2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

Close

The thrill of writing as clear as water ran through this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, bookended by the valedictory appearance of nonfiction master John McPhee and the bracing arrival of poet Layli Long Soldier.

McPhee, who has sharpened the reading lives of generations and taught hundreds of journalists at Princeton University, was gracious and brief in accepting the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement at the New School in Manhattan. He paid homage to former New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn, whose careful edit of McPhee’s first piece in 1963 was marked by Shawn’s deliberate words: “It takes as long as it takes.”

“A lifetime of writing. How did that happen?” asked McPhee, 87, as he accepted the prize. National Public Radio host Stacey Vanek Smith praised her mentor’s prose as “writing in the absence of intruding artifice.” She said she had thought at least 1,000 times of certain passages in “Coming into the Country,” McPhee’s classic work about the Alaskan backcountry.

Layli Long Soldier won in poetry for “Whereas,” mesmerizing the audience at the New School in Manhattan with a reading of a poem in which a grown daughter mistakes her father’s cry for a sneeze – having never heard him cry. She is a member of the Oglala Lakota nation and lives in Santa Fe.

Another first-time author, Carina Chocano, won in criticism for her 21 essays called “You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks and Other Mixed Messages.”

The funny, incisive Los Angeles writer said she formed the idea for this book in 2008 when, as a movie critic, she was imbibing a steady diet of pop images of women in film. “Still, I was afraid to write this book, a woman speaking against the official line.”

NBCC board member Walton Muyumba observed, “We seem to tell ourselves movie and TV stories, Chocano suggests, in order to perpetuate old lies about gender, generally, and women, specifically. In fact, we seem to find deep pleasure in their continuous repetition. . . Chocano doesn’t send the readers down the rabbit hole (we’re living in Wonderland already) so much as she uses these pieces like smelling salts to awaken us to our collective gas-lighting.”

Biography honored another kind of cultural exemplar: Laura Ingalls Wilder, captured in the marvelous book “Prairie Fires” by Caroline Fraser. Wilder transformed her family’s struggle with poverty, disappointment and loss into fiction that has never gone out of print, has been translated into 45 languages, and sold more than 60 million books, Fraser said. The “Little House” titles cemented American pioneer mythology with a darkly libertarian streak.

“Laura Ingalls Wilder endures,” notes NBCC board member Elizabeth Taylor, ”and now future generations can read Fraser’s marvelous biography and understand her vision of how Ingalls dreams of the frontier. Caroline Fraser has brilliantly recast our understanding of Laura Ingalls Wilders’ life and times, and affirmed her influence in shaping the myth of the iconic West.”

A dissemination of a different set of ideas is characterized in Frances FitzGerald’s “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.” It won in nonfiction. FitzGerald quoted Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s admonition as a potent form of prosperity theology: “If you pray for a camper, tell Him what color; you don’t make God do your shopping.”
Taylor writes, “In convincing detail, FitzGerald charts the evolution of evangelism from a religious to a political movement.” The author thanked Jerry Falwell and his church in Lynchburg, Va., for their welcome and patience with her journalism.

In autobiography, the London-based filmmaker Xiaolu Gau won for “Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China.” Critic Marion Winik describes it as “a thrilling, fist-pumping kind of story” about the author’s escape from cruelty and poverty in Communist China, salted with “a funny and entertaining disquisition” on why it is so hard for Chinese people to learn the English language.

Two Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards writers were among the 30 finalists: Edwidge Danticat for her exquisite book about mortality and her mother’s cancer, “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story;” and Mohsin Hamid for his evocative and genre-bending novel “Exit West.

Joan Silber won the fiction prize for “Improvement,” her seventh novel. It follows a single mother in New York, her four-year-old son, her free-spirited aunt and a boyfriend with plans to smuggle cigarettes across state lines. “There is not a wasted word in the novel’s 227 pages, which nevertheless contain multitudes,” writes NBCC board member Tom Beer.

“I’m always happy when someone describes my fiction as generous,” Silber said as she accepted the prize. “If nothing else, fiction reminds us that others have interior lives.”

For the first time in NBCC history, the winners across all six book categories were women.

