Toni Morrison and The Bluest Eye – 50 Years Later

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The original dust jacket for the hard cover first edition of The Bluest Eye, with photo of Toni Morrison by Bert Andrews.

The passing of Toni Morrison in August 2019 at the age of 88 opened a floodgate of tributes from around the world. The native of Lorain, Ohio, had climbed heights no other American writer of the past half-century had achieved, winning every major award from the Pulitzer Prize to the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, in 1993, the Nobel Prize for Literature.

This month marks a milestone in Morrison’s life and career. It was 50 years ago, in November 1970, when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston. At the time, Morrison was working as a textbook editor for L.W. Singer. Because she was a relatively unknown writer, the initial print run in hardcover was only 2,000 copies. But it brought her acclaim, which would continue to grow with her second novel, Sula (for which Morrison won her first literary prize – the Ohioana Book Award in fiction), and her third, Song of Solomon, which solidified her position as one of America’s greatest writers.

With controversial themes that include incest and rape, The Bluest Eye has often been challenged as high school reading material and has appeared several times among the list of titles most frequently banned. But in the 50 years since its publication, it has become a classic.

For those not familiar with the novel, Chiquita Mullins-Lee, herself an award-winning poet and playwright, as well as the Arts Learning Coordinator for the Ohio Arts Council, offers this summary:

The Bluest Eye presents a treatise on slavery’s legacy of self-loathing and self-rejection. Toni Morrison channels the generational trauma of a little black girl who internalizes societal norms that devalue her looks, culture, and very existence. In Pecola Breedlove’s world, Black value and Black beauty are non-entities. From a deeply broken spirit, Pecola identifies the prize: blues eyes promise entry into a place that privileges white skin and tolerates the physical features of a “high yellow dream child.” In possession of neither blue eyes nor light skin, Pecola languishes in a world that fails to affirm her. That same destruction of the spirit is revealed in the pathology of her father, Cholly Breedlove, who exemplifies one who has received and transmitted a lethal legacy that fractured families. Ironically, the acquisition of blue eyes could be only a superficial, as well as impossible, fix. Toni Morrison assigns Black folks the responsibility to cherish our children, love ourselves, and heal our spirits and community.”

In 1988, the year Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for her most acclaimed novel, Beloved, and also received the Ohioana Career Medal, she did an interview with Thames Television on the subject “Why I Wrote The Bluest Eye,” which you can watch on YouTube:

One of the fascinating aspects of Morrison’s writing was her meticulous care and attention to detail. In an article for The Paris Review, she wrote:

We began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense. 

Ohioana board member Dionne Custer Edwards, who is also a poet and Director of Learning and Public Practice at the Wexner Center for the Arts, spoke on the impact Morrison’s words had on her:

“As a mother of three, I too often think about rituals of making inside of the demands of work and life. About how to shape lines, images, narratives, and texture—especially in these days—in the midst of a societal crisis, or two or three. I think about pursuing language in an enduring moment where living is a pattern of abundant isolation from breath, sound, movement, people. I think about life as it once was and grieve it with dignity and a few fresh notes of comfort when I am reminded by the sky that I am still breathing even as I consider the enduring length of suffering. I think about time. About how I have often captured the practice of writing in the draft along the wood floors between deep quiet in the house and the folds of sunrise.  

I remember meeting Toni Morrison while I was an undergraduate student at Ohio State University. I will never forget how she stayed with a small group of us after her public talk. How she advised, encouraged, held us in a moment of wisdom, comfort, and candor. How she shared ideas about writing and how to make use of hours and space. Back then, I was an English major trying to figure out what to do with my words. So grateful to have lived during a time when Toni Morrison wrote about the complexities of Black lives as real and imagined experiences in literature. ”

The complexities of Black lives as real and imagined experiences in literature that began 50 years ago with The Bluest Eye.

With special thanks to Chiquita Mullins Lee and Dionne Custer Edwards.

Election Week 2020: A History of Ohio Presidents

Election day – exciting for some, nerve wracking for most. This year, we’ve watched election day turn into election week as we wait for the results of a tight presidential race. As we’re waiting, it’s easy to get caught up in speculation and anxiety. If that is what you’re feeling this week, you’re not alone.

Thankfully, one of the best distractions in times of uncertainty is literature. The other is fun presidential facts! Today, Ohioana has some of both to tide you over as we await final results.

Did you know that seven presidents were born in Ohio, leading the state to sometimes be referred to as “The Mother of Presidents”? An eighth, William Henry Harrison, was born in Virginia but lived most of his adult life in Ohio. Many consider him an honorary Ohioan. However, in terms of birth defining one’s home state, Ohio is second in the ranking of states that has produced the most presidents, behind Virginia in which eight were born.

The last president from Ohio was Warren G. Harding, born in 1865, who served from 1921-1923. In fact, this week marks the 100-year anniversary of his election, as well as the centennial of the first woman’s vote. Even though it’s been nearly 100 years since an Ohioan was president, there is no doubt that the impact of the state has deep roots within the White House.


In 1920, Warren G. Harding was the last Ohioan elected to the White House, in the first election in which all American women could vote, thanks to the 19th Amendment

If you’re looking for some fun presidential facts and something good to read this election season, look no further. Below we’ve compiled some information about Ohio’s seven presidents, as well as honorary Ohioan William Henry Harrison to keep you occupied. We’ve attempted to include Presidential Recommendations, books and authors that these presidents favored, where possible – however, primary sources on this info are hard to come by, so please take those recommendations with a grain of salt! Scroll to the bottom for information on a special event with Ohio author David Giffels discussing the election, being held virtually on November 12th at 6:30pm. Registration is free.


Ulysses S. Grant

18th President of the United States of America

Born: 1822, Point Pleasant, OH

Died: 1885, Wilton, NY

Years in Office: 1869 – 1877

Favorite Author: Edward Bulwer-Lytton (https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/articles/best-read-u-s-presidents/)

Fun Fact: You can see a cigar that was partially-smoked by President Grant on display in the Grant Room at the Ohio Statehouse.

Scanned image of a handwritten letter addressed "Dear Rawlins" and signed "Yours Truly, U.A. Grant." The letterhead reads "Headquarters Armies of the United States"; the letter is dated July 16th, 1865.
Handwritten letter by Ulysses S. Grant

Rutherford B. Hayes

19th President of the United States of America

Born: 1822, Delaware, OH

Died: 1893, Fremont, OH

Years in Office: 1877 – 1881

Favorite Book: The Collected Speeches of Daniel Webster (https://www.buzzfeed.com/daveodegard/the-favorite-books-of-all-44-presidents-of-the-united-states)

Fun Fact: He was wounded at least 4 times during his time serving in the Civil War.


James A. Garfield

20th President of the United States of America

Born: 1831, Cuyahoga County, OH

Died: Assassinated in 1881, Elberon, Long Branch, NJ

Years in Office: 1881

Favorite Book: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (https://www.buzzfeed.com/daveodegard/the-favorite-books-of-all-44-presidents-of-the-united-states)

Fun Fact: Ohioana has several pieces of personal correspondence by Garfield, as well as commemorative items, in our Ohio Presidents collection. http://www.ohioana.org/honoring-james-garfield/

Scanned image of invitation to congressional memorial service for James A. Garfield. Large central black-and-white illustrations includes an oval frame decorated with leaves and stars that surrounds a portrait of Garfield. Six American flags draped with black ribbon are fanned out behind the frame; a sword and a branch sit on top of it. The Capitol Building and the White House are visible in the background on either side of the frame. The text states "Memorial Service of James Abram Garfield. President March 4th, 1881, Died September 19th, 1881 Age 49 years. Eulogy by Hon. James G. Blaine, House of Representatives Feb. 27th, 1882." Signed by John Sherman, Chairman Senate Committee, and Wm McKinley Jr, Chairman House Committee.
Copy of invitation to James A. Garfield’s memorial service

Benjamin Harrison

23rd President of the United States of America

Born: 1833, North Bend, OH

Died: 1901, Indianapolis, IN

Years in Office: 1889 – 1893

Favorite Author: Walter Scott (goodreads.com)

Fun Fact: He is the president least associated with Ohio, having spent much of his adult life in Indianapolis.


William McKinley

25th President of the United States of America

Born: 1843, Niles, OH

Died: Assassinated in 1901, Buffalo, NY

Years in Office: 1897 – 1901

Favorite Author: Lord Byron (Kevin Phillips, William McKinley: The American Presidents Series)

Fun Fact: He was the last Civil War veteran to serve as president.


William Howard Taft

27th President of the United States of America

Born: 1857, Cincinnati

Died: 1930, Washington, D.C.

Years in Office: 1909 – 1913

Favorite Book/Author: unknown

Fun Fact: President Taft was much more interested in having a seat on the Supreme Court than being president but was encouraged by his wife to run.


Warren G. Harding

29th President of the United States of America

Born: 1865, Blooming Grove, OH

Died: 1923, San Francisco, CA

Years in Office: 1921 – 1923

Favorite Book: Rules of Poker (https://www.buzzfeed.com/daveodegard/the-favorite-books-of-all-44-presidents-of-the-united-states)

Fun Fact: He was the first president to ride in a car to his inauguration, and the first to broadcast a speech over the radio.


Bonus: William Henry Harrison

9th President of the United States of America

Born: 1773, Charles City county Virginia

Died: 1841, Washington, D.C.

Years in Office: 1841

Favorite Book/Author: unknown

Fun Fact: He gave the longest inaugural speech of any president in history, at 8,445 words.


For more presidential discussion, join us next Thursday for a special online event with Ohio author David Giffels.


November 12, 2020 at 6:30pm

Barnstorming Ohio to Understand America: A Conversation with David Giffels

Please visit Eventbrite to register: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/barnstorming-ohio-to-understand-america-a-conversation-with-david-giffels-tickets-125620134203

About the Event:

David Giffels, author of Barnstorming Ohio to Understand America is joined in conversation with David Weaver, Executive Director of Ohioana Library. Giffels is a celebrated author and essayist, winner of a 2019 Ohioana Award and dubbed “the bard of Akron” by the New York Times. He has spent a quarter century writing about what it means to live in a state he calls “an all-American buffet, an uncannily complete everyplace.”

Barnstorming Ohio is Giffels’ account of a year on Ohio’s roads, visiting people and places that offer valuable reflections of the national questions and concerns, as well as astounding electoral clairvoyance—since 1896, Ohio has chosen the winner in twenty-nine of thirty-one presidential elections, more than any other state. The conversation during this event will focus on Giffels’ account, what he learned, and if his conclusions are accurately represented in the results of the 2020 election.

The event will be held virtually on Zoom and is free to attend, and attendees are encouraged to add a copy of Barnstorming Ohio to Understand America to their ticket order. Copies purchased in conjunction with this event are signed by Giffels and include free shipping.

About the Author:

Barnstorming Ohio author David Giffels has written six books of nonfiction, including the critically acclaimed memoir, Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, published by Scribner in 2018. The book has been hailed by the New York Times Book Review as “tender, witty and … painstakingly and subtly wrought,” and by Kirkus Reviews as “a heartfelt memoir about the connection between a father and son.” It was a Book of the Month pick by Amazon and Powell’s and a New York Times Book Review “Editors’ Choice.”

His previous books include The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches From the Rust Belt (Scribner 2014), a New York Times Book Review “Editors’ Choice” and nominee for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the memoir All the Way Home (William Morrow/HarperCollins 2008), winner of the Ohioana Book Award.

​Giffels is the coauthor, with Jade Dellinger, of the rock biography Are We Not Men? We Are Devo! and, with Steve Love, Wheels of Fortune: The Story of Rubber in Akron.

A former Akron Beacon Journal columnist, his writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic.com, Parade, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire.com, Grantland.com, The Iowa Review, and many other publications. He also wrote for the MTV series Beavis and Butt-Head.

His awards include the Cleveland Arts Prize for literature, the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and a General Excellence award from National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He was selected as the Cuyahoga County Public Library Writer in Residence for 2018-2019.

Giffels is a professor of English at the University of Akron, where he teaches creative nonfiction in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Program.

The 2020 Ohioana Book Festival is a Wrap!

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The 14th annual (and 1st virtual) Ohioana Book Festival is now history!

Thank you to everyone who played a part in making it happen: our sponsors, especially Presenting Sponsor, Ohio Humanities; major sponsors the Greater Columbus Arts Council, The Reinberger Foundation, Honda of America, Mfg. Co., Inc., the Tom E. Dailey Foundation Inc., the State Library of Ohio and the Institute of Museum & Library Services, Ohio Arts Council, Ariel Corporation, and Nationwide Children’s Hospital; media sponsors and partners The Columbus Dispatch, CD102.5, MGN, and WCBE 90.5 FM; promotional partners Gateway Film Center and Johnson’s Real Ice Cream; and our many outreach partners around the state. Special thanks to our festival host Columbus Metropolitan Library. And our official bookseller, The Book Loft of German Village – remember you can still buy books of all the festival authors through the end of September at www.bookloft.com !

Most of all, thanks to the authors and every reader who tuned in this weekend. This event was created for you, and we hope you had a great time, even in this unusual format. All the live programs the past weekend were recorded, and will be added to all the previously recorded programs so that the complete festival will soon be available via our website. Keep watching our social media for details!

And mark your calendars now for the 15th anniversary Ohioana Book Festival, set for Saturday, April 24, 2021. We hope to see you “live” back at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Main Library! Stay safe until then.

Presenting the Ohio Literary Trail!

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The Ohioana Library Association is excited to announce a new program that will connect readers and Ohio writers and shine the spotlight on Ohio’s unique role in shaping culture and literature worldwide – the Ohio Literary Trail!

Wagnalls Memorial Library in Central Ohio

Ohioana compiled the trail map with more than 70 sites across the Buckeye state, paying tribute to the authors, poets, illustrators, libraries, and creative influencers of the written word who have called Ohio home. Tourists planning a literary-themed outing, as well as Ohioans who want to discover literary treasures they never knew existed in their own backyard, will find it here.

The Ohio Literary Trail celebrates Ohio’s diversity through an eclectic range of literary greats who influenced feminism and women’s rights, Black history, religion, LGBTQ+ rights, and American culture through literature.

Hosted online by the Ohioana Library Association, the Ohio Literary Trail is organized by the state’s five geographic regions. The downloadable map provides links to every destination, with details, directions, and background information.

Home of Superman marker in Northeast Ohio, Ohio History Connection

For a true literary celebration that unites readers and writers, the Ohio Literary Trail features five annual festivals in each region of the state: the Ohioana Book Festival in Columbus, Books by the Banks in Cincinnati, Wooster’s Buckeye Book Fair, the Ohio University’s Spring Literary Festival in Athens, and Claire’s Day in Northwest Ohio. These major events feature authors, illustrators, poets, and more with fun activities for everyone. The link to each festival shares schedule updates.

According to Ohioana Executive Director David Weaver, “Ohio’s contributions to literature is something every Ohioan can be proud of. And as Ohio continues to influence the literary world, the Trail map will continue to be updated with new destinations that invite discovery and inspire the next generation of writers.” The Ohio Literary Trail can be accessed at: www.ohioana.org/resources/the-ohio-literary-trail/

Click here for a downloadable PDF of the Ohio Literary Trail.

Announcing the 2020 Ohioana Award Winners

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It’s that time of year again! The Ohioana Library is pleased to announce the winners of the 2020 Ohioana Awards. Each year, juried awards are given to books in six categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, About Ohio/Ohioan, Middle Grade/Young Adult Literature, and Juvenile Literature. Fans have the opportunity to make their voices heard by selecting the Readers’ Choice Book Award from among all thirty finalists in an online poll. Finally, we present a special prize for emerging writers, the Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant.

Ohioana Book Awards

First given in 1942, the Ohioana Book Awards are the second oldest, and among the most prestigious, state literary prizes in the nation. Nearly every major writer from Ohio in the past 78 years has been honored, from James Thurber to Toni Morrison.

Six of the Ohioana Award winners, as well as the Marvin Grant recipient, were selected by juries. The Readers’ Choice Award was determined by voters in a public online poll. Nearly 3,000 votes were cast for this year’s Readers’ Choice Award.

The 2020 Ohioana Awards ceremony is tentatively scheduled to be held Thursday, October 15, in the Atrium of Ohio’s historic Statehouse in Columbus. Of course, due to COVID-19, we are not certain we’ll be able to have the event live. We will keep you informed on our website and social media.

Listed below are the 2020 Ohioana Book Award winners. Click on the title to learn more about the author and their winning book.

Fiction: Salvatore Scibona, The Volunteer

Nonfiction: Jeannie Vanasco, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl

About Ohio or an Ohioan: David McCullough, The Pioneers

Poetry: Hanif Abdurraqib, A Fortune for Your Disaster

Middle Grade/Young Adult Literature: Jasmine Warga, Other Words for Home

Juvenile Literature: Oge Mora, Saturday

Readers’ Choice: Kenn Kaufman, A Season on the Wind

Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant

Named for Ohioana’s second director, the Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant is awarded to an Ohio writer age 30 or younger who has not yet published a book. The 2020 Marvin Grant winner is Brendan Curtinrich. A native of Geauga County in northeast Ohio, Brendan studied creative writing at Hiram College and holds an M.F.A. in creative writing and environment from Iowa State University. He has served as a nonfiction editor at Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment and is currently a contributing editor at Split Rock Review. A triple-crown backpacker, he writes primarily about ecological issues, particularly the ways human animals affect and are affected by the world around them. His work is published or forthcoming in Trail Runner magazine, Appalachia, Gigantic Sequins, Sierra, and Footnote.

Happy Birthday, Millie!

Celebrating Nancy Drew’s Creator

It’s July 10, and today we celebrate the 115th birthday of one of Ohio’s greatest writers – Mildred Wirt Benson. Her name might not be as familiar to you as some noted Ohio authors, but you’ve certainly heard of her pen name and the beloved fictional character she created – Nancy Drew.

Yes, indeed, “Millie” was the first “Carolyn Keene” – the pseudonym given to all the many writers of the enduringly popular mystery series built around the mythical teen sleuth. And most importantly about Millie – she infused Nancy with many of her own personality traits, talents, and interests. You could almost say that Millie was the REAL Nancy Drew.

She was born Mildred Augustine on this day in 1905 in the small town of Ladora, Iowa. A tomboy from the time she was a child, she excelled at sports. She developed a lifelong love of adventure and travel and was a talented musician.

But writing was her passion. “I always wanted to be a writer from the time I could walk,” she said. “I had no other thought except that I wanted to write.” She began writing stories in grade school; she won her first writing award when she was 14.

At the State University of Iowa, she became the first person in the school’s history to earn a master’s degree in journalism. While there she met and fell in love with Asa Wirt, who worked for the Associated Press. They married in 1928 and settled first in Cleveland, moving later to Toledo. Millie would remain an Ohioan for the rest of her life. Her only child, daughter Peggy, was born in 1937.

In 1927, Millie was hired by Edward Stratemyer as a ghostwriter for his syndicate, which produced popular books for teens, including the enormously successful Hardy Boys series. Ghostwriters worked for a flat fee and did not share in royalties of the books they wrote, which were published under pseudonyms created by the syndicate. They had to sign a confidentiality agreement to not reveal their true identities as authors.

After having Millie write several novels for the Ruth Fielding series (under the pen name Alice B. Emerson), Stratmeyer gave Millie a new assignment: to create an original series about a girl sleuth named Nancy Drew. Stratemeyer provided her with titles and plot outlines for three books. But it was left to Millie to flesh out the character.

And flesh her out she did, creating a character that was smart, self-confident, fearless, and fun-loving. As Millie would say years later, she was trying to make Nancy Drew “a departure from the stereotyped heroine commonly encountered in series books of the day.” Edward Stratemeyer was concerned that Nancy “was too flip,” but when the three books – The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, and The Bungalow Mystery – were published in April 1930, they were an immediate sensation. Young readers couldn’t get enough of Nancy Drew and “Carolyn Keene.”

Cover of The Secret in the Old Attic (1944) from Ohioana’s collection

Millie would go on to pen 23 of the first 30 Drew novels. And those were just a small part of a huge output that ultimately totaled more than 130 books produced for young readers between 1927 and 1959, both under pseudonyms and her real name. Other than Nancy Drew, Millie’s most popular character (and her own personal favorite) was Penny Parker, the heroine of a series that appeared under her own name, as Mildred A. Wirt.

As an Ohio author, Millie’s books under her own name had begun to be collected by the Ohioana Library almost from the time we were founded in October 1929. In 1957, Millie provided us with a completed biographical form that we could add to our collection.

