Established in 1935 by Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf to reflect her family’s commitment to social justice, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards are the only American awards honoring works that confront racism and celebrate diversity. Its winners include Nobel Laureates Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, and Derek Walcott, with all but Lifetime Achievement Award winner Walcott receiving Anisfield-Wolf recognition before the Nobel committee came calling. Other recipients, ranging from Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Martin Luther King Jr. to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, and Mohsin Hamid, sum up more than three-quarters of a century of accomplishment in literature and social thought worldwide.
Obviously, heeding the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners would be a smart thing to do.
Recently announced by the Cleveland Foundation, a community foundation with assets of $1.86 billion that has administered the awards since 1963, the 2013 winners include Laird Hunt’s Kind One (Coffee House, dist. by Consortium) and Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown) in fiction, Eugene Gloria’s My Favorite Warlord in poetry (Penguin), and Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree (Scribner) in nonfiction. Nigerian author Soyinka, who won the nonfiction award in 1983 for Ake: The Years of Childhood, deservedly claimed this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Tellingly, Hunt’s and Powers’s novels were also finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award, respectively, while Solomon’s work won the National Book Critics Circle Award for publishing year 2012—more evidence that Anisfield-Wolf books are guideposts to today’s best writing.
What brings together this year’s winners, of course, is exceptional writing intent on challenging individual and collective complacency. Hunt uses his typically fractured narrative approach to tell the disturbing story of two slave sisters who take their mistress captive after her husband dies, shackling her in a shed with the corpse. In his debut novel, an in-your-face evocation of war, Iraq vet Powers lets the rest of us know what it really feels like to fight.
Eugene Gloria, a multi-award-winning poet (e.g., the National Poetry series) who wept upon learning that he had won, forthrightly folds personal observation into a larger understanding of male identity and the Asian American experience. And Solomon, whose book bravely embraces human diversity in nearly 1,000 rich pages, responded to news of his win by saying, uncharacteristically, “I have no words.”
To be celebrated on September 12 at Cleveland’s Ohio Theatre, with Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. as master of ceremonies, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards promise to be another gala event for the city. In fact, the awards typically serve as the opening salvo of the fall season, attracting 1,000 enthusiastic attendees; says Karen R. Long, the former Plain Dealer book editor, who recently took over management of the awards, “People know it sounds like broccoli but it is going to be dessert.” Gates, who has served as Anisfield-Wolf chair since 1996 (his longtime fellow jurors include Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steve Pinker, and Simon Schama), conducts the evening along the lines of an African American church’s call and response, and a good time is had by all.
With the awards’ high profile demonstrating that Cleveland is a book town and Ohio a book state, it’s hardly surprising that library support for the awards is strong. Cleveland Public Library holds a copy of every winning title since 1935 and signed copies from all winners for the last 15 years; the library is currently developing space “to display the collection more eloquently,” as Long so nicely puts it. Cuyahoga County Public Library also supports the awards through readings and book groups. Affectingly, one book group attendee told executive director Sari Feldman that, more than anything she had read in any book group, the Anisfield-Wolf books had changed her life.
So, go ahead and check them out; this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners—and in fact the entire list—are there for the asking. You may have to imagine Gates doing a call and response, but the conversation in your book groups will be thunderous. And who knows, it could change someone’s life.