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.
Karan Mahajan (2017 Fiction)
Born in Stamford, Conn., Karan Mahajan grew up in New Delhi, where as a young teenager he covered cricket for an international sports network. His second novel, “The Association of Small Bombs,” won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2017 and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Its chapter zero describes a 1996 car bomb blast in a New Delhi market, and the book becomes, as Elizabeth McCraken calls it, “a brilliant description of aftermath.” Both
Mahajan has toggled between the literary and journalistic arts, and between India and the United States. He earned degrees from Stanford University and the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin. When the novelist was 12, Kashmiri separatists set off a car bomb a few miles from his home. The 9-11 attacks brought that memory to the fore.
The Asterisk* caught up with Professor Mahajan in October 2023 via Zoom. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island where he teaches literary arts at Brown University. His third novel, “The Complex,” is due out in early 2025.
Ishmael Reed (2022 Lifetime Achievement)
Born 85 years ago in Chattanooga, Tenn., Ishmael Reed won the 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award lifetime achievement prize for his six decades of as a poet, novelist, playwright, lyricist, cartoonist, musician and founder of small presses and publications – doing it all with curiosity, bite, and eventually a global reach.
Celebrated as a teacher and for writing such groundbreaking novels “Mumbo Jumbo,” Reed was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1998. Last year he dropped a jazz solo album, “The Hands of God,” and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His most recent play, “The Conductor,” premiered in New York City this spring.
Colson Whitehead, the 2002 A-W winner for fiction, once said, “Some folks dream about being in Harlem during the 20s…I’m sad I didn’t get to hang out in the late 60s Berkeley with Ishmael Reed.”
Reed joined The Asterisk* via Zoom in August 2023 from his home in Oakland, Calif., with his wife and collaborator Carla Blank – who makes a couple of cameos on the episode.
Tony Marra (2014 Fiction)
Born in Washington, D.C., Tony Marra won the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award prize in fiction for “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” – his first novel that astonished critics with its verve and skill. The story, set in Chechnya, unfolds through the interlocking lives of six characters. And given the war in Ukraine, it remains uncannily topical.
Madison Smartt Bell, himself an Anisfield-Wolf winner, wrote “This novel is, among other things, a meditation on the use and abuse of history, and an inquiry into the extent to which acts of memory may also constitute acts of survival.”
The Asterisk* caught up with Marra in December 2022 in Iowa City, Iowa, where he was teaching at the University of Iowa following the release of his third book – “Mercury Pictures Presents” – in July of 2022. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut with his wife Kappy Mintie, a senior researcher at Yale’s Lens Media Lab. Marra earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and a master’s from the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Shane McCrae (2018 Poetry)
Shane McCrae won a 2018 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in poetry for “In the Language of My Captor.” A book about freedom told through stories of captivity, the collection features both prose memoir and poems in historical persona. These include a clutch in the voice of Jim Limber, the mixed-race child Jefferson Davis adopted in the final year of the Civil War.
Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove lifted up McCrae’s fifth collection of poetry, “These voices worm their way inside your head; deceptively simple language layers complexity upon complexity until we are snared in the same socialized racial webbing as the African exhibited at the zoo or the Jim Crow universe that Banjo Yes has learned to survive in: ‘You can be free//Or you can live.’”
The Asterisk* caught up with McCrae in January 2023 from his office at Columbia University, where he teaches creative writing and edits the poetry journal Image. He lives in New York City with his wife Melissa and their daughter Eden. McCrae dropped out of high school and later earned a law degree from Harvard – the first in his family to finish college. His latest book, the memoir “Pulling the Chariot of the Sun,” publishes August 1. It describes his white grandparents’ kidnapping of him.
Percival Everett (2022 Fiction)
Percival Everett won a 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction for “The Trees.” The idea for the novel sprung from the traditional song “I Rise Up” and a Lyle Lovett cover of “Ain’t No More Cane” that Everett was listening to before playing a tennis game. At the time, he also happened to be researching lynching.
What “The Trees” became, in the estimation of Anisfield-Wolf Juror Joyce Carol Oates, is a profound novel, “easily the most idiosyncratic, least classifiable work of fiction the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has ever honored. This is a wickedly clever novel of ideas in the guise of genre fiction, a combination mystery, thriller, police procedural and absurdist comedy.”
Everett joined The Asterisk* via zoom in June of 2023 from his home in Pasadena, Calif., where he lives with his wife, the novelist Danzy Senna. A distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California, he has written more than 30 books, including poetry, a Pulitzer finalist in “Telephone,” and his most recent effort, “Dr. No.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Miami and a master’s from Brown University.
In April, Everett won the Windham Campbell Prize for his “virtuosic body of work (that) exemplifies fiction’s capacity for play, vigilance and compassion for life’s precarity in an uncertain world.”
George Makari (2022 Nonfiction)
George Makari won a 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award prize in nonfiction for his third book, “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia.” Amid Brexit and election of Donald Trump in 2016, Makari decided to investigate how “we mis-know one another.”
Anisfield-Wolf juror Steven Pinker praised “Of Fear and Strangers,” noting, “We see countless books that consider instances of racism. Very few seek to understand it as a phenomenon to be studied and analyzed. ‘Of Fear and Strangers’ does that, free of cliché and jargon. Instead, it is replete with liveliness, wit and original turns of phrase.”
Makari joined The Asterisk* in January of 2023 in New York City, where he lives with his wife, the painter and curator Arabella Ogilvie-Makari. He is a psychiatrist who directs the DeWitt Wallace Institute of Psychiatry: History, Policy and the Arts at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan. Makari grew up in New Jersey, earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University and his M.D. from the Medical College of Cornell University.
What a fabulous new entry into the Podcast scene. Based on the first one, this will be a must listen for future episodes. Important context for understanding today’s world.