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2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winners Announced

Authors from the worlds of poetry, history and science fiction are among the honorees for this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards (AWBA).

For over 85 years, this Cleveland-born literary prize has focused on writers who examine issues of discrimination and diversity. The roster of past AWBA winners ranges from Toni Morrison and Martin Luther King Jr. to August Wilson and Junot Diaz.

Victoria Chang [Isaac Fitzgerald]

Victoria Chang - Poetry

Chang’s fifth book, “Obit,” was written over the course of two weeks in the aftermath of her mother’s death. AWBA manager Karen Long described this collection as something striking to look at and think about.

“She decided to write this incredible series of poems in that narrow column shape of a newspaper obituary that also mimics a tombstone,” Long said. “It's funny, which I kind of hate to say, but her sense of humor works through this, as well as her great investigation of grief."

James McBride [Chia Messina]

James McBride – Fiction

“Deacon King Kong” is the story of an elderly, alcoholic deacon in his Baptist church near a housing project in Brooklyn, similar to the housing project that James McBride started his life in,” Long said. “The deacon goes out one day, not sober, and shoots the most notorious drug dealer in the projects in the era - in 1969 - in front of all these witnesses in broad daylight. And so, the story is the series of events that cascade from that act. And McBride withholds the explanation for the shooting until the very end.”

McBride is on a roll lately. His 2013 novel “Good Lord Bird” was turned into a Showtime miniseries last year, just a few months after this new book was published. The Oberlin grad previously won the AWBA for his 1995 memoir, “The Color of Water.” Long said he is the first author to be honored for both fiction and non-fiction.

Natasha Trethewey [Nancy Crampton]

Natasha Trethewey – Non-Fiction

There are two non-fiction winners this year. Natasha Trethewey’s “Memorial Drive” is a memoir that tells the story of her mother, who was murdered at the age of 40, when Trethewey was a teenager. According to AWBA’s Karen Long, the book was born 20 years later, when the author got access to police reports, the autopsy and other official documents.

“And so, with that, she turned to the record of her mother's life and last days, a diary she had never seen,” Long said. “And she braids together this story that reclaims her mother and their relationship in its fullness. I think it's an incredible mother-daughter story.”


Vincent Brown [Sharona Jacobs]

Vincent Brown – Non-Fiction

This year’s other non-fiction winner is a deeply researched piece of military history. In “Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War,” Harvard scholar Vincent Brown details the story of a little-known 18 th century slave uprising that was crushed by British imperial forces in Jamaica, but planted the seeds for the abolition of slavery. The book also expands the common American conception of the slave trade to a phenomenon of global importance.

Long said it is unusual for the AWBA jury to split any category into more than one winner, but there was no avoiding it this year.  

“They argued passionately that these books both deserve wide readership and are so different from one to the other that maybe we can make the exception of holding them both up,” she said.

Samuel R. Delany [James Hamilton]

Samuel R. Delany – Lifetime Achievement

This honor celebrates Delany’s six-decade career as a novelist and literary critic. Karen Long described that career as one of bravery and creativity.

He's been named one of the most important thinkers of the last century in explicating our understanding of LGBTQ,” she said. “He writes science fiction and essays. His readership numbers into the millions.”

Long is hoping to stage a live event in October celebrating this year’s AWBA winners, but that will depend on the status of pandemic health and safety concerns at that time.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.