“Now, more than ever, we need to know our country’s history,” Wilkerson, 55, wrote after the presidential election. “Our current divisions are neither new nor surprising and persist because we do not truly know and have not reckoned with what has gone before us.”
Five winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book award in fiction are standing up to publicly, “as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.”
The novelists include this year’s winner Mary Morris (The Jazz Palace), as well as Junot Diaz (The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior), Nicole Krauss (Great House) and Anthony Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena).
“Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another,” states the open letter as grounds for resisting Trump’s candidacy.
Those signing include the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn, the “Dear Sugar” advice columnist Cheryl Strayed and Cleveland poet Philip Metres.
The letter’s final justification states “Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response.”
Lyz Lenz, an Iowa blogger about parenting and pregnancy, contributed an essay, posted on Lithub alongside the open letter, suggesting that William Faulkner was prescient in creating the corrupt character Flem Snopes. Her essay is subtitled “On William Faulkner, White Trash, and 400 Years of Class War.”
“America is burning,” she writes. “You might not see the flames, but you can smell the smoke. And we’ve been set on fire by one man – Donald Trump, a Flem Snopes of our modern-era.”
Thinking about gaps in our communal memory has long occupied Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. In a 1989 interview, she said:
“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to.”
The book is her novel Beloved, now firmly in the American canon and winner of a 1988 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Morrison’s remarks galvanized a clutch of scholars, who organized the “Bench by the Road Project” in 2006 on the novelist’s 75th birthday. The Toni Morrison Society installed the first bench two years later on South Carolina’s Sullivan’s Island, gateway of 40 percent of the Africans who came to North America.
Professor Marilyn S. Mobley witnessed that quiet, first monument set upright on the island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. She attended the second bench placement near Oberlin College, saw another installed in Paris, France and yet another on the campus of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Each spot is a link to the African-American resistance history that Morrison evokes.
The 19th bench, dedicated this April in Cleveland, sits on a green swell of lawn in University Circle, identical in its simple design to the benches installed before it: black ribbed steel, a length of four or six feet, with a descriptive plaque mounted in a cement foundation next to it. On a recent spring morning, sparrows and squirrels hopped and scurried around it.
Mobley, vice president of inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity at Case Western Reserve University, said she spent two years working toward putting a bench in the neighborhood adjacent to campus, a community once active on the Underground Railroad.
“It was worth my time and trouble because I believe in the concept of the need to remember — remember and celebrate,” she said. “I want to remember this history, which is part of our identity as Americans: there was a group of people who made this difficult journey to freedom. We were more than our suffering, our indignity.”
Mobley collaborated with Joan Southgate, the legendary retired social worker, who, at the age of 73 in 2002, began walking from Ripley, OH to St. Catharines, Ontario, the terminus of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. She completed the 519 miles and walked 250 more back to Cleveland.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about the Bench by the Road until Marilyn brought the idea to me,” Southgate said. “It couldn’t have been more perfect. It’s what my walk was all about.”
Southgate expressed her deep pleasure with the placement of the bench on the lawn of the Cozad-Bates House, 11508 Mayfield Rd. It is the only pre-Civil War building left standing in this Cleveland neighborhood. Southgate is working to see that the structure, owned by University Circle Inc., will eventually reopen as a small abolitionist museum combined with a guesthouse for transplant patients.
“This bench is placed in recognition of the heroic freedom seekers who made the arduous journey to freedom along the Underground Railroad, aided in part by Cleveland’s African-American and White anti-slavery community,” reads the permanent proclamation. “Horatio Cyrus Ford and Samuel Cozad III, successful businessmen and property owners in the area now known as University Circle and African-American businessman and civil rights activist, John Malvin, were exemplars of Cleveland’s participation in the resistance to slavery and in the struggle for social justice. This bench is a memorial to the freedom seekers who passed through Cleveland and to those Cleveland residents who assisted them on their journey.”
The Toni Morrison Society states that “the goal of the Bench by the Road Project is to create an outdoor museum that will mark important locations in African American history both in the United States and abroad.” Its president, Carolyn Denard, flew from Atlanta to Cleveland to see the 19th bench unveiled.
Raymond Bobgan, executive director of Cleveland Public Theatre, said he would not have joined in the bench project without the blessing of Southgate. “We need to continue to acknowledge what we aren’t proud of in our history,” he said. “People sometimes say, ‘My family didn’t own slaves’ but the same people are happy to claim, say, the founding fathers. Well, both are our history, and both have repercussions in our lives.”
The 20th bench will be installed July 26 in Harlem, New York at the Schomburg Library in recognition of the institution’s century-long commitment to preserving, archiving and telling African-Americans stories. Papers from many winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards can be found on its premises, and embedded in the terrazzo tile of the lobby is a design honoring Langston Hughes’ seminal poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
When Andrew Solomon went to Finland to promote The Noonday Demon, his ground-breaking 2001 book on depression, he landed on a leading morning television show.
