’s Tale, swoop back up the bestseller lists. “Never have there been so many attempts from so many sides of the political spectrum to shout down the voices of others, to obfuscate and confuse, to twist and manipulate and to vilify reliable and trusted publications.”
In a crisp Canadian accent, Atwood reminded her listeners of the three moves despots make to consolidate power: take over the military, stifle the judiciary and squelch an independent press.
On a recent sunny Sunday morning, four celebrated American writers rose early to meet for breakfast and chew over the merits of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“I worked as a Kentucky Fried Chicken hostess,” said novelist Louise Erdrich, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for A Plague of Doves. “And I’ll just say it: the secret ingredient is sugar.”
Marlon James, whose ambitious new book about Jamaica, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is already anointed one of the best of 2014, insisted that KFC tastes better when eaten outside the United States.
“It is a joy to be back in Dayton and to be with such fantastic writers,” declaring Adam Johnson, who won a Pulitzer for The Orphan Master’s Son, his tour-de-force story set in modern North Korea. The Stanford University professor said that such warm, KFC-infused chatter “can only happen in Dayton.”
The fourth member of the impromptu breakfast club, Gilbert King, saw “Devil in the Grove,” his narrative of a game-changing civil rights battle in Jim Crow Florida, win a surprise nonfiction Pulitzer in 2013. He stayed mum, however, about fast-food chicken.
All four writers relished one another’s company and the rest of the throng convened for the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an outgrowth of the Bosnian Peace Accords negotiated in 1995 at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base outside Dayton.
Begun in 2006, the initial Dayton prizes attracted “about 13 people for the first gathering,” said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of an honor that elevates literature fostering “peace, social justice and global understanding.”
Just eight years later, more than 300 readers assembled to hear Johnson, who won for fiction last year; James, who did the same in 2010 for his first novel The Book of Night Women; King, last year’s runner up in nonfiction and Erdrich, the winner of this year’s Richard Holbrook Lifetime Achievement Prize. The lines were longest to speak to her.
“Part of my work has been to tell stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things,” Erdrich said. “My role is to be there as a writer and never to judge my characters — to understand the basis of behavior when it is cruel.”
Wearing a warm smile and dark, modest clothes, Erdrich’s beautiful posture reflected a kind of moral erectness. “I am not a peaceful writer; I am a troubled one, longing for peace,” she told the organizers. She declined to pose with a book when a reader coaxed her, and she rejected the notion that writing centers her.
“No, I don’t think it helps me find personal peace,” she said. “But I am addicted to the joy that comes over me when I write a good paragraph, or even a good sentence.”
Erdrich, 60, described taking her first plane flight from her North Dakota home to attend college at Dartmouth, where the school teams were still informally called Indians. “The outrage and the uproar that happened at this Ivy League college at changing their name was shocking to me, but after many years, they did it.”
She noted that the University of North Dakota has finally retired its “Fighting Sioux” moniker and reported that sportscasters in her hometown, Minneapolis, won’t even say the “R word,” the nickname of the Washington, D.C. football team. Its roots lie in the bounty hunters were paid in the 1860s for dead Native Americans.
Also on stage at Sinclair Community College was this year’s fiction winner, Bob Shacochis, sporting a silver mane of hair, a wry smile and an open-throated shirt. His novel The Woman Who Lost Her Soul ranges over 700 pages, 50 years and four continents as it explores the unintended consequences of American foreign policy. Shacochis, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Haiti, told the audience in downtown Dayton that the “woman” in the title is the United States.
The nonfiction winner, Karima Bennoune, grew up partly in Algeria and partly in the Midwestern United States. Her book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, draws on global fieldwork and penetrating interviews to document hundreds of instances of resistance to radical Islam. Bennoune, a professor of international law at the University of California-Davis, decried how little is known about the resisters, and called to task Westerners on both the left and right who exaggerate and distort the stories of people in Muslim countries. She pointed to her father’s courageous resistance to censorship in his Algerian classroom, and the Afghanis who fought for the lives of their cultural treasures against the Taliban as if the statues “were their children.”
“If you want to know what Muslims think, you may want to ask them, Bill Maher,” she said pointedly in Dayton. “God bless Ben Affleck in calling out Maher, but he is wrong to say ISIS couldn’t fill a AA ballpark in Charlotte, because it could. Bill and Ben should actually start talking to people who know more about this than we do.”
As the runners-up in fiction and non-fiction took the microphone – Margaret Wrinkle for “Wash” and Jo Roberts for “Contested Land, Contested Memory” – they enhanced an intellectually vigorous, warm, collegial session. Wrinkle, a seventh-generation daughter of slave-holders, spoke about the spiritual underpinnings of her slavery fiction, and Roberts spoke eloquently about listening to all types of people ensnared in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Publisher, editor and composer Christopher Cerf, who moderated, beamed at the end. “As someone who has heard about the death of publishing far too much, as you can see, it is not dead yet, and not dead in the cause of peace.”
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.
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.
We talked about Junot Diaz’ great year, but Louise Erdrich is another Anisfield-Wolf winner with an amazing 2012. She released her 14th novel and saw it win the National Book Award, among others.
In an interview with the Daily Beast she said:
I suppose if I lived in New York this would not seem so dreamlike. The actual award—a bronze sculpture of a scroll and a book (good for weight lifting) is on a shelf at the bookstore. Soon I’ll bring it to my hometown’s art gallery, the Red Door, for a visit, then up to the Turtle Mountains. It is sort of a traveling award. Otherwise, everything is the same. I am back in Minnesota and am again part of an intense family life. Last night I cooked a mediocre vegetable/peanut/rice dinner, helped my daughter with homework, and went to a meeting with my sister. I still have trouble sleeping and am thinking about the next book.
Watch the video below to hear Erdrich’s thoughts on her latest book.
We are thrilled to congratulate 2009 Anisfield-Wolf winner Louise Erdrich on her win at the 2012 National Book Awards. She was awarded the prize for fiction, for her novel, Round House.
In her interview with the National Book Awards, she talked about whether she writes for her audience or for herself.
“My characters have my attention—trying to find them, understand them, think like them, feel what they would feel, behave on the page as they would,” she said. “And then there is the language—listening for what is unburdened by sentiment, trying to write something fearless. I usually write the books like secrets, as though nobody will read them.”
Read the whole interview here and join us in congratulating Ms. Erdrich!
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.
Each Friday we’ll be bringing you news about your favorite authors, literature and books in general. Tell us what you think in the comments:
Your E-Book Is Reading You
The Wall Street Journal takes an in-depth look at e-books and moves beyond the simple question of whether they will replace physical books (trust us – they won’t). Instead, they’re looking at what e-books tell publishers that simply isn’t possible with physical copies and what that means for the industry:
Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.
10 of the Best Books Set In The Midwest
2009 Anisfield-Wolf winner Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine was named one of the top books in this oft-overlooked category of books.
A Summer Reading List for College Freshmen
Our friends over at Bookriot compiled a list of book categories that each incoming college freshmen should read before stepping on campus in the fall. The goal? To be more well-rounded and well-read and therefore more easily able to excel in the classroom. Take a look at the list and let us know if you agree. What Anisfield-Wolf titles could fit the bill?