Four Anisfield-Wolf Book Award-winning authors — including two from our 2020 class — took home hardware from this year’s Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The annual springtime awards ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, so winners took to their cameras to deliver acceptance speeches, now posted on YouTube.
Namwali Serpell won the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, for her sprawling Zambian novel, “The Old Drift.” Hunkered down in her home, Serpell spoke on the need to continue to create. “These are dark times, yes, but that darkness, that void is a break from business as usual,” she remarked in her video. “A crack out of which maybe a revolution will emerge. It feels impossible to do anything except survive right now, but I say art is survival too. So I say, make art, paint it, record it, dance it, write it down.”
Ilya Kaminsky accepted the poetry prize for “Deaf Republic,” noting that poetry can offer comfort during turbulent times: “Poetry casts its spell on us, makes us want to return to its pages, to leave with its images, to memorize its lines, to whisper them to ourselves in the middle of the night, the last words we cling to when nothing suffices. In the middle of crisis I feel this more than ever.” Walter Mosley dedicated his prize, the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement, to the memory of his father, Leroy Mosley. Mosley, the author of more than 43 books, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.” Marlon James, a 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” was honored with the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction for his follow-up, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.” Serpell and Kaminsky, both 2020 Anisfield-Wolf honorees, will be honored October 1 in a one-hour PBS television special, alongside Eric Foner (lifetime achievement) and Charles King (nonfiction). It will be hosted by Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. and feature a visit to the hometowns of each of this year’s winners.
In the onslaught of titles published each year, friends of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards can deploy a powerful technique to sift the wheat from the chaff: Find the new work from those writers already in the canon. Here are some gems sitting atop the 2019 pile:
“Black Leopard Red Wolf” by Marlon James
The Jamaican American novelist most celebrated for “A Brief History of Seven Killings” goes genre. Actor Michael B. Jordan bought the film rights to this epic fueled by African mythology even before it published in February. The story — the first installment of a planned trilogy — spools out in beautiful sentences that coil around a hunter named Tracker. In nonlinear flashbacks, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone to find a disappeared boy, joining forces with a giant, a buffalo, a witch, a water goddess and a shape-shifting leopard. Following the child’s scent – Tracker “has a nose” – means trekking through forest, across rivers and through magical doors, beset by fantastical creatures. Tracker, we learn, is the red wolf of the title and the facts are murky. (“Truth changes shape as the crocodile eats away at the moon.”) This bloody quest-story is no escapism. As James told the New Yorker: “The African folktale is not your refuge from skepticism. It is not here to make things easy for you, to give you faith so you don’t have to think.”
“Everything Inside: Stories” by Edwidge Danticat
The author of “Clare of the Sea Light” and “Brother, I’m Dying” brought out in August her first short fiction collection in more than a decade. Known for precise, pitch-perfect sentences and a gift for juxtaposition, Danticat weaves eight Haiti-influenced stories of diaspora and longing. She pairs Cindy Jimenez-Vera’s insight — “being born is the first exile” — with Nikki Giovanni’s “We love because it’s the only true adventure” to frame the urgencies of quiet lives. One belongs to Elsie, a Miami home-health care worker, whose decency is no match to the manipulations of her ex-husband and former best friend. Another centers on a New York City teacher who is cheated of a final chance to meet her father before his late-life death. The last story, “Without Inspection,” covers 6.5 seconds as a construction worker falls toward oblivion. He realizes that “whatever he wanted he could have, except what he wanted most of all, which was not to die.”
“The Gilded Auction Block” by Shane McCrae
Following his essential poetry collection “In the Language of My Captors,” McCrae continues his investigation of U.S. freedom and its contradictions. In 23 poems, McCrae addresses the present American moment, and in some pieces responds directly to Donald Trump. The first poem, “The President Visits the Storm” starts with an epigraph from the 45th chief executive: “What a crowd! What a turnout!” — proclaimed to victims of Hurricane Harvey. And McCrae considers how the country has turned out. A poem titled “Black Joe Arpaio” begins “America you wouldn’t pardon me.” In another, McCrae stands up the exact language Carrie Kinsey used in a 1903 letter to Theodore Roosevelt about her brother – wrongly sold into forced labor – and transforms it through ear and syntax into a searing work of art. The poet also circles back to his white supremacist grandmother in Texas “who loved me and hated everybody like me.” She and her black grandson create a knot that grief cannot untie. It is a privilege to read his reckonings now.
“Grand Union” by Zadie Smith
The outlandishly gifted British novelist of “White Teeth” and “On Beauty” published her first short story collection in October. In 19 tales, she wheels through a dizzying constellation of topics, tones and fonts, writing about the future and the past. A reader can enter anywhere, like her bravura “The Lazy River,” an endlessly rotating watery amusement for tourists in Spain. Elsewhere, the writer spills blood in London even as the jaunty “Escape from New York” rifts on the urban legend that Michael Jackson ferried Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando out of the smoking debris of 9/11 in a rental car. And the marvelous “Words and Music” mediates on peak musical experiences as lived by two disputatious sisters. A couple of stories are closer to fragments, but several seem destined to become classics. Smith begins and ends with two mother-daughter stories — the first bristles with alienation, the last, “Grand Union” with the transcendence of generations.
“I: New and Selected Poems” by Toi Derricotte
The Pittsburgh poet co-founded Cave Canem, whose motto is “a home for black poetry.” This collection serves as a profound home for 30 new pieces as well as those swept from five earlier books across a span of 50 years. The title “I” comes from Derricotte’s son and is perfect for a writer sometimes characterized as a confessional poet, one who has mined the self to grapple with gender, race, identity, sex and spirit. In “Tender” she writes: “The tenderest meat/comes from the houses/where you hear the least/squealing. The secret/is to give a little wine before killing.” The collection, dedicated in part to “the mother and fathers – Galway, Lucille, Ruth and Audre” gestures toward the poetic ancestry of Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton (another Anisfield-Wolf recipient), Ruth Stone and Audre Lorde. In her acknowledgements, Derricotte writes, “I am most grateful to the universe for the community of Cave Canem. We imagined a place in which black folks were safe to write the poems they needed to write.” And so she has.
“A Long Petal of the Sea” by Isabel Allende
The beloved novelist, born in Peru, raised in Chile and now a resident of northern California, writes in her acknowledgements: “This book wrote itself, as if it had been dictated to me.” Indeed, this historical fiction contains unmistakable autobiographical notes. It begins with the Republicans loss of Spain and the marriage of convenience between fighters Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera in 1938. She is pregnant with the son of his slain brother and can only leave France aboard a ship for wounded fighters if she marries him. The ship sails to Chile and their bond of expediency begins a complicated family saga that crests with the catastrophic 1973 overthrow of the democratically-elected Chilean government, just as it radically altered the author’s life. Allende knows how to spin an engrossing story and to reward her readers with a savory and satisfying surprise for the 80-year-old Victor at the end.
“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead
The arrival of this latest novel from “The Underground Railroad” writer caused Time Magazine to enshrine him in July as “America’s Storyteller.” Seventeen years earlier, Whitehead picked up an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “John Henry Days.” The novelist returns to U.S. history for “The Nickel Boys.” It is based on a Florida reform school, the Dozier School for Boys, that warped the lives of thousands of children for 111 years. In the fictional treatment, Elwood Curtis is derailed from his path toward college and pitched into a facility where “all the violent offenders . . . were on the staff.” Turner is wiser to the rigged game and eats soap when forced labor becomes unbearable. Whitehead doesn’t dwell in horror, instead, pervasive racism soaks the novel’s ground, so there is nowhere to stand for either boy. In prose as clear as water, Whitehead traps his reader. Undergirding it all are the unmarked graves of close to 100 Dozier boys unearthed in 2014. Finally made unforgettable.