The interviewer, “a gorgeous blonde woman, leaned forward and asked in a mildly offended tone, ‘So, Mr. Solomon. What can you, an American, have to tell the Finnish people about depression?’” the writer recalls in his newest work.
“I felt as though I had written a book about hot peppers and gone to promote it in Sichuan,” Solomon jokes in the leisurely and chatty introduction to Far & Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years.
Clearly this 52-year-old writer, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2013, has serious wanderlust. Solomon has traveled to 83 of the 196 recognized nations in the world. “I’ve been to so many places, and seen so much, and sometimes it feels like a glut of sunsets and churches and monuments,” he admits.
But it is also clear that travel has helped form Solomon into a public intellectual. By the end of this book, he himself is setting off scandals in Ghana and Romania, largely via his reputation as an LGBT activist. Far & Away collects 28 essays from Solomon’s decades of globe-trotting, including one set in northern Bali called “Where Everyone Signs.” It is plucked from his chapter on deafness in Far From the Tree, his Anisfield-Wolf winner in nonfiction.
“I had started traveling out of curiosity,” Solomon writes, “but I came to believe in travel’s political importance, that encouraging a nation’s citizenry to travel may be as important as encouraging school attendance, environmental conservation, or national thrift.” A few pages later he elaborates, “When I was in Libya, the people I met who had an essentially pro-American stance had all studied in the United States, whereas those who were vehemently anti-American had not.”
As a young New Yorker studying in England, Solomon cops to some youthful callowness: “I confused, as many young people do, the glamour of being an outsider with the liberty to do or think whatever crossed my mind.” Serious travel taught the writer to grapple with ideas he would not have otherwise encountered: “When Chinse intellectuals spoke to me of the good that came of the Tiananmen massacre, when Pakistani women spoke of their pride in wearing the hijab, when Cubans enthused about their autocracy, I had to reconsider my reflexive enthusiasm for self-determination. In a free society, you have a chance to achieve your ambitions; in an unfree one, you lack that choice, and this often allows for more visionary ambitions.”
Today Solomon leads a highly political life at the helm of the Pen America Center, a venerable nonprofit that advocates for imperiled writers globally.
His new book has a dizzying array of datelines. The first essay, “The Winter Palettes,” stems from Solomon’s first reporting assignment abroad. In 1988, the British monthly “Harpers & Queen” sent him to the USSR to cover Sotheby’s first sale of contemporary Soviet art. It begins with a toast, and in a book of many toasts and parties, captures some of the intoxication swirled into art and social change.
“I am susceptible to that little moment of romance when a society on the brink of change falls temporarily in love with itself,” Solomon writes. “I’ve heard to same people speak of the great hope they felt when Stalin came to power and the hope they later felt when he died; others, of the hope they felt when the Cultural Revolution began and the hope they felt when it ended. . . Hope is a regular chime in political life.”
His last essay, “Lost at the Surface,” details a narrow escape from drowning while scuba diving off Australia. He wrote it last year for “The Moth.” Invariably, it is illuminating to look out through Andrew Solomon’s eyes – whether he is drifting in the open ocean or realizing in Cuba in 1997 that “If you want to get to know a strange country quickly and deeply, there’s nothing like organizing a party.”
Hours before accepting her 2015 Anisfield-Wolf award, Marilyn Chin claimed “activist poet” as her mantle: “I’ve been writing poetry to right the wrongs of the world, to express my Chinese-American sensibility, to work for this utopian American future.”
Chin, a professor at San Diego State University teaching this year at Smith College, collected the prize for Hard Love Province, her fourth volume of poetry. Juror Rita Dove praised her work as “icy yet inflamed.”
Her new poem, “Peony,” is featured for some 350,000 subscribers to the American Academy of Poet’s digitally-delivered “Poem-A-Day.” This new work continues the elegiac notes found in Hard Love Province, lamenting on the passage of time.
Chin explained the origins of “Peony” to the staff at the academy: “In Beijing, a student named Lin gave me a vase of huge, gorgeous peonies for my birthday. “I went away for a few days and returned to a disaster! The peonies had wilted so terribly that they made me cry. Alas, the shock of recognition. Buddha warned us about ‘old age, sickness and death.’ All living beings, poets and peonies alike, must meet our eventual demise!”
by Marilyn Chin
Why must I tell you this story, O little one
You’re just a bud-of-a-girl, who knows nothing
Now you are full-faced, bright as sun
Now you open your skirts pink, layered, brazen
Suffering is alchemy, change is God
Now you droop your head, heavy with rust
Sit, contemplate, what did Buddha say?
Old age, sickness, death, no one owns eternity
Detach, detach, look away from the sun
Let your petals fall aimlessly
Don’t despair, little one, we are done
Novelist Kamila Shamsie has a knack for titles.
She called her talk in Cleveland “Why Weep for Stones?” and built it into a riveting meditation on history, art, war and morals. Readers of her fiction – Shamsie won a 2010 Anisfield-Wolf prize for “Burnt Shadows” – will recognize the thematic confluence at once.
