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The Asterisk*

The Asterisk*

Author: Ansfield-Wolf Book Awards

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The Asterisk* is a production of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards (AWBA), the only juried prize to honor outstanding books that further our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures. An asterisk is a reference mark, indicating an omission. With that definition in mind, each episode will delve into some of the holes in our knowledge about an esteemed AWBA winning book.The Asterisk* is hosted by Karen R. Long, the manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Long came to the Cleveland Foundation in 2013 after eight years as book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She continues as a literary critic and served until 2016 as a vice president for the National Book Critics Circle.For over 85 years, the distinguished books earning Anisfield-Wolf prizes have opened and challenged generations of minds. Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf established the book prizes in 1935, in honor of her father, John Anisfield, and husband, Eugene Wolf, to reflect her family’s passion for social justice. Today it remains the only American book prize focusing on works that address racism and diversity. Past winners have expanded the humanities, illuminated the extraordinary art and culture of peoples around the world and broadened our understanding of rights and identities as well as our sense of whom is entitled to them. The Cleveland Foundation, the world’s first community foundation, has administered the Anisfield-Wolf prize since 1963.

24 Episodes
Born 85 years ago in Chattanooga, Tenn., Ishmael Reed won the 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award lifetime achievement prize for his six decades of as a poet, novelist, playwright, lyricist, cartoonist, musician and founder of small presses and publications – doing it all with curiosity, bite, and eventually a global reach. Celebrated as a teacher and for writing such groundbreaking novels “Mumbo Jumbo,” Reed was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1998. Last year he dropped a jazz solo album, “The Hands of God,” and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His most recent play, “The Conductor,” premiered in New York City this spring. Colson Whitehead, the 2002 A-W winner for fiction, once said, “Some folks dream about being in Harlem during the 20s…I’m sad I didn’t get to hang out in the late 60s Berkeley with Ishmael Reed.” Reed joined The Asterisk* via Zoom in August 2023 from his home in Oakland, Calif., with his wife and collaborator Carla Blank – who makes a couple of cameos on the episode.
Born in Washington, D.C., Tony Marra won the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award prize in fiction for “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” – his first novel that astonished critics with its verve and skill. The story, set in Chechnya, unfolds through the interlocking lives of six characters. And given the war in Ukraine, it remains uncannily topical. Madison Smartt Bell, himself an Anisfield-Wolf winner, wrote “This novel is, among other things, a meditation on the use and abuse of history, and an inquiry into the extent to which acts of memory may also constitute acts of survival.” The Asterisk* caught up with Marra in December 2022 in Iowa City, Iowa, where he was teaching at the University of Iowa following the release of his third book – “Mercury Pictures Presents” – in July of 2022. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut with his wife Kappy Mintie, a senior researcher at Yale’s Lens Media Lab. Marra earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and a master’s from the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Shane McCrae won a 2018 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in poetry for “In the Language of My Captor.” A book about freedom told through stories of captivity, the collection features both prose memoir and poems in historical persona. These include a clutch in the voice of Jim Limber, the mixed-race child Jefferson Davis adopted in the final year of the Civil War. Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove lifted up McCrae’s fifth collection of poetry, “These voices worm their way inside your head; deceptively simple language layers complexity upon complexity until we are snared in the same socialized racial webbing as the African exhibited at the zoo or the Jim Crow universe that Banjo Yes has learned to survive in: ‘You can be free//Or you can live.’” The Asterisk* caught up with McCrae in January 2023 from his office at Columbia University, where he teaches creative writing and edits the poetry journal Image. He lives in New York City with his wife Melissa and their daughter Eden. McCrae dropped out of high school and later earned a law degree from Harvard – the first in his family to finish college. His latest book, the memoir “Pulling the Chariot of the Sun,” publishes August 1. It describes his white grandparents’ kidnapping of him.
