Poet-turned-novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers has been awarded the 2022 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for her debut work of fiction, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. The 816-page epic was published by Harper in August 2021.
The Dayton Literary Peace Prize, inaugurated in 2006, is the first and only annual U.S. literary award recognizing the power of the written word to promote peace. The Dayton Literary Peace Prize invites nominations in adult fiction and nonfiction books published within the past year that have led readers to a better understanding of other cultures, peoples, religions, and political points of view. Both awards carry a $10,000 cash prize.
The runner-up was What Comes After by JoAnne Tompkins (Riverhead Books).
Previous fiction winners of the DLPP include Hala Alyan, Edwidge Danticat, Patricial Engel, Marlon James, Adam Johnson, Change-rae Lee, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Josh Weil.
The fiction judges were Jon Parrish Peede and Lisa Page. Peede is the former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. His previous positions include Publisher of the Virginia Quarterly Review at the University of Virginia, Literature Grants Director at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Director of the NEA Big Read program, and Editor at Mercer University Press. Page is co-editor of We Wear The Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, (Beacon Press). Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, LitHub Weekly, The Crisis, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, Playboy, the Washington Post Book World and other publications. She is assistant professor of English at the George Washington University and Director of Creative Writing. She previously served as Interim Director of Africana Studies. She is also a resident faculty member of the Yale Writers’ Workshop.
Citation (by Lisa Page):
Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’ debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, is about the world of our ancestors, and lets them sing. Their high notes are legacy, history, tradition, and the mysteries of the spirit world. Their low notes are the atrocities of the Mid-Atlantic Slave Trade, smoothed over and often dismissed, yet impossible to ignore, thanks to the inherited damage that continues to contaminate society today. They sing of the early days when the Indigenous mixed with the African and the Scottish, and they sing of their descendants.
From the early days of what is now Georgia, in America, we visit Seminole territory, moon houses, Creek villages. This early America, with its society of slavers and the enslaved, is juxtaposed with the modern story of Ailey Garfield coming of age in the contemporary South. We watch as Ailey confronts familial responsibility, racism, sexism, and domestic abuse. For Ailey, the academic world looms as opportunity and refuge, even as street life in the city is also a reality for her and her family. Intellectual ideology provides hope but is also problematic; Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois do not see things, eye to eye. The Black community, as monolith, is deconstructed, here. We experience 20th Century America, particularly the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the complexities of drug addiction and the constrictions of marriage, through Ailey’s mother, her sisters, and her extended family.
This cacophony of voices is ultimately about love, even as heinous acts occur during slavery and continue in contemporary America. Depraved family members co-exist with righteous matriarchs and patriarchs. Class differences between lovers, colorism, and identity are also themes in this ambitious work. Jeffers celebrates the power of education and ideas, the community provided by the African American church, and the survival of a people confronting unbelievable odds. These love songs exalt literature and activism and are an invitation to us all to join in.
Remarks by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers:
As the descendant of enslaved African Americans, and as a person who was reared on land that once belonged—and to my mindful logic, still belongs—to Southeastern Indigenous peoples, I frequently contemplate peace.
I know it’s not a raised voice, but is it silence? I know it’s not a coming to blows, but is it backing away from a fight, the absence of conflict? I used to believe that peace meant serenity between bodies or nations or kin. When I became a writer—or I should say, when I accepted the fact that I’d always been a writer—I sought to balance a claimed calmness in my spirit with an acknowledgement of history, but history is not always a site of peace. A balancing—a peaceful journey—seemed an impossible task, like reversing gravity—floating up instead of falling—or putting blood back into a vein.
I have trod this writer’s path for many more years than I haven’t and I believe that peace equals naming. A litany of ancestors and chosen kin, an utterance, the tonal truth of what occurred, when few want to accept or even know the past. This is peace, even when the present or past isn’t joyful. This is peace: a knowing that my voice equals thunder, only because I am speaking an urged echo. The syllables I can claim only because someone now dead told me, Tell them. Speak. Write it down—all that I make is an again that was made before me.
My peace is a quelling of the fear that a story might be lost. This is what the dead ones passed to me: the toll, and the toil in this fearful time of breaking, but a courageous time of salvation, if we would but name. This wisdom is quick, what I’ve only just learned. Yet this is what I hope to hand to the newly speaking, before I, too, am called to leave.