Friday, April 14, 2017

Tyehimba Jess, Colson Whitehead Win Pulitzer Prizes

Tyehimba Jess
CONGRATULATIONS to poet and friend Tyehimba Jess, who was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his new collection Olio (Wave Press)! Winner of numerous awards, including a Whiting Foundation fellowship, Jess is a fellow NYU graduate and graduate fellow of Cave Canem. He is an associate professor at the CUNY College of Staten Island. His collection, for which he developed a new poetic form, the syncopated sonnet, explores the lives of a cavalcade of key 19th century African American artists and performers, many clustered around the minstrel tradition. The title, "Olio," is in fact a term for the variety acts in a minstrel show, a component of such performances that carried over into Vaudeville and burlesque. Jess's collection manages to be both formally and visually innovative, and historically and culturally humanizing, and underlines his standing as one of the major poets writing today.

Congratulations also to fiction writer Colson Whitehead, who received this year's Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his novel The Underground Railroad (Doubleday), which I am teaching this spring in my undergraduate literature class on history and myth in contemporary African Diasporic fiction. Whitehead's novel takes the concept of the Underground Railroad and transforms it, using the speculative mode, into a narrative that manages both to capture the essence of the fugitive system and  signify on a range of ideological nodes in US history, including state-sanctioned white supremacy, Progressive-era eugenicism, and precarious liberalism's inability to safeguard black life. Throughout Whitehead's skill, at every level of his prose, gleams, and his protagonist, Cora, as well as numerous minor figures, are not easily forgotten.

Colson Whitehead
Other winners this year in the arts and letters category include Lynn Nottage in the Drama category for her play Sweat; Heather Ann Thompson in the history category for her study Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (Pantheon); Hisham Matar in the Biography category for The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Random House); Matthew Desmond, in the General Nonfiction category, for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown); and composer Yu Dun, in the music category, for Angel's Bone, a multimedia opera. In the news category, Hilton Als received a Pulitzer in Criticism for his reviews in The New Yorker.

Lynn Nottage
I may be wrong, but I believe this is the most Black--4!--Pulitzer Prize winners ever, and the most ever received by authors and journalists of color. I guess we'll see if this is but a temporary shift or a harbinger of the future. (One of the oddest selections, though, was Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan's former speechwriter and spinner of tissues of fantasy, in the Commentary selection. Perhaps this was supposed to reflect balance of some sort, but having read several of Noonan's columns this past year, I remain no less baffled than when I first heard the news.)

Noonan included, congratulations again to all this year's recipients, and please go out and buy of a copy of Olio, The Underground Railroad, and any of Als's books, and, before it closes and if you're in New York, catch Sweat! (I still have to myself.)