Show cover of The Asterisk*

The Asterisk*

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.


Mary Morris (2016 Fiction)
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. 
39:14 08/04/2022
Laird Hunt (2013 Fiction)
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.
43:20 07/21/2022
Vincent Brown (2021 Nonfiction)
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. 
43:03 07/07/2022
Natasha Trethewey (2021 Nonfiction)
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.
41:02 06/23/2022
A. Van Jordan (2005 Poetry)
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 .
42:58 06/09/2022
Victoria Chang (2021 Poetry)
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. 
42:35 05/26/2022
James McBride (2021 Fiction)
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.
32:56 05/12/2022
Tracy K. Smith (2019 Poetry)
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. 
44:09 04/28/2022
Charles King (2020 Nonfiction)
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.
43:01 05/24/2021
Marilyn Chin (2015 Poetry)
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.
37:21 05/07/2021
Lillian Faderman (2016 Nonfiction)
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.
37:20 04/23/2021
Peter Ho Davies (2017 Fiction)
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.
40:26 04/09/2021
Namwali Serpell (2020 Fiction)
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.
45:17 03/26/2021
Ilya Kaminsky (2020 Poetry)
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.
33:49 03/12/2021
Sonia Sanchez (2019 Lifetime Achievement)
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.
47:43 02/26/2021
Eric Foner (2020 Lifetime Achievement)
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.
37:39 02/05/2021