On March 23, the Cleveland Foundation (CF) announced the winners of the 82nd annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, established in 1935 by Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf to honor literary works that confront racism and celebrate diversity. This year’s winners include Isabel Allende, Lifetime Achievement; Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes (Houghton Harcourt), Fiction; Tyehimba Jess, Olio (Wave), Poetry; Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs (Viking), Fiction; and Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (Morrow), Nonfiction. It’s heartbreaking to realize that the awards are still necessary but heartening to know that the foundation continues its mission, fielding the only juried prize of this type in the nation.
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners broaden our insights on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., who chairs the jury, which includes longstanding members Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker, and Simon Schama. “This year, we honor a breakthrough history of black women mathematicians powering NASA, a riveting novel of the Asian American experience, a mesmerizing, poetic exploration of forgotten black musical performance and a spellbinding story of violence and its consequences. All is capped by the lifetime achievement of Isabel Allende, an unparalleled writer and philanthropist.”
As always, the awards serve as a measure not just of social justice but of quality reading. Past winners Gunnar Myrdal, Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Toni Morrison went on to win the Nobel Prize. Davies’s The Fortunes, a sharply imagined assessment of the Chinese American immigrant experience through multiple stories over decades, was a New York Times Notable Book and a PW and NPR Best Book of 2016. Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, which chronicles the long-term consequences of a bomb blast in Delhi, was a National Book Award finalist and was named a Best Book by 15 publications, including the New York Times.
Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, a language-rich, formally inventive reimagination of African American musicians from the post–Civil War era to World War I, was a National Book Critics Circle finalist and an LJ Best Poetry Book. Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, whose highlighting of the contributions of NASA’s African American women mathematicians unfolds against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South, is the basis for the Academy Award–nominated film. And, of course, Chilean American author Allende has been hugely influential in world literature, winning countless honors that range from Chile’s Novel of the Year for her 1982 debut, The House of the Spirits, to the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. Her dedication to philanthropy nicely echoes that of Edith Anisfield Wolf, who founded the awards to reflect her family’s commitment to social justice.
This year’s award winners will be celebrated at a gala event on September 7 at Cleveland’s State Theatre, with the foundation serving as host and Gates emceeing. The event coincides with Cleveland Book Week. Said CF President and CEO Ronn Richard, “The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards rose from the philanthropic vision of one prescient woman, who realized that literature could heighten our connected humanity. We are proud to showcase these remarkable books at a moment when our civic culture needs such strengthening.” Given the nation’s current political turmoil, this enticement to read responsibly could not have come at a more crucial time.