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.
As we bid adieu to 2018, allow us to shine a last, lingering reading light on ten highlights: the year’s titles from Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners. It should surprise no one that several are already acclaimed as the best-of-the-year. All are worth reading.
“American Histories: Stories” by John Edgar Wideman
In the latest literary stroke from an American master, these 21 short stories “are linked by astringent wit, audacious invention and a dry sensibility,” according to one critic. Another calls them “irresistible” and “profoundly moving.” The first, “JB & FD” imagines conversations between John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Another tale takes up with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Still another, “Williamsburg Bridge,” rests with a man contemplating his intent to jump into the East River. When Wideman won an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement award in 2011, he told the crowd a writing life still lay ahead. Now 76, the former Rhodes Scholar from Pittsburgh and MacArthur “genius” recipient speaks the truth still.
“Feel Free” by Zadie Smith
The exuberant, cerebral novelist collects her essays and landed on six best-of-the-year lists. She arranges the book into five sections: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf” and “Feel Free.” All the writing dates to the Obama administration. Maureen Corrigan describes the best of it, like Smith’s essay “Notes on Attunement” about disliking and then loving Joni Mitchell’s voice, as freeing. Also here is Smith’s much discussed essay on “Get Out,” in which she marks as fantasy “the notion that we can get out of each other’s way, mark a clean cut between black and white.” The cultural critic is often joyful, essentially saying art makes and marks freedom. Smith won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “On Beauty” in 2006.
“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight
This magisterial biography argues that its subject was among most transformative figures of the 19th-century. It begins with President Obama speaking of Douglass’ “mighty leonine gaze” at the 2016 dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It ends with the Robert Hayden’s superb poem “Frederick Douglass” that asserts when freedom comes, it will be “with the lives grown out of his life, the lives/Fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.” Blight, a fluid, graceful writer and Yale historian, has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to this text. He won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012 for “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”
“Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” by Lillian Faderman
In her crisp, beautifully researched biography, Faderman makes the case that Harvey Milk led many lives before he was martyred: Navy diver, math teacher, Wall Street securities analyst, Broadway gofer. Only in his final few years did he find his footing as a San Francisco politician. She begins by describing him as “charismatic, eloquent, a wit and a smart aleck,” and depicts a complex man with real enemies, real courage, real flaws and boundless energy. Much that animated Milk traces to his Jewish roots, making this portrait a snug fit in the Yale University Press’ acclaimed Jewish Lives series. Faderman won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Gay Revolution,” another definitive history, in 2016.
“In the House in the Dark of the Woods” by Laird Hunt
Every good book list should contain a fable, and the gifted Hunt delivers a stellar haunting with his latest, palm-sized novel. It opens in colonial New England with the classic trope: a woman goes missing in a forest. Hunt, a Brown University professor, lets his eighth novel excavate ancient fears of females kidnapped, women straying and maternal abandonment. But here the central figures narrates her own agency: “Through the dark woods I walked, thinking less and less of my son and of my man.” Hunt creates rapt historical fiction, as he did in “Kind One,” his Anisfield-Wolf honored novel from 2013. It serves as the start of a profound Midwestern trilogy, including “Neverhome” and “The Evening Road.”
“Invisible” by Stephen L. Carter
Subtitled “The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,” this biography of the author’s grandmother astonishes. Eunice Hunton Carter, herself the granddaughter of slaves, was 8 in 1907 when she declared she wanted to be a lawyer “to make sure the bad people went to jail.” A team of 20 crackerjack attorneys assembled to convict Lucky Luciano; the other 19 were white men. Thanks to Carter’s strategy, the prosecution won. The author, a Yale law professor, realized while writing this book that an earlier novel had been an unsuccessful homage to this formidable, intimidating Harlem original. In 2003, he won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”
“John Woman” by Walter Mosley
The author thought about this political and philosophical thriller for 20 years. It contains a murder and a disappearance, but it is not, Mosley says, a mystery. Instead it centers on a boy, Cornelius Jones, who is 12 as the story begins. His father is a silent film projectionist in the East Village; his mother is a sensualist backing out of Cornelius’ life. Five years later, Cornelius reinvents himself as “John Woman” and starts an intellectual movement drawing on his father’s notions of the slipperiness of history. The author, who won his Anisfield-Wolf prize in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” describes his new book as “a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”
“A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems” by Marilyn Chin
In her first book since winning a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for “Hard Love Province,” Chin draws together 30 years of dazzling, transgressive, witty work as an activist poet. “From the start of my career I waxed personal and political and have sought to be an activist-subversive-radical-immigrant-feminist-international-Buddhist-neoclasical nerd poet,” she writes from her home in San Diego, where she teaches comparative literature at the state university. Chin is masterful at making pain both visible and less tragic by throwing it into a cheeky, double-vision, East-West light. She writes to her grandfather, on his 100th birthday, “This is why the baboon’s ass is red.”
“A Shout in the Ruins” by Kevin Powers
The author of the deeply moving debut novel “The Yellow Birds,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book award in 2013, shifts his story-telling onto his home turf of Richmond, Va. He unspools two intertwined tales – one set at the end of the Civil War; the second steps off 90 years later as construction for the Richmond-Petersburg turnpike dismantles the city’s African-American neighborhood. Powers has said that he is drawn to stories of communities responding to violence. Called “gorgeous, devastating” in The New York Times, the novel suggests readers grasp that “the truth at the heart of every story, that violence is an original form of intimacy, and always has been, and will remain so forever.”
“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan
This picaresque yet deeply haunting third book from a brilliant Canadian author landed on ten best-of-the-year lists. She won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2012 for her equally stunning “Half-Blood Blues,” a European war novel set to a jazz beat. Both books were short-listed for the Booker Prize. In “Washington Black,” Edugyan begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados, where her title character is an 11-year-old who escapes bondage in a hot-air balloon piloted by the master’s brother. The story is an original in the derring-do explorer’s genre, probing self-invention, betrayal and the gradations of freedom — particularly as it limits both men. And the writing here moves like clear water across landscape and dialogue.
“John Woman,” the newest novel from prolific and philosophical Walter Mosley, arrives today telling the story of a fugitive genius.
It begins with Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVII – “Who will believe my verse in time to come” – and ends 36 chapters later with a mystery, its central character missing. Detectives find blood of more than one type on a New York City park bench.
In between is the story of a character born Cornelius Jones, the son of an Italian-American sensualist and an older, self-taught black intellectual. The novel opens as Lucia Napoli is describing her youthful wanton desires to her 12-year-old son, whom she calls CC. The boy mostly lives with his father Herman, a silent film projectionist in New York’s East Village. As Herman’s health fails, Cornelius takes over the job.
Five years later, father near death and mother in the wind, Cornelius becomes entangled in a murder and reinvents himself as John Woman. Brilliant in the classroom, he launches an intellectual movement – centered in Herman’s ideas — that grapples with the slipperiness of history. John Woman prospers, holding forth and breaking rules at a fictional southwestern American university.
Mosley, who studied political theory, is drawn to the difficulty of knowing history. “When I decided to write about this phenomenon I did so by constructing the novel of ideas – ‘John Woman’ (Grove Atlantic, 377 pp, $26),” he says.
“Understanding that this was to be a novel and not a treatise I gave my character a history in which he committed a crime that had to be hidden. There is no mystery about who committed the murder. There is no detective that solves a crime. Indeed, the reader might feel that no crime has been committed. ‘John Woman’ is a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”
Mosley spent nearly 20 years thinking about this novel. He described his own father, Leroy, who was a supervisory custodian in the Los Angeles Public Schools, as a “Black Socrates.” His mother, Ella Slatkin Mosley, was a Jewish clerk whose ancestors emigrated from Russia. In 1951, the state of California refused to issue the couple a marriage certificate. Their only child was born the next year.
Young Walter grew up in Los Angeles and wrote dozens of critically acclaimed novels, translated into some 25 languages. He is celebrated for his Easy Rawlins stories, and won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” detective fiction also set in tough South Central Los Angeles.
“Though I am known as a mystery writer that genre has never been the only expression of my writing career,” Mosley says in the publicity materials for his new novel. “I have published over 55 books since 1990. Less than half of these have been mysteries.
“I write books to fit the story and the subject I’m interested in. And so when I wanted to tell a tale about the blues and the bluesman Robert Johnson I wrote the literary novel ‘RL’s Dream’ in which Mr. Johnson served as the negative space. When I felt pressed to write about the impact and the internal struggle of dementia I wrote ‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.’”
Mosley, 66, has lived in New York City since 1981. “John Woman” begins and ends in that town, full of moral complexity even as its 377 propulsive pages fly along. Its author describes it as a political novel.
