Legacy Awards honor his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, mem­oir, po­etry

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY DE­NEEN L. BROWN de­neen.brown@wash­post.com

Moroc­can Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Laila Lalami won the 2015 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award for fic­tion for “The Moor’s Ac­count,” a his­tor­i­cal novel that re-cre­ates the doomed 16th-cen­tury Narváez ex­pe­di­tion through the eyes of a black ex­plorer who trav­eled across an “ocean of fog and dark­ness” to the edge of the known world and wit­nessed the atroc­i­ties of the Span­ish con­quest.

The judges called the book “a sweep­ing novel of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion,” said Marita Golden, a nov­el­ist, co-founder and pres­i­dent emer­i­tus of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which hon­ored black writ­ers dur­ing a star-stud­ded gala Fri­day at the Wash­ing­ton Plaza Ho­tel.

“In beau­ti­fully cre­at­ing the voice of the Moroc­can slave Este­ban­ico, Lalami re­stores the im­por­tant role of blacks in the early ex­plo­ration of this con­ti­nent,” Golden said. “Her gor­geous writ­ing, telling use of set­ting, and de­tail al­low the read­ers to feel them­selves to be alive in those dis­tant times.”

Ac­cept­ing the award, Lalami said it is im­per­a­tive for writ­ers to tell the sto­ries of those whose his­to­ries are not ac­cu­rately told by those who write his­tory. “It is an honor to tell this book,” she said, “and it was my priv­i­lege to tell it.”

The gala also cel­e­brated the 25th an­niver­sary of the Hurston/ Wright Foundation, which was cre­ated in 1990 in Wash­ing­ton with a mis­sion to dis­cover, en­cour­age and sup­port writ­ers of African de­scent and to en­sure the sur­vival of lit­er­a­ture by black writ­ers. Golden, a co-founder of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, an­nounced she plans to step down from her role as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor in Jan­uary.

“I feel deeply grat­i­fied,” Golden said, “that the idea the foundation rep­re­sents — an or­ga­ni­za­tion that cre­ates an on­go­ing com­mu­nity of sup­port for black writ­ers — is pow­er­ful enough that it at­tracted smart peo­ple who are in­spired by the idea and want to lead it into the fu­ture.”

Deb­o­rah Heard, former as­sis­tant man­ag­ing editor for the Style sec­tion of The Wash­ing­ton Post, has been named ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the foundation.

“I’m thrilled. As you know from my work, I love writ­ers,” Heard said. “This was unimag­in­able to me as a kid in Alabama. It took me a while to dis­cover that there were books by black writ­ers and black life in books. I never could have imag­ined that an or­ga­ni­za­tion like the Hurston/Wright Foundation ex­isted, and to be part of it is fan­tas­tic. I think the cur­rent mis­sion of the foundation is ex­actly right: it’s sup­port­ing, it’s dis­cov­er­ing, it’s nur­tur­ing, it’s hon­or­ing black writ­ers, and a big part of that mis­sion is con­nect­ing black writ­ers with read­ers.”

The win­ner in the non­fic­tion cat­e­gory was El­iz­a­beth Nunez for “Not for Ev­ery­day Use: A Mem­oir,” a riv­et­ing ac­count in which Nunez, who em­i­grated to the United States from Trinidad, comes to grips with her mother’s death.

“Called home by the death of her mother, Nunez tells a story of a hus­band and wife whose bond was eter­nal, an is­land whose re­pres­sive po­lit­i­cal and reli­gious his­tory shaped her fam­ily and a daugh­ter’s strug­gle to wit­ness and honor and for­give,” the judges said.

The award for po­etry went to Clau­dia Rank­ine for “Cit­i­zen: An Amer­i­can Lyric,” a ground­break­ing col­lec­tion of prose po­etry that ex­am­ines race and pol­i­tics in the United States.

“Clau­dia Rank­ine has changed the way we look at the po­etry man­u­script,” the judges said. “It is a phe­nom­e­non, a rev­e­la­tion and one of the best gen­rebend­ing books of re­cent lit­er­ary his­tory. ‘Cit­i­zen’ leaves no reader un-changed.”

Emmy-win­ning ac­tress S. Epatha Merk­er­son was host of the gala, which at­tracted hun­dreds of lit­er­ary stars, in­clud­ing pow­er­house writ­ers, ed­i­tors, po­ets and lit­er­ary agents.

The foundation’s high­est honor went to Ed­widge Dan­ti­cat, who re­ceived the “North Star Award” for ex­cel­lence in writ­ing. Dan­ti­cat — author of “Breath, Eyes, Mem­ory”; “Krik? Krak!”; “The Dew Breaker”; and “Brother, I’m Dy­ing” — was cel­e­brated for her com­mit­ment to so­cial jus­tice.

“What incredible shoul­ders I find my­self stand­ing on tonight,” Dan­ti­cat told the crowd. “I con­sider this award as a re­ward to be bolder in my writ­ing. I think, too, of Richard Wright, who wrote in ‘Black Boy’: ‘We can fight in­jus­tice with our words. . . . We can fight the fear out of our­selves.’ ”

Dur­ing the cer­e­mony, Na­tional Book Award-win­ning poet Nikky Fin­ney and Pulitzer Prizewin­ning poet Yusef Ko­mun­yakaa read works they wrote in trib­ute to Wright and Hurston, who once said that black writ­ers “passed na­tions through their mouths.”

“Her two cal­ico dresses are with her for sure. A good strong bon­net, one jar of sea shells all stuffed away,” Fin­ney read, her voice boom­ing. “You will find the indigo swirling from neck to hem to rim on ev­ery bit of every­thing. The same color of the South­ern sky that is im­pos­si­ble to wash out.”

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