The title is a French word for a music that hovers between song and ordinary speech.
In the story, Roberta and Twyla are roommates at a shelter for orphaned or otherwise homeless youth. Their lives unfold over the next 40 pages. Morrison is opaque about which girl is Black and which is white, but sprinkles details: they’re both poor, one has a sick mother, the other’s mother is a woman who “dances all night.”
The girls meet again and again as they grow up, begin families and continue to hold on to memories of their four months together at the shelter.
The short story published in a 1983 collection called “Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women.” Morrison wrote in 1992 that her goal was to craft “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”
The result is uncomfortable, as Morrison surfaces her readers’ impulse to scan each page, each bit of dialogue, for a racial clue. Just when you think you’ve settled on an answer (Twyla’s white, you assert confidently), another paragraph makes you double back.
Even knowing Morrison’s aim, it’s difficult to detach from our deep socialization. Race matters, we know it matters, and to remove it feels like our roadmap has been snatched. We’re driving blind.
Smith notes this conundrum in the introduction: “If race is a construct, whither blackness? If whiteness is an illusion, on what else can a poor man without prospects pride himself? I think a lot of people’s brains actually break at this point. But Morrison had a bigger brain.”
The women collide into each other on scenarios that give readers space to examine their own biases. Is the waitress more likely to be black? What about the mother protesting school integration? Who would be more likely to be on their way to see Jimi Hendrix? Part of the fun is recognizing where bias falls short and commonality emerges.
“Morrison constructs the story in such a way that we are forced to admit the fact that other categories, aside from the racial, also produce shared experiences,” Smith concludes. “Categories like being poor, being female, like being at the mercy of the state or the police, like living in a certain zip code, having children, hating your mother, wanting the best for your family. We are like and not like a lot of people a lot of the time.”
Startling that what was true in 1983 feels fresh almost 40 years later.
In the onslaught of titles published each year, friends of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards can deploy a powerful technique to sift the wheat from the chaff: Find the new work from those writers already in the canon. Here are some gems sitting atop the 2019 pile:
“Black Leopard Red Wolf” by Marlon James
The Jamaican American novelist most celebrated for “A Brief History of Seven Killings” goes genre. Actor Michael B. Jordan bought the film rights to this epic fueled by African mythology even before it published in February. The story — the first installment of a planned trilogy — spools out in beautiful sentences that coil around a hunter named Tracker. In nonlinear flashbacks, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone to find a disappeared boy, joining forces with a giant, a buffalo, a witch, a water goddess and a shape-shifting leopard. Following the child’s scent – Tracker “has a nose” – means trekking through forest, across rivers and through magical doors, beset by fantastical creatures. Tracker, we learn, is the red wolf of the title and the facts are murky. (“Truth changes shape as the crocodile eats away at the moon.”) This bloody quest-story is no escapism. As James told the New Yorker: “The African folktale is not your refuge from skepticism. It is not here to make things easy for you, to give you faith so you don’t have to think.”
“Everything Inside: Stories” by Edwidge Danticat
The author of “Clare of the Sea Light” and “Brother, I’m Dying” brought out in August her first short fiction collection in more than a decade. Known for precise, pitch-perfect sentences and a gift for juxtaposition, Danticat weaves eight Haiti-influenced stories of diaspora and longing. She pairs Cindy Jimenez-Vera’s insight — “being born is the first exile” — with Nikki Giovanni’s “We love because it’s the only true adventure” to frame the urgencies of quiet lives. One belongs to Elsie, a Miami home-health care worker, whose decency is no match to the manipulations of her ex-husband and former best friend. Another centers on a New York City teacher who is cheated of a final chance to meet her father before his late-life death. The last story, “Without Inspection,” covers 6.5 seconds as a construction worker falls toward oblivion. He realizes that “whatever he wanted he could have, except what he wanted most of all, which was not to die.”
“The Gilded Auction Block” by Shane McCrae
Following his essential poetry collection “In the Language of My Captors,” McCrae continues his investigation of U.S. freedom and its contradictions. In 23 poems, McCrae addresses the present American moment, and in some pieces responds directly to Donald Trump. The first poem, “The President Visits the Storm” starts with an epigraph from the 45th chief executive: “What a crowd! What a turnout!” — proclaimed to victims of Hurricane Harvey. And McCrae considers how the country has turned out. A poem titled “Black Joe Arpaio” begins “America you wouldn’t pardon me.” In another, McCrae stands up the exact language Carrie Kinsey used in a 1903 letter to Theodore Roosevelt about her brother – wrongly sold into forced labor – and transforms it through ear and syntax into a searing work of art. The poet also circles back to his white supremacist grandmother in Texas “who loved me and hated everybody like me.” She and her black grandson create a knot that grief cannot untie. It is a privilege to read his reckonings now.