Percival Everett won a 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction for “The Trees.” The idea for the novel sprung from the traditional song “I Rise Up” and a Lyle Lovett cover of “Ain’t No More Cane” that Everett was listening to before playing a tennis game. At the time, he also happened to be researching lynching. What “The Trees” became, in the estimation of Anisfield-Wolf Juror Joyce Carol Oates, is a profound novel, “easily the most idiosyncratic, least classifiable work of fiction the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has ever honored. This is a wickedly clever novel of ideas in the guise of genre fiction, a combination mystery, thriller, police procedural and absurdist comedy.” Everett joined The Asterisk* via zoom in June of 2023 from his home in Pasadena, Calif., where he lives with his wife, the novelist Danzy Senna. A distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California, he has written more than 30 books, including poetry, a Pulitzer finalist in “Telephone,” and his most recent effort, “Dr. No.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Miami and a master’s from Brown University. In April, Everett won the Windham Campbell Prize for his “virtuosic body of work (that) exemplifies fiction’s capacity for play, vigilance and compassion for life’s precarity in an uncertain world.”
Donika Kelly won the 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award prize in poetry for her second book, “The Renunciations” – a response to a marriage ending and to remaking meaning from childhood trauma. Born in Los Angeles, Kelly’s first collection, “Bestiary,” received the 2015 Cave Canem prize. Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove describes “The Renunciations” as “Several mini-sequences are woven throughout; their periodic reappearance – the “Dear –” erasures, Self-Portraits, Sightings, Oracles – acts as a subtle yet devastating reminder of the cycle of violence. I returned to Kelly’s book, and she set me gasping anew. This is poetry of the highest order.” Kelly joined The Asterisk* in February of 2023 in Iowa City, Iowa where she is a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa, and lives with her wife, the nonfiction writer Melissa Febos. The poet earned her bachelor’s degree from Southern Arkansas University, a master’s from the University of Texas and her doctorate from Vanderbilt University.
Peter Ho Davies, the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for fiction, becomes the first guest to sit down for a second time with The Asterisk*. This time we caught up with him on the heels of the release of his latest novel, “A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself.” It begins as a mother asks herself, “Abortion has been legal all my life. Why do I feel like a criminal?” Davies grew up in Coventry, England, the son of a Welsh engineer and a Malaysian Chinese dentist. His first novel “The Welsh Girl,” longlisted for the Booker Prize, explores questions of Welshness. “There are some stories that require as much courage to write as they do art,” said novelist Sigrid Nunez about Davies’ most recent title. “Peter Ho Davies’s achingly honest, searingly comic portrait of fatherhood is just such a story...The world needs more stories like this one, more of this kind of courage, more of this kind of love.” Davies joined The Asterisk* in Cleveland in September of 2022 after giving the convocation speech at Case Western Reserve University. He lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. with his wife, Lynne Raughley. Davies is a professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan.
Tiya Miles won a 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award prize in nonfiction for “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake,” a deep dive into a worn yet priceless cotton sack and the 10 lines of embroidery on it. Miles saw a picture of it, and was moved to seek its history. The sack will be hung in the International African American Museum when it opens in June 2023. Anisfield-Wolf winning historian Annette Gordon Reed calls this book, “a brilliant exercise in historical excavation and recovery, a successful strike against the traditional archives’ erasure of the lives of enslaved African American women.” Miles joined The Asterisk* in January 2023 in Cambridge, Mass., where she is the Michael Garvey Professor of History and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at Harvard University. When she was 41 and teaching at the University of Michigan, Dr. Miles won a MacArthur genius prize.
George Makari won a 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award prize in nonfiction for his third book, “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia.” Amid Brexit and election of Donald Trump in 2016, Makari decided to investigate how “we mis-know one another.” Anisfield-Wolf juror Steven Pinker praised “Of Fear and Strangers,” noting, “We see countless books that consider instances of racism. Very few seek to understand it as a phenomenon to be studied and analyzed. ‘Of Fear and Strangers’ does that, free of cliché and jargon. Instead, it is replete with liveliness, wit and original turns of phrase.” Makari joined The Asterisk* in January of 2023 in New York City, where he lives with his wife, the painter and curator Arabella Ogilvie-Makari. He is a psychiatrist who directs the DeWitt Wallace Institute of Psychiatry: History, Policy and the Arts at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan. Makari grew up in New Jersey, earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University and his M.D. from the Medical College of Cornell University.
