Wisdom From Award-Winning Author Wideman

John Edgar Wideman is the 2011 Lifetime Achievement winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which recognizes works that have made important contributions to understanding racism and appreciating diversity. Wideman has written 13 novels, six collections of short stories and two memoirs. He talks about his life, works and the award he receives today.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk to those who've made a difference through their work. Today, we are speaking with someone who has made a difference with his vivid characterizations of people and place and his trenchant profiles of some of the countries most leading black cultural figures.

We're talking about the writer John Edgar Wideman. He's written 13 novels, six collections of short stories and two memoirs. He's a noted teacher, a professor of Africana stories and English at Brown University. He's one too many awards to name, including the prestigious Pen Faulkner award twice, and now he has another honor to claim. He's this year's lifetime achievement winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which recognize works that help us understand racism and appreciation diversity.

The awards, which are bestowed annually, were established by the Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf. And John Edgar Wideman is with us now from member station WCPN in Cleveland, where he's expected to receive the lifetime achievement award tonight. Welcome to the program. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN: Well, welcome to Cleveland.

MARTIN: You know, you've won so many awards, as I mentioned, that it would take us most of our interview to talk about all of the awards. But this one is said to be the only American book prize - and this prize has been around for more than 70 years, by the way. It's said to be the only one that specifically focuses on questions of race and diversity, and I was curious how you feel about that.

WIDEMAN: It certainly has played an important role in the culture, in particularly African-American culture. All one has to do is look back at the previous winners, and I had fun doing that. I didn't memorize the list of winners, but it was fascinating to see names crop up in certain decades, and they were the people, it turns out, who were defining those times, the winners in a given period.

And so whatever else has been going on, by acknowledging African-American writers each year, and making that prize - well, keeping that prize distinctly African-American, it has not diminished at all the kind of contribution that was being distinguished.

MARTIN: You know, we were trying - I'm sorry.

WIDEMAN: We are at the center of it. We are very much at the center of culture. And to go back in the history of American literature, the social and cultural history of the last 50 years, the winners of this award, the Anisfield-Wolf award, are the ones who are helping to create what we call our literature, American literature.

MARTIN: So you're in fine company?

WIDEMAN: I am, indeed. And it's special for me to come back to Cleveland, because one of my mentors, in a sense, came from this area, my - the actual editor, Hiram Haydn, who published my first book. And also, this is Charles Chesnutt country, and Charles Chesnutt, the African-American novelist, as some of you might know, at the beginning of the 20th Century, who set the mold, who still is, to me, one of the most important American writers and under-known American writers. And so this was his home for many, many years.

MARTIN: We tried to find out a little bit more about Edith Anisfield Wolf just so we could share what we know, and there's surprisingly little known about her. And we were kind of speculating about what would have motivated this, this woman to establish this prize in 1935. You know, I don't know. That might be a novel in itself. But just switching gears now and talking about your work, for those who - the three people how aren't familiar with your work, you tend to write about your beloved Pittsburgh, where you grew up.

And you're a homeboy, a home man - I don't know the right way to say this. The noted playwright August Wilson also centers his work in Pittsburgh, focuses a lot on race. And I'm just wondering, what is it about that city that has produced this amazing body of work?

WIDEMAN: One can look immediately to artists in other media, the musicians, jazz musicians, jazz composers, who also come from Pittsburgh. And I think what that means is that we talk to one another, that we listen to one another, and that we are in a kind of crucial position in Pittsburgh - an intersection of South and North and country and urban.

My particular lifetime, my individual profile, represents something very basic to African-American history and culture, because I was a second generation immigrant, so to speak, from the South. My grandfather was born in South Carolina well, both grandfathers were born in the South. They came to Pittsburgh around the middle of - around the beginning of the 20th century. And when they came, they were parts of communities which eventually were nourishing to me and nurturing to me, and that was going on for African-Americans all over the country - that kind of experience. And Pittsburgh just epitomizes it in many ways, and so I guess those are the vibes we're writing about and picking up and defining. And that's what creates a culture, that sense of history, that sense of community across the board, in all the media.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask - what fuels and continues to nourish your creativity? I noted your amazing output of work in the introduction, which is something that continues to, I think, astound people. Do you mind if I ask? And maybe it's a question that doesn't even make any sense to you because maybe this is just you, but what continues how do you keep it up? How do you what nourishes your creativity?

WIDEMAN: When I wake up in the morning, I need the writing to go to. I begin there. And that's not an accident, I mean, that habit of getting up in the morning and going to my writing first thing. It's a habit I've kept for, oh, at least 35, 40 years now. And I don't miss many mornings. If I don't actually write, then I sit there and feel badly about not writing, or a rewrite or a re-read, depending, or do research. But that sense of beginning anew, and that sense of having a direction, or at least the urge to find a direction every day means that I have set aside a kind of place in my life for words and for language to live, and that place is - reciprocates, it gives me a place to live.

MARTIN: We call this segment the Wisdom Watch because we like to ask the people who are kind enough to, you know, honor us with their insights if they have any wisdom to share. And to that end I thought I would like obviously it's not the only thing we want to talk about. But I did want to ask if you have any wisdom for young writers who are listening to our conversation and just starting our and saying I would - I can't do that or I'd like to do that or I wish I could do that.

WIDEMAN: Well, it's a tough hustle. And that said up front, I can't think of a better kind of work, because you do it for yourself, essentially. And it's something you can, at least I've found, that I can put all my energy and time and thought into, and it always, it's always returned. My investment is returned, not necessarily by the product of a great book or the book that everybody's interested in, but I very seldom feel that a work in progress is wasted. A work in progress is a privilege.

And for a young person, anybody who's sorting out and trying to make a life for himself or herself, to have the opportunity each day to set down, sit down and then set down, thoughts, words, it's a crucial, crucial way of staying alive, of not allowing yourself and not allowing the culture outside yourself to totally dominate your life. And that's what I could - that's what I would wish for young people that they can find a place in which they can speak for themselves and speak in an uncensored way, in an original way, and be part of making their own environment. Too much is made for us, too much is given to us, even those of us who are underprivileged. The poverty is given to us, the difficulties are given to us.

So how do we reverse that? How do we take back something? Well, for me it was writing. For you maybe it will be knitting or raising children or being a musician, but we have to strive to keep some parts of our lives under our control.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with the celebrated author John Edgar Wideman. He is being honored, the latest in a series of honors by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. He's receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award today.

And it's important to note that you are being honored not just for your fiction, but also for your no-nonfiction work, including the powerful memoir that you wrote about you and your brother. It's called "Brothers and Keepers." Your brother was convicted, for those who may not remember this, of second-degree murder in 1976, and serving a life sentence.

And it's just, you know, there have been a number of books written this year about, you know, the criminal justice system, the way it particularly affects African-Americans. I'm thinking about Michelle Alexander's book about where she compares the criminal justice system here to apartheid. And I just, I don't really have a brilliant question about this. I'm just wondering whether you are surprised that we are still talking about this. Do you have any more insights about, you know, why this continues?

WIDEMAN: Well, that's what I write about. That's what I - that has been my subject - as you pointed out for years and years - so no, I don't have any particular kernel of wisdom or an insight about it. I do know that African-American people came here as prisoners; that's how most of us came here. And so to divorce that experience or to forget about that experience when we have in front of us huge numbers, large percentage of people of color who are still prisoners - what is the link? What does that mean? What does it mean for us? What does it mean for all Americans? Because imprisonment is a terrible way to organize and build a culture and to depend, for a culture to depend on, organize its security and depend on prisons to maintain security.

And so we need to be asking the questions all the time that Michelle Alexander is asking in her book, and there are a number of good books, as you mentioned, on the subject of prisons. But the main thing, and I guess the point of "Brothers and Keepers," is that you don't ask who's in prison. Maybe the better question is asking what kind of prison do you inhabit and how is it connected to the one that your brother or sister may actually inhabit, and how does one feed into the other. These are complex questions and not always pleasant questions, but they need to be asked.

MARTIN: Just the title of the book, for those who are wondering what we're talking about, Michelle Alexander's book is called 'The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." And finally, the couple of minutes that we have left, a number of artists, thinkers, thought leaders, have reflected quite a lot about what President Obama's election means and his, you know, how he's doing his job as president, how people perceive him, how they react to him, you know, as president.

There have been a number of books written about, you know, in the age of Obama addressing all kinds of subjects. And I'm just interested in your take as an author, as a writer of fiction, and also as a writer of journalism, if you have any insights or interested in talking about the way President Obama has affected the culture, his election.

WIDEMAN: I've been out of the country for the last three months, living - it's my habit to go to France in the summer to work and to get away. And so I don't, I'm not in the kind of daily day by day, minute by minute news flood of information that surrounds the president. But from a distance, it's the that provides - the distance provides another perspective, and my perspective is, the perspective I gathered from a distance, is that the country doesn't deserve Obama. I don't think he's any sort of demagogue, demigod certainly not a demagogue, but certainly - he's an extremely talented and extremely intelligent and I think principled man. And he's doing the best he can and he is an example of the best that America can produce of any race.

And with that man at the helm, we're still tearing ourselves apart from the center, internally. And that to me, as I watch it from a distance, just seemed like kind of Greek tragedy - a good man, a powerful man who is through no fault of his own actually becoming a representative of a whole system coming apart, not - an exemplar of a whole system coming apart around him, and there doesn't seem to be anything that he can do or that we can do to deal with the demons that are taking the cultural part.

One we just mentioned - imprisonment, for instance. But the anger that Americans feel towards one another and the fear that we live under, one would hope that with an Obama at the helm we would be able to focus on some of that and change. And I thought the election may have meant that we were prepared to get, to talk seriously about some of our past, and it doesn't seem to be the case. It seems to be that he's gradually becoming a scapegoat and that the media is quite willing to say any ridiculous thing about him and about his administration that is beneficial to the media and it makes a big story, a good story.

MARTIN: Well, we have to leave it there for now. We thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. John Edgar Wideman is receiving the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. He's the lifetime achievement winner. It's an honor he's due to receive later today. He's a professor of Africana Studies and English at Brown University, and he was kind enough to join us from member station WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio, where he will receive his award.

John Edgar Wideman, thank you so much for joining us. And again, congratulations.

WIDEMAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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