Laird Hunt is the author of five novels and one short story collection. His latest book, Kind One, won the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction. In a video interview with Rain Taxi, Hunt describes being moved by a short passage in Edward P. Jones‘ The Known World, which prompted him to start writing Kind One:
“He describes this anecdote about a woman who lives in this imaginary county he’s constructed, who lives with her husband and two female slaves. One day the husband comes up dead and the slaves turn the tables on her and enslave her in turn. And then it’s over and never mentioned again. But I got really interested in what would happen if this woman, many years later, describes what happens, with the idea of placing her voice somewhere in the slippery middle between victim and oppressor.”
Watch the full interview here:
Kind One was also a 2013 finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Hunt lives in Colorado with his wife, poet Eleni Sikelianos, and daughter. (Fun fact: Hunt was helping his daughter with a project on Martin Luther King Jr when he received the call that he had won the Anisfield-Wolf award.) He is currently on the faculty of the University of Denver’s Creative Writing Program.
“The 2013 Anisfield-Wolf winners are exemplars who broaden our vision of race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, there is exceptional writing about the war in Iraq, slavery on a Kentucky pig farm, the Filipino experience in the U.S., and the complexity of families in which a child is radically different from parents.”
Gates directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. He praised the singular achievement of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian whose writing won a Nobel prize in 1986, three years after he won an Anisfield-Wolf award for his memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood.
Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronald B. Richard said this year’s winners reflect founder Edith Anisfield Wolf’s belief in the unifying power of the written word.
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards rose from the philanthropic vision of one woman who realized that literature could advance the ongoing dialogue about race, culture, ethnicity, and our shared humanity,” Richard said.
The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored in Cleveland Sept. 12 at a ceremony at the Ohio Theatre hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. Stay tuned this week as we profile each of our 2013 winners.
By Lisa Nielson, Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow
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 Studes, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.
I was introduced to “Less than Human” last fall when I had the pleasure of hearing David Livingstone Smith speak at the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony and at Case Western Reserve University the next day. His presentation was riveting, and I felt myself vacillating between awe at the breadth of his work and shock at the horror of what humanity has done through dehumanization.
Judging from the taut silence as the awards audience of 800 heard Smith speak, they had a similar reaction. Listeners occasionally gasped as Smith told the story of Ota Benga, a Batwa (“pygmy”) tribesman, who was bought from a slave merchant in what was then called the Congo Free State and put on exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.
Eventually, Benga was put on display at the newly opened Bronx Zoo, sharing a cage with an orangutan. Black clergy protested, and, “buckling under the pressure of controversy, zoo authorities released Ota Benga from his cage, and allowed him to wander freely around the zoo, where jeering crowds pursued him,” Smith said.
The story ends with Benga succumbing to madness, and putting a bullet through his own heart.
In reflecting on this anecdote and the book, I was struck by Smith’s observation that for all that has been written about genocide, war, and dehumanization, little scholarship centers on why and how. Why have we not studied this process? Does our discomfort prevent us? Or are we afraid of what we might find?
Using an interdisciplinary approach, Smith not only goes into the philosophical and historical development of modes of dehumanization, but how religion, science and biology have been used to bolster both the practice and justification of demeaning others. By delving into how humans identify and react to difference, he also reflects on the cognitive and emotional processes we use.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence for me was his inclusion of research into human biology, cognitive science and the animal world. His synthesis of the biologic and psychological impulses behind our ability to dehumanize in comparison to similar species, such as chimpanzees, made a great deal of uncomfortable sense. He finds: 1) we are biologically wired to categorize strangers as “other”, 2) because of our propensity to order our world according to our perception of kinds and essences, there is a definable process we adhere to when categorizing who is “us” and “not us,” 3) as a result, we are all capable of extreme violence or cruelty given the right push, and 4) we are unique in the animal kingdom for so doing.
Smith doesn’t stop there. He confronts us with the reality that perpetrators of genocide are not outliers or “monsters” but often just like us. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil,” he points out that we all have the capability to dehumanize, and argues that we must work to recognize and refute these impulses if we are to rise above them. Since these are complex social and psychological constructs, the same ability that allows us to dehumanize can also help us overcome our innate, and arguably submerged, hard-wired reactions to difference.