“Sightseer in This Killing City” by Eugene Gloria
This is Gloria’s first book since the Manila-born Midwestern poet won his Anisfield-Wolf prize for “My Favorite Warlord” in 2013. Known for taking months, and sometimes years, on a single poem, Gloria joins Shane McCrae in pondering the contemporary American moment. Deeply attuned to heritage and displacement, the new poems continue Gloria’s preoccupation with the arrivals and departures of ordinary people. The title poem reverberates from a Dallas hospital. The other 47 in this collection are concise, erudite and plain-spoken in language enriched by Gloria’s reading across continents and centuries. He samples Stevie Wonder and Shakespeare; Baudelaire and Al Green. In “Implicit Body,” the speaker commands “Call me Mr. Gone/who’s done made/some other plans./All that remains is nostalgia/and this aching torso of blue.”
“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown
Named to several best-of-the-year lists, this stunning collection grapples with the black body, especially the queer black body, in poems that combine bright music and “everything cut down.” Brown follows his “The New Testament,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf prize, with a meditation over 51 poems on masculinity, desire, violence and tradition: in poetry, in racism, even in the impulse to plant gardens. In the musical, compressed lines of “Dark,” Brown writes “I’m sick/of your hurting. I see that/you’re blue. You may be ugly/but that ain’t new.” The poet comes up with a new form, “the duplex,” which he designed to gut the sonnet. “The Tradition” is suffused with prickling self-knowledge, of a sense of this poet coming into his own. He addresses his own persona in “The Rabbits”: “I am tired/Of claiming beauty where/There is only truth.”
Marlon James begins his 2-minute video on racism with the following question: “Are you ‘non’ or are you ‘anti’?”
Published by the Guardian and viewed more than 10 million times, the video asks viewers to grapple with their own sense of personal responsibility when it comes to dismantling white supremacy. James broke down his thoughts on non-racism vs. anti-racism when he spoke at the Cleveland City Club September 12. Here is a handy video recap of his point to share with friends:
by Dr. Anand Bhat
In 2007, when I asked my driver in Caracas if evangelical Christianity had been making its way into the oil-rich jungles of Venezuela, he nodded, smiled, and said, “Yes, they say officially they are here for the Church of Pentecost, but I think they are here for the Church of the CIA.” In every developing nation, that nod and that smile and that second story represent the beginning of almost every great storytelling session I have had about recent history and current events.
Listen to me now. Me warn him… Long time I drop warnings that other people close, friend and enemy, was going get him in a whole heap o’trouble. Every one of we know at least one, don’t it? Always have a notion but never come up with a single idea. Always working plenty of scheme but never have a plan… Me not going name who but I warn the Singer…. Me love that man to the max. Me would take a bullet for the Singer. But gentlemens, me can only take one.
Writer Marlon James has won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf and Man Booker prizes by driving us past recent Jamaican history. In a cacophony of voices, versions, and views, James writes a fictional exploration into the 1976 assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley. In A Brief History of Seven Killings, quoted above, readers embark on a violent and entertaining ride through Kingston slum fights (sponsored by warring political parties) that become a Cold War flashpoint in Michael Manley’s Jamaica. Marley, perceived to be supporting the socialist People’s National Party, falls victim to that fateful winter election and the CIA. The book then shifts to the United States where Jamaican political gangs morph into nonpartisan drug smugglers, tolerated by intelligence communities willing to overlook drug money if it goes towards fighting socialism and communism. Until it gets out of hand.
The book, whose rights have been sold to HBO for a TV series, should do well as a long form television drama. A populous that once stood at the docks to snatch up the latest installment from Charles Dickens now awaits the latest weekly HBO serial, one of contemporary America’s strongest art forms. James’ novel fits the format with its motley mix of characters and politics (“Game of Thrones”) and urban and police violence (“The Wire”). As East becomes West, the West too has become East by picking up a taste for epic legends with endless sub-stories, ambiguous facts and no definitive, singular truth. All thrive on a range of viewpoints, versions and classes.