The blazing new novel from Mohsin Hamid opens with this sentence: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

In “Exit West,” Nadia is “always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular in a flowing black robe,” a garb she will wear throughout her life. When Saeed meets her, they are taking an evening class on corporate identity and product branding, which seems like a sly reference to Hamid’s marvelous 2013 book “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.”

Saeed watches the robed Nadia don a motorcycle helmet and swing a leg over her motorbike before rumbling off. Later, over their first coffee, he is surprised to learn she doesn’t pray. Asked why she then wears religious garb, Nadia smiles over her cup at Saeed and says: “So men don’t f*** with me.”

In his taut and profound fourth novel, Hamid picks up the classic boy-meets-girl storyline and weaves it into a nuanced, melancholy love story of global significance. At age 45, the Anisfield-Wolf winner for “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” has delivered a story at once familiar and utterly new, a fable unlike any yet told.

In a tale inhabited by militants, migrants and cell phones, Hamid introduces his first element of magical realism: dark, door-like portals that the reader gradually realizes are opening up around the world. As is his wont, Hamid never names the couple’s home city. But as the place succumbs to “sandbagged checkpoints and razor wire,” helicopters, then howitzers and infantry, Saeed and Nadia reluctantly decide to pay a smuggler to move them through a portal.

“Exit West” moves forward – in very short, moving passages — to other distinct spots on the planet – Mykonos, Greece; Sydney, Australia; Tijuana, Mexico; Tokyo, Japan; La Jolla, California; coastal Namibia, London, Buenos Aires, Argentina and Amsterdam. In these last two cities a garden shed becomes a portal that connects two elderly men, unable to speak one another’s languages, who nonetheless grow fond. A war photographer witnesses “their very first kiss, which she captured, without expecting to, through the lens of her camera, then deleted, later that night, in a gesture of uncharacteristic sentimentality and respect.”

Hamid gives this vignette a lovely gravitas in eight short paragraphs; he is poetic as he suggests that untold beauty might arise on occasion if we could foil the arbitrariness of geography. In 2013, the writer told National Public Radio’s Morning Edition that he takes “six or seven years to write really small books. There is a kind of aesthetic of leanness, of brevity.”

So “Filthy Rich” was only 228 pages; “Exit West” is 231. Yet the novel is made of long, cool, scalloped sentences – one runs 276 words and still the reader hardly notices.

Hamid is emphatically a political writer; he anticipates and imbues “Exit West” with the present-day crisis. Rich countries are busy building walls even as refugees flee their “drone-crossed skies” by the millions. As these migrants emerge in new places, drones and satellite surveillance follow. Some violence travels with them and some violence awaits, new nights of shattering glass.

Nadia and Saeed respond differently to the threats; a great pleasure of “Exit West” is these characters’ complexity – alone, together and across time. Hamid’s portrait of them as a couple feels as authentic as anything fiction has mustered in the new millennium.

The writer gave Lit Hub an interview last year on “Exit West,” one of the most anticipated novels of 2017. He said, “I understand that people are afraid of migrants. If you’re in a wealthy country, it’s understandable that you might fear the arrival of lots of people from far away. But that fear is like racism: it’s understandable, but it needs to be countered, diminished, resisted.

“People are going to move in vast numbers in the coming decades and centuries. Sea levels will rise, weather patterns will change, and billions will move. We need to figure out how to build a vision for this coming reality that isn’t a disaster, that is humane and even inspiring.”

“Exit West” reads as a portal to that possibility.

Anthologies are tricky – and a new one called “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry” might seem like a gimmick. But readers who venture here will find that London editors Anthony and Ben Holden, a father and son, have come up with an engaging conversation-starter and a new angle on some marvelous work.

They asked 100 men to write a brief introduction to a poem that choked them up. The “vast majority are public figures not prone to tears,” writes Anthony Holden, “as is supposedly the manly way, but here prepared to admit to caving in when ambushed by great art.”

One, Simon Schama, is the Anisfield-Wolf juror and historian. Two are recent Anisfield-Wolf winners: Mohsin Hamid and Andrew Solomon. Poet Terrance Hayes picks former juror and Anisfield-Wolf recipient Gwendolyn Brooks for her poem “The Mother” and two contributors – novelist Mark Haddon and actor Tom Hiddleston — choose separate Derek Walcott poems, both published in 1984.

Schama, fresh off his new book and PBS series, “The Story of the Jews,” decides upon W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby.” The historian writes that “tears come to me reading Auden’s ‘Lullaby’ to a lover already asleep because the poem suspends time and the brutality of the world (‘1937 when fashionable madmen raise/Their pedantic boring cry’) at the moment of unanswerably perfect love.” The honesty in the poem “makes the eyes prick and the heart knock,” Schama writes. The actor Simon Callow, for his own reasons, picks the same poem.

Hamid, who won his Anisfield-Wolf book award for the novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” chooses Robin Robertson’s “Keys to the Doors,” a 14-line piece addressed to a daughter and published in 2012, the book’s most recent poem. Hamid writes that he cut it out of the New York Review of Books, mailed it to Lahore and taped it to his printer – “It’s there now, stirring to the beat of my ceiling fan as I write this.”

A young father when he found it, Hamid writes that the poem captures something of the way his own little girl would “stride into my room where I was novel-writing, and talk to me, and ask me questions, and bring her fantasies into where I sat draped in mine.”

Andrew Solomon, who won last year’s nonfiction Anisfield-Wolf book award for “Far From the Tree,” picks Elizabeth Bishop’s 1976 work “Crusoe in England.” It is one of a dozen poems in the book by women, in the voice of an imagined aged Robinson Crusoe. Solomon writes that “the meticulous dryness of this narrator, so bereft of the spirit of adventure even when recalling adventures, seems to catch in the throat of the old man who speaks it.” Solomon esteems this voice for containing “not so much bitterness as restraint. Love is circumstantial; we can love anyone if need be; and losing the one we love is the singular catastrophe.”

Terrance Hayes writes that Brooks’ 1945 poem that begins “Abortions will not let you forget” was instrumental to him as a college student: “It is, in fact, the poem that made me choose the path of a poet rather than that of a painter. (No painting had ever made me cry.)” He writes that his continuous relationship with the poem as an older man is “a testament to its craftsmanship.”

Finally, Mark Haddon selects Walcott’s “Midsummer: Sonnet XLIII” and writes that he dislikes the sentimental. But the Nobel Laureate accomplishes something different here: “the sublime sublimely articulated.” A few pages later, Hiddleston writes that he reads Walcott’s “Love After Love” at least monthly. “I read it to my dearest friends after dinner once, and to my family at Christmas, and they started crying. Which always, unfailingly, makes me cry.”

All these tears caused Billy Collins to jokingly ask “how any of us make it through the book without succumbing to a complete emotional breakdown,” editor Ben Holden writes. And then he shrugs: “What could be more human, honest, or pure than tears?” 

Somewhere, a canny business professor may be plotting to put Mohsin Hamid’s astringent new novel into an MBA course. It would be a brilliant move.

Not because the advice it contains is revelatory — “Get an Education” and “Work for Yourself” are actual chapter headings — but because Hamid’s tight, mesmerizing story raises the thorny questions that cluster around the bloom of wealth. Indeed, readers will detect a whiff on cultural criticism in the eight words of the new book’s title.

As it opens, “How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” poses as a self-help book. Following this convention, it addresses the reader as “you.” The text finds you as a small boy “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning.” This is because you are weak, your eyes yellow with hepatitis E, and your family’s fortunes turn on your health. When you recover, your parents decide to move to the city, the first step on your trajectory toward riches.

You don’t get a name, nor does the city, nor does the nation, although Time magazine has decided it’s Pakistan. That will no doubt amuse Hamid, who won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2008 for his hypnotic novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” The author grew up partly in the United States, and partly in Lahore. Yet in interviews around “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Hamid observed that he was sometimes asked if he was a version of the title character, never the American listening across a cafe table to that character’s story.

Like “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Hamid’s new novel is taut and smart and subversive. Each of the 12 chapters starts with a playful verbal squall about self-help. “Distasteful though it may be,” begins chapter seven, “it was inevitable in a self-help book such as this, that we would eventually find ourselves broaching the topic of violence. Becoming filthy rich requires a degree of unsqueamishness, whether in rising Asia or anywhere else.”

Hamid is echoing French novelist Honore de Balzac’s riff that “behind every great fortune there is a great crime.” This idea helped animate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and like Gatsby, the protagonist in Hamid’s new novel longs for an unattainable woman. Here she is just called “the pretty girl.” Despite such fable-like distancing, Hamid manages the significant trick of seducing his readers to care about these characters, even as he toys with our expectations for a rags-to-riches story.

So dear “you” first moves around his new town on a bicycle, then a motorcycle, then in a rebuilt truck. As the conveyances become more luxurious, the commentary becomes more pointed, and Hamid’s pleasurable light touch fades. By the time “you” has become a water industrialist, you are keeping company with “four pump-action-shotgun-wielding security guards” and “the aquifer below the city is plummeting and becoming more contaminated every year, poisonous chemicals and biological toxins seeping into it like adulterants into a heroin junkie’s collapsing vein.”

Clearly, Hamid can write. His is a confident, confiding prose. But underneath, as in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a quiet fury gathers. The reader travels these pages fueled by dread. Capitalism may have won the globe’s embrace, but becoming rich is still filthy work. Importantly, reading this latest Mohsin Hamid novel is no work at all. May it work its subversive way into the curriculum of business schools everywhere.

We’ve talked so much about Mohsin Hamids The Reluctant Fundamentalist coming to the big screen next year and the wait is almost over. The adaptation is scheduled to hit theatres in February 2013 and we can’t wait. It received rave reviews when it premiered at the Venice film festival this fall and critics have praised Mira Nair’s vision.

In this Hollywood Reporter video, stars of the film (Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson and Keifer Sutherland) sit down with Nair to talk about filming and why they were drawn to the project.

We don’t know what the weather is like where you live, but this weekend it’s going to hot and humid. Just the thought of 90-degree temperatures sends us scrambling inside for the air conditioning and a good book. 

Pakistan’s Express Tribune listed their top 10 books to re-read this summer and even if you’ve never read some of these books, we’d say they make for an excellent use of time. Among those listed were two Anisfield-Wolf winners: Kamila Shamsie (2010) and Mohsin Hamid (2008). 

Kamila Shamsie

Of Shamsie’s Kartography:

Kamila Shamsie is one of the few female authors of the 90s who managed to get Pakistan on the literary map. Shamsie’s Kartography is a literary masterpiece and her passion and love for her city Karachi is evident in her every sentence, page and chapter.

 

Mohsin Hamid

Of Hamid’s Moth Smoke: 

Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke told the story of a marijuana-smoking ex-banker in post-nuclear-test Lahore who falls in love with his best friend’s wife and becomes a heroin addict. It was published in 2000 and quickly became a hit in Pakistan and India.

…you can hear about Mohsin Hamid’s role in getting the project to the big screen. Are you as excited for the adaptation as we are?

In advance of the film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, take a look back at Hamid’s talk on his book and what it means for it to be turned into a film with someone like noted director Mira Nair.

2008 Anisfield-Wolf award winner Mohsin Hamid’s groundbreaking work, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is getting the Hollywood treatment. The story follows a young Pakistani as he grapples with life after 9/11. Starring Riz Ahmed as Changez, the film will also feature Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, and Kiefer Sutherland. Mira Nair (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding) will direct.

There’s always a murmur when beloved books and characters make the transition to the big screen. Devoted readers will either skip the film altogether or spend a great amount of time picking it apart in comparison to the book. But as The Reluctant Fundamentalist makes its leap into theaters, it’s worth noting that Hamid took it upon himself to create a novel that was especially inviting for readers to create their own vibrant connection to the story. As he wrote earlier this year in a piece for The Guardian:

“I began to wonder if the power of the novel, if its distinctive feature among contemporary mass-storytelling forms, was rooted in the enormous degree of co-creation it requires on the part of its audience. (After all, when you watch a film or TV show, what you see looks like what it represents; when you read a novel, what you see is black ink on pulped wood, and it is you who projects scenes on to the screen of your imagination.)

If the novel was special because it allowed writers and readers to create jointly, to dance together, then it seemed to me that I should try to write novels that maximized this possibility of opening themselves up to being read in different ways, to involving the reader as a kind of character, indeed as a kind of co-writer.”

 The Reluctant Fundamentalist is due to hit theaters in 2013.