Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo won the 2014 Zora Neale Hurston/ Richard Wright Legacy Award for fiction for “We Need New Names,” her debut novel inspired by Zimbabwe’s “lost decade,” that tells an “unflinching story” of a girl named Darling and her friends who steal guavas while living in a shanty called Paradise and reminiscing on the “proper houses with real rooms and furniture they used to have.” They dream of traveling to “real paradises”—perhaps Europe or Dubai or America.
The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award judges described Bulawayo’s novel as a story of two continents. “It felt like an imperative read,” said Marita Golden, a novelist and co-founder and president emeritus of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which honored black writers during a gala Friday at the Carnegie Library in Northwest Washington. “The judges said, ‘We see NoViolet’s great characters, their entrapments, their miseries, their hungers and we also see ourselves.”
The Hurston/Wright 2014 award for non-fiction went to Craig Steven Wilder for “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” a book linking many of the country’s most prestigious public and private institutions to the slave trade and documenting how the institutions “expanded on the back of African Americans,” Golden said. The judges said Wilder’s book “brilliantly exposes the blood-soaked ties between slavery and high education and higher education in America.”
In “Ebony & Ivy,” Wilder, a history professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes that before the American Revolution, merchants and planters became benefactors and “new masters” of a colonial society.
“Slaveholders became college presidents. The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools. Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts.”
The award for poetry went to Amaud Jamaul Johnson, who wrote “Darktown Follies” a collection of poems that examine the legacy of Black Vaudeville and minstrel shows. The judges found that the poems in “Darktown Follies” laid bare “the difficult terrain of the false images” created “by black face in Vaudeville,” Golden said.
Johnson’s collection, she said, “crafts a manuscript which balances the false and ugly with the beauty and truths of the black lies that exist beneath the gaze.”
Poet Nikki Giovanni received the Hurston/Wright North Star Award for her commitment to art and social justice. “For 45 years,” the judges said, “she has been a determined witness and eloquent advocate of cultural change in America.”
The Zora Neale Hurston/ Richard Wright Foundation, which is based in Washington, was founded in 1990 with a mission to ensure the survival of black writers and literature by black writers.
Golden, a novelist who has published several books, including, “Don’t Play in the Sun”; “Saving Our Sons”; “Long Distance Life”; and “Migrations of the Heart,” said the foundation celebrates black writers and writers in the African diaspora. The foundation, which helps writers find their voice and craft stories in programs and writing workshops, will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. Golden said BET is a major sponsor of the foundation. During the gala, BET unveiled a clip of its mini-series, “The Book of Negroes,” which will debut on the network in February.
“There is a lot of conversation these days about the state of literature in general, that publishing has been destroyed by Amazon, that fewer people are reading and that books are dying,” Golden said in an interview. “But my feeling is this: while the publishing industry and the lives of writers have undergone major, revolutionary changes, some of them unsettling, in the last decade, I think it keeps getting better for black writers.”
Golden sees a continued renaissance in black writing. “You had Toni Morrison winning the Nobel Prize. You had Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan on the best-seller list at the same time,” Golden said, pointing to the rise of writers who have found commercial success and the emergence of a vibrant community of writers.
“So yes, there has been retrenchment. There is probably less money out there for writers. But I think it is a great time to be a black writer,” Golden said. “If a publisher says no, you can say, ‘Yes,’ and self-publish…..As long as there are cultural organizations like Hurston/Wright, as far as I’m concerned, the glass is not half full, but it is overflowing for black writers.”
The hall of the Carnegie Library was packed Friday night with publishing giants, powerhouse writers, editors, poets and top names in the literary industry, including Nate Marshall, Dana Williams, Tracy Sherrod, Kyle Dargan, Clarence Page, Darlene Taylor and Dolen Perkins-Valdez.
Perkins-Valdez, who wrote the New York Times best-selling novel “Wench,” presented the Hurston/Wright 2014 award for fiction. Perkins-Valdez said when she read the opening passages of Bulawayo’s novel, she did not want to put it down.
“NoViolet has written a novel that is both pressing and pristine,” Perkins-Valdez said. “Her sentences are crystalized and sparkle like glass.”
Perkins-Valdez read the opening passage of the novel, which was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize: “We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.”
Accepting the award, Bulawayo stood on stage in brilliant yellow. “It is such a great privilege to be nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for fiction and to be nominated along with a fine list of writers with many accomplishments,” said Bulawayo, who won a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. “I accept this award with gratitude and in celebration of the luminous lives and the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, for being the bright beacons who created so we could write today with gratitude and dignity.”
Wilder, the winner of the nonfiction category, said the award was like an affirmation. “Most historians don’t write with an aim of getting a specific award,” Wilder said. “My dream was people will say one day I got it right.”
Poetry winner Johnson told the crowd he began writing poetry 20 years ago as a student at Howard University. “I read poems because they were short. ‘I could read a 500-page novel or I could read this poem five times,’ ” he said. “I never imagined being a poet. It is an honor to be in the space.”
Washington Post staff writer and biographer Wil Haygood, whose front-page story in The Post inspired the movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” was master of ceremonies. Haygood was awarded the 2013 Hurston/Wright Ella Baker Award for his “masterful writing.”
Haygood recalled his time as a writer at the Boston Globe, when an editor called Haygood into his office and gave him an assignment to write about a feature writer teaching at the University of Massachusetts.
“I said, ‘Who is it?’ ” Haygood recalled.
“He said, ‘It’s James Baldwin.’ ”
Haygood recalled being very nervous. “I was still on what the Boston Globe termed in those days a try-out. I could sink or swim. I certainly didn’t want to sink with a story on James Baldwin.”
But Haygood told himself he would end his interview with Baldwin, asking a compelling but personal question.
“I said: ‘Mr. Baldwin, I’ve never written a book and I want to write a book. But I’m very scared because that means I would have to leave my nine-to-five newspaper job and take a leave of absence and scrounge around for money and beg some publisher to give me enough money to keep paying my rent.’ That struggle of an artist is always there.”
Haygood asked Baldwin should he go write books.
“James Baldwin looked at me and he said this: ‘You have to go the way your blood beats, baby.’”
Haygood told the crowd of writers: “That is what you all have done. You’ve gone the way your blood beats.”
Nominees and Finalists for the 2014 Hurston/Wright Awards were:
Fiction: “Every Boy Should Have A Man” by Preston L. Allen (Akashic); “The Residue Years” by Mitchell S. Jackson (Bloomsbury); “See Now Then” by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride (Penguin); “The Gospel According to Cane” by Courttia Newland (Akashic).
Nonfiction: “Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home” by Sheri Booker (Gotham Books/Penguin); “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker” by Stanley Crouch (HarperCollins); “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights” by William P. Jones (Norton); “Searching for Zion: The Quest For Home in the African Diaspora” by Emily Raboteau (Atlantic Monthly Press); “Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury).
Poetry: “What We Ask of Flesh” by Remica L. Bingham (Etruscan Press); “Hemming the Water” by Yona Harvey (Four Way Books); “The Cineaste” by A. Van Jordan (Norton); “Silverchest” by Carl Phillips (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); “The Big Smoke” by Adrian Matejka (Penguin).