The evidence Smith uses to craft his theory shows that our propensity to dehumanization comes out of a complex of biology, social pressure, psychology around real and perceived danger, politics, and propaganda. Yet, our ability to reflect and make the better choice offers some hope for change. Such change, however, requires effort. As Smith notes in his conclusion, we have barely tried.
As the first Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow, I have worked to incorporate explorations of race and diversity into my teaching. When I designed a class on world slavery, it allowed me to introduce books that have won the prize. This spring, I added Smith’s book to my reading list, and began the first week of class with his chapter on slavery, “The Rhetoric of Enmity.”
Student reaction has been profound. The students immediately took to his ideas and incorporated them into their essays and final projects. Some have offered insightful critiques and suggestions for expanding on his theory, while others have used his ideas as a basis from which to interrogate past and present constructions of race, class, sexuality and gender.
Though Smith doesn’t focus specifically on slave systems or gender in “Less than Human,” his outline of the process of dehumanization has changed the way I think about and teach slavery. Is slavery inherently a dehumanizing process, through the fact of being owned? Are there slave systems where this is not the case? How can dehumanization be applied to issues of gender and sexuality? And, in considering the continuation of dehumanization tactics today: What more can I do to help my students critically assess the social and cultural messages they receive?
If we accept that we are all prone to certain kinds of essentialist thinking, it is vital that we give students every tool to challenge their own assumptions, and to listen empathetically to others. This type of intellectual discipline takes a lot of effort, and we need people who can and are willing to do the work. My students at Case have that will and ability, and they inspire me to hope.
Toni Morrison doesn’t hold her tongue on anything she deems important for the masses to know. At 82, she has earned that right.
In speaking with freshman cadets at the United States Military Academy, Morrison expressed her views on the war in Iraq and shared her inspiration for her latest book, “Home.” The novel, about a Korean war veteran named Frank Money, who is struggling with PTSD and the segregated south, is part of the English curriculum at West Point. Lt. Col. Scott Chancellor, director of the freshman English program, selected the book for their classes thanks to its relevant messages to troops today, particularly as it touched on race and trauma.
Col. Scott Krawczyk, the head of the academy’s English and philosophy programs, tied the book’s themes into the larger picture of the academy’s training:
“At West Point we ensure that cadets are made to struggle with moral ambiguity, so that when they confront tangled scenarios, they will be able to do that well. Morrison gives us just enough psychological complication of Frank Money to open up an understanding of how desperately malignant the realm of war can be.”
During the conversation, Morrison was vocal about her disdain for the war in Iraq (“I dare you to tell me a sane reason we went to Iraq”) and expressed concern about the number of veteran suicides (a recent report shows the suicide rate for veterans has risen 22% in the past 14 years).
Watch below as Morrison talks about “Home” and her intention to explore the themes of masculinity, war, and race.
During my freshman year at Kent State University, I was a little wary when I saw one of the books listed on my syllabus in my English class: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. My tongue stumbled over his name and I sat there trying all the possible pronunciations until I figured it might be best to just ask the professor.
I grabbed the book from the university bookstore and went back to my dorm to read a few chapters. Instead, I finished the whole book that evening.
Set in Nigeria, highlighting the conflict between traditional Igbo culture and colonialism, Things Fall Apart hooked me in a way that few books have since. The story of Okonkwo and his quest to be noble and respected, unlike his father Unoka, deeply resonated with me and millions of other readers. Whenever I would hear the book being discussed, I would interject myself into the conversation (despite my introverted nature) because I simply couldn’t get enough of the story.
It was his most famous work, going on to sell more than 10 million copies around the world. He inspired an entire generation of authors, including our 2007 winner for fiction, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In late 2012, Adichie wrote an essay detailing his influence on her life and work:
I grew up writing imitative stories. Of characters eating food I had never seen and having conversations I had never heard. They might have been good or bad, those stories, but they were emotionally false, they were not mine. Then came a glorious awakening: Chinua Achebe’s fiction. Here were familiar characters who felt true; here was language that captured my two worlds; here was a writer writing not what he felt he should write but what he wanted to write. His work was free of anxiety, wore its own skin effortlessly. It emboldened me, not to find my voice, but to speak in the voice I already had.
I am so deeply sad to hear of his passing, but feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time with his work. There is nothing more I can say but, thank you.
Below is a short video, of CNN’s “African Voices” program from 2009, which profiled Chinua Achebe.
American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah is not allowed into China.
He mentioned this fact at the end of his well-attended March talk in Cleveland, noting he is unwelcome because of his support of Liu Xiaobo, a writer and political activist who won the Nobel peace prize in 2010. At the ceremony in Oslo, Liu was represented by an empty chair.
“Many, many more writers would be in prison today if we weren’t constantly popping off about it,” Appiah said of Liu’s incarceration. “Still, we haven’t managed to get him out.
“Chinese people complain to me about my regular complaints about Chinese human rights,” Appiah told several hundred listeners assembled in Severance Hall for his lecture on making moral revolutions. “I say, ‘Don’t complain about my complaint – complain about us, the United States.’”
This robust dynamic is caught, Appiah writes, by Thomas Jefferson, who referred to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” in the American Declaration of Independence. This is “why the nation’s honor can be mobilized to motivate its citizens,” Appiah writes in his 2010 book, “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.”
His latest book is a scholarly and elegant examination of three practices—dueling in 18th Century England, foot binding in China, and Britain’s transatlantic slave trade—and how each came to a decisive end. All collapsed fairly abruptly.
“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments,” Appiah writes. “Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.”
Still, foot binding, which thrived for a millennium, ended in the span of a generation: Political scientist Gerry Mackie reports that “the population of Tinghsien, a conservative rural area 125 miles south of Peking, went from 99 percent bound in 1889 to 94 percent bound in 1899 to zero bound in 1919.”
In his book, Appiah calls this “the great unbinding” and attributes it to Christian missionaries campaigning against the practice combined with an awakening of national honor. The Chinese elite were increasingly shamed that outsiders condemned the practice as backward.
But as he gave the F. Joseph Callahan Distinguished lecture, Appiah did not dwell on foot-binding. He spoke, softly and forcefully, about cracks in U.S. national honor: 25 percent of the world’s prison population incarcerated in a country with four percent of the global population, and a lack of “democratic discourse” over drone strikes abroad, which Appiah said, had “killed huge numbers of absolutely innocent people, more than were killed in the World Trade Center.”
In sampling historic moral revolutions, Appiah cited Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, John Locke, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, “the Bernie Madoff problem” and the 1792 novel by Frances Burney, “Cecilia.” He ranged fluidly across cultures and centuries.
Appiah suggested that U.S. students—such as those at CWRU—were bound up in the nation’s honor, and the beneficiaries of “one of the best university systems in the world.” He expressed optimism that his listeners could be instigators of the next moral revolution.
“When you point out that people aren’t living up to their standards,” Appiah concluded, “you are appealing to their national honor, which, by the way, is what was crucial to the ending of foot binding.”
With so much negative news spilling out of Chicago each day, we’re happy to see at least one bright spot among the tragedies.
Isabel WIlkerson’s 2010 work “The Warmth of Other Suns” was named the next selection of the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One
Chicago” program, announced by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday.
Of the selection Emanuel said:
“Isabel Wilkerson’s book brings to life the stories of African Americans who left their homes in the South in search of a better life. These are the stories of people who helped create the Chicago we know today – and of people continuing to come to our city each day in hopes of finding their dream. Each of us has a story to tell about our family’s path to Chicago and how we all helped to make Chicago the most American of American cities.”
On her Facebook page, Wilkerson said she was “overjoyed to see the city that drew Richard Wright, Ida Mae Gladney, and millions more, now embrace the story of the Great Migration in such a big way!”
This is but one of the many honors Wilkerson has received for her work over the past few years. It is all well-deserved, as “Warmth” is one of those books that gets better with each read, and one of the few that becomes more and more enjoyable the more people dissect it.
Somewhere, a canny business professor may be plotting to put Mohsin Hamid’s astringent new novel into an MBA course. It would be a brilliant move.
Not because the advice it contains is revelatory — “Get an Education” and “Work for Yourself” are actual chapter headings — but because Hamid’s tight, mesmerizing story raises the thorny questions that cluster around the bloom of wealth. Indeed, readers will detect a whiff on cultural criticism in the eight words of the new book’s title.