“Grand Union” by Zadie Smith
The outlandishly gifted British novelist of “White Teeth” and “On Beauty” published her first short story collection in October. In 19 tales, she wheels through a dizzying constellation of topics, tones and fonts, writing about the future and the past. A reader can enter anywhere, like her bravura “The Lazy River,” an endlessly rotating watery amusement for tourists in Spain. Elsewhere, the writer spills blood in London even as the jaunty “Escape from New York” rifts on the urban legend that Michael Jackson ferried Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando out of the smoking debris of 9/11 in a rental car. And the marvelous “Words and Music” mediates on peak musical experiences as lived by two disputatious sisters. A couple of stories are closer to fragments, but several seem destined to become classics. Smith begins and ends with two mother-daughter stories — the first bristles with alienation, the last, “Grand Union” with the transcendence of generations.
“I: New and Selected Poems” by Toi Derricotte
The Pittsburgh poet co-founded Cave Canem, whose motto is “a home for black poetry.” This collection serves as a profound home for 30 new pieces as well as those swept from five earlier books across a span of 50 years. The title “I” comes from Derricotte’s son and is perfect for a writer sometimes characterized as a confessional poet, one who has mined the self to grapple with gender, race, identity, sex and spirit. In “Tender” she writes: “The tenderest meat/comes from the houses/where you hear the least/squealing. The secret/is to give a little wine before killing.” The collection, dedicated in part to “the mother and fathers – Galway, Lucille, Ruth and Audre” gestures toward the poetic ancestry of Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton (another Anisfield-Wolf recipient), Ruth Stone and Audre Lorde. In her acknowledgements, Derricotte writes, “I am most grateful to the universe for the community of Cave Canem. We imagined a place in which black folks were safe to write the poems they needed to write.” And so she has.
“A Long Petal of the Sea” by Isabel Allende
The beloved novelist, born in Peru, raised in Chile and now a resident of northern California, writes in her acknowledgements: “This book wrote itself, as if it had been dictated to me.” Indeed, this historical fiction contains unmistakable autobiographical notes. It begins with the Republicans loss of Spain and the marriage of convenience between fighters Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera in 1938. She is pregnant with the son of his slain brother and can only leave France aboard a ship for wounded fighters if she marries him. The ship sails to Chile and their bond of expediency begins a complicated family saga that crests with the catastrophic 1973 overthrow of the democratically-elected Chilean government, just as it radically altered the author’s life. Allende knows how to spin an engrossing story and to reward her readers with a savory and satisfying surprise for the 80-year-old Victor at the end.
“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead
The arrival of this latest novel from “The Underground Railroad” writer caused Time Magazine to enshrine him in July as “America’s Storyteller.” Seventeen years earlier, Whitehead picked up an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “John Henry Days.” The novelist returns to U.S. history for “The Nickel Boys.” It is based on a Florida reform school, the Dozier School for Boys, that warped the lives of thousands of children for 111 years. In the fictional treatment, Elwood Curtis is derailed from his path toward college and pitched into a facility where “all the violent offenders . . . were on the staff.” Turner is wiser to the rigged game and eats soap when forced labor becomes unbearable. Whitehead doesn’t dwell in horror, instead, pervasive racism soaks the novel’s ground, so there is nowhere to stand for either boy. In prose as clear as water, Whitehead traps his reader. Undergirding it all are the unmarked graves of close to 100 Dozier boys unearthed in 2014. Finally made unforgettable.
“Sightseer in This Killing City” by Eugene Gloria
This is Gloria’s first book since the Manila-born Midwestern poet won his Anisfield-Wolf prize for “My Favorite Warlord” in 2013. Known for taking months, and sometimes years, on a single poem, Gloria joins Shane McCrae in pondering the contemporary American moment. Deeply attuned to heritage and displacement, the new poems continue Gloria’s preoccupation with the arrivals and departures of ordinary people. The title poem reverberates from a Dallas hospital. The other 47 in this collection are concise, erudite and plain-spoken in language enriched by Gloria’s reading across continents and centuries. He samples Stevie Wonder and Shakespeare; Baudelaire and Al Green. In “Implicit Body,” the speaker commands “Call me Mr. Gone/who’s done made/some other plans./All that remains is nostalgia/and this aching torso of blue.”
“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown
Named to several best-of-the-year lists, this stunning collection grapples with the black body, especially the queer black body, in poems that combine bright music and “everything cut down.” Brown follows his “The New Testament,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf prize, with a meditation over 51 poems on masculinity, desire, violence and tradition: in poetry, in racism, even in the impulse to plant gardens. In the musical, compressed lines of “Dark,” Brown writes “I’m sick/of your hurting. I see that/you’re blue. You may be ugly/but that ain’t new.” The poet comes up with a new form, “the duplex,” which he designed to gut the sonnet. “The Tradition” is suffused with prickling self-knowledge, of a sense of this poet coming into his own. He addresses his own persona in “The Rabbits”: “I am tired/Of claiming beauty where/There is only truth.”
She extended appreciation to her husband first, with a jaunty, “Thank you so much to Nick Laird, for sharing so much with me, willingly and unwillingly, including the title of his poetry book Feel Free, which I would also like to apologize to for stealing.”
The book is a lively, capacious and learned romp through five sections that explore freedom of language and thought: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf and “Feel Free.” Smith, a 43-year-old Londoner, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2006 for On Beauty, a witty story of an interracial family living in an American university town astraddle multiple cultural fault lines.
Critic Charles Finch, who championed the essay collection at the NBCC, praised Smith’s critical comfort with uncertainty. He wrote: “If, as the famous line from the famous book goes, personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then perhaps so is great criticism. Feel Free is a collection of essays, reviews, vignettes, and profiles by Zadie Smith, and it might so easily, like other books of its kind, ultimately feel like an arbitrary collocation of unrelated ephemera, a patchwork of unrelated scraps. Or in more cynical terms: a money grab. But it doesn’t!”
Finch praised how the essayist rotates with aplomb through the art of Jay-Z, J.G. Ballard and Justin Bieber, more appreciative than harsh.
Smith, who wore her trademark turban and trousers to the stage, ended her short acceptance remarks with an appreciation of Robert B. Silvers, the late editor at the New York Review of Books, for whom she wrote many of the essays in her book.
“He was a model of rigor, clarity and engagement,” Smith said. “He made you a better writer deletion by deletion, query by query. The first essay I ever wrote for him was about Kafka. And a line from ‘The Judgment’ always reminds me of him. It’s the bit when the father leaps up out of bed and says to his son, ‘Now you know what existed outside of you. Before you were only aware of yourself.’ Bob knew how to prompt writers, easily some of the most narcissistic people on earth.”
That line prompted a wave of slightly uncomfortable chuckles from the audience at the New School in Manhattan.
Other winners this year were Nora Krug’s provocative and searching graphic memoir, Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home; Anna Burn’s Milkman, a novel set amid the Irish troubles, already crowned with a Booker prize; Christopher Bananos’ erudite biography Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous; Ada Limon’s poetry book The Carrying that celebrates her mother, and Steve Coll’s probing, definitive and multi-year investigative nonfiction, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As we bid adieu to 2018, allow us to shine a last, lingering reading light on ten highlights: the year’s titles from Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners. It should surprise no one that several are already acclaimed as the best-of-the-year. All are worth reading.
“American Histories: Stories” by John Edgar Wideman
In the latest literary stroke from an American master, these 21 short stories “are linked by astringent wit, audacious invention and a dry sensibility,” according to one critic. Another calls them “irresistible” and “profoundly moving.” The first, “JB & FD” imagines conversations between John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Another tale takes up with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Still another, “Williamsburg Bridge,” rests with a man contemplating his intent to jump into the East River. When Wideman won an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement award in 2011, he told the crowd a writing life still lay ahead. Now 76, the former Rhodes Scholar from Pittsburgh and MacArthur “genius” recipient speaks the truth still.
“Feel Free” by Zadie Smith
The exuberant, cerebral novelist collects her essays and landed on six best-of-the-year lists. She arranges the book into five sections: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf” and “Feel Free.” All the writing dates to the Obama administration. Maureen Corrigan describes the best of it, like Smith’s essay “Notes on Attunement” about disliking and then loving Joni Mitchell’s voice, as freeing. Also here is Smith’s much discussed essay on “Get Out,” in which she marks as fantasy “the notion that we can get out of each other’s way, mark a clean cut between black and white.” The cultural critic is often joyful, essentially saying art makes and marks freedom. Smith won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “On Beauty” in 2006.
“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight
This magisterial biography argues that its subject was among most transformative figures of the 19th-century. It begins with President Obama speaking of Douglass’ “mighty leonine gaze” at the 2016 dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It ends with the Robert Hayden’s superb poem “Frederick Douglass” that asserts when freedom comes, it will be “with the lives grown out of his life, the lives/Fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.” Blight, a fluid, graceful writer and Yale historian, has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to this text. He won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012 for “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”
“Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” by Lillian Faderman
In her crisp, beautifully researched biography, Faderman makes the case that Harvey Milk led many lives before he was martyred: Navy diver, math teacher, Wall Street securities analyst, Broadway gofer. Only in his final few years did he find his footing as a San Francisco politician. She begins by describing him as “charismatic, eloquent, a wit and a smart aleck,” and depicts a complex man with real enemies, real courage, real flaws and boundless energy. Much that animated Milk traces to his Jewish roots, making this portrait a snug fit in the Yale University Press’ acclaimed Jewish Lives series. Faderman won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Gay Revolution,” another definitive history, in 2016.
“In the House in the Dark of the Woods” by Laird Hunt
Every good book list should contain a fable, and the gifted Hunt delivers a stellar haunting with his latest, palm-sized novel. It opens in colonial New England with the classic trope: a woman goes missing in a forest. Hunt, a Brown University professor, lets his eighth novel excavate ancient fears of females kidnapped, women straying and maternal abandonment. But here the central figures narrates her own agency: “Through the dark woods I walked, thinking less and less of my son and of my man.” Hunt creates rapt historical fiction, as he did in “Kind One,” his Anisfield-Wolf honored novel from 2013. It serves as the start of a profound Midwestern trilogy, including “Neverhome” and “The Evening Road.”
“Invisible” by Stephen L. Carter
Subtitled “The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,” this biography of the author’s grandmother astonishes. Eunice Hunton Carter, herself the granddaughter of slaves, was 8 in 1907 when she declared she wanted to be a lawyer “to make sure the bad people went to jail.” A team of 20 crackerjack attorneys assembled to convict Lucky Luciano; the other 19 were white men. Thanks to Carter’s strategy, the prosecution won. The author, a Yale law professor, realized while writing this book that an earlier novel had been an unsuccessful homage to this formidable, intimidating Harlem original. In 2003, he won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”
“John Woman” by Walter Mosley
The author thought about this political and philosophical thriller for 20 years. It contains a murder and a disappearance, but it is not, Mosley says, a mystery. Instead it centers on a boy, Cornelius Jones, who is 12 as the story begins. His father is a silent film projectionist in the East Village; his mother is a sensualist backing out of Cornelius’ life. Five years later, Cornelius reinvents himself as “John Woman” and starts an intellectual movement drawing on his father’s notions of the slipperiness of history. The author, who won his Anisfield-Wolf prize in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” describes his new book as “a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”
“A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems” by Marilyn Chin
In her first book since winning a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for “Hard Love Province,” Chin draws together 30 years of dazzling, transgressive, witty work as an activist poet. “From the start of my career I waxed personal and political and have sought to be an activist-subversive-radical-immigrant-feminist-international-Buddhist-neoclasical nerd poet,” she writes from her home in San Diego, where she teaches comparative literature at the state university. Chin is masterful at making pain both visible and less tragic by throwing it into a cheeky, double-vision, East-West light. She writes to her grandfather, on his 100th birthday, “This is why the baboon’s ass is red.”
“A Shout in the Ruins” by Kevin Powers
The author of the deeply moving debut novel “The Yellow Birds,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book award in 2013, shifts his story-telling onto his home turf of Richmond, Va. He unspools two intertwined tales – one set at the end of the Civil War; the second steps off 90 years later as construction for the Richmond-Petersburg turnpike dismantles the city’s African-American neighborhood. Powers has said that he is drawn to stories of communities responding to violence. Called “gorgeous, devastating” in The New York Times, the novel suggests readers grasp that “the truth at the heart of every story, that violence is an original form of intimacy, and always has been, and will remain so forever.”
“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan
This picaresque yet deeply haunting third book from a brilliant Canadian author landed on ten best-of-the-year lists. She won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2012 for her equally stunning “Half-Blood Blues,” a European war novel set to a jazz beat. Both books were short-listed for the Booker Prize. In “Washington Black,” Edugyan begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados, where her title character is an 11-year-old who escapes bondage in a hot-air balloon piloted by the master’s brother. The story is an original in the derring-do explorer’s genre, probing self-invention, betrayal and the gradations of freedom — particularly as it limits both men. And the writing here moves like clear water across landscape and dialogue.
“Preventing international artists from contributing to American cultural life will not make America safer, and will damage its international prestige and influence,” wrote the signatories, who include poet Rita Dove and historian Simon Schama, panelists on the five-member Anisfield-Wolf jury.
The letter continues: “Arts and culture have the power to enable people to see beyond their differences. Creativity is an antidote to isolationism, paranoia, misunderstanding, and violent intolerance. In the countries most affected by the immigration ban, it is writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers who are often at the vanguard in the fights against oppression and terror. Should it interrupt the ability of artists to travel, perform, and collaborate, such an Executive Order will aid those who would silence essential voices and exacerbate the hatreds that fuel global conflict.”
“As writers and artists, we join PEN America in calling on you to rescind your Executive Order of January 27, 2017, and refrain from introducing any alternative measure that similarly impairs freedom of movement and the global exchange of arts and ideas,” they write.
Late at night and through eight grueling years, literature helped sustain the outgoing president of the United States.
In a wide-ranging interview with New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, Barack Obama reflected on the centrality of reading and the titles that have given him insight and solace, particularly in fiction. He mentions just completing Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and putting Maxine Hong Kingston‘s “The Woman Warrior” on the Kindle of his older daughter Malia.
The conversation shows a deeply reflective man in the midst of shaping his second act. At 55, he leaves the White House a relatively young man, and he is eager to return to writing. Composing a memoir, drawn from journals Obama kept during his two terms as Commander-in-Chief, will be his first order of business.
Before transitioning into private citizen, Obama invited five novelists to break bread — Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz (all three Anisfield-Wolf award winners) along with Barbara Kingsolver and Dave Eggers — to hear their perspectives on the craft and compare notes on culture and storytelling.
“I figured after all my criticism of his policies I wouldn’t be high on his list for anything but clearly there’s room at his lunch table for dissent,” Diaz wrote on Facebook. “He burned with optimism and faith invincible.”
Much like Edith Anisfield Wolf, Obama believes in the power of the written word to better us: “When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Slate.com book editor Dan Kois, DoubleX editor Hanna Rosin, and Brow Beat editor David Haglund sat down for a Slate Audio Book Club podcast to discuss Zadie Smith’s newest book, “NW,” which was recently named one of the best books of 2012 by the New York Times.
Penguin USA has uploaded a few videos of in honor of Zadie Smith’s new book NW. We thought you would enjoy.
When Zadie Smith comes out with a new novel after a multiyear hiatus, it’s news. Not just to the literary junkies who have devoured her earlier works, On Beauty, The Autograph Man, and White Teeth, but to folks who want to see if the “Zadie mania” is worth the hype.
And indeed it is. Her latest novel, NW, has received positive reviews from critics and casual readers alike.
She’s been hitting the promotion trail hard to get this book to the top of the bestseller lists and a recent profile in Interview magazine (along with a stunning photo of Ms. Smith) caught our eye. In it, she discusses the pressure of writing novels when your first (as a 22-year-old) is a smash success.
If I’m honest with you, I feel that this book is the first book that I’ve really written as an adult,” she explains. “For a lot of people this would be their first novel. I’m 36. It happens that I wrote three books as a very young person….Your mid-thirties is a good time because you know a fair amount, you have some self-control. I knew my own mind a bit more. And I stopped trying to please people.”
Have we worn you down? Has our incessant posting about Zadie Smith’s latest novel sparked just enough curiosity for you to at least pick up the book next week and read a few pages in the bookstore? You could do that, or you could watch the video above and hear Zadie Smith read it for you.
Penguin Press, Zadie Smith’s publisher, is offering readers a sneak peek at her latest novel over on its Facebook page. We’re not sure how long it will be available, so if you’re interested, go read it today!
The reviews for NW are already trickling in and we really like this write-up from the Washington Post, even if it’s not the typical glowing four-star review:
The Washington Post’s Ron Charles writes:
“You either submit to Smith’s eclectic style or you set this book aside in frustration. At times, reading “NW” is like running past a fence, catching only strips of light from the scene on the other side. Smith makes no accommodation for the distracted reader — or even the reader who demands a clear itinerary. But if you’re willing to let it work on you, to hear all these voices and allow the details to come into focus when Smith wants them to, you’ll be privy to an extraordinary vision of our age.”
