A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is an intoxicating first book about intersecting lives in war-torn Chechnya. The novel begins as Russian officers burn down a Muslim home and “disappear” the father Dokka but can’t find his daughter Haava. A neighbor hides the 8-year-old girl in a barely-functioning hospital. Novelist Anthony Marra sets this story over five taut days, as the child is hunted and the adults around her try to navigate radically different circumstances. Marra teaches at Stanford University. We caught up with Marra a few hours before he accepted the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction. Hear his remarks in the brief video below:
Ari Shavit, a columnist for Jerusalem’s daily newspaper Haaretz, spent five years writing My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel in English and Hebrew simultaneously. A former Israeli paratrooper, peace advocate and great-grandson of Victorian-era Zionists, Shavit carefully examines a fraught and difficult history, interweaving family memoir, multiple documents and hundreds of interviews with Arabs and Jews. This important, clarifying book asks why Israel was created, what it has achieved, what went wrong and if it can survive.
We spent a few minutes with Shavit prior to this year’s ceremony, and he expressed his gratitude to the jury for recognizing his work:
Adrian Matejka’s “The Big Smoke” is a nuanced, polyphonic book that explores the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African- American heavyweight world champion. A fan of the sport, Matejka was moved by this son of emancipated slaves – born in Texas just 13 years after the end of the Civil War – who loved Shakespeare, Verdi’s operas, travel abroad and a series of white women. The Big Smoke follows Johnson until 1912 in 52 poems. Matejka spent eight years researching and writing this book. He teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington.
We caught up with Matejka in a few quiet moments before this year’s ceremony to hear his thoughts on being honored with the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for poetry:
Faded fight posters on the walls at Cleveland’s Old Angle boxing gym served as an authentic backdrop for the poetry of Adrian Matejka, 2014 winner of an Anisfield-Wolf book award. Matejka’s 52-poem collection, “The Big Smoke,” centers on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, who earned the crown in 1908.
Gym owner Gary Horwitz rearranged his gym and his week to host. Dave Lucas, a founder of the “Brews & Prose” literary series, canceled his September plans and moved his audience from the Market Garden Brewery down W. 25th St. to the gym. The night featured Matejka’s reading, two live boxing demonstrations, and dollar bratwurst. Clad in a white T-shirt bearing Johnson’s likeness, Matejka, 42, took to the middle of the ring to read a selection of poems.
“Johnson was a folk hero, a contradictory figure,” Matejka said, testifying to the complexity of the boxer’s life. Born in Galveston, Texas in 1878 to former slaves, Johnson became one of the first African American celebrities. He flaunted an extravagant wardrobe and listened to Verdi’s arias while he trained.
“I didn’t mention that he had gold teeth, but he did,” Matejka added to his description later. “I didn’t mention that he used to change his clothes four to five times a day, but he did.”
Speaking to the crowd through an old-school boxing mic, Matejka began with the same poem that opens his book: “Battle Royale.” The title refers to a winner-takes-all fight in which black men were blindfolded and placed in a ring to fight for the amusement of white men. Last man standing won. Johnson got his start as a boxer in a battle royal in 1899. He won $1.50 for beating four other men and caught the eye of a local promoter. By 1910, he would headline in the “Fight of the Century” against heavyweight boxer Tommy Burns and see a $65,000 payday (today more than $1 million).
Johnson’s conspicuous glamour riled his white critics (and some black critics, as well — most notably activist Booker T. Washington). The physically imposing fighter – easily outweighing opponents by 40 pounds or more – took his lashes for being an unapologetically bold black man in the Jim Crow south.
As one of the most photographed figures of his day, Johnson had no shortage of press. Matejka used these references to create “Alias,” a sonnet composed entirely of callous monikers given to the boxer by mainstream newspapers like the Los Angeles Times:
The Big Smoke. Jack Johnson. Flash
nigger. The Big Cinder. Black animal.
Jack. Texas Watermelon Picaninny.
Mr. Johnsing. Colored man with cash.
His rendering of Johnson made the sport of boxing more accessible to some of those in the audience. “There’s something extra besides the brutality,” one woman told Matejka during the question-and-answer period.
In the midst of the demonstration bout that followed Matejka’s reading, boxer Darryl Smith received a gash near his eye. A little pressure from a towel, a dab of Vaseline — and the fight went on. Time for round two.
Laird Hunt’s transfixing new novel “Neverhome” unspools in the voice of a Civil War soldier. It works upon the reader like a haunting. The narrator is Ash Thompson, a young woman passing as a man into the uniform of the Union.
The opening line: “I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” Ash Thompson—born Constance—is telling us about her young husband Bartholomew and her strong desire to leave their Indiana farm to see the world: “I wanted to drink different waters, feel different heats. Stand with my comrades atop the ruin of old ideas. Walk forward with a thousand others. Plant my boot and steel my eye and not run. I said all of this to my dead mother, spoke it down through the dirt: there was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark. We both of us, me and Bartholomew, knew what my mother would have said in response and it was like she was saying it each time I asked her what she thought.
“Go on. Go on and see what you got.”
So the reader and Ash are launched. Toward the end of the story, an educated woman in Springfield, Ohio takes in the remnants of this subterfuge and murmurs, “Penelope gone to the war and Odysseus staying home.” Ash can only reply, “Ma’am?”
Indeed, some dozens, perhaps hundreds, of American women chose to bind their breasts and fight instead of wait during the War Between the States. On the pages of “Neverhome,” they occasionally recognize each other. Hunt credits, “most crucially,” in his acknowledgements “An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1865” by Lauren Cook Burgess.
As erudite as Hunt is, and as careful his research, “Neverhome” casts the powerful spell of fiction, hurtling its reader into “the stripped and battle-burned land” as lyrically as the best war novels. Hunt, 46, a University of Denver professor in Boulder, Col., won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award last year for “Kind One,” a slavery-shadowed story anchored on a Kentucky pig farm. (He will return to Northeast Ohio to speak about “Neverhome” at 7 p.m., Tuesday, September 23 to the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.)
Hunt has a gift for rural voices and rural ways, and for teleporting us into the mid-19th century American landscape. The thrill of “Neverhome” is akin to the one Robert Olmstead delivered in “Coal Black Horse,” and, like Olmstead’s, the cadences of Ash Thompson can be almost Biblical:
“Nor did I, nor any of those around me I am proud to say, slow down when the cannon fire grew so hot it seemed like the injury was already being done to us before we had fairly arrived and that we were already part of the world’s everlasting grief and glory, and we could see the trees crashing down destroyed in the heights and hear the sound, from all quarters, of hurt men letting the air out of their throats.”
The reader, mesmerized, swallows whole that singular beautiful sentence. There are many others. The vocabulary in “Neverhome” is perfect – plain and strange and tuned as true as a pitch fork. Hunt is a student of stories and story-telling, and he mixes fable and song into “Neverhome,” even more than he did in “Kind One.”
And though “Neverhome” is not about slavery, the peculiar institution casts its evil pall here. Ash comes upon bloody shackles in an abandoned shack, and later a dilapidated gallows near “a old slave-selling emporium.” Cross-dressing affords Ash some life-saving trickery, and it provides Hunt some plot twists that feel proto-contemporary. Hunt is interested in the human mysteries – one being sex. Another is aggression, and the damage the aggressor does to self in the pursuit of another’s blood and pain.
So Hunt, like Homer, sets his protagonist on a road to war. She, like the Greek king, is cunning. She, like he, is captured. Song is made of their stories and so is woe. Eventually, Odysseus returns after long years to Ithaca.
In this spare, splendid novel, readers will burn to know if Ash Thompson can find her way home.
Anthony Marra startled the literary world in 2013 with his stunner of a debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. His fresh, Chechnya-inspired book won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and will bring its author to Cleveland for the first time. He follows in the footsteps of Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, who spoke last year about his own war novel, “The Yellow Birds” on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.
Marra, 30, will speak and read at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 10, in the intimate setting of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case. “Wars shatter families, relationships, even stories,” Marra has said. “But Constellation is less a story about war than a story about ordinary people rebuilding their lives during and in the aftermath of war. It’s a story not about rebels and soldiers, but about surgeons, nurses, and teachers, each of whom tries to salvage and recreate what has been lost.”
The writer first found his way to the Caucuses as an undergraduate abroad. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Oakland, Calif., and teaches at Stanford University. His novel, set over five days between the two modern Chechnya wars, has many sources in nonfiction and fiction. One is to the work of assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya; another is the Anisfield-Wolf winner Edward P. Jones.
In crackling scenes flecked with notes of mordant humor, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena contains six central characters, and begins with an 8-year-old girl hiding in the forest as the Russian federals burn her home and “disappear” her father. A neighbor determines to hide the child in a mostly-destroyed hospital where one doctor and one nurse remains. “When I traveled to Chechnya,” Marra remarked, “I was repeatedly surprised by the jokes I heard people cracking. It was a brand of dark, fatalistic humor imprinted with the absurdity that has become normalized there over the past two decades.”
The novel won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. Marra earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied with novelist Adam Johnson at Stanford. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Narrative magazine, the 2011 Pushcart Prize anthology, and the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012.
The Baker-Nord event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Get more information and RSVP for the event HERE.
The melodic beckoning of Caribbean steel-pan drum greeted guests at the Midwestern premier of Dutch filmmaker Ida Does’ Derek Walcott documentary, “Poetry Is An Island.” The title, and inspiration for the film, came from Walcott’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. A dozen years later, Walcott won an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement award.
Jointly hosted by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards and Karamu House, the afternoon began with Karamu actors staging a powerful 15-minute excerpt from Walcott’s 1970 play, “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” Karamu last produced the drama in 2006, when it was named Best Stage Production by Cleveland Scene.
The documentary begins with a handful of Walcott’s confidantes: his childhood friends, Arthur Jacobs and Sir Dunstan St. Omer; his domestic partner of 26 years, Sigrid Nama; his former personal assistant, Michelle Serieux among others. Despite their various roles in Walcott’s life, they all make similar observations: Walcott is a serious man, with a serious work ethic, who sees the world as few people do.
Born 84 years ago on the island of St. Lucia, Walcott came to see his early efforts to paint and write as an homage to his father, Warwick Walcott, a painter and a poet, who died at age 31 of an infection when his son was a toddler. By the time Walcott was 14, he had published his first poem in the local newspaper; at 18 he had written enough to compile his first book. “I asked my mother for $200, which was, I don’t even know how much that would be today, and she gave it to me. I sold my books for $1 a copy and I made the money back.” Walcott’s eyes twinkled. “But I don’t think I paid her back,” he added with a laugh.
Does’ film-making style is that of inconspicuous observer, but occasionally viewers get to sit across from Walcott and take in his words, one on one. In a moving scene, Walcott reads a poem about his parents and tears begin to pool in the corners of his eyes. “Oh, this is wicked,” he said as he paused to compose himself. His love is palpable.
Most of Walcott’s work centers on St. Lucia, and it is revelatory to see him in his element. Yet the artist expressed considerable frustration over a dream that has stalled: the creation of an artist’s colony on Rat Island, a small, unoccupied bit of land off the St. Lucian coast. After Walcott won the Nobel Prize, he built a home, and donated some prize money toward an international arts center. But there has been no discernible progress; nor are there any museums or theater for live productions on the island. In the documentary, Walcott criticizes the government and wonders aloud if he would see St. Lucia embrace and encourage a thriving arts culture in his lifetime. “Poetry gives us…consolation,” Walcott says in the final scenes. “It provides spiritual strength. It is…the language of love.”
After the premier, filmmaker Ida Does took questions from the audience via Skype from her home in the Netherlands. Does said she first approached Walcott about making a documentary in 2008 and characterized the five-year journey to complete the film as a labor of love. “I was fascinated by him,” Does remarked. “It is amazing to see what a great thinker he is.”
On the cusp of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, join awards manager Karen R. Long for a personal introduction to the titles being honored this year. Long will offer a speed date with each book, and an introduction to the Lifetime Achievement winners on Wednesday, September 3 at noon. Her presentation will kick off this fall’s Brown Bag Book Club at the Cleveland Public Library downtown.
In subsequent weeks, the series will then break out to examine each of the 2014 award-winning books in turn. Beginning Wednesday, September 10, readers will gather at noon with expert librarians to consider the poetry, novel and nonfiction works in the spotlight this year:
Tickets to the September 11 awards ceremony at the Ohio Theatre are available here. (Stand-by tickets are guaranteed due to no-shows.)
Karen R. Long served as book editor of The Plain Dealer for eight years before becoming the manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Long is a vice president for the National Book Critics Circle, where she is a judge for its six annual prizes, awarded each March in New York City.
Karen will give her talk on the 2nd Floor of the Main Library Building, in the Literature Department. Interested guests will be able to check out the featured books after the talk. Questions? Call the library at 216-623- 2881.
Poet Adrian Matejka mixed his love of boxing with his love of literature to produce “The Big Smoke,” 52 poems that center on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion. The collection won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.
On September 10, Matejka will bring his words to the Cleveland canvas of the Old Angle Boxing Gym while boxer Roberto Cruz, 11, and Corey Gregory, 42, will each demonstrate the sweet science in separate demonstration bouts. We are proud to collaborate with Old Angle owner Gary Horvath and Dave Lucas of Brews + Prose to welcome the Clark Avenue neighborhood, the boxing community and local literati for a memorable night of sport and poetry.
The evening begins at 7 p.m. and is free. The public is welcome, with registration details available at the event’s Facebook page. Matejka, a professor at Indiana University, will also take audience questions and sign books. He spent eight years researching the storied and much-mythologized life of Johnson before creating the poems—told in the voices of the boxer and the people around him.
“There is a wonderful recording of Johnson narrating part of his 1910 fight with Jim Jeffries,” Matejka told Shara Lessley of the National Book Awards. “As Johnson describes the action, his cadences emulate the fight action in a way that makes him sound like a ring announcer. I used the recording as one of the primary sources for Johnson’s ‘voice’ in the book.”
Matejka, 42, said some of his work, particularly the sonnets, reflect the physicality and cadences of the sport. “The Big Smoke” ends in 1912, a full 34 years before Johnson died. Matejka plans a second volume of poems on the man who, he says, “managed to win the most coveted title in sports, but through the combination of his own hubris and the institutionalized racism of the time, he lost everything. That rise and fall naturally lends itself to the oral tradition of poetry.”
“Poetry Is An Island,” the new film directed by Dutch filmmaker Ida Does, presents poet and playwright Derek Walcott in his element: his home island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Place has proved central to the Nobel Laureate in his writings about the island, colonialism and beauty. He won a Lifetime Achievement Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2004.
“I wanted to feel and smell St. Lucia in the same palpable way that I experience Walcott’s poetry,” Does said in a recent interview. “When I was there, it felt like I could literally touch Derek’s work, the heart of it.” After an early screening, Walcott, 84, praised Does for doing a “beautiful and gentle job” with the film.
Now Northeast Ohioans can see for themselves. We are pleased to sponsor the Midwestern premiere of “Poetry Is An Island” at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 17. The program is hosted by our partner, Karamu House, 2355 E 89th St, Cleveland. Guests will be greeted by St. Lucian steelpan music from islander Eustace Bobb and actors Cornell Calhoun III and Kenny Parker will stage an excerpt of Walcott’s play “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” Cleveland Scene named the Karamu production, directed by Terrence Spivey, its Best Drama in 2007.
Following the movie, audience members will be able to ask questions of the director in a Skype interview from her home in the Netherlands. “From an educational perspective, the Skype interview will add substance and interaction that will enrich the experience,” said Interim Director Patricia G. Egan. “Karamu is celebrating 99 years of nurturing artists. This is just one example.”
Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at the door. For more information on the screening, please call Karamu House at 216-795-7070.
The magisterial Wole Soyinka turned 80 this week, and—once again—the world is listening.
In London, the Royal African Society hosted “Wole Soyinka at 80,” a retrospective on the life of the Nobel laureate and Anisfield-Wolf winner, exploring his influence in politics and letters. As a young man, the Nigerian playwright and poet attempted to broker peace during the 1967 Biafran War, becoming a political prisoner and spending 22 months in solitary confinement. He wrote “The Man Died” out of that experience.
For the retrospective, Soyinka joined editor and critic Margaret Busby to reflect on his upbringing and the relationship between politics and culture. He has spent more than 50 fierce years campaigning against Nigerian despotism, often with a price on his head. Soyinka’s critique of Western smugness and corruption has been just as withering.
For those engaged by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the extremist Boko Haram, Soyinka also places the splinter group’s recent killings and kidnappings in historical context (34:20 mark).
Anisfield-Wolf winner Toni Morrisonfound herself on stage at the Hay Festival in Wales May 28, the same day her friend Maya Angelou died in North Carolina at the age of 86. The obvious question—”Do you have any words to say about her life and legacy?”—was coming.
“She launched African-American women writing in the United States,” Morrison said, choosing her words carefully. “She was generous to a fault. She had 19 talents…used 10. She was a real original. There’s no duplicate.”
The friendship between Morrison and Angelou spanned more than 40 years. In 1973, Angelou wrote to Morrison after she finished reading Sula, telling her, “This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.” Their friendship deepened as they continued to cross paths and support one another’s work over the decades. When Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, Angelou threw a party at her Winston-Salem home.
In 2012, Angelou traveled to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to toast Morrison’s contributions to literature. Poet Nikki Giovanni organized “Sheer Good Fortune,” a two-day celebration on the Blacksburg campus where she has taught since 1987. The guest list was historic, with Rita Dove, Edwidge Danticat, Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis in attendance.
The writers assembled at Giovanni’s request, as a show of solidarity after the quick death of Morrison’s son Slade from pancreatic cancer in 2010. The gathering took its name from the dedication for Morrison’s 1973 novel, Sula :“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”
On stage, Maya Angelou smiled at the crowd and praised her friend for liberating her as a younger woman. “That is what this woman has done through 10 books: loving, respecting, and appreciating the African-American woman and all the things she goes through.”
Later, Morrison said, “This is as good as it gets.”
She gave credit to Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings for helping her discover the meaning in her work. “I had not seen that kind of contemporary clarity, honesty…sentences that were more than what happened, but how….I took sustenance from that. The door was open, so black women writers stepped through.”
Fourteen years after he won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his haunting second novel, “A Gesture Life,” Chang-Rae Lee delivers another startling, unsettling work. Sentence by gorgeously meditative sentence, “On Such a Full Sea” carries its readers into a future of captivity, danger and diminished identities.
Lee will return to Cleveland Tuesday, March 24, 2015, as part of the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s distinguished Writers Center Stage series.
The title comes from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” The playwright gives the line to Brutus and it is worth quoting as fully as Lee does on a page before his novel starts:
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea we are now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.
Lee, then, has written a quest novel. Ingeniously, it is narrated by a collective, a “we” that simultaneously Iulls and alarms. Here is the first sentence: “It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore.” The voice belongs to the descendants of immigrants imported to live in a facility called “B-Mor,” the former Baltimore. There is a sister facility in the Midwest called “D-Troy,’ occupying the ashes of Detroit. Some kind of environmental catastrophe has swept the globe, although there is Amsterdam, “one of the few cities that is still like it was in olden times, inhabited by permanent residents but also completely open to any who wish to visit and tour and buy souvenirs and snacks.”
Not so for the residents of “B-Mor,” who keep their heads down growing vegetables and raising fish for the finicky elites called Charters. At the bottom of the heap are the rough trade who live in the lawless “counties,” where those who misbehave are banished. The book unfurls the story of Fan, a 16-year-old B-Mor girl who – unbelievably – hops the fence. The narrators assume she is seeking her boyfriend Reg, whom the authorities have hustled away to study because he has tested “C-free.” The C, undoubtedly, stands for cancer, which seems to carry off almost everyone in this blighted land.
Although she is as tiny as a girl four years younger, Fan has distinguished herself as an expert diver working in the facility’s fish tanks. At the end of the opening chapter, the narrators reluctantly disclose that before she bolted, Fan did the unfathomable: she poisoned her own fish.
“On Such a Full Sea” is studded with small shocks, which grow larger and accumulate in the bloodstream of the reader. Lee’s precise, musical writing tells a mysterious moral story reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 masterpiece, “Never Let Me Go.” It, too, is set in a disturbing future and centers on teenagers. Although the film of the Ishiguro story was a dud, both novels ache with serious explorations of who qualifies as fully human.
Early in “On Such a Full Sea,” our narrators make an argument for the collective, asking, “Have we not done the job of becoming our best selves?” Lee’s subtlety allows this question to read another way, so it becomes “Have we not done the job of becoming the best slaves?”
All the while, Lee’s details singe and sing: a soccer game, a lavish outpost dinner, the swimming that has been Fan’s formation.
In her critique in the Guardian, novelist Ursula K. Le Guin praises the prose but objects to Lee and Cormac McCarthy (in “The Road”) entering into her genre of science fiction “irresponsibly, superficially.” She dislikes what she regards as holes in these stories: How, exactly, did Lee’s world slide into its decline? How are raw materials transported and manufactured into luxury goods for the Charters when the roads are abysmal?
Such criticism rests on the assumption that all should be explicit in creating a coherent world. But in “The Road” and “On Such a Full Sea,” much potency and poignancy lie in giving the readers’ imaginations the range to fill in the blanks.
The roads to dystopia lead back to the present, and if done well, create a gravitas of the highest order. Toward the end of “On Such a Full Sea,” Fan allows herself to imagine a reunion with Reg, and a happy life. Our narrators add the devastating coda: “For none of us can resist such hopeful flashes, which are, in the end, what lights our way through this ever dimming world.”
Writer and radio host Michael Eric Dyson posed a simple question to Walter Mosley midway through their Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture forum:”Do black people have the freedom to be individuals in America?”
Mosley, 62, paused to acknowledge the gravity of the question. “I would not give up being black in America,” he responded. “We are America. We got the culture, we got the music, we got the art — and we don’t really know it.”
Mosley, best known for his “Easy Rawlins” detective series, now 10 books deep, has enjoyed a successful and sustained career. He was born in California to a Jewish mother and a black father (the pair was denied a marriage license in 1951.) Their only child, who has lived in New York City since 1981, identifies with both sides of his family. He credits his daily writing regimen for his high output — he averages close to two published books per year. His 1997 crime novel Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned won the Anisfield-Wolf book award for fiction.
Mosley delved into his beginnings as a writer and the early resistance he encountered to featured a black male protagonist. Mosley recalled an agent telling him: “White people don’t like to read about black people, black women don’t like black men, and black men don’t read, so who’s going to read your book?”
During the lighthearted yet introspective discussion, the duo covered a range of topics—from President Obama’s handling of race to the questions of literary celebrity and hype. Watch the full conversation below and let us know what you think.
Last September, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka spoke passionately about the global “contest between barbarism and enlightenment” around educating children. His words sound prophetic now in the wake of the April kidnapping of Nigerian school girls in the northeast of his own beloved country.
Soyinka, 79, decried these armed men, saying these groups must be fought and immobilized. One such cadre – the Islamic militants of Boko Haram — has targeted schools, burning down more than 20. Then on April 15, this segment kidnapped some 234 girls, and drove them in trucks into the forests near the border with Cameroon. The name “Boko Haram” translates roughly as “western education is forbidden.”
In recent days, families of the missing girls have organized street protests and started social media campaigns to try to goad the Nigerian government into action. Rumors suggest many have already been sold off to soldiers, some for as little as $12. On Saturday, protests spread to London, New York and Washington, D.C. Demonstrators held aloft signs that read “African Lives Matter” and “Bring them Home!” The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is surging.
During his September remarks, Soyinka drew a sharp line between those seeking education and those violently suppressing it. He had already asked several Nigerian governors to distribute the inspirational videotape of Malala Yousafzai addressing the United Nations last summer—“so that the school children can see that they are not alone. What they are undergoing has become a universal scourge, which has to be fought.”
The great writer called for a world in which children could go to school without fear, “enjoying the smell of books – even those who couldn’t read, just being among the instruments of enlightenment, of expanding the mind.”
“She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world,” said the university’s press release. “That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”
To some, the 44-year-old activist is a profile in courage, standing up to the misogyny that afflicts many Muslim women. To others, she is a shocking Islamophobe, mistakenly attributing her personal hardship to one of the three Abrahamic religions.
In 2008, Hirsi Ali won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her gripping memoir, “Infidel,” a title apt to the political moment. It also reflects her struggle with a religion that she sees undergirding her genital mutilation in Somalia at age five, beatings that intensified as she grew, and a forced marriage at age 22. In “Infidel,” Hirsi Ali describes her abrupt defection to the Netherlands – where she learned Dutch and did janitorial work to put herself through university. In 2003, she was elected to Parliament.
Three years later, death threats and the assassination of a collaborator sent her into exile in the United States, where she took work as a visiting scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, and became a citizen in 2013.
“When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students,” Hirsi Ali said in a statement. “I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called ‘honor killings,’ and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.”
Others weighed in. Roughly 85 faculty members signed a letter to the president of Brandeis decrying Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree, generally seen as sanctioning a body of work. A student petition objecting to her selection also circulated online. But when news of the rescinding broke, others objected to Brandeis’ about-face.
The Wall Street Journal published an abridged version of the remarks Hirsi Ali intended to deliver at graduation May 28. In her epilogue to “Infidel,” she writes, “I don’t want my arguments to be considered sacrosanct because I have had horrible experiences; I haven’t. In reality, my life has been marked by enormous good fortune. How many girls born in Digfeer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today? And how many have a real voice?”
This spring, as Rwanda commemorates the 1994 genocide that extinguished more than a million of its citizens, a nation assesses its reconstruction while the wider world wrestles with the fact that it stood by. Several important books illuminate these tasks.
“Twenty years ago today our country fell into deep ditches of darkness,” said Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s current minister of foreign affairs. “Twenty years later, today, we are a country united and a nation elevated.”
Economic progress and a fragile peace characterize Rwanda now, under a new Constitution and a marked ascendancy of women into leadership. A moving photographic portrait of the hard work of reconciliation is newly published in the New York Times.
“The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil,” wrote Samantha Power in 2001, in her now-landmark essay, Bystanders to Genocide. “U.S. officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen. But whatever their convictions about ‘never again,’ many of them did sit around, and they most certainly did allow genocide to happen.”
The book is a meticulously researched portrait of U.S. inaction throughout the 20thcentury – despite the growth of human rights groups, the advent of instant communications and the erection of the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. “Rwandan Hutus in 1994 could freely, joyfully and systematically slaughter 8,000 Tutsis a day for 100 days without any foreign interference,” Power writes.
All the while, the Clinton Administration blocked deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, worked actively in diplomatic circles to suppress the “G-word” (genocide) and “refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide,” Power writes.
In “Less than Human,” David Livingstone Smith picks up on these radio broadcasts as essential fodder to the dehumanization that made the Rwandan genocide possible. His book won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012, and is the basic text for the Anisfield-Wolf course at Case Western Reserve University: Reading Social Justice.
As the world remembers the antithesis of social justice – wholesale butchery of a people – both Power and Smith exemplify how sober scholarship can illustrate the circumstances that unleash new killing fields. Smith is a professor of philosophy at the University of New England; Power has become the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Powers, who grew up in Richmond, Va., enlisted the day after he turned 17. He served as a U.S. Army machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005. Those years informed “The Yellow Birds,” a first novel that writer Tom Wolfe called “the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab wars.” Private Bartle is its narrator.
The new book contains 34 poems that well out of war, bafflement and remembrance, often speaking of mothers. They touch on rifles, men in bars, stretches of Texas and Nebraska and West Virginia. The book is dedicated to “my friends from the Boulevard.”
When Powers spoke in Cleveland last September, he said he hadn’t kept a journal as a soldier, that he didn’t have the stamina or mental reserves. But the books his mother mailed him were a lifeline, and he wrote some letters. Almost three years ago, a friend brought out one that he’d sent to her.
“I could see the point in the letter where I almost opened up, but didn’t,” he said.
In his penultimate poem, “A Lamp in the Place of the Sun,” Powers concludes with four short lines in plain language: “How long I waited/for the end of winter./How quickly I forgot/the cold when it was over.”
“Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting” is the first book of poetry that Little, Brown & Co. has published in 30 years.
As our profile begins to grow as a book award, from time to time we like to recognize some of the beautiful writing others have done on our behalf. Barbara Hoffert, past president of the National Book Critics Circle, authored an elegant write-up about this year’s winners for the Library Journal, aptly titled, “Celebrate the Past, Look to the Future.”
Since their founding in 1935 by Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf to honor books that confront racism and celebrate diversity, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have called out major writers to us, among them Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, and Derek Walcott—generally before they became Nobel Laureates….
From Israel to the Caribbean, Chechnya to the boxing rings of Jim Crow America—the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have come far from Edith Anisfield Wolf’s Cleveland. But in spirit they are right at home.
Novelists Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – both Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners — displayed a warm, comfortable familiarity on stage for their recent appearance at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Fresh off Adichie’s National Book Critics Circle win for “Americanah,” her novel about “love, race and hair,” the conversation between the two literary lionesses veered from the amusing to the insightful. Watch the duo discuss Adichie’s fascination with race and class, the absurdity of romance novels, and Beyonce.