As it opens, “How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” poses as a self-help book. Following this convention, it addresses the reader as “you.” The text finds you as a small boy “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning.” This is because you are weak, your eyes yellow with hepatitis E, and your family’s fortunes turn on your health. When you recover, your parents decide to move to the city, the first step on your trajectory toward riches.
You don’t get a name, nor does the city, nor does the nation, although Time magazine has decided it’s Pakistan. That will no doubt amuse Hamid, who won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2008 for his hypnotic novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” The author grew up partly in the United States, and partly in Lahore. Yet in interviews around “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Hamid observed that he was sometimes asked if he was a version of the title character, never the American listening across a cafe table to that character’s story.
Like “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Hamid’s new novel is taut and smart and subversive. Each of the 12 chapters starts with a playful verbal squall about self-help. “Distasteful though it may be,” begins chapter seven, “it was inevitable in a self-help book such as this, that we would eventually find ourselves broaching the topic of violence. Becoming filthy rich requires a degree of unsqueamishness, whether in rising Asia or anywhere else.”
Hamid is echoing French novelist Honore de Balzac’s riff that “behind every great fortune there is a great crime.” This idea helped animate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and like Gatsby, the protagonist in Hamid’s new novel longs for an unattainable woman. Here she is just called “the pretty girl.” Despite such fable-like distancing, Hamid manages the significant trick of seducing his readers to care about these characters, even as he toys with our expectations for a rags-to-riches story.
So dear “you” first moves around his new town on a bicycle, then a motorcycle, then in a rebuilt truck. As the conveyances become more luxurious, the commentary becomes more pointed, and Hamid’s pleasurable light touch fades. By the time “you” has become a water industrialist, you are keeping company with “four pump-action-shotgun-wielding security guards” and “the aquifer below the city is plummeting and becoming more contaminated every year, poisonous chemicals and biological toxins seeping into it like adulterants into a heroin junkie’s collapsing vein.”
Clearly, Hamid can write. His is a confident, confiding prose. But underneath, as in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a quiet fury gathers. The reader travels these pages fueled by dread. Capitalism may have won the globe’s embrace, but becoming rich is still filthy work. Importantly, reading this latest Mohsin Hamid novel is no work at all. May it work its subversive way into the curriculum of business schools everywhere.
It’s something that most of us in America take for granted—the right to an education.
We don’t think about what it must feel like to be denied one of the most basic rights, until events like the attempted assassination attempt of 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai at the hands of the Taliban puncture our collective consciousness. She was a vocal advocate for education for girls in Pakistan, who had dreams of becoming a doctor. While Malala will make a full recovery and return to her advocacy work, she is not alone in her fight for access to education.
The new film, “Girl Rising,” explores the lives of nine young women around the world, each one fighting for a chance to get the education that is the key to their future. Presented by 10×10, a social action campaign, the film features nine different stories written by nine different authors. Our very own Edwidge Danticat, a 2005 winner for fiction, contributed the portion of the film that focuses on Wadley, a young Haitian girl who is determined to get an education, even after she is repeatedly turned away from her schoolhouse.
I, for one, can’t wait to see this film. Go to GirlRising.com to learn more about the movie, find a screening near you and buy tickets. The film opens on March 7.
Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Beloved, took home the Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction in 1988. In it, a slave, unwilling to see her children grow up and live the same fate as their mother, killed one of her children rather than see them in bondage. Eighteen years later, the mother is visited by a young woman who she believes is the slain infant, returned.
However lauded the work may be, not everyone is a fan. Most recently, a Fairfax County parent has petitioned to ban the book based on the book’s content, which she says gave her son nightmares after he read it for his senior-level English class. “I’m not some crazy book burner,” Laura Murphy said. “I have great respect and admiration for our Fairfax County educators. The school system is second to none. But I disagree with the administration at a policy level.”
Of course, Ms. Murphy’s request is nothing new for the novel. According to the American Library Association, Beloved ranks 26th out of the most frequently banned books of the past 10 years. Its content (particularly the infanticide) has certainly disturbed many readers, but it is still lauded for its examination of the African American experience throughout the course of history—both good and bad.
”I was amazed by this story I came across about a woman called Margaret Garner who had escaped from Kentucky, I think, into Cincinnati with four children. And she was a kind of cause celebre among abolitionists in 1855 or ’56 because she tried to kill the children when she was caught. She killed one of them, just as in the novel. I found an article in a magazine of the period, and there was this young woman in her 20’s, being interviewed – oh, a lot of people interviewed her, mostly preachers and journalists, and she was very calm, she was very serene. They kept remarking on the fact that she was not frothing at the mouth, she was not a madwoman, and she kept saying, ‘No, they’re not going to live like that. They will not live the way I have lived.'”
Morrison argued that her novel was not about slavery but a broader look at passion, self-sabotage, and the will of a people told they are less than human.
While Ms. Murphy may not succeed, her concerns about what is appropriate for children and young adults are very valid. Have you ever read a book you felt you were too young for, or have your children come home with a book you felt was above their maturity level?
In honor of Ms. Morrison’s 82nd birthday, we’re looking back at our archives for some of our favorite moments from the esteemed author over the past few years. Take a walk down memory lane with us:
“Beloved” is named one of the “88 Books That Shaped America” by the Library of Congress:
Toni Morrison won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her post-Civil War novel based on the true story of an escaped slave and the tragic consequences when a posse comes to reclaim her. The author won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, and in 2006 The New York Times named “Beloved” “the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years.”
She wins the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom:
In his personal remarks during the ceremony, President Obama said of Morrison’s work, “I remember reading Song of Solomon when I was a kid. Not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be. And how to think.”
“Home,” her 10th novel, hits newsstands in 2012:
The Washington Post wrote that in her latest novel, Morrison “has never been more concise, and that restraint demonstrates the full use of her power.” Read more reviews here.
Her legacy moves closer to home
Last year, the Toni Morrison Society, a group of scholars, moved its headquarters from Atlanta to Oberlin, Ohio. Morrison grew up in nearby Lorain, where she still has family. Founded in 1993, the society supports the teaching, reading, and critical examination of Toni Morrison’s works.
As the U.S. economy continues to crawl toward recovery, more and more people find themselves at the library. Filled with resources, computers, books and programs, the local library is often one of the only places people can go to get their information needs met, and unlike most online sources, there are real live people there to offer assistance.
Writers tend to be very vocal champions for libraries, particularly these days as funding is cut while demand is highest. Earlier this year, during an author visit to his local library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Junot Diaz spoke for a few minutes on the importance of libraries, particularly as it relates to his success as an author. “I can directly attribute who I am as a writer, an artist, as a thinker..from my early, early experiences in my school and town library.” Watch his entire remarks below.
After a rich discussion between philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and museum director Johnnetta Cole, the final question in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel was a zinger.
Appiah, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1993 for his influential collection of essays “In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture,” had been turning over questions of identity and art with Cole, an anthropologist who leads the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The duo’s last question came from Kelsey Scult, 20, an Oberlin African Studies major, who just completed a January internship at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle.
Looking at Cole, the white student asked, “If I was up for a job at your museum against someone of African descent, I would think they should probably get the job.”
Without hesitation, Cole told Scult she had asked “an absolutely wonderful question. When you go for the job, I would urge you to identify with all of humanity. And all of humanity came from only one place—the African continent.”
Cole, 76, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, said her mother understood something about common humanity. “My mother didn’t have positive experiences with white folk, but whenever she did, she’d say, ‘You know so-and-so, that white man, he must have a touch of color.’ I live for the day when we dwell more on our connectedness than our differences. If you’ve done your work, and you know how to move with respect, then it should be your job.”
Appiah, 58, president of Pen America and a Princeton University professor, agreed. He reminded Scult that the W.E.B. Du Bois sought out white experts in compiling his Encyclopedia Africana, and that museum staffs are not segregated. “Identity is not the main thing that matters in scholarship, although identity does matter,” he said, noting that a cadre of white men weighing the intellectual rigor of women might be suspect.
The February 7 evening in Finney Chapel began with Appiah’s slide show of exteriors of renowned museums. He noted that these institutions were forming during the 19th Century’s infatuation with Romanticism, a reaction to the Enlightenment that yoked artistic expression to nationalism. Appiah argued that contemporary peoples aren’t shed of this link, using an example from the Guggenheim Museum that grouped El Greco and Picasso as exemplars of Spanish art, even when the biographical facts confound such claims.
“One of the great philosophical misunderstandings about art is that it is an expression of a nation, a culture, and not the work of an individual,” Appiah said. This is just as true for literature, which borrows liberally from other wells, as William Shakespeare did from Italian sources, he said.
Cole, who had left the stage for Appiah’s opening remarks, returned to ask him, “If museums did not exist, would it be necessary to invent them?”
Appiah looked slightly startled. “That’s a great question,” he murmured. “The things that museums do, we’d have to do—care for precious objects that come from the past, help interpret them, introduce young people to this great human heritage and research those objects about which we don’t know enough.” He said the key meaning of the arts lies in the act of preserving and passing on the masterpieces worth responding to.
For identities to matter, Appiah said, they must be taken up, interpreted and mediated by outside reactions. He said if he began wearing a dress around the Princeton campus, there might be mild surprise, but little more. A student came to the microphone and challenged him, saying in academics, gender bending would frequently provoke hostility.
Cole, who graduated from Oberlin in 1957, said she was smitten by the student’s moxie. Several times, she circled back to quote an Appiah truism: “Things are always more complicated than they seem, and some complexities we don’t like to confront.” When the same student asked how First World museums, which own stolen objects, justify exhibits that amount to “celebrations of colonialism, exploitation and displacement,” Appiah said the crux was not ownership, but access.
“Not everything that started out in a colonial place was stolen,” he said. “What’s really important is if you live in Mali, you don’t have much of a shot at the cultural artifacts that a person in London or New York or Berlin has a chance to see.” Appiah said he was cheered by some of the lending now from the British Museum to institutions in Kenya and China, whose curators are keen to exhibit not just indigenous objects, but want examples of English and European art to share.
In international exchanges, Appiah noted wryly, “Every threat can be re-described as an offer.”
We’re always delighted to read a new piece from 2006 winner Zadie Smith’s mind, as she is one of our favorite authors in the modern age. It’s kind of blasphemous for us to declare we have a favorite (after all, isn’t it like saying, out loud, that you have a favorite child?) but it’s true that Zadie Smith is at the top of our list. (Don’t worry, our list is very wide at the top.)
Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!
Next door to the embassy is a health center. On the other side, a row of private residences, most of them belonging to wealthy Arabs (or so we, the people of Willesden, contend). They have Corinthian pillars on either side of their front doors, and—it’s widely believed—swimming pools out back. The embassy, by contrast, is not very grand. It is only a four- or five-bedroom North London suburban villa, built at some point in the thirties, surrounded by a red brick wall, about eight feet high. And back and forth, cresting this wall horizontally, flies a shuttlecock. They are playing badminton in the Embassy of Cambodia. Pock, smash. Pock, smash.
The only real sign that the embassy is an embassy at all is the little brass plaque on the door (which reads, “the embassy of cambodia”) and the national flag of Cambodia (we assume that’s what it is—what else could it be?) flying from the red tiled roof. Some say, “Oh, but it has a high wall around it, and this is what signifies that it is not a private residence, like the other houses on the street but, rather, an embassy.” The people who say so are foolish. Many of the private houses have high walls, quite as high as the Embassy of Cambodia’s—but they are not embassies.
Want to finish the story? Keep reading here. To accompany the short story the New Yorker also did a quick Q&A with Mrs. Smith – here’s one snippet on her writing process:
When I’m writing everything is basically spontaneous. I don’t keep a journal or make notes or plan. I have a vague idea one day, sometimes a tone, or a single image—like the embassy—and even if I don’t really know why it’s stuck with me, it’s interesting (to me) that it has stuck. And then if the idea or image hangs around for long enough—weeks, or months—I sit down and try to write it out and see what it’s about.
Have your debut novel selected as Oprah’s second selection in her book club and you must expect for your life to change, as Ayana Mathis is now finding out. Once The Twelve Tribes of Hattie received the literary world’s highest blessing from Ms. Winfrey, her publisher rushed it to bookstores to capitalize on the wave of publicity soon to follow. Now, Mathis’ name is on the lips of readers’ everywhere, with Oprah even comparing her to the all-time great, Toni Morrison.