Standing in the ornate neo-Gothic Harkness Chapel of Case Western Reserve University, Shamsie drew her listeners into thinking about the political destruction of art, such as the desecration and damage in Palmyra, Syria, amid a civil war that has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives. Recent reports indicate that some of Palmyra’s irreplaceable ruins have survived the fighting.
“What do we celebrate when we celebrate ancient artifacts withstanding savagery?” Shamsie asked, before venturing a few answers in her mellifluous voice. “We celebrate the mere fact of endurance to begin with. We celebrate humanity’s search for beauty in every age and every corner of the globe. We celebrate the expansion of our own ways of seeing, the deepening of our understanding of beauty and art. We celebrate the dedication of the artists and artisans. We celebrate the work of those who preserve rather than destroy. We celebrate human curiosity.”
Shamsie, 43, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, knows a tension exists in valuing art in times of war. “There is no equation for calculating the value of a life against the value of a 2,000 year-old ruin,” she said. “The two acts of decimation cannot be seen in opposition . . . Or to put it another way, if you encounter someone who is going to dynamite a 2,000 year-old temple because they find it offensive you can be pretty sure they’ve killed some people on their way there.”
Such pithiness made Shamsie a highlight of the Cleveland Humanities Festival, which spent the first ten days of April “Remembering War.” The novelist wrote her fifth of sixth novels, “Burnt Shadows,” out of the foreboding of nuclear war threatened between India and Pakistan. The book begins with the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki, and ends in 2002 in a U.S. prison cell, where a character awaits being sent to Guantanamo Bay.
As the scope of “Burnt Shadows” indicates, Shamsie is deeply interested in history. She enlists it often in her writing, including frequent columns in the Guardian newspaper, to combat the amnesia that feeds toxic political impulses.
In 32 A.D., the wondrous temple in Palmyra “was dedicated to the Mesopotamian god, Bel, who is often identified with the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter; during the Byzantine Era the Temple was converted into a Christian church; in the 12th century the Arabs further converted it into a mosque,” Shamsie reminded her Cleveland listeners. “The people of different faiths who worshipped here over the centuries were separated by a great deal but they all recognized the majesty of the temple and were moved to incorporate it into their own belief system.”
Not so for ISIS, or, as Shamsie prefers, Daesh – a term this group has outlawed in the territories it controls. Daesh first desecrated the temple with public executions, then blew it up. Of course, some of this is propaganda. “After a point, the outside word stops being interested in the stories of human victims, but dynamite a 2,000 year old structure and you’re back in the headlines,” she said.
In Pakistan a decade ago, Shamsie started meditating on “why weep for stones” when she visited Peshawar, near Afghanistan at the foot of the Khyber Pass. Within the city, Taliban influence has grown, and her own family in Karachi was nervous about her visit.
The novelist bridled: “It seemed to me I was allowing a kind of propaganda victory to the Taliban in reducing that city primarily to their actions and their influence, and to have very little sense of everything in Peshawar that stood in opposition to their narrow-minded, small-hearted version of the world.”
She found it in the Peshawar Museum, where Shamsie entered “close to a state of rapture.” Nearby is a 2007 excavation trench revealing Peshawar as a continuously-inhabited city back to the 6th century B.C. Persians form the baseline. Then came Greeks, then Indo-Greeks, then Scytho-Parthians, then Kushans, then White Huns, then Mughals, then Sikhs and the British.
Being among Peshawar’s ancient artifacts “in a time when Pakistan is one of the epicenters of the battle within Islam . . . is to be reminded that there are two stories we can tell ourselves about the interaction of different cultures and beliefs,” Shamsie said. “One is the story of conquest and destruction. The other is the story of exchange and deepening knowledge. Both stories are true, but we get to choose which one we choose as our worldview, which one we bear in mind when we consider if we want to build walls or doorways.”
Shamsie first arrived in the United States 25 years ago as a college exchange student. What she found as a Pakistani and Muslim, she said, was welcome. She called on her audience – embroiled in national political rhetoric of walls and banishment – to remember that version of American hospitality, and themselves.
Edwidge Danticat began her remarks in Cleveland by drawing attention to another artist, the painter Jacob Lawrence, whose migration series was on display last year at the Museum of Modern Art. Danticat, who has family in Brooklyn, New York, said she often walked the long rectangular room, soaking in the art as a way to reflect on the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charlotte, South Carolina.
“What kept me glued to these dark silhouettes is how beautifully and heartbreakingly Lawrence captured black bodies in motion, in transit, in danger, and in pain,” she said. “The bowed heads of the hungry and the curved backs of mourners helped the Great Migration to gain and keep its momentum, along with the promise of less abject poverty in the North, better educational opportunities, and the right to vote.”
Danticat won a 2005 Anisfield-Wolf Book award for her novel “The Dew Breaker” about political violence in Haiti and the consequences in New York. She returned to Cleveland to speak at Case Western Reserve as part of the Cuyahoga County Library’s Writers Center Stage series.
Case President Barbara Snyder praised both Lisa Nielson and Kaysha Corinealdi, Anisfield-Wolf SAGES scholars at Case, for their work teaching and mentoring on campus. Snyder then turned the lectern over to Corinealdi, who introduced Danticat from the breadth of her own scholarship on the Caribbean diaspora. Read her introduction, below.
Over the years I have had the great joy and honor to read and also share with my students a number of our guest speaker’s works. I can still recall my first readings of Krik? Krak! (1995) and The Dew Breaker (1998) and how with each story I asked myself, who is this Edwidge Danticat? How can she capture in such a nuanced and unflinching fashion the nature of being a young girl in a new country, the voices of ordinary women and men caught in the middle of brutal geopolitical and national events, the daily making of diaspora by exiles and migrants, and the experiences of parents, children and lovers having to make impossible choices and hoping that in time, they will find forgiveness, if not from within, at least from future generations.
I am not ashamed to say that in reading these stories and many of Danticat’s later works, I would find myself both eager and afraid, jubilant and sad, to turn the next page.
Teaching Edwidge Danticat’s work has likewise proven to be an inspirational and humbling experience. Few authors have the skill to elegantly navigate between fiction and non-fiction. Indeed, Danticat is one of a select group of writers to be honored for her work in both genres. It is this ability to illuminate the fictions in history and the historical resonance in fiction that most impresses my students.
Through her intricate story telling and her acute awareness of the histories that live with us, and the histories that at times haunt us, Danticat also dares us to include ourselves, our most vulnerable selves, in writing, living, and remembering history. This semester, in a course inspired by Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners, my students are reading Danticat’s memoir Brother, I’m Dying (2007). With a mixture of admiration and general curiosity, my students have wondered aloud about Danticat’s own journeys, her experiences with displacement, and her choice to write about love and responsibility in ways that crossed the boundaries of bloodlines and geography.
Today they had the opportunity to share some of these questions and observations with the writer herself, and in watching these exchanges I emerged an even greater fan of tonight’s speaker.
Before I turn over the stage to our speaker I must take the time to note some of her remarkable achievements. Edwidge Danticat is the winner of numerous awards, including the American Book Award (1999), the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize in Fiction (2005), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography (2007), a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant (2009), the Langston Hughes Medal by the City College of New York (2011), the One Caribbean Media Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (2011), and her latest novel, Claire of the Sea Light, was shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (2014).
In addition to her literary achievements, our speaker has over the years put into practice the notion of activist artists and artists as public intellectuals. In particular she has spoken out against dehumanizing portrayals of Haitians and Haitian Americans in the U.S. media, shed light on the deplorable conditions of U.S. immigration detention centers, urged us to mourn and collectively denounce violence against black bodies in the Americas, and most recently, helped educate the U.S. public about mass deportations and denationalization targeting Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.
Through her literary and public intellectual and activist work, our speaker gives us much to aspire to as readers, students, scholars, and concerned citizens of the world.
Pat Conroy, the Southern novelist and storyteller, was buried from St. Peter Catholic Church in Beaufort, S.C., surrounded by almost 1,200 mourners. Friends carried his unadorned casket into the sanctuary as a soloist sang “The Water is Wide,” which is also the title of the memoir that won him a 1973 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
It sprang from his year teaching in a two-room schoolhouse on Duafuskie Island, off the South Carolina coast. Conroy’s students spoke Gullah, a local dialect, and had little experience beyond their isolated, impoverished home. The writer said his unorthodox approach to teaching – including a refusal to use corporal punishment – led the superintendent to fire him after a single year. “The Water is Wide” grew from Conroy’s frustration with the racism and poverty he witnessed.
He intended to self-publish, but after a friend urged him to send his manuscript to the New York agent Julian Bach, Conroy got a phone call saying Houghton Mifflin was offering $7,500 for the book. According to the New York Times, the writer was unfamiliar with the concept of a publisher’s advance and replied that he could probably get the book printed more cheaply in Beaufort. “Pat, you do understand, they pay you,” Bach is quoted as responding.
“The Water is Wide” became a 1974 film starring Jon Voight, retitled “Conrack,” the first of four Conroy novels converted to movies. The best known are “The Great Santini,” a portrait of a sadistic father and fighter pilot, and “The Prince of Tides,” which cemented his fame.
When he died of pancreatic cancer March 4, 2016, Conroy was 70, the definitive chronicler of the South Carolina Lowcountry. He had sold more than 20 million copies of his books.
Their largely autobiographic content often distressed his family, as it did the administration of The Citadel, the military school that was Conroy’s alma mater and another rich source of his fiction. But the novelist and the school reconciled, and Conroy gave the commencement speech in 2001. He invited the graduates to attend his funeral and 30 did so. Here is what Conroy said:
“Usually I tell graduation classes I want them to think of me on their 40th birthday, but I’ve got something else I want to do for y’all, because I’m so moved at what you’ve done for me. I’d like to invite each one of you in the Class of 2001 to my funeral. I mean that. I will not be having a good day that day but I have told my wife and my heirs that I want the Class of 2001 to have an honored place whenever my funeral takes place, and I hope as many of you will come as you possibly can.
Because I want you to know how swift time is. There is nothing as swift, nothing. I’m going to tell you how to get in my funeral. You walk up toward them, you find the usher waiting outside. You put up your Citadel ring. Let them check for the 2001. And each one of you, I want you to say this before you enter the church at which I’m going to be buried. You tell them: ‘I wear the ring.’”
He also reminded the audience at Playhouse Square that Hughes was still a teenager, newly graduated from Central High School in Cleveland in 1920, when he wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers. “Every time I think of an 18-year-old writing a poem that great,” Brown deadpanned, “I really hate Langston Hughes.”
Now Brown has returned to this “first poet” in his pantheon, publishing an evocative, moving post “To Be Asked for A Kiss” on the Poetry Foundation web site.
by Langston Hughes
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss
Brown ponders Hughes’ 14 words, written sometime before he was 24; the poet’s lifelong preoccupation with rivers and the meanings of suicide – as both noun and verb – in the single tercet, and in Brown’s own life, and the lives of young, gay black men.
In introducing Brown to Cleveland in September, Dr. Henry Louis Gates praised the Emory University professor, saying that the jury singled him out “for his penetrating and elegant portrayal of the complexity of human identity in a digital, multicultural universe, generally, and more specifically, the complexity of black identity, encompassing the multiple and competing claims and denials of African American masculinity and personhood.”
Brown’s most recent essay makes the case for Langston Hughes’ poetry as a wellspring of that masculinity and personhood. He makes the case – with a poem called Suicide’s Note – for Hughes’ immortality.
Marlon James begins his 2-minute video on racism with the following question: “Are you ‘non’ or are you ‘anti’?”
Published by the Guardian and viewed more than 10 million times, the video asks viewers to grapple with their own sense of personal responsibility when it comes to dismantling white supremacy. James broke down his thoughts on non-racism vs. anti-racism when he spoke at the Cleveland City Club September 12. Here is a handy video recap of his point to share with friends:
Come learn more about the Cleveland that helped shape Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Harvey Pekar. Teaching Cleveland has teamed up with Literary Cleveland and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards to present “Cleveland in Print: The History and Literature of Northeast Ohio” on Thursday, January 28.
The story of Cleveland in the 20th Century is one of immigrants and migrants, racial tensions, and economic stratification. Join us as we examine three works by these three Northeast Ohio writers and explore the interplay between person, place and perspective; bring a notebook or a laptop and explore your own connections as well.
A light dinner will be served, and participants will receive a book, compliments of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
“Here is a unique opportunity to reflect on transcendent American literature tied to the 216,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the book awards. “I have enormous respect for the work of Greg Deegan and Arin Miller-Tait as innovative educators and founders of Teaching Cleveland, and Lee Chilcote for his initiative in bringing Literary Cleveland onto the scene. This night should be worth everyone’s time.”
Register for this event here. We’ll see you on the 28th.
In a year characterized by racial urgency, the local Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest is expanding to accept entries from students, faculty and staff at Cuyahoga Community College, as well as those at Case Western Reserve University.
Participants are invited to reflect on King’s connection to Cleveland and the fight for equal rights in our backyard. (King first visited Cleveland in 1956 to speak about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, returning often to raise funds, campaign for Carl Stokes’ bid for mayor and help organize a local boycott.)
The essays should reflect the themes in King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1958. Winners will receive a monetary prize and a copy of one of King’s books.
Sponsors include the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, Voices from the Village, Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, Kelvin Smith Library, the Case Office of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equal Opportunity and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Entries will be accepted until January 22, 2016. For the complete submission guidelines, visit the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative.
by Dr. Anand Bhat
In 2007, when I asked my driver in Caracas if evangelical Christianity had been making its way into the oil-rich jungles of Venezuela, he nodded, smiled, and said, “Yes, they say officially they are here for the Church of Pentecost, but I think they are here for the Church of the CIA.” In every developing nation, that nod and that smile and that second story represent the beginning of almost every great storytelling session I have had about recent history and current events.
Listen to me now. Me warn him… Long time I drop warnings that other people close, friend and enemy, was going get him in a whole heap o’trouble. Every one of we know at least one, don’t it? Always have a notion but never come up with a single idea. Always working plenty of scheme but never have a plan… Me not going name who but I warn the Singer…. Me love that man to the max. Me would take a bullet for the Singer. But gentlemens, me can only take one.
Writer Marlon James has won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf and Man Booker prizes by driving us past recent Jamaican history. In a cacophony of voices, versions, and views, James writes a fictional exploration into the 1976 assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley. In A Brief History of Seven Killings, quoted above, readers embark on a violent and entertaining ride through Kingston slum fights (sponsored by warring political parties) that become a Cold War flashpoint in Michael Manley’s Jamaica. Marley, perceived to be supporting the socialist People’s National Party, falls victim to that fateful winter election and the CIA. The book then shifts to the United States where Jamaican political gangs morph into nonpartisan drug smugglers, tolerated by intelligence communities willing to overlook drug money if it goes towards fighting socialism and communism. Until it gets out of hand.
The book, whose rights have been sold to HBO for a TV series, should do well as a long form television drama. A populous that once stood at the docks to snatch up the latest installment from Charles Dickens now awaits the latest weekly HBO serial, one of contemporary America’s strongest art forms. James’ novel fits the format with its motley mix of characters and politics (“Game of Thrones”) and urban and police violence (“The Wire”). As East becomes West, the West too has become East by picking up a taste for epic legends with endless sub-stories, ambiguous facts and no definitive, singular truth. All thrive on a range of viewpoints, versions and classes.
From the deceased MP to the barely intelligible ramblings of a crack-fueled shooter, readers absorb from top to bottom a long overdue cultural multiplicity in A Brief History of Seven Killings. No one knows who served Mr. Darcy tea, but we all know who serves Lord Grantham tea. All of this points to progress. It points to the widening of the literary establishment’s mind but not perhaps as wide as it celebrates.
James’s novel most reminds me of Vikram Chandra’s magnum opus, Sacred Games, about a Mumbai police investigation into an Indian mafia don. Thick with pages and characters, Sacred Games exposes the connections between the underworld, police, politicians, and the film industry. Chandra also leaps into the future and the past with intercalary chapters that covered Naxalite rebels, Indian secret intelligence and the Partition of British India. Few novels set in the developing world can parallel A Brief History in quite the same way.
Published to positive reviews, Chandra’s novel did not have the sales or impact other South Asian books did. Even compared to other literary and popular books about South Asia (Bookseller of Kabul, All the Beautiful Forevers, Three Cups of Tea, Shantaram), it never received critical or popular mass appeal. It is rare to find on bookshelves today.
Why A Brief History of Seven Killings and other South Asian novels would have similar trajectories while Sacred Games did not is clear to me. The former have appeals to Western sensibilities that the third does not. Three Cups of Tea (for example) has a strong element of Orientalism with the classic story of a Westerner coming to Asia and educating rural women. A Brief History of Seven Killings tells a story about music and a musician famous throughout the West that cannot help but arouse interest in the United States. American characters from Rolling Stone and the CIA help ease the transition into the unfamiliar worlds of Jamaican politics and Kingston slums. If the book was about an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Manley and not Marley, we may not be having this award or book review.
Meanwhile film and music references in Sacred Games were unabashedly Bollywood; secretive government agencies were the CBI not the CIA, and the bogeyman feared is Pakistan not Russia or Cuba. No one smuggles drugs to the United States or London. No white people, no Christianity, no Clint Eastwood references, and no colonialism at all!
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fantastic book, and it will make a fantastic HBO series given the novel’s natural similarity to the channel’s specialty—epic dramas. But Sacred Games moved me more deeply as it was a book deeply rooted in its culture and unapologetically Indian. Perhaps when we award books we should examine why some get attention and some do not and question the cultural biases we have against looking deeply into a truly “foreign” book. A truly open mind can wade into another world mentally without needing the props of the world it just left behind.
Anand Bhat grew up in Texas and practices medicine in Cleveland. He blogs at bhatany.wordpress.com.
by Gail Arnoff, adjunct professor, John Carroll University
The first time I read The Color of Water, I was deep in the woods of Otter Creek, a lovely wilderness in West Virginia. In my hammock strung between two trees, with the musical creek flowing just below our campsite, I began to read. From the first page I was fascinated by the story of James McBride and his mother, Ruth Jordan McBride. I didn’t climb out of the hammock until hours later, when I’d finished the book. That summer I was planning a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” for Case Western Reserve University and was looking for pertinent memoirs. I knew immediately that The Color of Water would make the reading list.
In the past eight years I have introduced McBride and his mother to more than 135 students. The Color of Water tells the story of Ruth, born an Orthodox Jew, who leaves her family to marry an African American man and is, according to Orthodox Jewish tradition, then considered to be dead. When her husband dies she is pregnant with her eighth child (James). She then marries another African American man and has four more children before he dies. With very little money but an unusual amount of “chutzpah” (nerve), Ruth gets her children into the best schools and sees them all graduate from college. Then Ruth, her maternal job done, earns her own degree in social work. Although McBride writes that his mother had “little time for games, and even less time for identity crises,” my students — most of them in their first year of college — are at a perfect age for questioning who they are. Reading The Color of Water not only provides a forum to discuss race, religion, and identity, but also models a way for them to tell their own stories and those of their family.
While teaching at Ohio State University, McBride wrote a story he felt compelled to tell. I ask my students to write a story in a similar urgent vein about themselves or someone else in their family. One student wrote about a brother’s suicide attempt; for this paper he spoke to his brother for the first time about what had happened, a family secret that was never discussed. Another wrote about her father’s desertion of the family when he returned to Colombia. Other students took a lighter tack, describing humorous family stories. When I first present the assignment, some worry that their story won’t be significant, and certainly not as dramatic as that of McBride’s family. Once I assure them that any story they choose to tell will be significant, I am amazed at the papers they write.
At the end of the semester, many of the students choose The Color of Water as their favorite book. Some years I change of few of the titles in the syllabus, but I have no plans to eliminate this memoir.
In 2014 I began facilitating discussion groups for Books@Work, a program which brings professors and books into various workplaces. For one session I met with mentors and parents from the Intergenerational School. Without knowing much about the participants, I decided to use The Color of Water. In each of four sessions, we discussed a topic illuminated by the Jordan/McBride family, as well as our own. I began by asking each person to tell us where she came from, and I suggested that the group members could interpret that in any way. By the time we had gone around the room we knew that we were women of all ages, of various educations and several religions. And we discovered that we all had stories to share.
We talked about Ruth’s refusal to reveal anything about her background; childrearing; and racial and religious exclusion. In the last session, we discussed the burden of family secrets – in the book as well as in our own families. Most of all we talked about our identity, and the places from which it comes. So many passages in the book triggered discussions, including McBride’s own declaration: “Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul….[When] I look at Holocaust photographs…I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother—and by extension, myself.”
The Color of Water is a marvelous text for young people and adults, an evocative opener of discussion. I never tire of teaching this book. Italo Calvino defines a classic as “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” On each reading—and there have been many—I find something new in The Color of Water. James McBride offers us lovely writing, as well as a memorable family story which I feel privileged to share with my students.
Gail Arnoff received her B.A. from Western Reserve University and her M.A. from John Carroll University, where she currently teaches in the English Department. She also facilitates a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University.
Tom Pantic, a junior at Hiram College in Ohio, wanted to know how poet Eugene Gloria felt about being put in the Asian box.
Gloria, known for his nuanced poems exploring identity, geography and masculinity, took a moment in the college’s wood-paneled Alumni Heritage Room to gather his thoughts on a complicated question.
“I’m OK with being grouped with Asian American poets – I’m very proud of that community,” he said. “It is a problem to be put on the ethnic shelf, with ‘American poets’ shelved elsewhere – that’s a problem for me. I’m happy to represent. I’m a Filipino poet but there are many other identities I inhabit.”
Gloria, now 58, was the youngest of six children when his family left Manila and settled in San Francisco. The first poem in “My Favorite Warlord” is called “Water.” It begins:
The street when I was five
was a deep, wide river
coursing through a shimmering city.
I had no need for proper shoes,
no need for long pants.
I didn’t yet know how to make
Conclusions and say, “Life’s like this . . .”
Gloria, who won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book award for “My Favorite Warlord,” read “Water” several times over three days in Hiram. He visited high school students, ate dinner with English majors and gave a warm, wry public appearance, part of a Big Read initiative this fall in Hiram. “It took me five or six years to finish ‘Water,’” he told those gathering in what was once the college library.
“The students from both local high schools and Hiram College . . . came away with a new understanding of the power of poetry to convey deep emotions, to comment on social issues, or just to crystallize a moment in time,” noted Gloria’s host, Professor Kirsten L. Parkinson, who directs the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature at the college.
As he answered Pantic, Gloria made a glancing reference to the eruption this year over the Best American Poetry Anthology, in which a white Midwestern archivist named Michael Derrick Hudson submitted a poem under the false name Yi-Fen Chou to increase his odds of being selected. The subterfuge succeeded and provoked blistering criticism.
“How unfortunate to think I have an ‘in’ because my name is exotic enough,” Gloria in an interview said after his reading. “Mostly I feel sad. This is another instance of – racism is probably too strong – of misperception. Poetry is an opportunity for me to be honest about my identity. I like what [anthology editor] Sherman Alexie called it, ‘colonial theft.’ ”
Alexie made the controversial decision to keep Hudson’s poem in the 2015 anthology; Gloria plans to incorporate this episode into the discussion of the creative writing workshop he leads at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.
“I like to go to Indianapolis occasionally to take care of my Asian needs – fish sauce, good rice,” Gloria riffed in his gentle, mellifluous voice. He then read “Here, On Earth,” adding, “yes, happy poems are possible.”
The October evening in Hiram served as a welcome tour of “My Favorite Warlord” with Gloria providing insights into individual poems. He began the book sparked by an observation from Susan Orleans, who suggested that boys of 10 define the man they will become at 40. Gloria realized that at 10 he was a schoolboy at St. Agnes Elementary School in the Haight Asbury neighborhood in 1967, a fascinating spot in a momentous year. So he began writing poems constellated around 1967, but as he worked, “My Favorite Warlord” developed a parallel meditation on Gloria’s father, inflected with an interest in the 16th century Japanese warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
“It became an accidental book in that I was conflating my thoughts about Hideyoshi with meditations on my father,” Gloria told a DePauw University staff writer. “People assume that ‘my favorite warlord’ is my father, which really isn’t the case. But I don’t mind the mistake, because on some level I was thinking about both of them as one thing.”