Mary Morris won the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award prize for “The Jazz Palace,” a novel set in her hometown of Chicago during the Jazz Age. The story, which took nearly 20 years of drafting and revising, sings of Prohibition-era Chicago, teaming with clubs and gangsters, experimental music, and new arrivals from the Southern U.S. and Eastern Europe. Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove praised this work as a foundational novel that gives context to the racial injustice that still divides Chicago today. Dove called the novel, “a nuanced and balanced story of those who rise above difference to produce and celebrate art.” Morris joined The Asterisk* in July of 2022 via zoom from her home in New York, where she is a professor of writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A celebrated travel writer and memoirist, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Tufts College and a master’s from Columbia University.
Laird Hunt is a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for “Kind One,” a haunting novel that explores a horrible and uncanny intimacy between slave and master, inspired by a passage in Edward P. Jones’ “The Known World.” Hunt’s story, which also was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, tells of two sisters who turn tables on their mistress and take her captive after her Kentucky farmer husband dies. Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje said of Hunt’s work, "There is always a surprise in the voice and in the heart of Laird Hunt's stories, with its echoes of habit caught in a timeless dialect, so we see the world he gives us as if new. 'You hear something like that and it walks out the door with you.'" Hunt joined The Asterisk* in July of 2022 via zoom from his home in Providence, R.I., where he is a professor of literary arts at Brown University. A former United Nations press officer, he was born in Singapore and educated at Indiana University and The Sorbonne in Paris.
Vincent Brown is a 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for “Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War.” It is a groundbreaking investigation into the roots, combatants, cartography and reverberations of the largest slave revolt in the 18th Century British Atlantic World.  “This is truly a remarkable and important event in the history of the world, largely unknown (I confess that I was ignorant of it),” writes Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards juror Steven Pinker. “Not only did Brown do heroic work in his original scholarship, but he escaped the insular world of academese and presented it in an accessible and appealing form. It’s a major accomplishment.”  Brown joined The Asterisk* in May of 2022 via zoom from his home in Cambridge, Mass., where he is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is also the founding director of Harvard’s History Design Studio, set up for researchers who want to explore new modes of researching and narrating history.
Natasha Trethewey, a 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for her searing and lyrical memoir about her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, joins The Asterisk* to discuss epigraphs and erasure. Trethewey won a Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2007 for “Native Guard” and served as the nation’s 19th poet laureate from 2012-2014. She won the Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction prize for “Memorial Drive.” A-W Juror Simon Schama describes the prose in Trethewey’s memoir as “intensely poetic, but with an emotional economy that makes the gathering catastrophe even more overwhelming when it unfolds. I also want to stress her book is a compelling portrait of race in America, from the 1960s on. It’s a thrilling addition to American literature that will be read for many, many years to come as a classic not just of the memoir genre but any kind of contemporary writing.” A native of Gulfport, Miss. – although an important part of her backstory resides in Ohio – Trethewey sat down in February of 2022 to explain how she came to record the audiobook herself. She welcomed the Asterisk* into her home in Evanston, Ill., where she is a professor of English at Northwestern University.
A. Van Jordan, a 2005 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for his nonfiction about a thwarted spelling bee contestant, joins The Asterisk* to discuss listening closely, the death of Tamir Rice and the writerly fellowship among A-W honorees. Born in Akron, Ohio, Jordan is a graduate of the Cave Canem Workshop. Now a professor of English at the University of Michigan, Jordan won the Anisfield-Wolf prize for M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A. The Virginia Quarterly Review called it a, “multi-voiced, collaged, and sometimes experimental in form . . . these poems surprise us with their range and approach . . . A narrative that breaks your heart with an intimacy most poets writing about their own lives could only dream to achieve.” Jordan sat down with The Asterisk* in March of 2022 at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s main branch, where he did much of his research for M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A .
Victoria Chang, a 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for poetry, joins The Asterisk* to discuss the weather of grief, clarity in writing and her relationship with her ancestors. The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Chang’s first two degrees, from the University of Michigan and Harvard University, were in Asian studies. But as her interest in poetry grew, she detoured into earning an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She lives in southern California and serves on the faculty at Antioch University. Her fifth collection of poetry, Obit, met with a chorus of critical praise. It won an Anisfield-Wolf prize and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Award. Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove responded strongly to Obit: “At first one might think: What a gimmick, to force each poem into the narrow column of a newspaper obit! How can these compressed language gobbets be called poems, anyway? And yet after the requisite announcements (name of the deceased, time, cause of death), each obit plunges to the source of its bereavement, skewering as it darkens, until I’m left speechless, bereft, in Keats’ ‘vale of soul-making.’” Chang sat down with The Asterisk* in March of 2022 at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, Va.
James McBride, the only Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards recipient to win for both fiction and nonfiction titles, joins The Asterisk* to discuss his degree in music composition, his mother’s affinity for Barbara Bush and his gift for writing humor. Accomplished in music and wordsmithing, with a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University, McBride landed a permanent berth on college syllabi with “The Color of Water.” He subtitled his 1996 memoir: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.” It received an Anisfield-Wolf prize. In 2021, McBride’s work again delighted the jury, this time for the novel “Deacon King Kong,” based loosely on his parents’ small church in Brooklyn, N.Y. It begins in 1969 as an elderly, alcoholic deacon crosses a courtyard full of housing project neighbors to shoot an ear off a notorious and gifted drug dealer. “’Deacon King Kong’ is sort of a benign variant of ‘The Wire,’” observes Joyce Carol Oates, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards juror. “It is robust and funny, confronting tragedy with an ebullient comic spirit, ‘pulling its punches’ in unexpected ways that repudiate disaster and resound just right.” McBride sat down with The Asterisk* in March of 2020 – a week before Covid began shutting down the country. His 2013 National Book Award-winning novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” became a seven-part Showtime series, which debuted later in 2020, with Ethan Hawke starring as Captain John Brown.
Tracy K. Smith, a 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for poetry, joins The Asterisk* to discuss what it means to belong, letters to Abraham Lincoln and her return to Harvard as a professor. Smith received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her third book of poems, “Life on Mars.” She also served two terms as the Poet Laureate of the United States, from 2017-19. She grew up in Northern California as the youngest of five children. The family called her “Kitten.” A 1993 winner of the Cave Canem prize, she earned a bachelor’s from Harvard University and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Columbia University. In “Wade in the Water,” her AWBA-winning fourth volume of poetry, the 52 poems speak to learning to ride a bike, the poisoning of the Ohio River and the testimonies of Black soldiers in the Civil War. “Tracy K. Smith is a poet of astonishing gifts, never more brilliantly displayed than in ‘Wade in the Water,’” said A-W juror Joyce Carol Oates. “She explores, or rather eviscerates, our willful self-deceptions about race, history, the nature of ‘enslavement;’ her poems are sharp edged as knife blades, swift, deft, fleeting, and profound, yet suffused with sympathy, like an impersonal and abiding love.” Smith help create “The Slowdown” podcast before turning the reins over to Ada Limón in the fall of 2021. Later that year, she sat down with The Asterisk* after giving the fall convocation at Case Western Reserve University.
Charles King, the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for nonfiction, joins The Asterisk* to discuss the importance of practicing empathy, what it’s like being married to an anthropologist, writing his books in the Library of Congress and what American authoritarianism looks like. A first-generation college student, King grew up on a small cattle farm in the Ozark foothills near Springdale, Arkansas. He studied history and philosophy at the University of Arkansas before becoming a British Marshall scholar at Oxford University. “Gods of the Upper Air” is a group portrait of four groundbreaking anthropologists – Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and Ella Cara Deloria – and their mentor, the brilliant, eccentric German immigrant Franz Boas. The book “recounts nothing less than one of the epochal changes in the history of Western thought,” Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker writes. “Today it’s second nature for educated people to attribute differences in the fortunes of races, ethnic groups and sexes to ‘culture’ rather than being the proper stations of people who were innately primitive or otherwise fitted to their roles.” King sat down with The Asterisk* in May 2021 from his home in Washington, D.C., where he lives with the anthropologist and author Margaret Paxson. He teaches international affairs and government at Georgetown University, where students have three times voted him professor of the year.
Marilyn Chin, a 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for poetry, joins The Asterisk* to discuss loss, mourning and the importance of speaking grief, the influence of her grandmother, and the longevity of her poetry. Born Mei Ling Chin in Hong Kong, she was five when her family moved to Portland, Oregon, where her father transliterated her name to Marilyn. (He had a crush on Marilyn Monroe.) After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Chin earned a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa. In “Hard Love Province,” her AWBA-winning fourth volume of poetry, she experiments with quatrains, sonnets, haiku, allegories and elegies in precise words whose effect are brazen, icy yet inflamed. “Marilyn Chin’s poems excite and incite the imagination through their brilliant cultural interfacings, their theatre of anger, ‘fierce and tender,’ their compassion, and their high mockery of wit,” noted Adrienne Rich, a mentor to Chin until she died in 2012. “Reading her, our sense of the possibilities of poetry is opened further, and we feel again what an active, powerful art it can be.” Chin sat down with The Asterisk* in the fall of 2020 from her home in San Diego, Calif. A professor emerita at San Diego State University and a Chancellor at the Academy of American Poets, she won the $100,000 Ruth Lily Poetry Prize and the 2019 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. Chin also earned a Stegner fellowship, four Pushcart prizes and a Fulbright fellowship.
Lillian Faderman, the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for nonfiction, joins The Asterisk* to discuss why she started writing, her biography of Harvey Milk and the Supreme Court. She also recommends ways to read to grasp LGBTQ history. A leading scholar of that history, Faderman is celebrated for paying attention to lesbian history and activism. She was born in lower Manhattan, the daughter of a Jewish garment worker who raised her with a sister in Los Angeles. Despite a hardscrabble childhood, Faderman earned her doctorate in English at the University of California – while her mother was practically illiterate. “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle” is Faderman’s impeccable chronicle of “how we got here.” The book begins in the mid 20th-century, when American gays were prosecuted as criminals, crazies and subversives. It considers the nation’s first gay and lesbian organizations, the Stonewall uprising and the activism honed in the AIDS epidemic. The writer conducted more than 150 interviews and mined 20 archives. As critic Kenji Yoshino wrote, “To read her is like viewing the AIDS quilt, which overwhelms the reader with the care taken in each of its numberless panels. Any revolutionary would be lucky to stand in a light so steady, so searching, and so sure.” Faderman sat down with The Asterisk* in the fall of 2020 from her home in Fresno, Calif., where she lives with her partner, Phyllis Irwin. The winner of six Lambda Literary Awards, two American Library Association Awards and Yale University’s James Brudner Award, Faderman is a professor emeritus in English at California State University, Fresno.
Peter Ho Davies, the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for fiction, joins The Asterisk* to discuss how racism and stereotypes play into the notion of a model minority, what it’s like being a professor – in the midst of a pandemic – and his next book. Davies grew up in Coventry, England, the son of a Welsh engineer and a Malaysian Chinese dentist. His first novel “The Welsh Girl,” longlisted for the Booker Prize, explores questions of Welshness. He sees his second novel, “The Fortunes”, as “examining the burdens, limitations and absurdity of Asian stereotypes.” “The Fortunes is a boldly imagined work of fiction in which historic figures—Chinese, Chinese-American, ‘white’—come to an astonishingly vivid, visceral life through the power of Peter Ho Davies’s prose,” writes Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates. She went on to contend that it bends genre and race in ways that make it “a prophetic work in 2017.” Little did she know just how prescient it would turn out be… Davies sat down with The Asterisk* in June of 2020 from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he lives with his wife, Lynne Raughley, and son, Owen. He is a professor of creative writing in the English Language & Literature department at the University of Michigan, and his latest novel, “A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself," came out in January of 2021.
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