Do reviews like this make you want to read it more or less? Will you be picking up a copy of “NW” when it hits bookshelves in September?
The press keeps coming for Zadie Smith, as her latest book, NW, will be hitting bookshelves in September. An excerpt from her latest book appeared in The New Yorker recently and Smith gave an open and honest interview about her writing process and her desire to have characters that are diverse. But there was one quote in particular that made us pause:
Every time I write a sentence I’m thinking not only of the people I ended up in college with but my siblings, my family, my school friends, the people from my neighborhood. I’ve come to realize that this is an advantage, really: it keeps you on your toes.
And it seems clear to me that these little varietals of voice and lifestyle (bad word, but I can’t think of another) are fundamentally significant. They’re not just decoration on top of a life; they’re the filter through which we come to understand the world.
Is it clear now why we awarded Ms. Smith the 2006 award for fiction? This quote clearly touches upon all the elements of the Anisfield-Wolf Awards. We appreciate the differences in cultures because they are truly what makes the world such a rich place to be.
Huffington Post’s Black Voices rounded up 50 books the editors think every African American should read (they added on Twitter that of course the list has value to everyone, but these books focus primarily on the black experience in America). We were thrilled to see how many Anisfield-Wolf winners were on the list, proving to us once again that our winners stand out in the crowded literary field.
“Annie Allen” (1949)
“Breath, Eyes, Memory” (1999)
“Half Of A Yellow Sun” (2008)
“Invisible Man” (1952)
Edward P. Jones
“The Known World” (2003)
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1987)
“Song of Solomon” (1977), “Sula” (1973) and “The Bluest Eye” (1970)
“The Weary Blues” (1925)
Zora Neale Hurston
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)
“White Teeth” (2000)
“The Warmth of Other Suns” (2010)
“Devil in a Blue Dress” (1990)
Ernest J. Gaines
“A Lesson Before Dying” (1993)
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Can’t Have It All” article has re-ignited the conversation about working mothers and their quest to obtain balance in all areas of their lives. Some argue that Slaughter’s perspective (as a former State Department employee turned tenured Princeton professor) reeks of privilege, while others simply admit that she makes valid points about the difficulty of proving yourself both on the job and in your home.
The Wall Street Journal caught up with 2006 Anisfield-Wolf winner Zadie Smith at the Book Expo and talked to her a bit about how she sees her career these days, as she has a two-and-a-half year old daughter and an upcoming book to promote. How does she balance the two?
It’s not always easy but I think one way you can make it easier is just doing the essential things and nothing else. I’m not in a great passion to run around the country for three weeks, you know? I’d rather be at home.
But actually writing fits fairly well with motherhood. I’m in the house all the time, which helps. You can set your hours. I suppose the hard thing for a child is the sense that your mother is often thinking about something else. In the downtime between novels you have to demonstrate that you’re also thinking of your family. I’m trying to do it now.
Some of our very own Anisfield-Wolf winners will be in attendance at the 2012 Book Expo at the Javits Center in New York City, June 5-7. The Book Expo is one of the largest events in the literary field, with authors, librarians, editors, and other industry professionals in attendance each year. Among the authors will be 2008 winner Junot Diaz and 2006 winner Zadie Smith. Click here for ticket information.
Tuesday, June 5
Adult Book & Author Breakfast
8:00 am – 9:30 am
Special Events Hall
Thursday, June 7
Adult Book & Author Breakfast
8:00 am – 9:30 am
Special Events Hall
In the music industry, there is always a collective sigh of relief when an artist releases a work after an absence—and the work is as good as (or better than) their previous efforts. Same is true for authors.
Zadie Smith has not released a novel since 2005’s On Beauty and the literary world has been waiting for her return. In March it was announced that her fourth novel, titled NW, would be released in September. We dug around for a description and found what sounds like a great book:
“Somewhere in Northwest London stands Caldwell housing estate, relic of 70s urban planning. Five identical blocks, deliberately named: Hobbes, Smith, Bentham, Locke, and Russell. If you grew up here, the plan was to get out and get on, to something bigger, better.
Thirty years later ex-Caldwell kids Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan have all made it out, with varying degrees of succes—whatever that means. Living only streets apart, they occupy separate worlds and navigate an atomized city where few wish to be their neighbor’s keeper. Then one April afternoon a stranger comes to Leah’s door seeking help, disturbing the peace, and forcing Leah out of her isolation…”
What do you think? Will you be reading it in a few months? What’s your favorite Zadie Smith work to date?