Twelve Tribes is a book looking at generations of a family after their matriarch migrates from Georgia to Pennsylvia in search of a better life. In taking a fictional look at the world Isabel Wilkerson told so well in her acclaimed Warmth of Other Suns, a nonfiction piece, Mathis gives it to us straight – no fantasy, just cold-hard truth. The family goes through more than its fair share of heartache throughout the story. As Mathis says in the below interview with Mathis and Winfrey, perhaps identifying the suffering is our way of releasing pain in our lives. Take a look at the interview and tell us what you think.
On Monday, President Obama delivered his second Inaugural Address in the cold Washington air, laying out a progressive agenda for the next four years. He spoke clearly on the issues of gay marriage, climate change, and social service programs, while pushing members of Congress to work together to solve some of the biggest issues of our time:
Progress does not compel us to settle century’s long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.
For now, decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.
We must act. We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect (ph). We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
We perked up when the president spoke of issues of equality and justice, echoing Martin Luther King in his visions for a country where inequality and injustice cease to exist:
What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.
While analysts debate the significance of President Obama’s speech and whether his vision will becoming a political reality in the coming years, we are simply proud to be witnessing history. In a piece for MSNBC, 2009 winner Annette Gordon-Reed wrote that regardless of his policy positions, President Obama has already changed the landscape of American politics:
By virtue of being the first black president—and being re-elected—Barack Obama has already been a transformational figure in American politics and history. We are not a “post-racial” society, certainly. But the president has transformed the sense of what is possible in the country.
Martin Luther King III spoke on CBS “This Morning” about his father’s legacy and what it means to have the Inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr Day coincide.
On the eve of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, Yale University hosted a live chat with Elizabeth Alexander, whose “Praise Song Of The Day” was her selection at his first inauguration. Watch the video above for her thoughts on what it’s like to be selected to have a part in such a tremendous day.
1996 winner Jonathan Kozol will be speaking with Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West at the January 17th event, Vision For A New America: A World Without Poverty. In advance of the event, Kozol appeared on the Smiley and West PBS show (link to the full show here) to discuss his new book, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America and his work to change education policy to create a more even playing field for impoverished children.
As Dr. West said in his introduction, “There is just nobody like Jonathan Kozol in the culture, going back to 1967 with Death At An Early Age, on through 14 more powerful texts…No one else has been able to keep track of the rich humanity and resiliency of our poor brothers and sisters of all colors.”
In an Art Works podcast hosted by the National Endowment of the Arts, Isabel Wilkerson describes what life was like for African Americans at the turn of the century, at the beginning of the “Great Migration” from the southern states to the northern. It is almost hard to believe that we are only sixty years from this type of lifestyle:
“…many of us believe that we have an understanding of it based on the pictures that we might have seen of the black and white water fountains, for example. But in many ways, that was just the least of it. That was, in some ways, probably what many of them might have been able to live with, considering all that they were really up against. From the moment they would awake in the morning to the moment that they turned in for the night, there were reminders, rules, protocols, expectations, limits, restrictions on every single thing that they might do. In Birmingham, for example, it was against the law for blacks and whites to play checkers together. In courtrooms throughout the South, there was a black Bible and a white Bible to swear to tell the truth on. That meant that if a black person were to take the stand, they could not swear to tell the truth on the same Bible that had just been used for the white eyewitness who might have just testified, so they’d have to stop everything and find a different Bible for that person to use, so that in every sphere of life, anything that could be conceived of was put into law. There were separate staircases, separate telephone booths. Also, interesting enough, one that many young people respond to more than anything is the idea, the fact that an African American motorist was not permitted to pass a white motorist on the road, no matter how slow that motorist might be going. And of course, because a caste system in itself is in some ways hard to maintain–and it lasted for 60 years by law, and longer than that by tradition– it was difficult to maintain. And so therefore, the way to enforce it required violence, and so every four days, somewhere in the South during the time period we’re discussing, the early years of the migration– the early decades of the migration, I should say– there was a lynching of an African American once every four days. And that was what was necessary in order to maintain this caste system, which in some ways was untenable.”