Mildred’s biographical form

Interestingly, Millie noted that among her writings were “mystery books published under various pen names.” Remember, as a ghostwriter for Stratemeyer, Millie could not disclose her authorship of the Nancy Drew series, or any of the other books she wrote for them.

That changed in 1980, when a lawsuit was filed over publishing rights to the Stratemeyer syndicate titles. The question of authorship of books came up, and Millie was called to testify. For the first time, 50 years after the first novels had been published, Mildred Wirt Benson was revealed as the original Carolyn Keene, the creator of Nancy Drew.

By that time, Millie had long ceased writing novels for young readers, concentrating instead on a career as a journalist that had begun in the mid-1940s, first for the Toledo Times and then for the Toledo Blade. Millie’s first husband, Asa Wirt, had passed away in 1947. Three years later, she married a second time, to George Benson, editor of the Blade. He died in 1959.

Together, Millie and George traveled a great deal. She particularly loved visiting the Mayan ruins in Central America. Once, while in Guatemala, she was briefly kidnapped. It was like a real-life Nancy Drew adventure! Readers of Millie’s column, On the Go, loved sharing vicariously in her exploits.

Millie at her desk

Millie loved to fly, earning her pilot’s license in 1964 at age 59. In 1986, she applied to NASA to become the first journalist-in-space. She was 81 at the time.

In 1989, the Ohioana Library honored Millie with a citation “for distinguished service to Ohio in the field of children’s literature.” Informed of the award, Millie said, “So many years have elapsed since I actively wrote children’s books that I doubt I deserve the honor.”

Letter from Mildred Benson thanking Ohioana for the 1989 Award

Unable to attend the award ceremony in Columbus because of an injury, Millie was presented her award in Toledo by Ohioana board member Ann Bowers, who fondly remembers Millie’s youthful outlook and optimism.

Thank you note from Millie to Ohioana

There would be many other honors in the following years, as more and more people heralded Millie’s achievements, especially in creating Nancy Drew.

Even as she entered her 90s and began suffering from failing health, Millie kept writing. On May 28, 2002, Millie was at her desk at the Blade when she fell ill. She was taken to Toledo Hospital,

where she died that evening. She was 96 years old. News of her death made headlines around the world.

By the time of her death, more than 70 years after the first novels had appeared, notable women in every field had cited Nancy Drew as a role model and inspiration. So much so, that it surprised even Millie, who in an interview the year before she died said, “I always knew the series would be successful. I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I’m glad that I had that much influence on people.”

Dozens of writers followed Millie as “Carolyn Keene,” keeping the Nancy Drew series thriving for decades. And it expanded way beyond the books – films, television shows, games, coloring books, puzzles, and more. As Nancy Drew celebrates her 90th anniversary this year, one would have to say that, except perhaps for Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster’s Superman, no character created by a writer from Ohio has become such a pop culture phenomenon as Nancy Drew.

And now fans past, present, and future have a new place where they can celebrate Nancy Drew and Mildred Wirt Benson: the Jennifer Fisher/Nancy Drew Collection at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library. Fisher, a Drew scholar, is writing a biography of Mildred Wirt Benson. She also hosts the unofficial Nancy Drew sleuth website, a must for Drew fans worldwide. The exhibit at the library will feature several thousand items from Fisher’s personal collection.


The Jennifer Fisher/Nancy Drew Collection reading room at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library

So on this 115th anniversary of her birth, Ohioana salutes Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, the first Carolyn Keene and the creator of Nancy Drew. And on behalf of your millions of fans over the last 90 years . . . thank you, Millie! Further reading:

“Curating a Nancy Drew Collection,” guest blog by Jennifer Fisher, https://www.toledolibrary.org/blog/curating-a-nancy-drew-collection

Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist by Julie K. Rubini, Ohio University/Swallow Press, https://www.ohioswallow.com/book/Missing+Millie+Benson And visit Jennifer Fisher’s Nancy Drew website: http://www.nancydrewsleuth.com

“Rod, White, and Blue”

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Title card for The Twilight Zone, courtesy of CBS

Though the Syfy Channel has traditionally been the home of the New Year and Independence Day Twilight Zone marathons, this year the Decades channel will be celebrating the 4th of July Weekend with “Rod, White, and Blue,” to commemorate creator Rod Serling on the 45th anniversary of his death, at age 50, on June 28, 1975.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/CYQrUc8VAD8

Serling was born on Christmas Day in 1924 in Syracuse, New York. He graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, after serving in the military. While at Antioch, he became manager of the college’s radio station, and also lived in Marion, working at radio station WMRN (you can read more about his time in Marion and the impression he made upon his co-workers here: https://tinyurl.com/y8esqluy ). He then moved his family to Cincinnati. It was there he began his professional writing career, writing first radio and then television scripts for WKRC. While freelancing, he continued to send scripts to publishers, receiving over 40 rejection slips. His wife Carol said he eventually became fed up and just quit, moving his family to Connecticut in 1953. His agent convinced him that if he really wanted a career in television he should move to New York, so in 1954 he packed up his wife and young children once again and moved to the city.

He quickly got work on Kraft Television Theater as well as several other TV productions, including continued work back at WKRC. He continued to develop a name for himself, and eventually got attention from executives at CBS. After a long process, The Twilight Zone was greenlit and premiered on October 2, 1959.

For this series, Serling fought hard to get and maintain creative control. He hired scriptwriters he respected, such as classic genre writers Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Charles Beaumont. In an interview, Serling said he hoped the show’s science fiction format would not be controversial with sponsors, network executives, or the general public, and should escape censorship.

Serling drew on his own experience for many episodes, frequently about boxing, military life, and airplane pilots. Carol Serling said his time in the military was traumatic and changed many of his worldviews, which made their way into his writing. The Twilight Zone incorporated his social views on racial relations, somewhat veiled in the science fiction and fantasy elements of the shows. His use of allegory was masterful and he was able to get a lot of controversial topics past censors, at a time when other shows were not even willing to try. Occasionally, though, the point was quite blunt, such as in the episode “I Am the Night—Color Me Black,” in which racism and hatred causes a dark cloud to form in the American South and spread across the world.

Many Twilight Zone stories reflected his views on gender roles, featuring quick-thinking, resilient women as well as shrewish, nagging wives. Cleveland native Burgess Meredith appears in four of the most famous episodes of the show, including “Time Enough at Last,” the chilling tale of a mild-mannered man who only wants to read his books in peace, and is horrified when his wish is granted. Another episode was based on Ohioan Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge;” directed by Robert Enrico, it was submitted to the Academy Awards and won the Best Short Film award at the 1964 Oscars.

The Twilight Zone aired for five seasons (the first three presented as half-hour episodes, the fourth had hour-long episodes, and the fifth returned to the half-hour format). It won many television and drama awards and drew critical acclaim for Serling and his co-workers. Although it had loyal fans, The Twilight Zone had only moderate ratings and was twice canceled and revived. After five years and 156 episodes (92 written by Serling), he grew weary of the series. In 1964, he decided not to oppose its third and final cancellation.

