Get to know the winners of the 88th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards
Clevelanders often take pride in the city’s museums, history or the fact that it’s the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, but one local marvel Clevelanders shouldn’t sleep on is the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
This annual literary prize is the only American book prize that focuses on works that address racism and diversity and it was created in Cleveland 88 years ago by Edith Anisfield Wolf.
Each year we celebrate a new class of literary giants who dedicate their craft to telling these too often neglected stories.
The winners of the 88th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards will be celebrated at a ceremony Thursday night in Cleveland — it's one of the best parties in the city every year.
The historic list of past winners includes Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, N. Scott Momaday, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (a personal favorite), Reetika Vazirani and Henry Louis Gates Jr., who now serves as the jury chair for the awards.
My colleague Natalia Garcia and I spent the summer traveling around the country to produce a documentary profiling this year's honorees, which will air early next year on PBS stations across the country.
We started things off with a lengthy trip to New England and the first stop was on Martha's Vineyard. (Tough work trip.)
One of two fiction winners this year is Geraldine Brooks, who lives in a Martha's Vineyard town called West Tisbury, where she greeted us alongside her pet horse, Valentine. You can expect some Valentine airtime in the upcoming documentary.
Brooks' novel, “Horse," tells the story of one of the most dominant racehorses in the history of the sport and the enslaved Black people most responsible for the horse’s success.
“Horse is a triple-braided narrative set in three time periods. The spine of this story is the story of the horse in the 1850s,” Brooks said. “Because race is such an important part of the story of the 19th century and race is still a bitingly important story today, I knew that would have to resonate in the contemporary story, as well.”
Brooks was born and raised in Australia, so her Aussie accent didn't come as a surprise. But she did surprise us when she said she spent some of her early career living and working in Cleveland as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
A couple of days later we went to Oak Bluffs, another Martha’s Vineyard town, to meet Charlayne Hunter-Gault, this year’s lifetime achievement award winner. Hunter-Gault is a journalist who has dedicated her career to reporting on Black communities around the globe.
As a reporter who covers race, diversity and underrepresented communities for Ideastream, meeting Hunter-Gault was like meeting Beyonce or the Rolling Stones — she's a journalism rock star.
Hunter-Gault boasts about being a mother and a wife, but she’s too modest to mention her other reality. She's a civil rights icon.
Hunter-Gault and high school classmate Hamilton Holmes desegregated the University of Georgia and became its first Black graduates in 1963.
“I have tried to report on people as they see themselves,” Hunter-Gault told me. “When I hear that there are younger journalists who look at the work that I’ve done and are, maybe I can use the word, inspired by it, I’m honored. At the same time, I’m impressed with what so many of them are doing.”
After nearly missing the fairy to get off Martha's Vineyard, we headed to Etna, New Hampshire to meet Matthew F. Delmont, a historian at nearby Dartmouth College and the author of “Half American,” which won this year’s nonfiction prize.
“Half American” tells the often untold histories of African Americans fighting in World War II. As Delmont described it, the war could not have been won without the efforts of Black Americans.
"Black Americans understood it wasn't enought to defeat the Nazis militarily if you came home to racism and white suprmacy in the United States... They recognzied the hypocrisy. They recognized that the United States was claiming to fight this war for freedom and democracy while still having a segregated Army, while still condoning this kind of Jim Crow segregation and racism all across the country,” Delmont said from a house filled with baseball cards, action figures and washable marker drawings.
Hearing Delmont talk about World War II veterans who feel excluded from the history books — forgotten — was powerful, but he lit up the most when he talked about being "a complete suburban dad." His words, not mine.
This year’s winner for poetry is Saeed Jones and his collection, “Alive at the End of the World.” It captures the constant thought process of a queer Black man in America, in a society that will simultaneously celebrate and brutalize Black art.
Jones grew up in the American South and perfected his craft in New York, but fell in love with Columbus a few years ago, which saved Natalia and I a long flight. We just headed down I-71.
“The collection was my attempt to capture, from my perspeective, what it fees like to be doing the reckoning of personal griefs ... while kind of running for your life. We’re constantly being assailed by unprecedented systemic failure, violence and environmental collapse,” Jones said. “We can’t turn society on and off and say, 'I need a moment to process my feelings, can white supremacy give me a day off please?'”
Two things drew me to Jones — his cool outfit that he "just threw on" and our shared love of a lot of the same music. Much of "Alive at the End of the World" pays homage to rock 'n' roll and R&B heroes — Little Richard, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross.
Our travels ended in Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, one of the most prestigious graduate-level English programs in the country. Lan Samantha Chang, the other nonfiction winner, is the director of the workshop.
Her novel, “The Family Chao,” is a murder mystery centered around a Chinese American family that is subjected to a stereotyped gaze by locals in their small Wisconsin town.
“Two parents, three sons, each of them is wildly different. One of the things that was interesting to me in a family of four same-sex siblings, I have three sisters, is that each of us is so different,” Chang said. “I think I had that in mind when I wrote about the Chao brothers. Each of them has experienced a different stage of their parents’ Americanization.”
As an Asian American myself, I felt seen when I was reading "The Family Chao." I related to the topics of cultural identity. The book should remind readers that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not a monolith. Chang's book celebrates individuality and the breadth of what Asian Americans are and can be. The "whodunnit" makes it a page turner, too.
The 88th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Ceremony is Thursday night at the Maltz Performing Arts Center on Cleveland’s East Side.
Natalia and I and our editors at Ideastream Public Media are hard at work producing the documentary, and it is our great honor to celebrate these authors who share the same values and passions that we do.
We can't wait to share this production with you in 2024.
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