My book club made a field trip last Sunday morning to Sinclair Community College for “A Conversation With The Winners Of The Dayton Literary Peace Prize.”
Our feelings were perhaps best summed up by a man who remarked to his wife, “That was food for the soul.”
For a $10 donation — less than the cost of breakfast — we were treated to a dialogue with some of the country’s finest writers: literary lion Wendell Berry, renowned Vietnam War chronicler Tim O’Brien; reigning Pulitzer winners Gilbert King (non-fiction) and Adam Johnson (fiction), author and lecturer Andrew Solomon and past Peace Prize winners Maaza Mengiste and Andrew Krivak.
But it wasn’t merely the pedigree of the presenters that made the morning so special. It was their candor, their wisdom, their unaffected engagement with the audience.
My book club buddy Mary Sue Kessler of Washington Twp. said the event far exceeded her expectations of a “book-club-like discussion of the author’s books and their written words. Instead, we the audience of local book lovers hung on the spoken words and personal philosophical messages from six articulate authors. The author’s answers to questions were sometimes humorous and charming, while always thought-provoking and insightful.”
Added Teri Rizvi of Butler Twp., “The caliber of the authors and the generosity they displayed in answering the questions so thoughtfully made the event stand out in my mind.”
While everyone is aware of the annual Dayton Literary Peace Prize Dinner and Awards Ceremony, held last Sunday at the Schuster Center, the “Conversation with the Authors” is among more than 35 lesser-known community Peace Prize events, beginning in September. Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, recalled that the Conversation with the Authors began in 2006, the same year as the first awards, was a very small crowd made up mostly of DLPP board members and a few of the fans of the authors.”
The audience more than doubled every year, eventually outgrowing its home at Books & Co. and becoming one of the Peace Prize’s signature events.
“The gala supports the event and the prizes,” Rab said. “Without the gala, there would be no awards. But the awards are just the beginning for us. The prizes are a means, not an end. Our goal is to support those who write, publish, read and share books that promote peace. Having a large public gathering to celebrate these authors where readers can interact with the writers, buy and then read their books is a part of our mission.”
Rarely have I spent two hours listening to such an unflinching and profound discuss of life and literature. Perhaps it was the Peace Prize’s unique mission of “recognizing the power of the written word to promote peace.” How often is anyone encouraged to think — or write — about peace?
A few of the morning’s gems:
Andrew Solomon, author of “Far From the Tree,” talked about the “glorious dignity of people at the margins.”
He added, “The greatest empathetic thing is to speak from the voice of another.”
Wendell Berry said that great writers are often stereotyped as not being very good people, but he said of his fellow panelists: “You hear time after time how their work comes through their goodness.”
Maaza Mengiste, author of the novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” observed that throughout history “people have always said that the book is about to die, but I reject that notion. Maybe it doesn’t matter what format it takes, as long as people are reading.”
Gilbert King advised young writers to follow their passion, noting that his book “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” hardly seemed destined for critical or commercial success. “It all started with believing in something, committing to it and seeing it through.”
Adam Johnson, author of the novel “The Orphan Master’s Son,” said that North Korea is a “place where nothing is knowable or confirmable,” where, after years of research, he ended up with more questions than when he started. It is a place, perhaps, where fiction can come closer to the truth than any work of non-fiction.
Tim O’Brien, author of the “The Things They Carried,” said, “The search for the miracle has made me a writer.”
In a world where self-assurance is celebrated, O’Brien told a high school student to embrace ambivalence. “Uncertainty is the way to approach the world,” he said. “Uncertainty propels me through life.”
Truth, he added, “is elusive and fluid.”
Mary Sue said “she was especially impressed by the answers to several questions from young students searching for direction and answers about their future. They were told that it is the uncertainty which propels us through life; uncertainty is a way to approach the world. And the best thing about the future is to go do the future now.”
She added, “My future will include this amazing event in 2014 with next years’ Literary Peace Prize winners.”
Workshop today on Writing the Personal Essay
Dayton Daily News columnist and reporter Mary McCarty will lead an Antioch Writers’ Workshop mini-seminar on “Writing the Personal Essay” on Sunday, Nov. 10, from 2:00 to 3:30, at Books & Co. at The Greene. The free event will provide an overview on how to write a personal essay and offer tips and techniques, followed by a question-and-answer period. For more information visit www.antiochwritersworkshop.com.