Mitchell S. Jackson Wins 2014 Ernest J. Gaines Award

Mitchell S. Jackson, recipient of the 2014 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence - peoplewhowrite

Mitchell S. Jackson

Mitchell S. Jackson‘s novel The Residue Years, a fictionalized account of his experience growing up in Portland, Oregon, has won the 2014 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. He will be formally presented with the prize on January 22, 2015 at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge, La.

The Residue Years has been steadily racking up prestigious notice since its August 2013 release. It was a finalist for the 2013 Center For Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First novel prize, which ultimately went to Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash, as well as the 2014 PEN / Hemingway award for debut fiction and the 2014 Hurston / Wright Legacy Award for best fiction (NoViolet Buluwayo‘s We Need New Names ended up taking both).

“Residue” was also shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize (the honor went to Kiese Laymon’s Long Division). The Black Caucus of the American Library Association named the novel an “Honor Book”.

Jackson is also the author of Oversoul, a collection of short stories and essays.

Behind the Joke, There's a Story


I’ve struggled for some time to process my thoughts on Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler’s watermelon comment at last month’s National Book Awards. Part of me was and is unbothered. A dumb joke about a black person not liking watermelon is closer to the not-worth-my-energy end of the Racial Harm Spectrum. But part of me felt frustrated and tired for Jacqueline Woodson then, and feels exhausted right now. Are we really still in ‘black people love watermelon’ territory, in 2014?   Yes, sigh, we are.

A month being a millennium in internet years, here’s a reminder of what happened at the awards ceremony:

On November 19th, Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming. Introducing her to the podium to receive the accolade, her friend and children’s book author, Handler, attempted a witty intro, revealing that Woodson doesn’t like watermelon. “Just let that sink in,” he said, eliciting (un/comfortable?) chuckles from the audience.

The punchline of the “joke” was supposed to be the revelation of Woodson’s aversion to the summer fruit — incongruous with the historic allusion that black people just love them some watermelon — but it was more of a sucker punch. In what should have been Woodson’s moment, a celebration of her memoir in verse about growing up in South Carolina and New York just as Jim Crow racial segregation laws were being forcibly and violently dismantled across the U.S., Handler “othered” her.  He simultaneously gave credence to the stale stereotype about watermelon-eating African-Americans, and cast Woodson as an oddity for deviating from the caricature.

Daniel Lemony Snicket Handler tweets apology for racially-tinged joke about Jacqueline Woodson's distaste of watermelon_peoplewhowrite

Handler’s off-color remarks went viral, were roundly castigated across the interwebs, and he followed a public apology with a pledge to match donations to an Indiegogo campaign for the group We Need Diverse Books. Woodson also wrote of “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke” in a New York Times Op-Ed, offering the context of America’s racialized history and her personal experience to explain why Handler’s wisecrack was profoundly unfunny:

I was a brown girl growing up in the United States. By that point in my life, I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them, watched black migrants from the South try to eke out a living in the big city by driving through neighborhoods like my own — Bushwick, in Brooklyn — with trucks loaded down with the fruit.

In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than.

Perhaps my allergy was actually a deep physical revulsion that came from the psychological impression and weight of the association. Whatever it was, I could no longer eat watermelon.

The watermelon incident played out in what has become a familiar three-act in the age of the news cycles that never sleeps: A racially-derisive comment/act opens, a righteous round of indignant castigation follows, and the pageant ends with a mea culpa via a statement apologizing “to anyone who may have been offended”, a pledge to learn from “the mistake”, and/or a meeting with/gesture toward a notable black personality or organization.

And, scene.

The micro news cycle moved on, and we could all go back to pondering the accusations chipping away at Bill Cosby’s model black man image — then shuttle forward to the decisions by the respective grand juries in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths not to indict the police officers that killed them. But less than three weeks later, a new play opened.

A series of leaked emails exposed Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chairman Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin joke-guessing about President Obama’s taste in films. Buzzfeed.com was one of many outlets that shared the racially-tinged exchange reportedly believed to have been hacked by a group called the Guardians of Peace, with the involvement of the North Korean government:

Pascal wrote Rudin: “What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?” She was referring to a breakfast hosted by DreamWorks Animation head and major Democratic donor Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Rudin, a top film producer responsible for films like No Country for Old Men and Moneyball, responded, “Would he like to finance some movies.” Pascal replied, “I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?” Rudin responded: “12 YEARS.” Pascal quickly continued down the path of guessing Obama preferred movies by or starring African Americans. “Or the butler. Or think like a man? [sic]”

Rudin’s response: “Ride-along. I bet he likes Kevin Hart.”

Once the emails went public, the pageantry began. A week after releasing a statement — in which she made clear, “The content of my emails to Scott were insensitive and inappropriate but are not an accurate reflection of who I am.” — Pascal had a 90-minute meeting with Al Sharpton. According to Sharpton, Pascal “committed to” establishing “a basis to address the issues.”

She’s got her work cut out for her. Race is so deeply embedded in the American psyche, we will all need to be retrained before we can begin to address the issues. Pascal’s statement of her character could refer to race itself as  it is not an accurate reflection of who anyone is, not as far as science is concerned. Racial classifications have no biological basis — race is an idea that was created to justify American slavery; over time, we have imbued this constructed category with our own culturally-imposed and individually-formed meaning.

Racism has led to the creation of enduring caricatures that effectively reduce wide swaths of people into categories of propensity and preference. It has encouraged the cherry-picking of individuals and cultural elements, and attempted to make them emblems of the whole for commerce, convenience, or both. As a byproduct, it has separated specific experiences and cultural markers from their origins and meaning, and applied coded layers that give them new meaning.

It’s how we get from some Black people enjoying the refreshment of watermelon to all black people loving watermelon; and if one doesn’t, her blackness comes into question. The questions that follow become: What is black(ness)? What is white(ness)? Why do we care? Uncomfortable laughter.

Sharpton tweeted of his meeting with Pascal: “Her leaked e mails show a cultural blindness”. To be fair, we’re all guilty of othering people in one way or another (though the historic cultural power and legacy it bequeathes to people with white skin usually casts them in the “I’m sorry if I offended” role).

It’s more convenient, for example, to summarize fashion designs separately inspired by traditional Persian paisleys as loomed African textiles as “multi-culti”. Easier to chuckle at a stereotype about a gay / religious / rich / homeless person, than take the time to move past the shorthand we’ve created in our heads. It’s more comfortable to play our assigned roles and speak about or at one another, rather than to each other.

As writers, if we tell a story well it can open a window, a door, sometimes a heart, to an experience that once seemed so easy to codify or laugh at.  If it sinks in that we are all the same, though not in the same ways, then maybe we can get past the childish humor and get to the real story.

Children's & YA Books Dominate Amazon's Best Sellers of 2014

Top 6 Best Selling Books of 2014 via Amazon_peoplewhowrite2014 was a good year for publishers of classic children’s books and YA series. Of Amazon’s list of the best selling books of 2014, just 18 books intended for adult readers cracked the top 40. Of those that did, the bulk were SAT/ACT/college prep books and classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and The Alchemist. Meanwhile a children’s reader inspired by the blockbuster film Frozen, John Green’s tender tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars, and installments of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series were among the titles Amazon customers couldn’t get enough of.

A months long standoff between Amazon and publisher Hachette that resulted in delayed delivery and unavailability did not seem to affect demand for print titles of Hachette’s Wimpy Kid, The Heroes of OlympusTo Kill A Mockingbird, Gone Girl, or Pulitzer winner The Goldfinch, which were among the e-tailer’s top 20 best sellers of the year. Proving recent findings that young people prefer print books to digital versions, 75% of Amazon’s list of Kindle best sellers featured books for adult audiences.

Interestingly, only three titles that made the books list’s top 20 were published in 2014: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul; The Heroes of Olympus Book Five; and Killing Patton which was co-written by Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. On the Kindle list, six of the top 20 were released this year, which may point to adult readers’ desire not to add more  books to their print collections, or bolster the theory that the e-book is the new paperback, with readers preferring to invest less in certain genres e.g. romance and detective dramas.

Goodreads, which Amazon now owns, has posted a list of the most popular books published in 2014. Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire sits at the top, though it is #99 on Amazon’s books breakdown and #50 on the Kindle list.

Barnes & Noble Buys Microsoft Out of Its Nook Stake

Barnes and Noble, booksellers since 1873 - peoplewhowriteBarnes and Noble has ended its partnership with Microsoft in its ongoing fight to stay solvent amidst shifting consumer behavior, competition from Amazon, and negative revenue from their struggling Nook division. In 2012, Microsoft invested $300 million into B&N’s then-new e-reader business, but, the New York Times reports, “In just over two years, the Nook business has lost more than half its value.”

The bookstore chain’s new CEO Michael P. Huseby reportedly told investors the split clears the path for B&N to separate from Nook, as has been the plan since the digital reading device failed to dent Kindle and iPad’s domination of the e-reader market.

An analyst at the Maxim Group, John Tinker, suggested Barnes and Noble’s multi-hyphenate marketplace identity is a liability to investors. “…are you a retailer, are you a technology company, or are you a college bookstore company?” Tinker is quoted as asking in the aforementioned New York Times piece. “…clearing up things with Microsoft begins to simplify things.”

The 141 year old bookseller has had a challenging two years. At the top of 2012, they refused to carry books published by Amazon in response to “Amazon’s continued push for exclusivity with publishers, agents and the authors they represent,” TIME reported.  In December 2012, they announced store closings, then more in January 2013. Also in January ’13, Publishers Weekly reported B&N had reduced orders of Simon and Schuster titles in alleged retaliation for “not adequately supporting them”, presumably, in their standoff with Amazon.

The following month, investor Daniel R. Tisch bought enough shares to make him the bookstore’s second biggest shareholder — this show of confidence boosting B&N’s stock price. But the good news was short-lived as the company’s then CEO resigned in July 2013. Through it all, sales and foot traffic have been sliding.

The chain hopes to reverse the holiday sales and foot traffic trend specifically by offering customers signed copies by popular authors. Some buyers will likely sell the signed books online (maybe even on Amazon), but it seems to be the beginning of the retailer looking at how they can offer and create value with their brick and mortar presence by offering unique products and experiences that aren’t easily replicated online.

Shortlist Announced for DSC Prize for South Asian Literature

Romesh Gunesekra is one of five writers shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature - peoplewhowrite

Romesh Gunesekra

Last Thursday, November 27, 2014, the five member jury of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature announced the shortlisted titles in contention for its $50,000 prize. After initially culling 75 entries to a longlist of 10, the jurors selected these five books for the shortlist: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer, A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, and Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera.

Colin Barrett Has Won the 2014 Guardian First Book Award

Colin Barrett won the 2014 Guardian First Book Award for his short story collection Young Skins. - peoplewhowrite

Colin Barrett

For his short story collection Young Skins, author Colin Barrett has won the 2014 Guardian First Book Award. Fiona MacFarlane’s The Night Guest, Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm, Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition, and May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break made up the shortlist.

Announced on November 26th in London, the prize is worth £10,000 cash, plus an advertising package in the Guardian and the Observer. Young Skins has also won the 2014 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award and the Rooney Prize for Fiction.

Apple to Pay E-Book Readers $400 Million in Antitrust Settlement

Apple to pay $400 million in e-book anti-trust settlement - peoplewhowriteUnless an appeals court overturns a July 2013 ruling that Apple conspired with publishers with the aim of compelling Amazon to price their books at an advantage to publishers, Apple will have to pay  “$400 million to consumers in cash and e-book credits, and $50 million to lawyers” according to the New York Times.

The NYT piece explains:

The government’s lawsuit focused on 2010, when Apple entered the digital book industry with the introduction of the iPad and the iBookstore. At that time, publishers’ agreements to sell e-books were made under the so-called wholesale model of print books; publishers charged retailers about half the cover price for a book, and the retailers then set their own prices.

But with the iPad and iBookstore, Apple offered publishers a new business model. The government said Apple’s co-founder and then chief, Steve Jobs, persuaded publishers to agree to the so-called agency model for selling books, which let publishers set their own prices for e-books.

Pursuant to the verdict, Amazon notified Kindle readers they could expect a credit for some past e-book purchases. The appeals court date is scheduled for December 15, 2014.

Journalists Gather to Honor Endangered & Slain Reporters

John and Diane Foley, parents of James Foley - peoplewhowrite

John and Diane Foley, parents of James Foley (photo courtesy of CPJ and Getty Images)

“There is a new war on journalists,” Alberto Ibargüen reportedly said in a speech at the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 24th Annual International Press Freedom Awards on November 25th. The president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and chairman of the awards dinner, continued, “Today’s terrorists will kill a journalist not to stop a story, but to create one.”

Hosted by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the night honored Iranian freelance journalist Siamak Ghaderi, who spent four years in prison for “propagating against the regime,” “creating public anxiety,” and “spreading falsehoods.”; Burmese journalist Aung Zaw whose publication The Irrawaddy was labeled “enemy of the state” by the former Burmese military government; Mikhail Zygar, editor-in-chief of the Russian independent TV channel Dozhd, which offers alternative programming from Kremlin-controlled stations; Ferial Haffajee, editor-in-chief of City Press in South Africa and the weekly Mail & Guardian, with her award. “Under her leadership, both papers have broken important stories, including ‘Nkandlagate’–the controversy around the alleged use of public funds for improvements to President Jacob Zuma’s homestead,” the CPJ website reports.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai, whose posts about government corruption made him a target and ultimately resulted in a two-, then 12-year prison sentence, was also on hand to accept the International Press Freedom Award he received in absentia last year because he was imprisoned.

John and Diane Foley represented their son James Foley who had been twice held by terrorist organizations seeking to use him as a negotiation chip with the US government, and was recently beheaded by ISIS. (Journalist Steven Sotloff was beheaded by ISIS shortly after Foley.) “Jim’s life challenges us to continue his passions for freedom of the press and commitment to those in poverty or ravaged by war,” Mrs. Foley said.

The awards ceremony doubled as a fundraiser and took in more than $2.7 million. Monies raised will go towards advocacy as well as support of “reporters without institutional support, such as freelance or local journalists”. There’s more information at http://cpj.org/awards and photos here.

2014 Maskew Miller Longman Literature Awards Winners Announced

Nekhavhambe Khalirendwe, winner, and Zukiswa Pakama, finalist of the 2014 Maskew Miller Longman Literature Awards. - peoplewhowrite

Nekhavhambe Khalirendwe and Zukiswa Pakama

South Africa’s Maskew Miller Longman Awards have announced their 2014 winners: playwrights Nekhavhambe Khalirendwe, Madoda Mlokoti, Phillip Mothupi, and Cecilia du Toit; novelist and playwright Conny Masocha Lubisi who has written a number of Xitsonga serials for radio; novelist Nakanjani Sibiya; and former school principal and author of English textbook Doorways Charmaine Kendal. According to the announcement, “Each year a different genre is selected for the awards; this year being drama. Of the 117 entries received, 74% were in African languages. Winners were announced in seven language categories, and each winner was awarded R10,000 [about $900], and finalists received R3,500 [$320]. Seven winning entries were published by Pearson this year.” There’s more info about the winners and finalists here.