The coincidence couldn’t be more telling. Just as I was writing up Laird Hunt’s eye-opening new novel, Neverhome, as one of my Fiction Picks, I got wind of this year’s winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Hunt’s Kind One was an Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner last year, and one suspects that the award helped move this fine writer along to a major publisher. Another nice coincidence: in the last month, I’ve been seeing a lot of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner, Anthony Marra, whose coruscatingly beautiful A Constellation of Vital Phenomena won the National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize for a debut in any genre, as well as a Discover Great New Writers Award. (As Marra said at the latter awards event, “Who knew publishers would go for a book on Chechnya,” but everybody did; his novel was also an LJ Best Book).
Since their founding in 1935 by Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf to honor books that confront racism and celebrate diversity, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have called out major writers to us, among them Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, and Derek Walcott—generally before they became Nobel Laureates. So perhaps there’s a trip to Stockholm in Marra’s future; certainly, there’s more good work to come. Likewise for poetry winner Adrian Matejka, whose The Big Smoke uses forceful language to chronicle the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight world champion. Throughout, one senses how Matejka’s eight years of researching and writing paid off.
Marra is just launching his career, and Matejka is getting a good footing, having proved himself over the last dozen years with The Devil’s Garden, which won the 2002 New York/New England Award; and Mixology, a 2008 National Poetry Series winner, as well as The Big Smoke, also a National Book Award finalist. At the other end of the Anisfield-Wolf spectrum are lifetime achievement award winners Sir Wilson Harris and George Lamming.
A Guyanese writer now living outside London, Sir Wilson Harris was influenced as a writer by his work surveying Guyana’s interior, a career he began 70 years ago; T.S. Eliot approved his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, for publication. Barbados-based Lamming, a significant force in the Caribbean literary diaspora and a powerful critic of colonialism and neo-colonialism, got his big push from Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Wright, who both applauded his first novel, In the Castle of My Skin. The sense of history makes one shiver and, again, there’s a telling coincidence: these awards come just as I have discovered the Calabash International Literary Festival, aimed at promoting the literary arts in the Caribbean.
If you want history that will make you shiver, try nonfiction winner Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which offers both past and present while focusing on Israel’s unfulfilled ideals. As the great-grandson of Zionists, Haaretz columnist Shavit has earned the right to ask. From Israel to the Caribbean, Chechnya to the boxing rings of Jim Crow America—the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have come far from Edith Anisfield Wolf’s Cleveland. But in spirit they are right at home.