2021 Pulitzer Prize Winners

Congratulations to the 2021 Pulitzer Prize Winners! The Pulitzer Prize was established in 1917  through the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a visionary American journalist, who wished to incentivize excellence and innovation in American journalism and letters. 

This year, the literary works recognized demonstrate an increased interest in social justice and honoring the exemplary work of writers addressing the brutal history and complex reality of race in America. Below, we have highlighted a few of the winners currently in our collection. But we encourage you to peruse the full list of finalists and winners here

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Fiction: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman is based on the extraordinary life of National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s  grandfather, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C. This powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of feeling of a master craftsman.

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History: Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America by Marcia Chatelain

A nuanced account of the complicated role the fast-food industry plays in African-American communities, Chatelain’s work is a portrait of race and capitalism that masterfully illustrates how the fight for civil rights has been intertwined with the fate of Black businesses. From civil rights to Ferguson, Franchise reveals the untold history of how fast food became one of the greatest generators of black wealth in America.

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Biography: The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

Les Payne, the renowned Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist, embarked in 1990 on a nearly thirty-year-long quest to interview anyone he could find who had actually known Malcolm X. The Dead are Arising is the result—A powerful and revelatory account of the civil rights activist, which rewrites much of the known narrative and offers insight into his character, beliefs and the forces that shaped him. Les and Tamara Payne have crafted a riveting work that affirms the centrality of Malcolm X to the African American freedom struggle.

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Poetry: Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz

Postcolonial Love Poem is a collection of tender, heart-wrenching, and defiant poems that explore what it means to love and be loved in an America beset by conflict. It is an anthem of desire against erasure, demanding that every body carried in its pages—bodies of language, land, rivers, suffering brothers, enemies, and lovers—be touched and held as beloved.

 

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General Nonfiction: Wilmington’s Lie : The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino

Wilmington’s Lie is a gripping account of the overthrow of the elected government of a Black-majority North Carolina city after Reconstruction that untangles a complicated set of power dynamics cutting across race, class and gender. It gives an account of a racially-motivated insurrection launched by white supremacists, which halted gains made by Black people and restored racism as official government policy, cementing white rule for another seventy years. 

Pulitzer Prize winner David Zucchino uses contemporary newspaper accounts, diaries, letters and official communications to create a riveting and compelling narrative that weaves together individual stories of hate, fear, and brutality. This is a dramatic and definitive account of a remarkable but forgotten chapter of American history.

–Summaries adapted from the publisher

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Reading Recommendations for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month. As Anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise and the AAPI community is threatened by ignorance and cruelty, this APAHM feels particularly important. It is a time to reflect on all of the tremendous gifts, literary and otherwise, that the Asian-American community has contributed to our country and the world. With this in mind, we are highlighting some of the incredible new works by Asian-American authors in our collection.

cover art for Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless GirlsLong Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

Literary essayist Madden’s debut memoir pulls no punches in depicting her coming of age as queer, biracial teenager in Boco Raton, Florida. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls fearlessly lays bare the many contradictions of Madden’s young life–from the immense privileges of her wealthy upbringing, to the trauma and isolation wrought by her parents’ drug addiction, to the precious and devastating nature of friendship between fatherless girls.

 

cover art for The Color of AirThe Color of Air by Gail Tsukiyama

Tsukiyama’s brilliant historical novel tells the story of a Japanese-American family, set against the backdrop of Hawai’i’s sugar plantations. Just as long-standing family secrets and tensions appear primed to explode, another devastating eruption occurs: that of Mauna Loa volcano.

 

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The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin

Lin’s gripping debut novel interrogates the myth of the American Dream through a Taiwanese immigrant family struggling to get by in Anchorage, Alaska. When tragedy strikes, the resultant upheaval forces the family to reckon with grief and guilt amidst unfamiliar, and often unforgiving, surroundings.

 

cover art for How Much of These Hills is GoldHow Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

In Zhang’s epic Western set during the American Gold Rush, the orphaned children of Chinese immigrants set out across a harsh and unforgiving landscape in the hopes of burying their father, and their past. The unforgettable sights and adventures they encounter along the way provide a fascinating glimpse of the future that might await them.