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.
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.
Novelist Walter Mosley, the creator of the private investigator Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, has just published a ruminating essay called “Patter and Patois.” He reflects on a lifetime of storytelling, and his Louisiana heritage of stories and storytellers. The 1,800-word piece is homage to his roots.
“I’m not saying that you have to be a reader to save your soul in the modern world,” Mosley writes. “I’m saying it helps.”
Most celebrated for his crime fiction, Mosley, 63, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.” He grew up an only child in South Central Los Angeles, and has lived most of his life in New York City. When Bill Clinton mentioned in 1992 that Mosley was among his favorite writers, the Rawlins series enjoyed a spike in sales.
Writer and radio host Michael Eric Dyson posed a simple question to Walter Mosley midway through their Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture forum:”Do black people have the freedom to be individuals in America?”
Mosley, 62, paused to acknowledge the gravity of the question. “I would not give up being black in America,” he responded. “We are America. We got the culture, we got the music, we got the art — and we don’t really know it.”
Mosley, best known for his “Easy Rawlins” detective series, now 10 books deep, has enjoyed a successful and sustained career. He was born in California to a Jewish mother and a black father (the pair was denied a marriage license in 1951.) Their only child, who has lived in New York City since 1981, identifies with both sides of his family. He credits his daily writing regimen for his high output — he averages close to two published books per year. His 1997 crime novel Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned won the Anisfield-Wolf book award for fiction.
Mosley delved into his beginnings as a writer and the early resistance he encountered to featured a black male protagonist. Mosley recalled an agent telling him: “White people don’t like to read about black people, black women don’t like black men, and black men don’t read, so who’s going to read your book?”
During the lighthearted yet introspective discussion, the duo covered a range of topics—from President Obama’s handling of race to the questions of literary celebrity and hype. Watch the full conversation below and let us know what you think.
Anisfield-Wolf winner Walter Mosley gave his readers a true cliff hanger in his last Easy Rawlins book, 2007’s Blonde Faith. The writer left L.A. Detective Rawlins clinging to a cliff. Many assumed the reluctant cop was dead. In the past six years, Mosley has focused on his Leonid McGill detective series, and hinted in interviews that Rawlins’ injuries were indeed fatal.
But Little Green brings Rawlins back from the brink. The new novel is set in the late 1960s, when the detective reunites with old friends and navigates a changing place for black men in American society. (Mosley won his Anisfield-Wolf award in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” the story of an ex-con in Watts.)
Intrigued? Here are some tidbits to hold you over until you can get your hands on a copy:
Have you “liked” Walter Mosley on Facebook? For the past month he’s been sharing excerpts and interviews related to Little Green.
A Q&A with the LA Times explores Mosley’s whole career, focusing mostly on the Easy Rawlins series as Mosley’s vehicle for discussions of race, politics and culture.
Little Green is on sale May 14. Visit WalterMosley.com for dates of the national Little Green book tour.
“Writing is almost a place of dreams for me, and I don’t have to give up anything to do it.” ~Walter Mosley
In this video from BigThink, 1998 winnerWalter Mosley shares a bit about his writing career and aspirations (did he always know he would be a bestselling author?) and his daily writing routine.
Huffington Post’s Black Voices rounded up 50 books the editors think every African American should read (they added on Twitter that of course the list has value to everyone, but these books focus primarily on the black experience in America). We were thrilled to see how many Anisfield-Wolf winners were on the list, proving to us once again that our winners stand out in the crowded literary field.
“Annie Allen” (1949)
“Breath, Eyes, Memory” (1999)
“Half Of A Yellow Sun” (2008)
“Invisible Man” (1952)
Edward P. Jones
“The Known World” (2003)
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1987)
“Song of Solomon” (1977), “Sula” (1973) and “The Bluest Eye” (1970)
“The Weary Blues” (1925)
Zora Neale Hurston
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)
“White Teeth” (2000)
“The Warmth of Other Suns” (2010)
“Devil in a Blue Dress” (1990)
Ernest J. Gaines
“A Lesson Before Dying” (1993)
In this series of videos from BigThink.com, 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Award winner Walter Mosley gives answers to all types of questions: What big ideas have you had lately? What’s the biggest misconception about a writer’s life? And perhaps a question every writer and aspiring writer wants to know: What is your writing routine? Get the answers to all these and more below: