Take a look at Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mesmerizing 1984 painting “Trumpet.” It inspired a new poem from Adrian Matejka that he calls “& Later,”
Matejka won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award last year for “The Big Smoke,” his Jack Johnson-infused collection. Now the Indiana University professor is putting together a new book called “Collectable Blacks.”
“I get caught up easily in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, especially his work focusing on boxers and jazz,” Matejka said. “His painting from 1984, ‘Trumpet,’ cracked open a tense holiday moment from my childhood. I don’t remember any actual trumpets at that holiday fracas, but Basquiat’s lines and pigments always seem to create unexpected opportunities for improvisation and meditation.”
Matejka made this observation for staff at the American Academy of Poets, which sent “& Later,” to some 300,000 readers September 4 as part of its digital dose of verse. Readers can sign up for the “Poem a Day” project.
—after “Trumpet,” Jean-Michel Basquiat
the broken sprawl & crawl
of Basquiat’s paints, the thin cleft
of villainous pigments wrapping
each frame like the syntax
in somebody else’s relaxed
explanation of lateness: what had happened was. Below blackened
crowns, below words crossed out
to remind of what is underneath:
potholes, ashy elbows, & breath
that, in the cold, comes out in red light
& complaint shapes—3 lines
from the horn’s mouth
in the habit of tardy remunerations.
All of that 3-triggered agitation,
all that angry-fingered fruition
like Indianapolis’s 3-skyscrapered smile
when the sun goes down & even
the colors themselves start talking
in the same suspicious idiom
as a brass instrument—
thin throat like a fist,
flat declinations of pastors
& teachers at Christmas in the inner city.
Shoulders back & heads up when
playing in holiday choir of hungry
paints, chins covered
in red scribbles in all of the songs.
Poet Jericho Brown, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year, has written a 14-line poem that begins with the names of flowers and concludes with the names of men. He calls it “The Tradition.” Brown notes, “The poet’s relationship to language and form is an addiction where what’s past is present, a video on loop. Not watching won’t make what that video says about our future go away.”
He made this observation to accompany “The Tradition” as the American Academy of Poets sent it to some 300,000 readers August 7, part of its “Poem a Day” project, which has been distributing poetry digitally since 2006.
A native of Louisiana and a professor of English at Emory University, Brown will accept his Anisfield-Wolf prize in Cleveland next month for his second collection, “The New Testament.” He will read at Trinity Cathedral at 7 p.m. Wednesday September 9. The gathering in the nave is free and the public is welcome.
Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer. Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.
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.
Anisfield-Wolf award winners are—almost by definition—civic minded.
They continue a generous tradition of adding extra public conversations each September in Cleveland. For those readers whose schedules don’t allow them to attend the awards ceremony or who want more than one chance to hear these gifted writers, here are the details:
Historian Richard S. Dunn will give a multi-media presentation on his landmark book, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia at 5 p.m. Wednesday September 9 at the Baker-Nord Center of Case Western Reserve University. Dunn spent more than four decades researching thousands of individuals over three generations, yielding ground-breaking insights into daily plantation life.
The first three events are free. Registration is requested for the Dunn presentation. Those keen to hear Marlon James at the City Club should buy a lunch ticket or tune into the broadcast on WCPN 90.3 FM.
An authority on the Great Migration—the departure of six million African-Americans from a South lynching them at a rate of one every four days over six decades of the 20th-century—Wilkerson is steeped in the ways of movement. She can pinpoint the families that “left along three beautifully predictable streams: up the East coast, into the Midwest and Far West.” She is conversant in the food, folkways and the names of churches that traveled with them.
“I am thrilled to be back in Ohio, one of the receiving stations of the Great Migration, one of the places people dreamt about when dreaming about living their lives in freedom,” she said to a gathering celebrating the tenth anniversary of PolicyBridge, a Cleveland think tank on policy that intersects black and brown lives.
After visiting more than 100 universities and speaking on four continents, Wilkerson, 51, delivered pinpoint geography in her remarks: Jesse Owens’ family of 11 left Alabama sharecropping for a better life in Cleveland even as Toni Morrison’s parents traveled to Lorain from an Alabama where no black child could obtain a library card, where they raised a daughter who remade world literature.
Likewise August Wilson’s maternal grandmother walked all the way out of North Carolina into Pennsylvania and Miles Davis’ people left Arkansas for Illinois. The parents of Theolonious Monk migrated from North Carolina to New York City, where his mother could earn enough to buy an upright piano. Yet another woman fleeing North Carolina, the widow Alice Coltrane, arrived in Philadelphia in 1943 and bought her son John an alto saxophone that first year.
“All these people were a gift to the world, and thus the Great Migration was a gift to the world,” said Wilkerson, who laid down this knowledge in her landmark book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2011. She asked her audience to imagine the generations of creativity squandered to rice and sugar plantations, the God-given talent extinguished in cotton and tobacco fields.
Dressed in an orange suit with turquoise jewelry, Wilkerson began by acknowledging that Anisfield-Wolf prize, and the 15 years it took her to interview 1,200 participants in the migration. She joked that “if this book were a human being it would be in high school and dating—that’s how long it took.”
“The freedom to be able to decide for oneself what to do with your God-given talents is a very new phenomenon for African-Americans in this country,” Wilkerson observed, noting that some audiences have a hard time imagining a time when stepping too slowly off a sidewalk for a white pedestrian could cost a black person his life.
In conversation with Hawaiian high school students—”beautifully removed” from the realities of the segregated South— Wilkerson described for them driving in a region that prohibited black motorists from passing a white one. Students suggested honking or tailgating, indignant at the notion of being stymied behind the wheel. “You had to stay in your place,” she reminded them. “This is what it means to be in a caste system.”
Randell McShepard, co-founder of PolicyBridge, said reading Wilkerson’s book “shook me to the core.” Politician Nina Turner called it “riveting, beautiful” and a lesson in “using our two hands, to reach forward and to reach back.” David Abbott, executive director of the Gund Foundation, said the great gift of Warmth was “that we see ourselves in the story when we read books like this.”
The audience applauded the notion of making Wilkerson’s book required reading in high school. And McShepard announced that PolicyBridge was adding a sixth core value—social justice—to its work this year.
A 200-page book on the untimely death of a spouse hardly seems like it would make for light summer reading. But as I’ve devoured Elizabeth Alexander‘s new memoir, The Light of The World, I’ve discovered that there’s beauty in loss, there’s sparkle in remembrance.
The poet lost her husband, painter and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus (pronounced Fee-kray Geb-reh-yess-oos) in April 2012, days after his 50th birthday. Their 15-year union produced two sons, Solomon and Simon, and a cozy life in Connecticut, where Alexander is a professor at Yale University. She composed “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration; a year later she won the 2010 Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize.
Light does not begin with her husband’s passing, with Alexander preferring we get to know the man before we get to know the ghost. We get to peek into their daily courtship, the mundane aspects of a relationship—leaving for work, waiting up for a partner to get home—taking on a heightened importance. She paints a portrait of a man filled with pride for his Eritrean heritage and an extended family that spanned the globe. Still fresh from her loss, she decided to write this memoir to “fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget.”
Alexander insists that she knew she would marry her husband at first sight, confiding that she felt a “visceral torque” after laying eyes on her future beloved. But perhaps more powerfully, Alexander is able to show how much her husband loved her, how much of his life was dedicated to bringing light to hers.
Readers holding their breath for the details of Ghebreyesus’ death should know that it comes quickly. Here, the pain and uncertainty of death arrive fresh, even though we know what story we signed up to read. Alexander wrestles with the brutal unfairness of it all: “The slim one who eats oatmeal and flaxseed is the one who dies, while the plump one who eats bacon unabashed stays alive.”
Their story is overwhelmingly and achingly beautiful, with passages that elevate ho-hum Sunday dinners to love-drenched culinary affairs. (The inclusion of a few of Ghebreyesus’ best recipes only tease the senses; I’ve got my eye on the shrimp barka.) Their whole lives were art, from the music to the food to the telling of it all—it is a fitting tribute that one of her husband’s paintings adorns the cover.
“What are the odds that we would end up in the same place and fall in love?” she mused. “Once upon a time, halfway around the world, two women were pregnant at the same time in very different places and their children grew up and found each other.” What are the odds, indeed.
More than 200 prominent authors—among them Anisfield-Wolf winners Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie—have publicly objected to the PEN American Center’s decision to present French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo its Free Expression Courage award. Gunmen aggrieved by the magazine’s depiction of Islam targeted the controversial Paris weekly in January and killed a dozen people.
The signatories of an April letter to PEN argue that power and privilege must be considered when defining courageousness in satire: “The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.” One of the critics is former PEN American president Francine Prose.
Defending the decision, her successor, Andrew Solomon, co-wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, noting that, “Satire is often vulnerable to being construed as hate.” Solomon, who won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf prize in nonfiction for “Far From the Tree,” expressed respect for those criticizing the award, but argues their emphasis is misplaced.
“I think that if we don’t endorse people who are taking these courageous stances,” Solomon told NPR, “if we don’t recognize the enormous personal risks they’re taking and if we don’t fully acknowledge that in taking that risk they keep a public discourse alive that otherwise is in danger of being entirely closed down, that we miss the purpose of standing up for free speech.”
Charlie Hebdo editor Gérard Biard is expected to accept the award on behalf of the magazine at PEN America’s annual gala in Manhattan May 5.
“I want to hear you say there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Martin Luther King,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer lectured community activist Deray McKesson in a now infamous four-minute interview.
“You are suggesting that broken windows are worse than broken spines,” McKesson answered, contrasting property damage with the injuries that killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody.
The cable network renowned for ambitious storytelling has optioned the rights to Marlon James’latest novel, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year in fiction. The book paints a complex portrait of Jamaica, hinged on the1976 assassination attempt on reggae legend Bob Marley and told in more than 30 distinct narrative voices.
James will adopt the script along with Eric Roth, who won an Academy Award in 1994 for the screenplay of “Forrest Gump.” No premiere date has been released.
James, an English professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., will take a yearlong sabbatical to concentrate on the adaptation. He told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that transitioning his work to the small screen represents an opportunity for more character exposition.
“There are some characters in the book who are minor who I’d love to dig into in a bigger way,” he said. “And I know that Jamaica may be wary that the main character, Josey Wales, is a gangster, a bad man. But you can look to New Jersey to see how they deal with ‘The Sopranos.’ They don’t take pride in the criminality, but they look at the show and say, this [setting] is a place of deep, meaningful stories.”
At 84, Toni Morrison is full of reflection on her successes and incidents where she might request a do-over.
“It’s not profound regret,” she told NPR’s Terry Gross. “It’s just a wiping up of tiny little messes that you didn’t recognize as mess when they were going on.”
Morrison’s press tour for her eleventh novel, God Help the Child, has been full of little fascinating admissions like this. (My favorite parts of the recent lengthy New York Times profile are the quick revelations that Morrison has never once worn jeans and that she considers sleeping on ironed sheets one of life’s greatest luxuries.)
Her vulnerability is heightened during the NPR interview as she riffs on the pains and shifts that accompany older adulthood. As she has aged, her circle has become smaller; as a result, “there is this boredom or the absence of something to do.”
But the conversations all lead back to her novel, a haunting tale of childhood traumas sans redress. Bride, the main character in God Help the Child, is a dark-skinned cosmetics executive struggling with the weight of rejection that has plagued her entire life. In her review for Newsday, Anisfield-Wolf manager Karen Long calls the novel “hypnotic” and praises Morrison for her vivid language and pacing: “Morrison has a Shakespearean sense of tragedy, and that gift imbues “God Help the Child.”
The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 80th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2015 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners heighten our perceptions on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, we honor ground-breaking research into the lives of specific families enslaved on two New World plantations, a tour-de-force fictional portrayal of Jamaica spun in multiple voices, poetry from both coasts that is erotic and grave, and the indispensable, morally towering scholarship of David Brion Davis.”
Gates directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. He praised David Brion Davis as a foundational scholar whose Problem of Slavery trilogy is an essential work on the cultural, political and intellectual history of Western slavery and abolition. Joining Gates in selecting the winners each year are poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama.
Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronn Richard said the breadth of topics taken up by this year’s winners is gratifying, and reflects founder and donor Edith Anisfield Wolf’s belief in the power of the written word to elevate and enlighten.
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards rose from the philanthropic vision of one woman who realized that literature could advance our thinking and beliefs about race, culture, ethnicity, and our shared humanity,” Richard said. “We are proud to showcase books that are beautifully written and enhance the urgent, national – and local – conversations around race and cultural difference.”
Past winners include four writers who went on to win Nobel prizes – Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka.
Meet Our 2015 Winners
Jericho Brown, The New Testament, Poetry
In the language of the blues and the Bible, poet Jericho Brown crafts 40 poems for The New Testament, a meditation on race, masculinity and gay sexuality. Anisfield Wolf juror Rita Dove calls this book “a reminder that outrage is a seductive disease — we would rather rage or weep than find a way to love in spite of the pain. Brown’s poems brim with love for this damaged world without letting the world off the hook.” And poet Rae Armantrout adds her praise, noting: “Like the other new testament, it’s about what love can do.” Brown teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.
Marilyn Chin, Hard Love Province, Poetry
Hard Love Province is the fourth collection of poetry from Marilyn Chin, whose book mourns the loss of a beloved in a world that seems inured to suffering. “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,” observes Dove. Among the 23 poems are One Child Has Brown Eyes and Black President. Adrienne Rich described Chin’s work as “powerful, uncompromised and unerring.” Born in Hong Kong, Chin is a professor at San Diego State University.
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, Fiction
In scalding yet musical language, A Brief History of Seven Killings hinges on the true 1976 attempt to assassinate reggae legend Bob Marley. Novelist Marlon James just calls him The Singer, and sets this character among a pinwheel of voices: CIA agents, child gangsters, a Rolling Stone reporter, drug dealers, corrupt politicians and a woman seriously diverted by one night with the musician. Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates praised the “superb risk-taking” of James, whose story brims with profanity, violence, dialect, tenderness and cruelty. James teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, Nonfiction
More than 40 years in the making, A Tale of Two Plantations is 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. Richard S. Dunn, a University of Pennsylvania historian, uses his findings to ask about enslaved motherhood, the effects of interracial sex on the meaning of family and how individuals fared upon emancipation. Oates calls the book magisterial, noting, “It is refreshing to encounter a historian who doesn’t include a forced conclusion.”
David Brion Davis is a preeminent American historian whose 1967 book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, earned an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. It anchors a groundbreaking trilogy that culminated last year in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which in March won the National Book Critics Circle award. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin writes that Davis’ influence is deep, having changed “traditional approaches to intellectual history by embedding ideas in social and political action and institutions.” Born in Denver in 1927, Davis is an Army veteran who retired from Yale University in 2001. He lives in Connecticut.
Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow Lisa Nielson had the honor of introducing Chang-Rae Lee to the packed audience at the 2015 Writers Center Stage series, sponsored by the Cuyahoga County Public Library and Case Western Reserve University. Her remarks, reprinted here, remind us why these conversations—about strong books and the authors that birth them—matter.
by Lisa Nielson
Cleveland has a long history of celebrating literature and the arts. As many of you know, we are the home of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, now about to celebrate her 80th year, which is one of the most important and inspiring book awards in the country. They were started by Cleveland philanthropist and poet Edith Anisfield Wolf in 1935 to honor books focused on what was then called “race relations.” Today, the list reflects an awe-inspiring array of thinking and scholarship on human diversity, including ground-breaking studies on slavery in the US, racism and genocide, neurodiversity and disability, immigrant experiences and global diasporas.
Each September, I ride downtown with my students on the Healthline to attend the awards ceremony. Sharing the evening with them is one of the highpoints of my year. My students have a great time and are also unanimous that the food is excellent. I mention this because this year we have had the pleasure of having two past winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book awards grace our campus: Zadie Smith last September and this evening, Dr. Chang-rae Lee.
Doing justice to Dr. Lee’s amazing career in a few minutes is impossible, so I’ll mention just some of his many accomplishments. He was born in Seoul, Korea, and moved with his family to the US as a young child. After receiving his BA in English from Yale, Dr. Lee found a job working as an equities analyst, but continued to write. He went on to earn an MFA in creative writing from the University of Oregon, where he was later hired as an assistant professor. He then ran and taught in the MFA program at Hunter College in NYC. Since 2002, Dr. Lee has been a Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University. Dr. Lee has written five, highly-acclaimed novels, as well as short stories and articles for the New Yorker, New York Times, Granta, and many other prominent publications in the US and abroad.
His first novel, Native Speaker (1995) won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Best First Novel, the American Book Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and an ALA Notable Book of the Year Award. In 1999, the New Yorker listed him as one of the 20 best American writers under 40. His second novel, A Gesture Life (1999), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction in 2000, and The Surrendered (2010) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Dr. Lee’s most recent novel, On Such a Full Sea, published in 2014, was a finalist for the National Book Critic Circle Award for Fiction.
To me, reading his work is a full sensorial immersion. His writing is gorgeous, elegant, sensuous, and often funny. Dr. Lee’s novels address fundamental questions about the nature and composition of identity and cultural assimilation. Yet, his definitions of identity are not limited to ethnicity, gender, language, social class, or other academic categories, but how these aspects of our selves intersect with each other, the choices we make and our communities. He defies genre labels by writing in different vernaculars and slipping into the skins of men and women of all ages and backgrounds. Using the canvas of recent history, such as the Korean War, the abuses of comfort women by the Japanese during WWII, the experiences and assimilation of new Americans, Dr. Lee invites the reader into what Gloria Anzaldua called the borderlands; breaking us out of our hyphenated binaries and assumptions that identity is forever fixed.
In each novel, Lee places us – sometimes gently, sometimes not – on the path of a journey-in-progress. We are tossed into the deep end of life where we bump up against those swimmers we encounter as we move from one body of experience to the next. While on the way, we realize that although our complex human identities may include important components such as ethnicity, gender, or privilege, it is our relationship to others that gives meaning and definition to our ever-changing selves. This odyssey is perhaps most fully realized in Dr. Lee’s most recent novel, On Such a Full Sea, which is a futuristic imagining of the world following environmental disaster. In it, we follow the journey of Fan, who is part of a colony of workers originally transported from Asia to grow vegetables and fish in what is now called “B-Mor”, the former Baltimore, for the wealthy elites of the Charters. She is a skilled diver who immerses herself in the rough world as she seeks her lost lover, Reg, who has been stolen because he is C(ancer)-free. The fact of her journey causes her home community to rebel against the carefully padded limitations they have been surrounded by, and she fundamentally changes the people who encounter her.
Through Fan, Henry Park of Native Speaker, Doc Hata in A Gesture Life, Hector and June in The Surrendered, we are reminded that all of us swim together, immersed in the world; and that the ripples we cause as we move forward lap unavoidably against those of the people we encounter along the way. When we dive deep, we find we are all capable of changing and being changed.
Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studies, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.
Longtime biographer Arnold Rampersad said his new volume, The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, reveals a “deeper, more complicated” man than the public has ever known. Sitting comfortably on stage at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, co-editors Rampersad and David Roessel, professor at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, spoke on the complexities of the man called the voice of “Negro America.”
Rampersad, who has twice beenhonored with an Anisfield-Wolf award for his work on Langston Hughes, said that the writer’s calling came to him early in life. “He was going to take on one of the most extraordinary challenges that anyone could take on—that is to be an African-American in the 1920s and decide, ‘I want to be a writer. And oh, by the way, I want to write about African-American culture,'” Rampersad said. “Not the number one topic in literature by any stretch of the imagination.”
Roessel praises Hughes’ prescience: “From this early age, he knew that people would be interested in his letters. They understood that they were doing something that had not been done before and the world was going to take notice. And it’s nice that the world had.”
Watch their conversation in the video below.
For the first time in its 45-year history, Essence magazine will not use a cover model.
Instead, the African-American publication has dedicated its February 2015 issue to “Black Lives Matter,” the social justice movement that has ignited in the wake of the killing of unarmed black people by law enforcement.
“Pictures are powerful, but so are words,” editor-in-chief Vanessa DeLuca writes in her Letter from the Editor. “After I spoke with the editorial team — with all our souls aching for answers — we knew immediately what we had to do: Tell the story of this tipping point in our history in America. So this February we are focusing our attention on the daring modern-day civil rights movement we are all bearing witness to and making a bold move of our own: a cover blackout.”
“We must love ourselves even if — and perhaps especially if — others do not,” Wilkerson writes. “We must keep our faith even as we work to make our country live up to its creed. And we must know deep in our bones and in our hearts that if the ancestors could survive the Middle Passage, we can survive anything.”
This issue will be available on newsstands January 9.
On a recent sunny Sunday morning, four celebrated American writers rose early to meet for breakfast and chew over the merits of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“I worked as a Kentucky Fried Chicken hostess,” said novelist Louise Erdrich, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for A Plague of Doves. “And I’ll just say it: the secret ingredient is sugar.”
Marlon James, whose ambitious new book about Jamaica, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is already anointed one of the best of 2014, insisted that KFC tastes better when eaten outside the United States.
“It is a joy to be back in Dayton and to be with such fantastic writers,” declaring Adam Johnson, who won a Pulitzer for The Orphan Master’s Son, his tour-de-force story set in modern North Korea. The Stanford University professor said that such warm, KFC-infused chatter “can only happen in Dayton.”
The fourth member of the impromptu breakfast club, Gilbert King, saw “Devil in the Grove,” his narrative of a game-changing civil rights battle in Jim Crow Florida, win a surprise nonfiction Pulitzer in 2013. He stayed mum, however, about fast-food chicken.
All four writers relished one another’s company and the rest of the throng convened for the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an outgrowth of the Bosnian Peace Accords negotiated in 1995 at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base outside Dayton.
Begun in 2006, the initial Dayton prizes attracted “about 13 people for the first gathering,” said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of an honor that elevates literature fostering “peace, social justice and global understanding.”
“Part of my work has been to tell stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things,” Erdrich said. “My role is to be there as a writer and never to judge my characters — to understand the basis of behavior when it is cruel.”
Wearing a warm smile and dark, modest clothes, Erdrich’s beautiful posture reflected a kind of moral erectness. “I am not a peaceful writer; I am a troubled one, longing for peace,” she told the organizers. She declined to pose with a book when a reader coaxed her, and she rejected the notion that writing centers her.
“No, I don’t think it helps me find personal peace,” she said. “But I am addicted to the joy that comes over me when I write a good paragraph, or even a good sentence.”
Erdrich, 60, described taking her first plane flight from her North Dakota home to attend college at Dartmouth, where the school teams were still informally called Indians. “The outrage and the uproar that happened at this Ivy League college at changing their name was shocking to me, but after many years, they did it.”
She noted that the University of North Dakota has finally retired its “Fighting Sioux” moniker and reported that sportscasters in her hometown, Minneapolis, won’t even say the “R word,” the nickname of the Washington, D.C. football team. Its roots lie in the bounty hunters were paid in the 1860s for dead Native Americans.
Also on stage at Sinclair Community College was this year’s fiction winner, Bob Shacochis, sporting a silver mane of hair, a wry smile and an open-throated shirt. His novel The Woman Who Lost Her Soul ranges over 700 pages, 50 years and four continents as it explores the unintended consequences of American foreign policy. Shacochis, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Haiti, told the audience in downtown Dayton that the “woman” in the title is the United States.
The nonfiction winner, Karima Bennoune, grew up partly in Algeria and partly in the Midwestern United States. Her book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, draws on global fieldwork and penetrating interviews to document hundreds of instances of resistance to radical Islam. Bennoune, a professor of international law at the University of California-Davis, decried how little is known about the resisters, and called to task Westerners on both the left and right who exaggerate and distort the stories of people in Muslim countries. She pointed to her father’s courageous resistance to censorship in his Algerian classroom, and the Afghanis who fought for the lives of their cultural treasures against the Taliban as if the statues “were their children.”
“If you want to know what Muslims think, you may want to ask them, Bill Maher,” she said pointedly in Dayton. “God bless Ben Affleck in calling out Maher, but he is wrong to say ISIS couldn’t fill a AA ballpark in Charlotte, because it could. Bill and Ben should actually start talking to people who know more about this than we do.”
As the runners-up in fiction and non-fiction took the microphone – Margaret Wrinkle for “Wash” and Jo Roberts for “Contested Land, Contested Memory” – they enhanced an intellectually vigorous, warm, collegial session. Wrinkle, a seventh-generation daughter of slave-holders, spoke about the spiritual underpinnings of her slavery fiction, and Roberts spoke eloquently about listening to all types of people ensnared in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Publisher, editor and composer Christopher Cerf, who moderated, beamed at the end. “As someone who has heard about the death of publishing far too much, as you can see, it is not dead yet, and not dead in the cause of peace.”
“When you’re not born in the U.S. and you’re a person of African descent, in some ways identifying as black becomes a political choice,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told Tavis Smiley during a recent appearance on his PBS show. “I’m very happily black.”
Adichie was on hand to discuss her most recent novel, Americanah, now available in paperback. A love story that spans three continents, Americanah is about many things—with race and immigration at the forefront.
“I wanted to write about a kind of immigration that is familiar to me,” Adichie said. “When we hear about Africans emigrating, we think of people who have run away from burned villages and war and poverty. And that story is important to tell but it’s not the story I know. I wanted to talk about the Africa I know, which is that the middle-class educated people are leaving…because they want more choices.”
The pair discussed Adichie’s decision to come to the United States at 19, her refusal to speak with an American accent, and that “creative terror” that strikes when she sits down to write. The interview is worth watching in full. Take a look:
“Cleveland has always been incredibly nice to me,” novelist Zadie Smith said as she took the podium at Case Western Reserve University. Her last visit to Northeast Ohio was back in 2006, when she was on hand to accept the Anisfield-Wolf prize for fiction for her third novel, On Beauty.
This year, Smith was the first author to appear at Writers Center Stage, a literary series sponsored by the Cuyahoga County Public Library and Case Western Reserve University. Clad in a tan blazer and jeans, Smith began her talk, entitled, “Why Write? Creativity and Refusal.” The title borrows from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write.”
Smith, 38, told the audience that she appreciates the wisdom that comes with experience. “I much prefer writing at this age than when I was 24,” she said. Her debut novel, White Teeth, was published when she was 23.
Smith’s talk focused on the overwhelming trend of writers striving to become megabrands and conflating popularity with significance. “Most of my time with students is spent trying to press upon them the idea that creativity is about something more than finding the perfect audience for the perfect product,” Smith said. “To my mind, a true ‘creative’ should not simply seek to satisfy a pre-existing demand but instead transform our notion of what it is we want.”
Some of the best creative writing can be found in hip-hop, Smith says, but now, looking at artists like Kanye West and the L.A. rap collective Odd Future, rap music has become less about the message and more about the “branding opportunities.”
Smith, who teaches creative writing at New York University, tells her students that the reality of the publishing industry has changed. “I have to ask them sometimes, ‘Why do you think all the writers you admire are teaching in this building?’ A day job is a day job and historically writers have always had one,” Smith said, adding that her father had aspirations of becoming a photographer. Instead, for years he held a job folding and distributing pieces of direct mail “that you toss in the rubbish bin as soon as you get them.”
Earlier in the day, Smith spoke with a more intimate audience of university faculty and students for a free-flowing session about the writing process. “My experience with writing is writing sentences,” she said plainly. “What I’m thinking of is different kinds of sentences. It’s very hard for a writer to fool themselves about what they’re doing.”
Smith recently attended the PEN awards in New York where she presented the Lifetime Achievement prize to Louise Erdrich, a 2009 Anisfield-Wolf winner. What struck her, she said, was how many male winners mentioned their children as they accepted their awards. “Fathers are more involved now than they’ve ever been in the course of human history,” she said. “Dickens had 10 children. Tolstoy had 13. But they weren’t helping to raise them. This shift is going to change how we write, what we produce.”
Her writing process is informed by the realities of her life. A mother of two small children, she commits five hours a day to write at the library, and she brings her lunch with her to avoid wasting time. “Some writers say they won’t stop for the day until they’ve written 5,000 words,” she said. “But I couldn’t do that. It would be a cycle of failure.”
Instead, Smith said she fights the profound anxiety of a writer’s life and uses it to her advantage. “I wrote an essay that will be published soon about the advertisement that I can see from my apartment, because I literally never leave the house,” she said. “Some writers can go to Africa, traveling all over the world. But you have to do what you can with what you have and make the most of it.”
George Lamming, who spent decades as a leader of the Caribbean literary Diaspora, won our 2014 Lifetime Achievement award for his deeply political books that critique colonialism and neo-colonialism. His first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, drew accolades from Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Wright. Health concerns prevented Lamming from attending our 2014 ceremony in person, but we were able to film him in his native Barbados for a brief Q&A:
Hunt, 46, had just met with Abrahamson in Canada, where the director is set to film Emma Donaghue’s suspenseful bestseller “Room.” Hunt told his Cleveland audience, gathered in the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, that he and the Irish director hit it off and are excited about bringing “Neverhome” to film.
It tells the story of Ash Thompson, formerly Constance Thompson, who leaves her Indiana farm disguised as a Union soldier to join the Civil War. Hunt said hundreds of women, both in the North and South, took up arms – some for love, some for money, some for adventure. If they were discovered, they were often accused of spying or insanity and drummed out, only to walk down the road and join another regimen. “One of the women did this seven times,” he said.
A warm audience greeted Hunt in Beachwood with a close reading of the text. “It is such a pleasure to be back in this room,” he said. “I associate it with one of the happiest weeks of my life.” A year ago Hunt accepted his Anisfield-Wolf award for “Kind One,” a mediation on revenge and slavery set on an antebellum Kentucky pig farm.
The new novel, like “Kind One,” springs organically from its opening sentence: “I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” Hunt said he wrote the book in a blistering three weeks from the spark of that sentence, and then spent two-and-a-half years refining it. He worked to stay true to the “understated fierceness” of that single narrative voice, and to pay attention to the ways voice can conceal and reveal gender.
Asked why the reader has no solid sense of the physical Ash Thompson, Hunt observed that the Civil War was fought largely by boys, whose character was still indistinct, especially in photographs. And he mentioned David Hodges’ essay on the dilemma of historical fiction – no character says: “Now I will put on my hobnailed boots.”
And although Hunt’s scholarship ran deep and wide, he wanted the voice of the opening sentence to be the reader’s gateway – not photographs, not military maneuvers, not all the accumulated frames readers keep at hand for this war. The voice itself is a hybrid, he notes, “not exactly a 19th-century voice, but informed by it.”
And, if Element Pictures executives have their way, one day soon readers will hear it in an actor’s mouth.
Brooklyn, N.Y. — The Brooklyn Book Festival—a celebratory, cerebral, free event that runs one Sunday in September—attracted tens of thousands of readers, and this year, a spike of controversy.
Anisfield-Wolf jurors Rita Dove and Joyce Carol Oates read from their work, soaking up warm applause, while two recent fiction winners—Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie—signed a petition calling on the festival to sever its support from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
“It is deeply regrettable that the Festival has chosen to accept funding from the Israeli government just weeks after Israel’s bloody 50-day assault on the Gaza Strip, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians – including 500 children – dead,” asserts the petition, distributed by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel. “Sustaining a partnership with the Israeli consulate at this time amounts to a tacit endorsement of Israel’s many violations of international law and Palestinian human rights.”
The nub of the criticism centered on a small aspect of the festival: the sponsorship of Israeli writer Assaf Gavron by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Gavron, whose much-lauded novel, “The Hilltop,” will publish in the United States in October, participated in a panel entitled “A Sense of Place: Writing From Within and Without.”
Diaz, who won both a 2008 Pulitzer Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” stayed away, as did the Pakistani writer Shamsie, who won for the novel “Burnt Shadows” in 2010. But a number of the signatories—New Yorker writers Elif Batuman and Sasha Frere-Jones, author Greg Grandin and essayist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts—also participated as speakers at the festival.
So did two other Anisfield-Wolf winners, Zadie Smith, a Londoner who won in 2006 for her novel “On Beauty” and James McBride, whose best-selling memoir “The Color of Water” earned the prize in 1997 and whose most recent book, “The Good Lord Bird” surprised the bookies by winning a National Book Award last year.
Appearing on the main stage with other poets laureate, Dove praised 19-year-old Ramya Ramana, who recited a moving piece called “A Testimony in Progress.” For her part, Ramana described Dove as one of her essential inspirations.
In a panel titled “Influence of the Real,” Oates spoke of her latest story collection, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” in which an elderly Robert Frost is visited by a disturbing young woman in the title story. “Each of these stories jolted me awake,” said the critic Alan Cheuse, “like a bark from a monstrous dog.”
Meanwhile, an affable James McBride appeared on a panel with novelist Jeffery Renard Allen, whose dense and beautiful historical novel “Song of the Shank” scored a cover review this summer in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times Book Review.
“I wanted to do something different,” McBride said of his comic slavery novel. “Many books about race are [dropping his voice to sing] ‘Ohhh, Freedom, Ohhh Freedom.’ I didn’t want to read that book. I wanted to write to the common place. I was thinking about the kid who reads Spider-Man comics.”
Allen, whose “Song of the Shank” has comic elements, said a famous black writer told him that the makers of the film “12 Years a Slave” forgot that black people like to laugh. Allen added that Langston Hughes entitled one of his novels, “Not Without Laughter.”
McBride, who allowed that he’d “had my buns toasted” over his irreverent portrait of Frederick Douglass in “The Good Lord Bird,” said that the sainted abolitionist lived under one roof with his black wife and his white mistress, a set-up that the writer found “too delicious” to pass up.
The festival, now in its ninth year, awarded McBride its BoBi prize for “an author whose body of work exemplifies or speaks to the spirit of Brooklyn.”