For his part, Pantic loved the poem “Allegory of the Laundromat,” also a favorite of Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Pantic quoted the final line in his introduction of Gloria:
Who gives a whit about the indelicate balance of our weekly wash?
As I approached the ballroom of the Cleveland Convention Center to reach the Open Doors Academy luncheon, I heard a commotion that seemed a bit out of place–more like a pep rally. Students flanked both sides of entrance to the ballroom, arms outstretched, giving enthusiastic high-fives to each guest. “No one asked them to do that,” executive director Annmarie Grassi shared with the audience. “That enthusiasm is all their own.”
More than 500 attendees filled the ballroom to support Open Doors Academy, a 13-year-old enrichment and leadership nonprofit serving some 400 students in Northeast Ohio. These students, buoyed by academic tutoring, volunteer projects and summer camps, boast a 100 percent high school graduation rate and 97 percent of participants pursue post-secondary education.
These are astounding and encouraging numbers when nearly 90% of the students enrolled in programming live below the poverty line. It is a population that writer Jonathon Kozol, keynote speaker for the event, knows well.
With his sleeves rolled up and blue sneakers on his feet, Kozol, 79, looked like a man of action. For the past five decades, Kozol has become known as one of the most respected education writers in America, with 13 books investigating America’s racial and class disparities both inside the classroom and out. He won the Anisfield-Wolf book award for nonfiction in 1996 for Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, a 300-page treatise on living conditions of poor children in the South Bronx.
“Why did I give a book about destitute children that optimistic title?” he shared. “Here’s why: because in the midst of all the desolation in which those children lived, I came upon a little miracle: a beautiful afterschool program in a small Episcopal church called St. Ann’s.” This program, he noted, was not unlike the origins of Open Doors Academy, which got its unofficial start as a drop-in program at a Cleveland Heights church.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1958, Kozol began teaching in the Boston Public Schools, where he was later fired for teaching a Langston Hughes poem. He moved on to another district, before shifting his attention to writing about his pupils, the young men and women living in the poorest, most segregated cities in the country. Cleveland, unfortunately, bears striking resemblance to the South Bronx.
“As central cities start to shine again…it is very easy to lose sight of those we left behind. Fifty-four percent of children in this city live in poverty,” Kozol told the crowd, as a recent U.S. Census Bureau report now puts that number closer to 60 percent.
The gulf between adequately funded schools and its struggling counterparts is getting wider, Kozol said, thanks in part to “pathological” testing standards that are driving out good teachers in schools that need them most. Whereas wealthier parents feel empowered to opt out of testing, lower-income families hesitate to make such a move.
“Critical thinking is flourishing still in top suburban high schools, schools that have plenty of money,” Kozol said. “Well-educated parents in those districts want their kids to grow up with the ability to ask discerning questions, to interrogate reality so that in their adult lives they can take a real role in the workings of democracy and they can help shape the future of our nation. It’s less common in the inner-city schools, especially in the schools that serve the black and brown and very poor. Poverty is not the only issue at stake here.”
Education analysts have projected more than 2 million teachers will hit retiring age in the next decade, which is why Kozol said we need to recruit passionate educators and respect the ones in the trenches every day with our students: “I still think teaching is a wonderful profession and there are so many marvelously creative teachers. I don’t want to lose them.”
Richard S. Dunn spent 40 years researching and writing “A Tale of Two Plantations,” a scrupulous, revelatory archival investigation of some
2,000 people enslaved across three generations: roughly half on a Jamaican sugar plantation called Mesopotamia, and half on Mount Airy, a Virginia tidewater plantation growing tobacco and grain.
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is Dunn’s turn in front of the camera:
As Marilyn Chin began her acceptance speech for this year’s award for poetry, she looked out in the audience upon former poet laureate and jury member Rita Dove, thanking her for her sisterhood. Dove praised “Hard Love Province,” noting, “In these sad and beautiful poems, a withering portrayal of our global ‘society’ emerges – from Buddha to Allah, Mongols to Bethesda boys, Humvee to war horse, Dachau to West Darfu, Irrawaddy River to San Diego.”
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is Chin’s turn in front of the camera:
It was a brief passage in “Sula,” Toni Morrison‘s 1973 novel, that changed Marlon James‘ entire life: in it, Sula refutes the idea that her life choices only have value if affirmed by others. James realized: “I don’t owe anything to anyone. I didn’t have anything to prove. I could be the writer; I could be the artist. I could be the person that I want.”
James’ indebtedness to Morrison extends further into the Anisfield-Wolf canon—Edwidge Danticat, Arnold Rampersad, Wole Soyinka are among the winners he referenced as he accepted his prize for 2014’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings” at the sold-out awards ceremony at Playhouse Square.
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is James’ turn in front of the camera:
“My idols sat around and read my book, y’all,” Jericho Brown remarked from the podium at the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony. Moments later he launched into “Labor,” a piece featured in his 2014 collection, The New Testament.
As is our tradition, we caught up with Brown in a few quiet moments before this year’s ceremony to hear his thoughts on being honored with the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for poetry: