Dayton Literary Peace Prize honors authors who inspire peace through the written word
By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
Think a bit about the word peace. What comes to mind?
A long-haired hippie raising his arm high into the air and splaying his fingers to make a “V” shaped symbol?
Or do you envision a room full of yogis, chanting and leaning on the breath of one another to help them discover their inner solitude?
How about hemp necklaces and incense? People rallying to help push for a change toward a better future?
What about a novel? Can the written word promote peace too?
Ask the people who help make the annual Dayton Literary Peace Prize (DLPP) possible, and they will answer with a resounding “Yes.”
“I have to believe that literature can change the world and change the way we think,” said Marlon James, the 2010 Fiction Winner for The Book of Night Women. “I teach students who have no hope other than the possibility that they can write their way out of where they are to where they want to be.”
That possibility to change the world with the written word was the exact purpose of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize when it first came into fruition. The award was set forth to honor writers whose work uses the power of literature to foster peace, social justice, and global understanding. Launched in 2006, it has already established itself as one of the world’s most prestigious literary honors, and is the only literary peace prize awarded in the U.S.
“The Dayton Literary Peace Prize has a dual nature: It is a peace prize; it is a literary prize,” said Sharon Rab, the DLPP chair. “The DLPP board designed the judging process to honor books whose writers focused on peace with clarity and style. We look for books that endure the test of time and will appeal to a wide audience.”
The DLPP awards a $10,000 cash prize each year to one fiction and one nonfiction author whose work advances peace as a solution to conflict, and leads readers to a better understanding of other cultures, peoples, religions and political points of view. The Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award (formerly known as the Lifetime Achievement Award) is also bestowed upon a writer whose body of work reflects the prize’s mission. Previous honorees have included: Studs Terkel, Elie Wiesel, Taylor Branch, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and Geraldine Brooks.
“To win a literary award is exciting enough,” said Brad Kessler, 2007 Fiction Winner for “Birds in Fall.” “But to be given one wedded to the sentiment and cause of peace is the greatest honor I think any writer or poet could wish for –– especially right now in this country in this time of war. Nothing would seem less effectual in bringing about peace than sitting alone in a room talking to imaginary characters, which is what a novelist does. For my novel, then, to be recognized as a call for peace is incredibly humbling.”
This year’s winner in the fiction category was “The Surrendered” by Chang-Rae Lee; “In The Place Of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance” by Wilbert Rideau was the winner in the nonfiction category. The nonfiction runner up was and “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson; the fiction runner up was “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” by Maaza Mengiste.
“When I saw the caliber of the other nominees, I didn’t feel I had any chance of actually winning the award,” Rideau said of his nomination. “When I found out I won, I was actually speechless, at least momentarily. When the news sank in, I was just profoundly grateful that my life story had been judged worthy of a peace prize.
The DLPP also awarded Barbara Kingsolver, the first-ever Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On their website, the DLPP writes: “From ‘The Bean Trees’ and ‘Homeland,’ published in 1988 and 1989, through her most recent novel, ‘The Lacuna,’ Kingsolver has been writing about the complex relationships we develop, live with, and daily negotiate, transforming them into experiences that are simultaneously ordinary and significant.”
Extraordinary circumstances seem to be exactly the premise of Rideau’s story, a chronicle of the 44 years he spent in the Louisiana prison system before winning a new trial and, inherently, his freedom. He pioneered a free press behind bars in 1976 when he became editor of The Angolite, a prison newsmagazine that during his tenure was nominated seven times for a National Magazine Award. Rideau used that life experience to write his DLPP-winning story.
“Throughout history, prisoners have chronicled their experience behind bars, striving to illuminate society’s darkest and most forgotten places through their own tales of struggle and suffering,” writes Eric Bates, editor of Rolling Stone and one of the judges who chose Rideau’s book. “But none has approached the task with the courage, compassion and literary grace of Wilbert Rideau. Many inmates, confronted by the injustices that Rideau was forced to endure over 44 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, would have simply railed against ‘the system’ or lashed out against their captors.
Rideau, by contrast, sets out on a dangerous and deeply moving journey of transformation, determined to atone for his crime in the only way that matters: by leading a life committed to both personal redemption and institutional reform.”
Rideau said his DLPP nomination has opened new doors for his future writing career, one that will include a book about the American criminal justice system that he is co-authoring with his wife.
“[The nomination] will definitely give me to something to try to live up to in my future works,” Rideau said. “I strongly believe in peace and in trying to promote it through my work, whether writing or lecturing. I hope winning the Dayton Literary Peace Prize allows people to see that side of me and others like me.”
For more information on the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, visit www.daytonliterarypeaceprize.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Caroline Shannon-Karasik at CarolineShannonKarasik@DaytonCityPaper.com.