For the second consecutive year, Anisfield-Wolf award-winning authors will close the Virginia Festival of the Book.

On March 24, two maestros of fiction – Esi Edugyan (Washington Black) and John Edgar Wideman (American Histories) – will join poet Rita Dove to discuss how their historically-attuned writings pierce the legacies of racism. Dove, an Anisfield-Wolf juror and the University of Virginia Commonwealth Professor of English, will moderate.

She also led the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf panel at the Virginia festival, which movingly addressed the response of artists to racial violence, particularly the white supremacist mayhem in Charlottesville in August 2017. Anisfield-Wolf winners of that year – Tyehimba Jess, Peter Ho Davies, Margot Lee Shetterly, plus Dove – spoke to the urgent need to tell a complete American story, as Shetterly stressed, and to acknowledge that racism had shed blood on every particle of American soil, as Jess observed.

Davies noted that all of their Anisfield-Wolf winning books might be called by Shetterly’s title, “Hidden Figures,” as each of the writers excavated stories less told.

“An ethos of both mischief and deep truth-telling animates Washington Black and American Histories,” notes Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “It thrills me to have the chance to read and listen to three of the English-speaking world’s most talented writers: Edugyan with her genre-bending exploration of 19th-century slavery, exploration and freedom and Wideman with his latest collection of short stories, which start by inviting readers to eavesdrop on a conversation between John Brown and Frederick Douglass.  And I suspect we may hear a poem from Professor Dove too.”

Their session is called “A World Built on Bondage: Racism and Human Diversity in Award-Winning Fiction.” The trio will take  a multi-generational view on the stage of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 24.  (Novelist Kevin Powers is no longer able to participate.)

Wideman won the Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize in 2011, four years before the MacArthur Foundation recognized him with a “genius” grant. Edugyan received the A-W award for fiction in 2012 for Half Blood Blues, a story of intrigue set among American jazz musicians in Berlin before and after WW II.  It was a Man Booker prize finalist.

This program, which welcomes audience questions, will be free and open to the public.

Coming off a successful year of literary prizes, three of the 2017 recipients of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards will reconvene for a closing panel session at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

  • Peter Ho Davies, author of The Fortunes and recipient of the 2017 Chautauqua Prize;
  • Tyehimba Jess, author of Olio and recipient of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; and
  • Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race and winner of the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction.

They will be joined by jury member Rita Dove, who will share their writing and insights about race and culture, with particular focus on the August 2017 events that took place in Charlottesville:

This conversation, titled “Writing the American Story: Diverse Voices in Distinguished Books,” will take place at a public program on Sunday, March 25, 2018, at 3:00 PM at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. The program will feature a discussion of their work, reflections on obstacles to racial justice, and writing that helps make the American story a complete story.

“The Virginia Festival of the Book’s reputation in the literary community is par excellence, and we are honored to
join the 2018 program,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which are presented by
the Cleveland Foundation. “The Nazi violence in Charlottesville last August shocked the nation, and the Anisfield-
Wolf canon – exemplary books addressing racism and diversity — is pertinent to the work ahead for all of us. This
makes the Anisfield-Wolf panel  a natural fit for the Festival, one we welcome.”

“Writing the American Story” is the official closing program of the Festival, and seeks to support and celebrate diversity while working towards understanding the invasive and structural roots of racism. This program will be free and open to the public. Following the discussion, speakers will welcome audience questions.

Tyehimba Jess is a strikingly architectural poet.

It makes sense that his 14-line poem, “Blind Tom Plays for Confederate Troops, 1863” inspired the new Anisfield-Wolf InterIUrban mural from the artist Mike Perry.

The new work braids along the right angle of two walls at Ford Drive and Hessler Road in Cleveland, Perry’s first project in this city. He created the 2015 wraparound mural at the Facebook offices in New York City and is probably best known for his colorful animation on “Broad City,” the Comedy Central series.

While navigating a week of Midwestern October weather, Perry dropped in on the Cleveland School of the Arts, where he spoke to a morning class on street art. Wearing a bright blue sweatshirt with his motto “Don’t Give Up,” Perry brought a relaxed, coffee-sipping presence. He is partial to creating flowers with a surrealistic bent.

“I kind of call B.S. on this notion that you have to choose to be an artist,” the 36-year-old said. “Some people can’t help but be weirdo creatives.” He encouraged students to sketch while he chatted about his own path from Kansas to Minnesota to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., the same borough that, incidentally, is home to Tyehimba Jess.

Kelly likened his complicated art to meditation: “I can’t not do this.”

Jon Sedor, a second-year teacher at the School of the Arts, observed that “street art is a way to reach a lot of people without being too in-your-face.”

Kelly, his jeans splotched with paint, delivered this advice: “Make the work, put it out there, let people see it. Murals are a public forum for people to accidentally discover what you do – like the internet.”

The artist/animator read a brief from LAND Studio about Jess and soaked in several poems. “I felt inspired and tried a couple of drawings,” he said. “I don’t know what this mural is about yet; I haven’t finished it.”

Now it commands one of the most heavily-trafficked pedestrian corners of Cleveland. One source, “Blind Tom,” was the nickname for Thomas Wiggins. He was a musical prodigy, a slave, and one of the best known touring pianists of the 19th century. Kelly’s mural features a snaking keyboard.

Here is “Blind Tom Plays for The Confederate Troops, 1863”:

The slave’s hands dance free, unfettered, flying
across ivory, feet stomping toward
a crescendo that fills the forest pine,
reminding the Rebs what they’re fighting for –
black, captive labor. Tom, slick with sweat, shows
a new trick: Back turned to his piano,
he leans like a runner about to throw
himself to freedom through forest bramble –
until he spreads his hands behind him. He
hitches fingertips to keys, hauls Dixie
slowly out of the battered upright’s teeth
like a worksong dragged across cotton fields,
like a plow, weighted and dirty, ringing
with a slaver’s song at master’s bidding.

Tyehimba Jess came home to Karamu House to lift up “Olio,” his magnificently engineered collection of poems that explore black voices in the decades from Civil War times to the start of World War I. Many of the poems can be read from back to front, at a slant and via every other line, in a welter of sense-making and sensibility.

A sold-out crowd flocked to the historic theater during Cleveland Book Week to hear Jess showcase the historic voices that flow through every page of “Olio,”  which won both an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.  He used a screen projector to show how the works unfold multiple meanings in varied directions.

As preamble, two artists from Twelve Literary and Performative Arts  — Mary Barrett and Damien McClendon — recited their explosive original work, while Daniel Gray-Kontar opted for a nontraditional introduction to Jess, performing pieces from Jess’ first poetry collection, “Leadbelly,” with backing from the jazz band MOSHURO. Sponsor Lydia Munell of Brews + Prose praised the vitality of hearing poems in a cathedral, in a museum, at a boxing ring, at Karamu and in a planetarium – all sites where Anisfield-Wolf and her organization have collaborated.

“One thing I’m going to come back with is Cleveland knows how to throw a party,” Jess said. “Y’all know how to get down.”

View the event in full below and join our mailing list to be among the first to hear the lineup for Cleveland Book Week 2018.

Last week we celebrated Cleveland Book Week, a series of book and literacy-themed events surrounding the 82nd annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. From September 5-9, community events across Greater Cleveland honored this year’s Anisfield-Wolf winners and celebrated all things literary in our community.

Sept. 5 – We kicked Book Week off with a launch celebration on Public Square, featuring free children’s and young adult books from the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank, free ice cream from Mitchell’s, and live music from Roots of American Music. The event showcased reading and literacy-focused nonprofit organizations serving Greater Clevelanders.

Also that day, residents enjoyed free admission – including two free screenings of “Hidden Figures” – at the Great Lakes Science Center and the “See Me” Zine Fest at MetroHealth!

Sept. 6 – Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards 2017 fiction winner Peter Ho Davies discussed his groundbreaking book The Fortunes to a crowd at Case Western Reserve University’s Baker-Nord Center. That same day, Davies was announced as a finalist for this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Later that day, 2002 Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner Colson Whitehead, who won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for The Underground Railroad, kicked off the William N. Skirball Writers Center Stage series at the Maltz Performing Arts Center.

Sept. 7 – The 82nd annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony drew a record crowd of more than 1,200 to the State Theatre at Playhouse Square to celebrate this year’s winners: Isabel Allende, Peter Ho Davies, Tyehimba Jess, Karan Mahajan and Margot Lee Shetterly. In case you missed it – or simply want to relive it – you can watch the entire ceremony here:

Sept. 8 – More than 750 Cleveland Metropolitan School District students joined 2017 Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction winner Margot Lee Shetterly at Cleveland State University to hear about Shetterly’s research and writing of Hidden Figures. The event featured a performance of Hidden by the Tri-C Creative Arts Dance Academy, and every student in the audience received a copy of Shetterly’s book.

2017 Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement winner Isabel Allende spoke to a sold-out crowd at The City Club of Cleveland over lunch. The novelist, feminist and philanthropist talked about her life, work and politics, and took questions from the audience.

The Professional Book Nerds podcast welcomed a live audience at the Cuyahoga County Public Library South Euclid-Lyndhurst branch to hear 2017 Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner Karan Mahajan talk about his novel The Association of Small Bombs, named by The New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2016.

Brews & Prose and Twelve Literary and Performative Arts hosted an evening of music, poetry and history at Karamu House to celebrate this year’s Anisfield-Wolf poetry winner Tyehimba Jess. Another sold-out crowd flocked to this event to hear Jess perform poetry from his book Olio, accompanied by improvisation from local musicians.

Sept. 9 – Cleveland Book Week wrapped up with weekend events including BOUND: Art Book + Zine Fair at MOCA Cleveland and The Cleveland Flea: Cleveland Book Week edition, celebrating readers, writers, the art of bookmaking and more!

Thank you to all of our Cleveland Book Week partners, and the many Greater Clevelanders who attended Cleveland Book Week events! Be the first to know about Cleveland Book Week 2018 events and tickets by signing up to receive email updates here.

by Charles Ellenbogen

Every once in a while, someone comes along – think Garrison Keillor, Richard Pryor, Spalding Gray – who defies any of our conventional notions of genre, so something has to be invented for them. Meet the newest member of the group – Tyehimba Jess.

Jess, who this spring won both an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a Pulitzer for poetry, has definitely written a book that contains pieces that seem like poetry, but even that term, as expansive as it is, seems limiting here. This book also contains artwork, posters, interviews, music (the Fisk Jubilee Singers) and history. This book is so full of life that at more than 200 pages, I still never wanted it to end. Even Jess’ author notes are marvelous.

We meet Scott Joplin, Henry “Box” Brown and Booker T. Washington, among others. But I think the most memorable character is Wildfire and the account of her introduction to academic and community life in Oberlin, Ohio, and her brave and bold exit. In this untitled poem, Jess brings us gently, even optimistically, into Wildfire’s new surroundings:

“1862. Wildfire lay not far from the campus of Oberlin, where her older brother had sent her to learn how to mold herself into a brown survival of whiteness.”

In addition to the searing phrase “a brown survival of whiteness,” the use of the word “mold” here seems deliberate, to connect to the previous poem, “Forever Free,” which is about the work of the sculptor, Edmonia Lewis.

“Forever Free”

What a thing it is
to be delivered
from beneath
the dirt,
from hardship’s rubble,
from underneath
the feet
of the world.
To raise up
on one’s own pedestal
and become
bondage’s living
tombstone.

Like most great literature, Olio makes me want to read more (a biography of Scott Joplin that Jess includes in his bibliography), see more (the sculpture of Edmonia Lewis) and listen more (I’ve been playing ragtime in my car since I started this book).

I can’t wait to hear him present his work in September, as a part of Cleveland Book Week.

Friday, September 8
Tyehimba Jess, 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Award Winner, poetry, Olio

5:30 p.m.
Karamu House

Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy – Eagle Academy in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 82nd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2017 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:

Isabel Allende, Lifetime Achievement
Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes, Fiction
Tyehimba Jess, Olio, Poetry
Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs, Fiction
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures, Nonfiction

“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners broaden our insights on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, we honor a breakthrough history of black women mathematicians powering NASA, a riveting novel of the Asian American experience, a mesmerizing, poetic exploration of forgotten black musical performance and a spellbinding story of violence and its consequences. All is capped by the lifetime achievement of Isabel Allende, an unparalleled writer and philanthropist.”

Dr. Gates directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. Joining him in selecting the winners each year are poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama.

The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored Sept. 7 at the State Theatre in Cleveland, hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. The ceremony will be part of Cleveland Book Week. Join our mailing list to be the first to know when the free tickets are available.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT: Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende is considered the most widely-read author writing in Spanish, having sold more than 67 million books. Born in 1942 in Lima, Peru, to Chilean parents, Allende burst onto the literary scene in 1982 with The House of the Spirits, which began as a letter to her dying grandfather. She starts each new book on the date of that letter, January 8. A feminist and philanthropist, Allende memorialized her daughter in the acclaimed nonfiction work Paula. More than 3.5 million have watched her TED Talk on leading a passionate life. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Allende the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

FICTION: Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes

Peter Ho Davies sees his innovative novel The Fortunes as “examining the burdens, limitations and absurdities of Asian stereotypes.” Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates calls it a “prophetic work, with passages here of surpassing beauty.” In four linked sections, The Fortunes explores the California Gold Rush, actress Anna May Wong, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by a disgruntled Detroit autoworker and the contemporary adoption of a Chinese daughter by American parents. Davies, a University of Michigan professor, is drawn to how we construct our identities.

POETRY: Tyehimba Jess, Olio

Tyehimba Jess put eight years into the creation of his second book, Olio, itself a physical work of art that imagines and reclaims lost African-American performances from the Civil War until World War I. A native of Detroit, Jess graduated from the University of Chicago and New York University. He is an alumni of Chicago’s Green Mill Slam Team. Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove declared herself wowed by “this roller-coaster mélange of poetry, anecdote, songs, interviews and transcripts” code-switching its way through the briar patch of American history. Jess is a professor at the College of Staten Island.

FICTION: Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs

Karan Mahajan took an incident from his New Delhi boyhood, when a car bomb exploded in 1996 in a marketplace near his home, as a spark for his second novel, The Association of Small Bombs. It tells of three boys caught in the blast, only one of whom survives. In a brilliant study of violence and its aftermath, Mahajan examines Punjabi society, Hindu and Muslim antagonism and the sometimes comic expression of human grievances. Anisfield-Wolf juror Simon Schama called the novel “a brilliant explosion of a book, essaying a totally original style — antic, dynamic and unrelentingly gripping.”

NONFICTION: Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures

Margot Lee Shetterly saw her first book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, become a juggernaut atop the bestseller lists. Simultaneously, the film version enjoyed critical acclaim and a robust box office. The writer, on a 2010 visit to her hometown of Hampton, Va., realized the stories of four local workers at NASA — Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden — deserved telling. Shetterly conducted hundreds of interviews and read thousands of documents to accurately depict her protagonists. Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove called it “a riveting, important work.”