 

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Lee’s powerful historical novel follows a single Korean family through a dramatic saga of betrayal, sacrifice, ambition, and love. The family’s tumultuous story begins with a young Sunja’s unplanned and potentially devastating pregnancy. Unbeknownst to her, the choices Sunja makes will reverberate through generations to come.

 

 

Anti-Violence and Anti-Racism Resources to Support the AAPI Community:

https://anti-asianviolenceresources.carrd.co/

https://www.advancingjustice-aajc.org/anti-asian-hate

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/anti-racism-resources-support-asian-american-pacific-islander-community-n1260467

https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a35862857/stop-asian-hate-organizations-to-support/

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Weston Morrow

This week, UIUC MFA student Weston Morrow reads “She Decides She Prefers Longing Over Satisfaction” by Maya Jewell Zeller and “I Consider My Grandfather Going Home” by Weston Morrow. Watch his readings on our Instagram here and here, and read his reflections below:

Both the poems I’ve chosen to read here consider the landscape—of both nature and the self. I was sitting at my desk recording these this morning with the aid of the increasing natural light and, for the first time in what feels like forever, I worried whether the birds outside might sing loud enough to interrupt my audio.

Like the speakers in both these poems, I’ve felt a sense of dread, of loss, and loneliness, these past twelve months. I’ve sat inside my house with nothing to do at times but look out the window by my desk. I watched the trees shed their leaves and my world shrink with the winter light as I slipped further into myself and further away from others.

I haven’t found myself able to read for fun in months, but the dogwood across the street is blushing pink, the light is finding its way back into my room through the curtains, and I’m reading again. Maya Jewell Zeller’s poem reminds me that the world is always there, awaiting my return, and no matter how calloused I become, the grass will come back each spring, and give my feet a soft place to land.

Poetry, like nature, can recede from my consciousness at times. It can feel frivolous in the face of loss — as people I love, and the world we call home, are dying. Eighty years ago, W.H. Auden wrote a line quoted still today, by lovers and haters of poetry alike, “[P]oetry makes nothing happen…” But, consider, if you will, the rest of the section:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

As I sit here at this desk, hardly having moved this past year, I’m thinking—finally—like Zeller’s speaker, who “wanted to know / how far the wind went / after it rounded the tool- / shed, the river bend…”

Who knows what lies ahead. I’m nervous, but excited. I think I’ll go outside. I might even take my shoes off.

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Stuart Albert

Our celebration of National Poetry Month continues on this penultimate Thursday of April. Today, we are proud to feature LitLang’s own Stuart Albert reading Reed Whittermore’s “The Tarantula.” Watch Albert read his selection here and read his reflections below:

The Tarantula”, by Reed Whittemore, is a long-standing favorite of mine. As a dramatic monologue, it lends itself well to reading aloud. And… I don’t want to ruin the surprise with too much preamble… but I think many readers / listeners will find the narrator something of a kindred spirit.

After some cursory research, I’m inclined to think this poem inspired by the essay “The Spider and the Wasp”, by the much-cited authority Alexander Petrunkevitch, published in Scientific American magazine in August 1952. It’s always interesting to me, to see how often (and how far) the poetic imagination is launched by the tangible, the imminent, the seemingly dry and merely factual.

Incidentally, I held a tarantula once. Decent fella, name of Cecil.

P.S. I don’t know if lagniappes are allowed, but here’s another poem, by Howard Nemerov, that I think pairs well with “The Tarantula”. Like William, Oliver is someone I think many of us can identify with.

http://poemhunter.blogspot.com/2007/08/make-big-money-at-home-write-poems-in.html

 

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Christel Thompson

Our celebration of national poetry month continues with Christel Tompson reading her poem, “Aubade.” Christel Thompson is a writer and student currently pursuing a Bachelor of Liberal Arts at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Watch her reading on our Instagram account and read her reflections below:

When I wrote “Aubade”, I set out to put something on the page that was purely honest– I think that poets have the tendency to embellish, to make “more beautiful”, and lose transparency along the way. This is why I chose to meditate on the clarity of sleep, the in-between spaces that come before and after waking— there is no room in those moments for even a whisper of dishonesty. How can there be? There’s no pretending when you’re asleep.

In traditional aubades, the dawn brings with it a physical parting with a lover. But in the realm my poet inhabits, it’s not leaving that the speaker fears, but rather, the dishonesty that morning will bring– the cowardice. The quiet comfort of night, of slumber, is what brings these two lovers an authentic existence.

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Professor Ángel Garcia

Dr. Ángel Garcia is Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned a PhD from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and an M.F.A. from the University of California-Riverside.

He is the author of Teeth Never Sleep, winner of a 2018 CantoMundo Poetry Prize published by the University of Arkansas Press, winner of a 2019 American Book Award, finalist for a 2019 PEN America Open Book Award, and finalist for a 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Professor Garcia Ángel is also the cofounder of the non-profit organization, Gente Organizada, which educates, empowers, and engages communities through grassroots organizing.

Watch Professor Garcia read his poem, “Dina Olimpico” on our Instagram here. He reflects on how Natasha Trethewey and Geffrey Davis inspired his poem below:

What I love and what I want to honor in Natasha Trethewey’s poem “The Southern Crescent” from her book Native Guard and in Geffrey Davis’ poem “King Country Metro” from his book, is their recognition of ancestry and how one arrives in a particular place. Thinking about my own family, I wanted to document the seemingly innate need for one to return home and also point to some of the constraints and challenges one might face in doing so. To further complicate the idea of returning, I wanted to acknowledge the long familial history of moving from place to place across several generations.

 

But another important way to think about ancestry is poetic ancestry. I wanted to honor my own lineage of poetic ancestry, particularly Black poets like Natasha Tretheway and Geffrey Davis, who by writing about their own migratory experiences have inspired and influenced me to write about the migrations of my own family. National Poetry Month, with the availability of so many reading, events, and poems, is a wonderful time for students and poets to discover their own poetic ancestry, digging through books, journals, and archives to discover poems that speak to their experiences. Going one step further, we can continue that lineage by then writing imitation poems based on the original poems of our poetic ancestors.

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Isaac Willis

For today’s celebration of National Poetry Month, Isaac Willis, a student in UIUC’s Creative Writing MFA program, reads Jericho Brown’s “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry.”

Watch Willis’ reading on our Instagram and read his reflections below:

To me, this is a perfect poem. Maybe that’s because I may or may not have taken a field trip to a slaughterhouse. (My alma mater, Monmouth College, nearly touched one of the largest slaughterhouses in the Midwest.) Maybe that’s because I want another gimlet, another good book. It’s also the perfect poem for America right now. Written during a time of racial reckoning, of an international pandemic, of quarantine, the poem subtly navigates the politics of place and being in it. “I have PTSD / About the Lord,” says Brown’s speaker. But then, “God save the people who work / In grocery stores.” Audre Lorde famously said, “Poetry is not a luxury.” She also said, in the same essay, “it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”

I can’t help but feel, when I read this Jericho Brown poem, that something new and necessary is being architected. I naively thought, a year ago, when the University and the world were effectively locked down, that staying shut up inside would make me a better person. If anything, it has exacerbated my fears and anxieties and biases even more. I texted something along those lines to a friend awhile back, and he responded, “Or you are a better person, and you don’t like what the new light has shown you.” Maybe so. Maybe grief, when it’s so thick you can touch it, is a balm. Maybe I’d rather be able to sit and talk with my friend, while we sip lavender gin. Maybe it’s a privilege to say so. Thank you. I’m sorry.

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Christopher Kempf

Christopher Kempf is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English, where he teaches in the MFA Program. He is the author of the poetry collections What Though the Field Be Lost (LSU, 2021) and Late in the Empire of Men (Four Way, 2017).

His scholarly book, Writing Craft: The Workshop in American Culture, is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, his poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Best American Poetry (2020), Boston ReviewGeorgia ReviewGettysburg ReviewKenyon ReviewNew England ReviewThe New Republic, and PEN America, among others.

Professor Kempf offers his reflections on a recently published poem by Eavan Boland below:

Eavan Boland’s poem “The Break-Up of a Library in an Anglo-Irish House in Wexford: 1964” offers a haunting meditation on the vulnerabilities and violences implicit in western empire.

“[T]he end of empire is and will always be / not sedition nor the whisper of conspiracy,” Boland writes, “but that // slipper chair in the hallway / that has lost the name / no one will call it by again.”

Boland is writing here about the 17th and 18th century mansions from which a Protestant Anglo-Irish aristocracy ruled over a predominantly Catholic population.  But she is also—and perhaps more importantly—diagnosing how power continues to encode itself in and through language.  Echoing Ezra Pound’s maxim that “if a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays,” her words testify beautifully to the importance of an educated citizenry, one able to command language for its own uses rather than be commanded by it.  Boland neither celebrates nor mourns the passing of this aristocracy, but I detect in her tone a note of wistfulness, I think, for a richer, more accurate language—something wondrous has been lost, Boland suggests, even as something powerfully democratic has been gained.

I admire this ambivalence, and I am curious about its implications in the wake of an attack on the U.S. Capitol which, because of her untimely death, Boland never witnessed.

In a culture obsessed with “STEM” education and so linguistically impoverished, therefore, that we cannot distinguish between real and fake news, Boland reminds us that facility with language is the single most important—and contested—political instrument.  And poetry itself, Boland suggests, remains vital to both social justice and democratic belonging.

Watch Professor Kempf read Eavan Boland’s “The Break-Up of a Library in an Anglo-Irish House in Wexford:1964″ and a poem of his own, “National Anthem” on our Instagram!

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Nneoma Ohale

The Literatures and Languages Library’s celebration of National Poetry Month continues with UIUC student Nneoma Ohale reading her poem “Love Made This Stone Brown.” Watch Ohale’s poetry reading on our Instagram and read her reflections below:

I am Nneoma Ohale, a 20 year old Nigerian-American artist. I am currently a junior at U of I studying English, Secondary Education and Creative Writing. I have been a poet since the age of fourteen when I got the opportunity to compete in Young Chicago Authors’ Louder Than A Bomb poetry festival. National Poetry Month means a lot to me and I am excited to celebrate it with fellow poets and lovers of poetry. I choose to share this poem because it took a lot for me to write it and I feel it is best when read aloud. This poem is my ultimate romantic daydream. I wrote this piece as a reflection of what love can be when lovers are able to truly be there for each other through it all. Despite what we might want to believe, love is not always easy because life isn’t always easy. It is important to be with someone who can stand the rain. The title “Love Made This Stone Brown.” is a nod to the transformative nature of love and its ability to inspire a different course of action. This poem is a celebration of my favorite things: music, life, lovers and nature.

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Professor Corey Van Landingham

Corey Van Landingham is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English. A nationally acclaimed poet, she is the author of Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, forthcoming from Tupelo Press, and Antidote, winner of the 2012 The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. To learn more about Professor Van Landingham, please visit her website https://www.coreyvanlandingham.com.

Watch Professor Corey Van Landingham read selections from Brigit Pegeen Kelly on our Instagram. She offers her reflections below:

For National Poetry Month, I wanted to pick two poems that are connected to the C-U community. Brigit Pegeen Kelly taught here at UIUC for many years, and is still, it seems, part of the soul of this program, this place. Brigit and her husband, the poet Mike Madonick (mentioned in the poem’s dedication tag), have shaped hundreds of poets here in the prairie. I never met Brigit, but Song was the first book I read during my MFA, and her work has left a deep mark on me—as it has on so many poets of my generation. I can’t go to Allerton without seeing her poems almost materialize amidst the statues. I’ll often wonder, driving through the cornfields, if the rare “hill” I see is one from her poems. Brigit’s poems do that—I might say all great poems do—they make you see the world differently. They change the relationship between language and landscape. They heighten it, and they trouble it.

“Near the Race Track” is from her first book, To the Place of Trumpets. This poem is wildly different from her later work, from the long poems that cascade and build and weave and repeat to create, across many pages, their own mythic worlds. I’ve heard those worlds aren’t so distant, though, that what may seem mythic or surreal or magical is often grounded in something from her very own surroundings, her life. “Near the Race Track” isn’t set here, but, because of Brigit and Mike, I can’t help but associate it with Illinois. There are few poems about joy that I care to return to. Here, it’s the way joy can be a spectacle to behold, but also something that can rise away from us—that’s what makes me come back to this poem again and again. That, and picturing Mike cursing with that umbrella in hand.

It doesn’t feel right to spend too much time here discussing my own work, when in Brigit’s realm. “O-Matoes” revolves around the desire to catch something of joy, though, and originated from getting to know one of our truly joyous neighbors here in Champaign. This poem is, as is probably obvious, for Caleb, who is six.

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