Isabel Wilkerson, author of the award-winning The Warmth of Other Suns, is the recipient of the inaugural NYU/Axinn Foundation Prize, which recognizes distinguished work in literary narrative nonfiction

Isabel Wilkerson (© Joe Henson 2008 All Rights Reserved)

Prize Recognizes Writer of Literary Narrative Nonfiction

Isabel Wilkerson, author of the award-winning The Warmth of Other Suns, is the recipient of the inaugural NYU/Axinn Foundation Prize, which recognizes distinguished work in the genre of literary narrative nonfiction. The honor includes a cash award of $100,000.

“The purpose of the award is to foster an excellent and influential writer’s continuing contributions to literature and culture,” says Susan Antón, Interim Dean of NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science (GSAS). “The idea is to encourage ongoing work by writers of important literary narrative nonfiction—to promote books that demonstrate originality of vision and depth of research, books that seek to deepen our understanding of the human condition and are of broad interest and appeal.”

Cover image: The Warmth of Other Sunds

The Warmth of Other Suns chronicles the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to other parts of the United States over the course of the 20th century.

Former GSAS Dean Phillip Brian Harper says, “I was thrilled to learn that Isabel Wilkerson has been selected for recognition. The Warmth of Other Suns features beautifully elegant prose and a narrative that is both epic and extremely intimate, tracing the lives and experiences of three individuals and their families to elucidate the larger story.”

Harper, author of Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture, among other works, adds that the book “is vividly and seamlessly written, and full of fascinating detail based on prodigious research. It brings to life people and events previously largely in shadow.”

The Warmth of Other Suns received a National Book Critics Award as well as honors from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Economist, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune, among others.

Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing in 1994 while reporting for the New York Times and serving as its Chicago bureau chief, was the first African American woman to win the award in journalism. Her second book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, was published this summer. Caste, an Oprah Book Club selection, posits that racism in the United States reflects the sort of caste system that is also found in other countries. Dwight Garner, in the New York Times, wrote: “It’s an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far.”

Wilkerson, who has a bachelor’s degree from Howard University, has also won a Polk award, the Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

The NYU/Axinn Foundation Prize, to be given every other year, honors an American writer of literary narrative nonfiction whose published book or books are of exceptional artistic quality and societal import, and who is expected to produce additional highly significant work in subsequent years.

Intended to highlight the importance of literary narrative nonfiction overall, with each award cycle the NYU/Axinn Foundation Prize will celebrate a writer who has exerted an influence on a wide market and on the culture, through work characterized by distinctive language, a strong and immersive narrative, authority over the topic, and research in and discernment about topics not otherwise adequately addressed.

The NYU/Axinn Foundation Prize is administered by NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science. The winner is selected by an independent panel of judges working from nominations from distinguished people drawn from many areas of American literary life, including from prominent scholars, writers, librarians, and independent booksellers. In announcing this year’s prize winner, NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science and the Axinn Foundation expressed their gratitude for the oversight that Philip Fisher, Felice Crowl Reid Professor of English and American Literature at Harvard and Chair of the NYU Axinn Prize Advisory Board, gave to the selection process.

“Creative nonfiction has never had greater urgency than during these dystopian times, and the NYU/Axinn Prize recognizes that persuasive nonfiction requires as much imagination and originality as any novel or volume of poetry,” observes Andrew Solomon, former president of PEN America and author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, among other works. “We change the world by representing it, and in a time when public truth is in short supply, this prize insists that to tell literal truths is just as hard and just as important as telling figurative ones. It identifies the gradual shift through which originality has come to be vested in nonfiction as much as in fiction.”

Further underscoring the importance of the form, Philip Fisher notes that “the classics of this important literary genre will stand alongside the other major works of our culture and, like them, will provide pleasure and enlightenment for decades and generations to come. It is to single out this essential form of writing that NYU and the Axinn Foundation have created this award.”

“Don Axinn, a successful businessman, loved to write and read,” says Mark Hamer of the Axinn Foundation. “He cared a great deal about people and writing. Although he was not a professional writer, he wrote every day and he thought his creativity had something to do with his success in business. Don had the pleasure of reading his poetry at one memorable evening at NYU. The Trustees of the Axinn Foundation felt it was fitting that the NYU/Axinn Foundation Prize, aimed at encouraging mid-career writers of extraordinary talent, be created in his name, so as to honor and support writers of narrative nonfiction books that make a difference.”

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