From the deceased MP to the barely intelligible ramblings of a crack-fueled shooter, readers absorb from top to bottom a long overdue cultural multiplicity in A Brief History of Seven Killings. No one knows who served Mr. Darcy tea, but we all know who serves Lord Grantham tea. All of this points to progress. It points to the widening of the literary establishment’s mind but not perhaps as wide as it celebrates.
James’s novel most reminds me of Vikram Chandra’s magnum opus, Sacred Games, about a Mumbai police investigation into an Indian mafia don. Thick with pages and characters, Sacred Games exposes the connections between the underworld, police, politicians, and the film industry. Chandra also leaps into the future and the past with intercalary chapters that covered Naxalite rebels, Indian secret intelligence and the Partition of British India. Few novels set in the developing world can parallel A Brief History in quite the same way.
Published to positive reviews, Chandra’s novel did not have the sales or impact other South Asian books did. Even compared to other literary and popular books about South Asia (Bookseller of Kabul, All the Beautiful Forevers, Three Cups of Tea, Shantaram), it never received critical or popular mass appeal. It is rare to find on bookshelves today.
Why A Brief History of Seven Killings and other South Asian novels would have similar trajectories while Sacred Games did not is clear to me. The former have appeals to Western sensibilities that the third does not. Three Cups of Tea (for example) has a strong element of Orientalism with the classic story of a Westerner coming to Asia and educating rural women. A Brief History of Seven Killings tells a story about music and a musician famous throughout the West that cannot help but arouse interest in the United States. American characters from Rolling Stone and the CIA help ease the transition into the unfamiliar worlds of Jamaican politics and Kingston slums. If the book was about an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Manley and not Marley, we may not be having this award or book review.
Meanwhile film and music references in Sacred Games were unabashedly Bollywood; secretive government agencies were the CBI not the CIA, and the bogeyman feared is Pakistan not Russia or Cuba. No one smuggles drugs to the United States or London. No white people, no Christianity, no Clint Eastwood references, and no colonialism at all!
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fantastic book, and it will make a fantastic HBO series given the novel’s natural similarity to the channel’s specialty—epic dramas. But Sacred Games moved me more deeply as it was a book deeply rooted in its culture and unapologetically Indian. Perhaps when we award books we should examine why some get attention and some do not and question the cultural biases we have against looking deeply into a truly “foreign” book. A truly open mind can wade into another world mentally without needing the props of the world it just left behind.
It was a brief passage in “Sula,” Toni Morrison‘s 1973 novel, that changed Marlon James‘ entire life: in it, Sula refutes the idea that her life choices only have value if affirmed by others. James realized: “I don’t owe anything to anyone. I didn’t have anything to prove. I could be the writer; I could be the artist. I could be the person that I want.”
James’ indebtedness to Morrison extends further into the Anisfield-Wolf canon—Edwidge Danticat, Arnold Rampersad, Wole Soyinka are among the winners he referenced as he accepted his prize for 2014’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings” at the sold-out awards ceremony at Playhouse Square.
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is James’ turn in front of the camera:
Anisfield-Wolf award winners are—almost by definition—civic minded.
They continue a generous tradition of adding extra public conversations each September in Cleveland. For those readers whose schedules don’t allow them to attend the awards ceremony or who want more than one chance to hear these gifted writers, here are the details:
Historian Richard S. Dunn will give a multi-media presentation on his landmark book, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia at 5 p.m. Wednesday September 9 at the Baker-Nord Center of Case Western Reserve University. Dunn spent more than four decades researching thousands of individuals over three generations, yielding ground-breaking insights into daily plantation life.
The first three events are free. Registration is requested for the Dunn presentation. Those keen to hear Marlon James at the City Club should buy a lunch ticket or tune into the broadcast on WCPN 90.3 FM.
The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 80th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2015 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners heighten our perceptions on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, we honor ground-breaking research into the lives of specific families enslaved on two New World plantations, a tour-de-force fictional portrayal of Jamaica spun in multiple voices, poetry from both coasts that is erotic and grave, and the indispensable, morally towering scholarship of David Brion Davis.”
Gates directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. He praised David Brion Davis as a foundational scholar whose Problem of Slavery trilogy is an essential work on the cultural, political and intellectual history of Western slavery and abolition. Joining Gates in selecting the winners each year are poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama.
Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronn Richard said the breadth of topics taken up by this year’s winners is gratifying, and reflects founder and donor Edith Anisfield Wolf’s belief in the power of the written word to elevate and enlighten.
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards rose from the philanthropic vision of one woman who realized that literature could advance our thinking and beliefs about race, culture, ethnicity, and our shared humanity,” Richard said. “We are proud to showcase books that are beautifully written and enhance the urgent, national – and local – conversations around race and cultural difference.”
Past winners include four writers who went on to win Nobel prizes – Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka.
Meet Our 2015 Winners
Jericho Brown, The New Testament, Poetry
In the language of the blues and the Bible, poet Jericho Brown crafts 40 poems for The New Testament, a meditation on race, masculinity and gay sexuality. Anisfield Wolf juror Rita Dove calls this book “a reminder that outrage is a seductive disease — we would rather rage or weep than find a way to love in spite of the pain. Brown’s poems brim with love for this damaged world without letting the world off the hook.” And poet Rae Armantrout adds her praise, noting: “Like the other new testament, it’s about what love can do.” Brown teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.
Marilyn Chin, Hard Love Province, Poetry
Hard Love Province is the fourth collection of poetry from Marilyn Chin, whose book mourns the loss of a beloved in a world that seems inured to suffering. “In these sad and beautiful poems, a withering portrayal of our global ‘society’ emerges – from Buddha to Allah, Mongols to Bethesda boys, Humvee to war horse, Dachau to West Darfu, Irrawaddy River to San Diego,” observes Dove. Among the 23 poems are One Child Has Brown Eyes and Black President. Adrienne Rich described Chin’s work as “powerful, uncompromised and unerring.” Born in Hong Kong, Chin is a professor at San Diego State University.
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, Fiction
In scalding yet musical language, A Brief History of Seven Killings hinges on the true 1976 attempt to assassinate reggae legend Bob Marley. Novelist Marlon James just calls him The Singer, and sets this character among a pinwheel of voices: CIA agents, child gangsters, a Rolling Stone reporter, drug dealers, corrupt politicians and a woman seriously diverted by one night with the musician. Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates praised the “superb risk-taking” of James, whose story brims with profanity, violence, dialect, tenderness and cruelty. James teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, Nonfiction
More than 40 years in the making, A Tale of Two Plantations is a scrupulous, revelatory archival investigation of some 2,000 people enslaved across three generations: roughly half on a Jamaican sugar plantation called Mesopotamia, and half on Mount Airy, a Virginia tidewater plantation growing tobacco and grain. Richard S. Dunn, a University of Pennsylvania historian, uses his findings to ask about enslaved motherhood, the effects of interracial sex on the meaning of family and how individuals fared upon emancipation. Oates calls the book magisterial, noting, “It is refreshing to encounter a historian who doesn’t include a forced conclusion.”
David Brion Davis is a preeminent American historian whose 1967 book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, earned an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. It anchors a groundbreaking trilogy that culminated last year in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which in March won the National Book Critics Circle award. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin writes that Davis’ influence is deep, having changed “traditional approaches to intellectual history by embedding ideas in social and political action and institutions.” Born in Denver in 1927, Davis is an Army veteran who retired from Yale University in 2001. He lives in Connecticut.