2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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How does one structure a year in reading?

The New York Times published the answers of 47 writers and artists who reflected on the books they chose over the past year. Their responses create a fascinating skein of reading and thinking, and include essays from four Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards recipients. The entire conversation, which weaves from basketball hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to filmmaker Ava DuVernay to former House speaker Newt Gingrich to author Maxine Hong Kingston, is enlivening, a hopeful way to face into a new year.

Praise for “The Underground Railroad,” the stupendous fall novel from Anisfield-Wolf winner Colson Whitehead, threads through these reflections. Salman Rushdie read it; so did the YA-writer John Green, Anne Tyler and Judd Apatow.

Maxine Hong Kingston, who won a 1978 Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Woman Warrior,” came up with the longest and the widest-ranging list. She sampled Charles Darwin and Nora Ephron and Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas on Depression.”  He won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “Far from the Tree,” another landmark, luminous work of nonfiction.

Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust expended her entire essay praising “March,” the three-book graphic memoir by Congressman John Lewis recounting his formation in the crucible of Civil Rights. These books in turn are based on “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis’ classic accounting of his life, which won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1999.

Another graphic work attracted the praise of Junot Diaz, who kicks off the New York Times compilation recommending “Ghetto Brother,” a history of a multiracial Bronx, drawn and created by Julian Voloy and Claudia Ahlering. Diaz, who won an Anisfield-Wolf for his novel “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” also highlighted another nonfiction title: Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.”  Diaz writes that “Lowery more or less pulls the sheet off America” in a book subtitled “Ferguson, Baltimore and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement.”

James McBride, whose 1997 memoir “The Color of Water” is still taught widely in universities, strikes a bluesy note in an essay that divides books “into categories like saxophone players.” He read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and then — to shake off some of its disturbing currents – turned to the manuscript for “Two and Two,” a forthcoming memoir from Rafe Bartholomew. McBride highly recommends this portrait of New York’s oldest saloon.

Samantha Power, who won both a Pulitzer and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “A Problem of Hell,” read books last year that illuminated her work as the United States ambassador to the United Nations: Madeline Albright’s “Madame Secretary” and Clark Clifford’s “Counsel to the President.”

The list from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was flavored by two Anisfield-Wolf winning authors: “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “Charcoal Joe,” the latest detective novel from Walter Mosley. The basketball legend also read poetry, specifically “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet. Meanwhile sublime novelist Colm Toibin read 2013 Anisfield-Wolf honoree “My Promised Land.” Toibin described Ari Shavit’s nonfiction work as giving him “an increased sense of the complexity of Israeli heritage.”

Back in the United States, filmmaker Jill Soloway thought about making a pilot as she read “You Can’t Touch My Hair” by Phoebe Robinson.  And Jacqueline Woodson recently held up her copy on PBS’s “News Hour” as a galvanizing book from 2016.

However one navigates a year, it is bettered by the company of a good book. The selections in this compilation are a bracing place to start.

This spring, as Rwanda commemorates the 1994 genocide that extinguished more than a million of its citizens, a nation assesses its reconstruction while the wider world wrestles with the fact that it stood by. Several important books illuminate these tasks.

“Twenty years ago today our country fell into deep ditches of darkness,” said Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s current minister of foreign affairs. “Twenty years later, today, we are a country united and a nation elevated.”

Economic progress and a fragile peace characterize Rwanda now, under a new Constitution and a marked ascendancy of women into leadership.  A moving photographic portrait of the hard work of reconciliation is newly published in the New York Times.

“The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil,” wrote Samantha Power in 2001, in her now-landmark essay, Bystanders to Genocide. “U.S. officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen. But whatever their convictions about ‘never again,’ many of them did sit around, and they most certainly did allow genocide to happen.”

This startling essay expanded into Power’s book, “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide,” which won both the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book award for nonfiction and a Pulitzer Prize.

The book is a meticulously researched portrait of U.S. inaction throughout the 20thcentury – despite the growth of human rights groups, the advent of instant communications and the erection of the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.  “Rwandan Hutus in 1994 could freely, joyfully and systematically slaughter 8,000 Tutsis a day for 100 days without any foreign interference,” Power writes.

All the while, the Clinton Administration blocked deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, worked actively in diplomatic circles to suppress the “G-word” (genocide) and “refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide,” Power writes.

In “Less than Human,” David Livingstone Smith picks up on these radio broadcasts as essential fodder to the dehumanization that made the Rwandan genocide possible. His book won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012, and is the basic text for the Anisfield-Wolf course at Case Western Reserve University: Reading Social Justice.

As the world remembers the antithesis of social justice – wholesale butchery of a people – both Power and Smith exemplify how sober scholarship can illustrate the circumstances that unleash new killing fields. Smith is a professor of philosophy at the University of New England; Power has become the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.