June 15, 2021
Pulitzer winners and finalists offer new perspectives
by Julianna Yablans
On June 11, 2021, fifteen books were declared as winners or finalists of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, general nonfiction, poetry, general history, and biography. Many of the prize winning books offer new perspectives on events and figures in American history that have either been authored before, or have been previously untold until now.
Louise Erdrich’s prize winning novel The Night Watchman is modeled after her grandfather’s experience as a night watchman and member of the Chippewa tribe in the 1950s as Congress considers a bill to “emancipate” Indigenous peoples from their lands and affiliations. This story is based on the Indian termination policy of the U.S. that was in place from the mid-1940 to the mid-1060s in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous people into what was deemed “conventional” American society.
Marcia Chatelain, a history professor at Georgetown University (my current academic institution and a professor for which I failed to be taken off the waitlist for her class), discusses the complex and deeply rooted connections between race and the fast-food industry—particularly McDonald’s. She writes of the relationship between the then-growing giant and civil rights activists which began with clashes over refusal to hire and serve black people in the South. Although a partnership eventually developed between McDonald’s and the black community, compromises have been present from the beginning.
Eric Cervini’s work The Deviant’s War highlights the life and work of Franklin Kameny, a Harvard-educated astronomer who fought against the blatant discrimination of the U.S. government after he was fired from the Army for being gay.
Although Kameny is considered to be one of the most influential figures in the American gay rights movement, he is not necessarily a household name. Like Cervini’s work, Erdrich’s story and Chatelain’s research highlight intricate aspects of U.S. history and society that have gone unlearned and unjustly underrepresented. This theme of forgotten history is further exemplified with strength in David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, a general nonfiction work on the coup against an elected multiracial government by efforts of white supremacists in order to instate white rule in Wilmington. Even in poetry finalist Natalie Diaz’s work “Postcolinal Love Poem,” she reveals the experiences of queer women of color, a wholly underrepresented minority in literature, prose, and society.
The list of winners reflects an extremely diverse group of stories, histories and authors that bring light to issues and ideas that are too often overlooked. These selected works highlight generations of untold voices of the American and international struggle to grasp one’s place in an omni-complex and ever-changing world. The racial, political, cultural, and sexual consciousness is tested and examined in each Pulitzer winner’s unique reports, prose, and poetics, with all authors greatly deserving of their high recognition.
Julianna Yablans is an intern at Melville House