Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s novel set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage in rural Mississippi, was presented with the 2018 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Fiction in March. Established in 1935 and named after Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf, this is the only American book prize that focuses on works that address racism and diversity. Racism and diversity abound in this narrative.
Thirteen-year-old JoJo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their mother’s parents, Mam, who is in the end stages of cancer, and Pop, who works a homestead. Their mother stays away due to drug use, but when she learns that the children’s white father is being released from the Mississippi State Penitentiary, she arranges a reunion. Sing, Unburied, Sing, also received the National Book Award, making Ward—who won for her first novel, Salvage the Bones—the only American woman to receive the award twice.
The Anisfield-Wolf Award for Poetry was presented to Shane McCrae for his, In the Language of My Captor, his fifth collection of poetry. Among the stories of captivity is that of Jim Limber, the mixed-race son adopted by Jefferson Davis during the last year of the Civil War. McCrae focuses on the connections between racism and love.
Kevin Young won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction for Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. A poet and critic, Young examines the history of the hoax in America, starting with P.T. Barnum and culminating with present-day “fake news”. He believes that stereotype and suspicion leads to hoax, with race being the most insidious of all American hoaxes.
The Lifetime Achievement award was presented to N Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian and a Western man who grew up in, and straddles two worlds. His first book, House Made of Dawn, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 and helped Native American literature enter the mainstream.
The jury that presented the Anisfield-Wolf Awards is chaired by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. Poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama, joined Gates in selecting the winners. Past recipients of the awards include five writers who later won Nobel prizes–Gunnar Myrdal, Nadine Gordimer, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka.