In a career spanning nearly 60 years and encompassing over 40 publications, Samuel R. Delany has written memoirs, novels, literary criticism, and personal essays. But he is most frequently cited as a foundational figure in the genre of science fiction for sweeping, dystopian tales like 1975’s “Dhalgren” and inventive, interstellar fantasies like “Babel-17,” published in 1966.
But Delany, known to his friends as Chip — a nickname he gave himself as a child in summer camp — is also a fearless pioneer of gay literature. His memoir, “The Motion of Light in Water,” reveals a life that ran counter to the mainstream culture of the 1960s, including a string of homosexual relationships, during his 19-year marriage to poet Marilyn Hacker.
Science fiction allows space for transgressive worlds in ways that realist genres may not. Look at his Triton, a society on Neptune’s moon free of sexual and gender normativity, or the post-apocalyptic world of the Fall of the Towers trilogy, which is set far in a future in which distinguishing races based on melanin is impossible.
For creating fantastic new worlds that invite us to better reckon with the real ones in which we find ourselves, Samuel R. Delany is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Mary Fecteau is a senior producer at Ideastream Public Media and director of the 2020 and 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards documentaries. Below, she reflects on the experience of working with the awards staff to pivot from an in-person ceremony to documentary in order to celebrate past two Anisfield-Wolf award classes.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, many of the events I expected to cover as a senior producer for Ideastream Public Media dried up.
Meanwhile across Euclid Avenue, Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, was weighing what to do about the 2020 ceremony. For years, the in-person event brought a crowd of book lovers to Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. But in a year like 2020, she had to get creative. Together, we created an Emmy Award-winning documentary, which was distributed nationally on PBS.
Well, 2021 has turned out to be just as unpredictable as last year, and we were determined to make something just as memorable. After all, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has been a Cleveland tradition for 86 years.
It’s been cited as Cleveland’s best kept literary secret. Founded by visionary philanthropist and poet Edith Anisfield-Wolf in 1935, it has the distinction of being the only American book award designed specifically to recognize works addressing issues of diversity, race and our appreciation of human cultures.
Although many Clevelanders haven’t heard of it, it’s a big deal in the literary world. So frequently is it awarded to African American luminaries, it’s often referred to as “the Black Pulitzer.” Past winners include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison.
This year’s honorees are a fitting addition to that illustrious winners circle: Victoria Chang for “Obit,” her haunting book of poems; historian Vincent Brown for “Tacky’s Revolt,” a rewriting from the ground up of an episode in the Atlantic slave trade; Natasha Trethewey for “Memorial Drive,” a memoir at once clear-eyed and heartrending; James McBride, for his vibrant work of fiction “Deacon King Kong”; and Samuel R. Delany, the lifetime achievement honoree, for his robust, fearless, and genre-spanning body of work, which includes science fiction novels, memoirs and essays.
My colleague, Shelli Reeves, and I spent our summer filming with these brilliant writers in their hometowns. We perused the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Samuel Delany (he’s partial to the Cézannes), crashed James McBride’s band practice at his Brooklyn church, and dug through police records with Natasha Trethewey (some of which served as source material for her memoir).
Our goal was to create an experience for the viewer that is as moving and inspiring as the in-person Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, but it’s also a rare glimpse of writers at the top of their craft, recounting their process. And, of course, it’s once again hosted by the magnetic Henry Louis Gates Jr.
You can watch it September 14 at 9 p.m. on WVIZ/PBS or online. Get a short taste below:
The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 86th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2021 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:
All five members of the Anisfield-Wolf jury — chair Henry Louis Gates Jr, poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, historian Simon Schama and psychologist Steven Pinker — salute the new class in the video above.
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners bring us fresh insights on race and the human condition,” said Gates Jr. “This year, we honor a brilliant military history, a breakout poetry collection that wrestles with mortality, a novel bursting with love and trouble centered around a Brooklyn church, and a memoir by a daughter reclaiming her mother’s story. All of which is capped by the lifetime achievement of Samuel R. Delany, who has broadened our humanity and sharpened our minds through his groundbreaking science fiction.”
About Our Winners
Vincent Brown is an innovative scholar who combines impeccable historical research with innovative mapping and visual tools. He is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. “Tacky’s Revolt” is a groundbreaking investigation into the roots, combatants, cartography and reverberations of the largest slave revolt in the 18th Century British Atlantic world. Read more…
Victoria Chang is a celebrated poet, children’s book author and professor who grew up in Detroit and now lives with her family in Los Angeles. Her first two degrees, from the University of Michigan and Harvard University, are in Asian Studies, then she earned an MBA at Stanford University. Restless in the financial sector, Chang earned an MFA at Warren Wilson College and now serves on Antioch University’s faculty. In “Obit,” she distilled her grief after her mother died into a series of prose poems, structured like obituaries, for all she had lost in the world. Read more…
Samuel R. Delany is a pioneer of gay literature and a science fiction icon, as comfortable at academic conferences as he is at comic book conventions. His gifts as a novelist and critic put him on the creative writing faculties of the University of Massachusetts and Temple University. Born in New York City, Delany had won four Nebula Awards and a Hugo prize by the time he was 27. The Lambda Literary Report named him one of the 50 most important people in changing the culture’s view of gayness over a half century. His books include the novels “Babel-17,” “The Einstein Intersection,” “Dhalgren” and the memoir “The Motion of Light in Water. Read more…
James McBride is the first Anisfield-Wolf winner in nonfiction, for “The Color of Water,” to be honored in fiction. A celebrated novelist, musician, composer, Spike Lee collaborator and a National Humanities Medalist, McBride was praised by Barack Obama for “displaying the character of the American family.” A fictionalized version of his parents’ Baptist church in Brooklyn, N.Y., anchors and animates “Deacon King Kong,” a rollicking tale set spinning in 1969 when an elderly, alcoholic deacon shoots off the ear of a notorious drug dealer. Read more…
Natasha Trethewey is a former U.S. Poet Laureate and a 2007 Pulitzer winner for “Native Guard,” who wrote “Memorial Drive” to reclaim her mother, born Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, from becoming a footnote to her daughter’s more prominent story. Born in Mississippi on Confederate Memorial Day to a Black mother and a white father, the poet explores how she embodies some of the Civil War’s persistent contradictions. “Memorial Drive” investigates the life and death of Turnbough, killed when her daughter was 19 by a man she had divorced. Read more…
Look for interviews with the class of 2021 in the upcoming season of The Asterisk*, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards podcast.