Rod Serling continued to work in TV, creating another classic anthology series, Night Gallery, which ran from 1969-1973. He also consistently worked in radio, writing for The Zero Hour and Fantasy Park. Additionally, he often spoke at college campuses around the USA. He wrote screenplays for films, including the original version of the science fiction classic, The Planet of the Apes. He also taught week-long seminars in which students would watch and critique movies. In the political climate of the 1960s, he often felt a stronger connection to the older students in his evening classes.

Serling’s critique of high school student writing was a pivotal experience for writer J. Michael Straczynski, who science fiction and comic fans will know well as the long-time writer of Thor comics for Marvel and Superman for DC, as well as the creator of the influential television series Babylon 5 and Sense8. Later Serling taught at Ithaca College, from the late 1960s until his death in 1975. He was one of the first guest teachers at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood, California. Audio recordings of his lectures there are included as bonus features on some Twilight Zone home video editions.


Rod and Carol Serling via John Hoke/Antiochiana, Antioch College

According to his wife, Serling often said that “the ultimate obscenity is not caring, not doing something about what you feel, not feeling! Just drawing back and drawing in, becoming narcissistic.” This philosophy can be seen in his writing. Some themes appear again and again, many of which are concerned with war and politics. Another common theme is equality among all people. He frequently spoke out against racism, social inequality, the Vietnam War, government oppression, and police brutality. In a speech delivered December 3, 1968 at Moorpark College, Moorpark, California, he said,

“I would rather have a son or daughter of mine march through the streets of Chicago protesting injustice—than I would siring a Chicago policeman who’ll club anyone who’ll get in his way—and that includes sixteen-year-olds, newspaper photographers, and senior citizens.” (December 4, 1968, excerpted from https://rodserling.com/rod-serling-rips-loyalty-oaths-the-vietnam-war-and-social-inequity/ )

Angered and mourning the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he said:

“In his grave, we praise him for his decency – but when he walked amongst us, we responded with no decency of our own. When he suggested that all men should have a place in the sun – we put a special sanctity on the right of ownership and the privilege of prejudice by maintaining that to deny homes to Negroes was a democratic right. Now we acknowledge his compassion – but we exercised no compassion of our own. When he asked us to understand that men take to the streets out of anguish and hopelessness and a vision of that dream dying, we bought guns and speculated about roving agitators and subversive conspiracies and demanded law and order. We felt anger at the effects, but did little to acknowledge the causes. We extol all the virtues of the man – but we chose not to call them virtues before his death. And now, belatedly, we talk of this man’s worth – but the judgement comes late in the day as part of a eulogy when it should have been made a matter of record while he existed as a living force. If we are to lend credence to our mourning, there are acknowledgements that must be made now, albeit belatedly. We must act on the altogether proper assumption that Martin Luther King asked for nothing but that which was his due… He asked only for equality, and it is that which we denied him.” (Letter to The Los Angeles Times; April 8, 1968.)

A Town Has Turned to Dust, Serling’s 1958 made-for-TV film, received a positive review from the critic Jack Gould, who was known for being straightforward to the point of being harsh in his reviews. He called A Town Has Turned to Dust, “a raw, tough and at the same time deeply moving outcry against prejudice.” Set in a Southwestern town in a deep drought, it sees poverty and despair turn racial tensions deadly when the ineffectual sheriff is unable to stand against the town. A young Mexican boy is lynched, and the town as a whole is to blame. A second lynching is in the works after a series of events leads again to the town turning against the Mexicans. This time, the sheriff stands strong, and the first boy’s brother is saved, even as the town is not. “Mr. Serling incorporated his protest against prejudice in vivid dialogue and sound situations. He made his point that hate for a fellow being leads only to the ultimate destruction of the bigoted,” said Gould, in the New York Times.

Serling took his 1972 screenplay for the film, The Man, from the Irving Wallace novel of the same title. A black senator from New Hampshire and president pro tempore of the Senate, played by James Earl Jones, assumes the U.S. presidency by succession.

Sadly, Rod Serling passed away at the early age of 50, after suffering three heart attacks very quickly. His wife Carol survived him and continued to speak about her husband and his legacy for many years, until she also passed away a month before her 92nd birthday on January 9, 2020. Serling’s daughter Anne, born during the family’s time in Connecticut, wrote a stirring memoir about her father, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, in 2013, and has also continued to write and speak about her father’s legacy.

Serling is indelibly woven into modern popular culture because of the enduring popularity of The Twilight Zone. Even youth of today can hum the theme song, and the title itself is a synonym for all things unexplainable. It has lived on with a movie, graphic novels, many books (including Ohio film critic and Twilight Zone expert Mark Dawidziak’s Everything I Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone), albums, and even a ride at Disney World. It has also inspired a few TV reboots, including one that started on CBS All Access in 2019, produced by Jordan Peele, which has just started a second season. Serling’s widow, Carol, maintained that the cult status that now surrounds both her husband and his shows continues to be a surprise, “as I’m sure it would have been to him.” Carol, who was raised in Columbus, helped establish the Rod Serling Archives at Ithaca College in upstate New York. The collection includes scripts and screenplays, her husband’s six Emmy Awards, plus photos, films, and books from his personal collection. She also helped endow a Rod Serling Scholarship in Communications there.

The origins of Twilight Zone holiday marathons are themselves shrouded in a bit of mystery (you can read more about that here: https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/the-twilight-zone-marathon-a-history-of-a-holiday-tradition/ ). One thing is true: the show has a legacy that has evolved far beyond what Serling ever intended, resonating with viewers across generations for over sixty years. Whether this is your first time viewing the show or your one hundredth, there is always something new to discover, some underlying theme to Serling’s vision that continues to captivate audiences from year to year.

The “Rod, White and Blue” marathon begins at 12p ET | 9a PT on July 4 on Decades, and runs through the weekend. Check your local listings: https://www.decades.com/wheretowatch

Celebrating Pride: Must-Read Books by LGBTQ+ Ohio Authors

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month is currently celebrated each year in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. The Stonewall Uprising, which began on June 28, 1969, was a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States. In the United States the last Sunday in June was initially celebrated as “Gay Pride Day,” but the actual day was flexible. In major cities across the nation the “day” soon grew to encompass a month-long series of events. Today, celebrations include pride parades, picnics, parties, workshops, symposia and concerts, and LGBTQ+ Pride Month events attract millions of participants around the world. Memorials are held during this month for those members of the community who have been lost to hate crimes or HIV/AIDS. The purpose of the commemorative month is to recognize the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and members of the extended community who identify under the LGBTQ+ spectrum, have had on history locally, nationally, and internationally.

For this Pride Month, Ohioana would like to share a chronological list of books from among our state’s most noted LGBTQ+ voices, past and present.

White Buildings – 1926, Hart Crane (Garrettsville)

This first book of poems by hart Crane, one of his three major collections, was originally published in 1926. The themes in White Buildings are abstract and metaphysical, but Crane’s associations and images spring from the American scene. Crane associated his sexuality with his vocation as a poet. Raised in the Christian Science tradition of his mother, he never ceased to view himself as a social pariah. Though he was only semi-public with his homosexuality, as necessitated by the mores of the time, Crane was clear with his intentions in poems like “The Broken Tower,” and “My Grandmother’s Love Letters.” Crane tragically took his own life at the very young age of 32, leaving behind a legacy of poetry that is sadly underappreciated today. Though he is not well known now, Crane was admired in the early 20th Century by many poets and playwrights, including Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, whose play Steps Must Be Gentle was based on Crane’s relationship with his mother.

A Boy’s Own Story – 1982, Edmund White (Cincinnati)

A Boy’s Own Story is the first of a trilogy of novels, describing a boy’s coming of age and documenting a young man’s experience of homosexuality in the 1950s in Cincinnati, Chicago and Michigan. The trilogy continued with The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997), which brought the setting up to the 1990s. These semi-autobiographical novels were a deeply personal journey for Cincinnati’s Edmund White, written, in part, because of his own reading journey as a child. White has said, “As a young teenager I looked desperately for things to read that might excuse me or assure me I wasn’t the only one, that might confirm an identity I was unhappily piecing together.” He decided that, since he could not find any books to read about people like himself, he would create them on his own. Considered an icon in the world of LGBTQ+ literature, White has gone on to write over 50 novels, plays, and essays over his career, most of them featuring same-sex themes, and has won multiple awards, including the 2019 National Book Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dream Work – 1986, Mary Oliver (Cleveland)

Mary Oliver was born and raised in Maple Hills Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. She would retreat from a difficult home to the nearby woods, where she would build huts of sticks and grass and write poems. Oliver’s nature-focused poetry won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, 2 Ohioana Book Awards, and a Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement. Reviewing Dream Work for the Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.” Though notoriously secret about her private life, Oliver lived on Cape Cod with her partner, Molly Malone Cook, for more than 40 years.

Thomas the Rhymer – 1990, Ellen Kushner (Shaker Heights)

Award-winning author and radio personality Ellen Kushner’s inspired retelling of an ancient legend weaves myth and magic into a vivid contemporary novel about the mysteries of the human heart. Brimming with ballads, riddles, and magical transformations, this World Fantasy Award-winner is the timeless tale of a charismatic bard whose talents earn him a two-edged otherworldly gift. A graduate of Barnard College, Ellen Kushner also attended Bryn Mawr College, and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. She began her career in publishing as a fiction editor in New York City, but left to write her first novel Swordspoint, which has become a cult classic, hailed as the progenitor of the “mannerpunk” (or “Fantasy of Manners”) school of urban fantasy. Swordspoint was followed by Thomas the Rhymer, and two more novels in her “Riverside” series, including The Fall of The Kings (2002), written with her wife Delia Sherman. Kushner has been praised as a vanguard of positive depictions of bisexual characters and relationships in fantasy fiction.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio – 2005, Terry Ryan (Defiance)

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio introduces Evelyn Ryan, an enterprising woman who kept poverty at bay with wit, poetry, and perfect prose during the “contest era” of the 1950s and 1960s. Stepping back into a time when fledgling advertising agencies were active partners with consumers, and everyday people saw possibility in every coupon, Terry Ryan tells how her mother kept the family afloat by writing jingles and contest entries. Ryan’s signature wit and verve made this story so popular it was turned into a successful film. With artist Sylvia Mollick, Ryan was also the co-creator of the long-running cartoon T. O. Sylvester in the San Francisco Chronicle. She was married to her long-time partner, Pat Holt, by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom on St Valentine’s Day 2004. Her account of her wedding, titled We Do!, was published by Chronicle Books. Sadly Ryan was diagnosed with cancer not long after her big success, and passed away on May 16, 2007.

Bright Felon – 2009 Kazim Ali (Oberlin)

Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. In 2003 Ali co-founded Nightboat Books and served as the press’s publisher until 2007. He has received an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, and his poetry has been featured in Best American Poetry. In this follow up to his Ohioana Book Award winner Sky Ward, which won the 2015 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry, Ali details the struggle of coming of age between cultures, overcoming personal and family strictures to talk about private affairs and secrets long held. The text is comprised of sentences that alternate in time, ranging from discursive essay to memoir to prose poetry. Art, history, politics, geography, love, sexuality, writing, and religion, and the role silence plays in each, are its interwoven themes. Bright Felon is literally “autobiography” because the text itself becomes a form of writing the life, revealing secrets, and then, amid the shards and fragments of experience, dealing with the aftermath of such revelations.

The Last Nude – 2012, Ellis Avery (Columbus)

The only writer ever to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice, Ellis Avery was the author of two novels, a memoir, and a book of poetry. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006) received Lambda, Golden Crown, and Ohioana Book awards, and her work was translated into six languages. She taught fiction writing at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley. Ellis was raised in Columbus, where she discovered a love of theater, anthropology, and religion that she interwove into her works of fiction. Avery was also considered to be at the forefront of a queer historical fiction movement in which the historical setting is, among other things, an allegory for the queer child awakening to her identity in a household that cannot recognize or name her existence. In her later work, through her struggles with cancer and reactive arthritis, Avery became interested in medical narratives by both those afflicted with illness and medical professionals, and in 2018 led a narrative medicine storytelling and writing workshop at Harvard Medical School. Ellis Avery passed away on February 15, 2019, at the age of 46.

The Last Place You Look – 2017, Kristen Lepionka (Columbus)

Kristen Lepionka is the author of the Roxane Weary mystery series. Her debut, The Last Place You Look, won the Shamus Award for Best First P.I. novel and was also nominated for Anthony and Macavity Awards. This novel is a throwback, of sorts, to hard-boiled PI detectives of old, only Roxane Weary is a very modern character. A deeply troubled, but also deeply empathetic (often to her own detriment), person, Roxane juggles her grief over her father’s death alongside her alcoholism, her juggling of her relationships with men and women, and her mentorship of a young queer teen as she navigates life as a PI in Columbus. With each installment Roxane grows as a character and Lepionka’s incredible writing talent shines. Lepionka is also the co-host of the podcast “Unlikeable Female Characters,” featuring feminist thriller writers in conversation about “female characters who don’t give a damn if you like them.”

How We Fight for Our Lives – 2019, Saeed Jones (Columbus)

Saeed Jones is a relatively recent transplant to Columbus, but not a new name in the world of poetry. Jones has been a winner of the Pushcart Prize, the Joyce Osterwell Award for Poetry from the PEN Literary Awards, and the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Award for Literature, and a nominee for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. In 2019 he published his first memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, an unflinching story of his coming-of-age as a young, gay, Black man in the South. Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves. The book earned Jones the Lambda, the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction in 2019, and the Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography, in 2020.

The Gravity of Us – 2020, Phil Stamper (Dayton)

Phil Stamper’s debut YA novel, The Gravity of Us, is the story of two teens, Cal and Leon, who are brought together when their parents are both selected for a new NASA mission to Mars. Stamper balances the boys’ burgeoning relationship against a backdrop that brings the space race into the 21st century. In a 2020 interview, Stamper, who was raised just outside of Dayton, says, “I’ve always felt that we need all sorts of queer stories and experiences out there. I built this book in a world where homophobia is just not acknowledged, and I wanted this story to be a safe space for queer teens who always feel like they have to keep their guards up when reading a book.”

If you are looking for more on the history of Pride Month itself, you may also enjoy Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, the story of Ohioans Jim Obergefell and John Arthur and their fight for marriage equality, written by Obergefell and Debbie Cenziper. Today is the fifth anniversary of the ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Readers may also enjoy LGBT ColumbusLGBT Cincinnati, and LGBT Cleveland, written by 2020 Ohioana Book Festival author Ken Schneck, and published by Arcadia, and How to Survive a Summer, the acclaimed debut novel by Columbus author Nick White, as well as the works of e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, Ruth Awad, Berenice Abbott, and P. Craig Russell. 

Of course, this list is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are so many, many more LGBTQ+ authors, and their voices have too often been marginalized. We hope that perhaps this brief summary will encourage you to explore other gifted LGBTQ+ writers, not just from Ohio, but everywhere.

And for more Pride Month celebration, please check out our interview with Alex DiFrancesco, the first trans and non-binary Ohioana Book Award finalist, published here:
http://www.ohioana.org/an-interview-with-alex-difrancesco/

An Interview with Alex DiFrancesco

posted in: authors, Awards, reading | 0

Ohioana is very happy, this Pride Month, to have had the privilege of interviewing one of our current Ohioana Book Award finalists, Alex DiFrancesco. Alex is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin House, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, The New Ohio Review, Brevity, and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which is a Fiction finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy of the Arts. They run the interview column “We Call Upon the Author to Explain“ at Flypaper Lit, and are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.

Alex is the first trans and non-binary award finalist in Ohioana’s history. We asked them to answer some questions about All City, the writing process, and telling queer stories in 2020.

Ohioana: All City is about people and art and a lot of other things, but it’s also about systems that allow people like Evann to flourish and people like Jesse and Makayla to struggle. It feels so relevant, especially now. How did you approach the writing of those oppressive systems?

Alex DiFrancesco: There’s never been a time in my professional career when I didn’t write about the political. I believe, as a minority writer, that it’s just not possible to see the world without looking at these systems of injustice; I find it difficult to tell stories without them, even when I’m writing absurdism, or something “light.” We’re all entangled in the political as the personal every day, with every move we make. As a writer who writes character deeply, I don’t see how I could tell the stories of the people who I wish to tell stories of without doing this.

Ohioana: Your characters are, simply stated, so HUMAN. They feel like real people. How much of yourself do you put into characters like Jesse and Makayla, and even Evann?

AD: A whole lot. Makayla, though she’s demographically the person most unlike me who narrates All City, has more of me as an emotional core than any other character in the book. I think, especially when we’re writing those outside our purview, it’s important to have these true north feelings that coincide with us and our characters. Jesse, though they’re the most like me on the surface, and have many of my own memories from my time as an activist, is very different than I am, a lot harder than I am, a lot more a fighter and survivor. Evann, who’s nothing like me, still has a lot of my cultural touchstones, approached in a wildly different way than I would. For example, I also adore Jean-Micheal Basquiat’s art, though I’m not a person who will ever own a Basquiat.

Ohioana: Reading this story is actually both hopeful and frightening. How do you create a balance between the banding together of the survivors with some of the very realistic, traumatic experiences people like Makayla and Jesse endure? What do you think the disparate reactions of the characters to the shared experience of the storm says about human nature?

AD: I think that there’s a baseline in life that some people experience trauma, and say “I’ll never let this happen to anyone else,” and some experience it and think, “I made it through, so should everyone have to.” A lot of the characters in this novel take the former approach, using trauma to create survival and community. But it’s well within human nature to take the latter approach, too.

Ohioana: Can you tell us a little about what your daily writing process is like (if you have one)? Are you an outliner or a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants”-er?

AD: I write every morning when I wake up, with coffee and cigarettes. I try to write, at minimum, 500 words a day. If I make it through that, I’m good. Often I go longer. I am very much an outliner. I actually use old-school grade-school brainstorming techniques — maps, thought webs, family trees, outlines, visual mapping of the story, character sketches — to get my feet under me. I often hang these things up in my office, returning to them as I write.

Ohioana: You reference music a lot in your books. Do you have any particular music you use to get into a writing mood?

AD: I quite obsessively listen to the Lounge Lizards experimental jazz album The Queen of All Ears when I write. I’ve been pretty overwhelmed by the despair in the world lately, and though I often listen to sad music, I’ve been trying to counteract it with hopeful music, and have had Nina Simone on rotation a lot lately. It’s hard for me to write to music with a lot of words, because I become too caught up in the lyrics. Jazz, classical, and experimental music are mainstays for writing for me.

Ohioana: So we definitely have to ask you an Ohio question! You’re an Ohio transplant. Was it a culture shock to come here after living in other, bigger places? Has that been a big adjustment? Have you found Ohio and especially Cleveland to be a good community for writers?

AD: I lived in Geneva, Ohio for a year before coming to Cleveland, and that was a huge culture shock. Cleveland is actually the city of my dreams. Its industrial blight reminds me of my hometown, a former coal mining town in Appalachia, but the community here is so vibrant, so different than where I’m from, that I fell very hard in love with this city immediately. As far as arts go, I have the most talented, diverse, committed, and brilliant group of writer friends here, The Barnhouse Collective and the Sad Kids Superhero Collective, who I’m so proud to work with and support, who support me right back. I’ve had a lot of opportunity here as a writer, and Cleveland’s got this great underdog vibe of, “We’ve heard the jokes, we know what you think of Cleveland, but we’re here doing amazing things, and will be doing so when you figure it out and catch up to them.” I adore it here.

Ohioana: You write across several genres including novel-length fiction, short stories, and essays. Is there a genre you enjoy the most? Do you find it difficult to switch between them, or to change from your writer to your editor “hat” when you’re writing for Flypaper Lit, Sundress, or any of the other publications you have worked for?

AD: I switch around a lot not only in the categories or writing, but in the subgenres in them a whole lot because I’m a very restless person who isn’t satisfied unless I’m pushing and challenging myself with something new. I think good writing is good editing, and they’re really two sides of the same coin when you get down to it, so that’s not a hard switch for me either.

Ohioana: You have also written Psychopomps, which is so deeply personal about your identity and your life. Do you feel it is getting easier to tell queer and trans stories? Do you have any advice for writers who might be struggling with their identity but afraid to fully tell those queer stories?

AD: I think the moment for trans narratives has definitely arrived. When I transitioned, there were very few presses willing to take on trans writing. That’s not the case now. My advice is, if one person thinks it’s good, there will be more out there who do, too, so do your research and don’t settle for less than the place that will support and champion your work relentlessly. I’ve been very lucky with my Seven Stories Press family in that regard — they’re a mid-sized press who’s published work by Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, Noam Chomsky — and they show me every bit of care and respect they show all their other authors. Every trans writer deserves that, and shouldn’t settle for less.

Ohioana: You are the first trans and non-binary Ohioana Book Award finalist (that we know of; we are not sure if there were folks in the past who may not have been out), and it is also Pride Month. Can you tell us what Pride means to you?

AD: Pride means being aware of history. Forefronting the struggles of BIPOC queer mama-papas and trancestors who have always been at the forefront of the struggle, who have always had the most to lose and fought the hardest. It’s not about parades and glitter and dance parties and wilding out. If Pride is just a time for you to celebrate and get laid and not to revere those who got us to where we are today, those who fought tooth and nail for every one of our rights, then you’re missing the point.

Ohioana: Can you tell us anything about your next writing project?

AD: I’d be delighted to. I’m working on a linked story collection that takes place in SoHo, Manhattan, in the year 2000. It revolves around a group of fine dining servers at a failing restaurant in the neighborhood David Bowie lived in then, who are dreaming of interacting with all of his stage personas in various genres. I like to think of it as Kitchen Confidential meets Cloud Atlas meets the career of David Bowie.

Thank you very much to Alex DiFrancesco for this wonderful interview. You can find them online at Flypaper Lit, Sundress Publications, and on Twitter @DiFantastico.

First given in 1942, the awards are the second-oldest state literary prizes in the nation and honor outstanding works by Ohio authors and illustrators in five categories: Fiction, Poetry, Juvenile Literature, Middle Grade/Young Adult Literature, and Nonfiction. This year’s winners will be announced in July, and the 2020 Ohioana Book Awards will be presented at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on Thursday, October 15. Follow our social media for more information, including our “30 Books, 30 Days” celebration of the finalists.

Check back tomorrow for book suggestions from more Ohio LGBTQ+ authors!

A Juneteenth Celebration: Must-Read Books by Ten Black Ohio Authors

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It was first observed in June, 1865, just two months after the end of the Civil War.

Today, 155 years later, too many Black Americans still suffer from violence, inequality, and injustice resulting from systemic racism. We stand united with them in their quest to bring about lasting and meaningful change.

For this Juneteenth, Ohioana would like to share a chronological list of books from among our state’s most noted Black voices, past and present.

Lyrics of Lowly Life – 1896, Paul Laurence Dunbar (Dayton)

One of Dunbar’s earliest works, this collection includes his immortal poem “We Wear the Mask,” about the miserable plight of African Americans after the Civil War, forced to hide their painful realities and frustrations under the mask of happiness and contentment. Dunbar became the first African American poet to win national recognition, because of this poem. Although he lived to be only 33, Dunbar’s work remains a legacy of the past and a beacon for the future.

The Weary Blues – 1926, Langston Hughes (Cleveland)

The first book by the man who became known as “The Poet of the Harlem Renaissance.” The collection includes not only the title work, but also his classic poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “I, Too, Sing America,” which was the theme of the 100th anniversary celebration in Columbus of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes wrote in other literary genres as well. His graceful verse and prose showcased the spiritual and creative dignity of the lives of African Americans.

Zeely – 1967, Virginia Hamilton (Yellow Springs)

The first Black Newbery Medalist and a National Book Award winner, no writer of books for African American children has been more loved than Virginia Hamilton. And influential, too: about Hamilton’s first novel, Zeely, the story of a young Black girl who loves to create fantasies, Jacqueline Woodson said, “It was one of the first books I read by an African American about African American people.” The American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award honors an African American author or illustrator whose body of work has contributed significantly to literature for children and young adults.

Beloved – 1987, Toni Morrison (Lorain)

Winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison was arguably the most important American writer of the last half of the 20th century. But she was more – she was also a tireless and outspoken champion for social justice, right up until she died in August 2020 at the age of 88. Morrison’s best-known work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, is the story of Sethe, a former slave who escaped to Ohio in the 1870s—but despite her freedom, finds herself haunted by the trauma of her past.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks – 1999, Rita Dove (Akron)

A Pulitzer Prize winner and the first African American to serve as Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove also holds the record for the Ohioana Poetry Book Award, having won four, including for 1999’s On the Bus with Rosa Parks. The collection explores the intersection of individual fate and history, as exemplified by the courageous Black woman whose simple act of refusing to give her seat up on the bus to a white man helped spark the civil rights movement.

Copper Sun – 2006, Sharon Draper (Cincinnati)

Sharon Draper taught high school English in Cincinnati and was named National Teacher of the Year before devoting herself full-time to writing novels for young adults. A New York Times best-selling author, she is the winner of five Coretta Scott King Literary Awards, including for Copper Sun, the epic story of a young girl torn from her African village, sold into slavery, and stripped of everything she has ever known – except hope.

The Butler: A Witness to History – 2013, Wil Haygood (Columbus)

Award-winning journalist and historian Wil Haygood traces the Civil Rights Movement and explores crucial moments of 20th century American history through the eyes of Eugene Allen – a White House butler who served eight presidents, from Truman to Reagan, over the course of thirty-four years. Haygood’s 2008 article about Allen in the Washington Post, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” inspired the award-winning film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

This Is the Rope – 2013, Jacqueline Woodson (Columbus)

Jacqueline Woodson’s many honors include the Newbery Medal and National Book Award; she has served as the Children’s Poet Laureate and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. She also writes for adults and is a 2020 Ohioana Book Award finalist for her novel, Red at the Bone. In her 2013 book for young readers, This Is the Rope, Woodson tells the story of one family’s journey north during the Great Migration and the simple jump rope found by a little girl that she has no idea will become a part of the family’s history for three generations.

Urban Contemporary Poetry Month – 2016, Scott Woods (Columbus)

Scott Woods is a former President of Poetry Slam, Inc., and is the founder of the Writers Block Poetry series and the Streetlight Guild, a performing arts nonprofit. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications and been heard on National Public Radio. Urban Contemporary History Month, his second poetry collection, navigates multiple sides of the issues it raises – police abuse, idol worship, the definition of Black culture, and the importance of the blues chief among them – chipping away at our understanding and acceptance of American life as we know it. 

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us – 2017, Hanif Abdurraqib (Columbus)

A poet, essayist, and cultural critic, Hanif Abdurraqib is one of contemporary literature’s most popular and influential young writers. His third book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Questwas a National Book Award longlisted finalist and is a 2020 Ohioana Book Awards finalist. His collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,chosen by a number of publications as one of the best books of 2017, uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves. 

Ten books, ten Black Ohio writers. This list here is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are so many, many more. And we hope that perhaps this brief summary will encourage you to explore other gifted Black writers, not just from Ohio, but everywhere. We’ve never needed to hear their voices more than now.

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