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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.
Namwali Serpell, the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for fiction, joins The Asterisk* to discuss what makes strong sentences and good titles, her Zambian upbringing – including the lasting impacts of colonialism -- and crafting a multi-genre book. The daughter of a British-born Zambian psychologist, Robert, and a Zambian economist, Namposya Nampanya-Serpell, Serpell and her sisters grew up on three continents: in the Zambian capital of Lusaka, Hull, England and Baltimore, Maryland. She began writing “The Old Drift” as a senior at Yale University and worked on it episodically for the next 18 years. “The Old Drift” became one of the most acclaimed novels of 2019 – “a feat of boundless imagination, thrumming with inventiveness,” as Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates describes it. British novelist Ali Smith calls the story “a sprawling life force,” a book she wished she had written. “The Old Drift” won a $165,000 Windham-Campbell literature prize and the £2020 Arthur C. Clarke award. Serpell sat down with The Asterisk* in January of 2021 from her apartment in Harlem, where she is on a research fellowship before she begins as a Harvard Professor of English in fall, 2021.
Ilya Kaminsky, the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for poetry, joins The Asterisk* to talk about the political asylum that brought his family from the former Soviet Union to Rochester, N.Y., his unlikely transition from lawyer to poet and when he knew to publish after 15 years of working on “Deaf Republic.” Celebrated for his facility with the Russian, Ukrainian, sign and English languages, Kaminsky clerked for the National Immigration Law Center, then became the Court Appointed Special Advocate for orphaned children in Southern California. In his mid-20s, he sent a manuscript to the Tupelo Press, which published it as “Dancing in Odessa.” Hailed as the harbinger of a major new voice, this first book reached a global audience, translated into more than 20 languages. “Deaf Republic” received even broader critical acclaim, causing the British Broadcasting Corporation to declare Kaminsky “one of the 12 artists that changed the world in 2019.” Poet Rita Dove, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards juror, said she was haunted by the book: “It’s a parable that comes to life and refuses to die.” Kaminsky sat down with The Asterisk* in January of 2021 from his home in Atlanta, where he has served since 2018 as the Bourne Chair in Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Sonia Sanchez, the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for Lifetime Achievement, joins The Asterisk* to talk about the importance of sound, cadence and naming her subjects, plus how she infiltrated the male-dominated sphere of American poetry. A playwright, activist and educator—the Birmingham, Alabama-born poet is a central architect of the Black Arts Movement, a mid-20th century renewal of Black will, energy and artistic awareness. A-W jury chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes her work in both the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movement as molding generations. Known for infusing musical traditions with haiku and tanka, Sanchez has published more than a dozen poetry collections. She pioneered a Black studies course in 1968 at what became San Francisco State University, a first at a majority white institution. She served as Philadelphia as its first poet laureate from 2012-2013 and won the 2018 Wallace Stevens prize for Lifetime Achievement from the American Academy of Poets.
Eric Foner, the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for Lifetime Achievement, joins The Asterisk* to discuss the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol, his marriage to a fellow historian and his place among the most influential American historians of the last half-century. With more than two dozen books to his credit, AWBA jury chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. says Foner “is the dean of Reconstruction historians, and is one of the most generous, and genuinely passionate, professors of his generation.” In arguably his most influential book, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution,” Foner tracked the warp and weave in the struggle for freedom and equality long after the Confederacy expired. It won the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, a Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Avery O. Craven Prize and the Lionel Trilling Award. The book is still considered the premier synthesis of the years 1863-1877.
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