AWP17 puts literature on the map in D.C.

In Association of Writers & Writing Programs, Literature, W.P. Norton on February 16, 2017 at 6:54 pm

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Still sifting through the trove of literary treasures and takeaways from the nation’s largest annual gathering of the literati, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, hashtag #AWP17.

Herewith a few visual highlights:


Meeting Viet Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer.


Only 10 percent of optioned books get made into movies. That’s the consensus of these panelists who number in that exclusive club. From left: Fobbit author David Abrams; Claire Bidwell Smith, one of whose books is being made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence; and Andre Dubus III, who penned House of Sand and Fog and Dirty Love, among others.



Members of The Anthropoid Literary Collective, a humanesque journal, make me feel welcome on conference Day 1.

Royko vs. Robinson’s Ribs

In African America, Barbecue, Black America, Black-owned businesses, Charlie Robinson, Chicago history, Mike Royko, Mississippi Delta, Racism, Royko RibFest, The Charlie Robinson Story, W.P. Norton on February 16, 2017 at 2:49 pm

A reflection of an editor in Robinson’s Oak Park storefront.

The excitement of this year’s annual gathering of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (#AWP17) in Washington, DC, took me back to the first book I edited — The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts.

Charlie Robinson

OAK PARK, ILLINOIS — Chicago’s Mississippi-born baron of barbecue is sharing his story with the world.

Robinson seared his name into the Chicago annals of African-American history at RibFest 1982, where a centuries-old family barbecue recipe took him to first place over legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko.

In 2012 I finalized the editing of Robinson’s manuscript, The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts. The book is now available in limited edition.

The first book written by the Mississippi-born, Oak Park-based restaurateur looks back with surprisingly little anger on life begun in a Mississippi Delta cotton economy that seems little changed since the days of slavery.

Robinson recalls in stark detail the daily indignities of the race-based world that forced him at the age of 12 to address white children no older than him with the words “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”

You can almost feel the hundred-degree heat of Mississippi burning your skin as he describes his first job picking cotton 10 hours a day for thirty cents an hour.

But you can also share the joy of a young man whose skill on the basketball court earns him a scholarship to a Great Plains college where he learns about the world beyond the Mississippi Delta.

No less striking is the pride that shines through Robinson’s retelling of how the black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper urged the descendants of the enslaved to come to Chicago on trains staffed by black porters.

Or the sense of wonder that pours off the page when he tells how his life changed that late September day in 1982 — a moment captured by a Chicago-Sun Times photo showing Royko raise Robinson’s arm in victory as RibFest judge Don Rose and WLS-TV anchorman Tim Weigel look on.

The unforeseeable outcome of the 1982 contest I call “Royko vs. Robinson’s Ribs” is a quintessential Chicago story about a newcomer who rises from obscurity to a seat at the table with room to spare for any flavor strong enough to reach toward the skyline of a city defined by its power to redefine itself.

AFTERMATH: To stand with Comet against fake news, trolls and pizzagate

In pizzagate, standwithcomet, W.P. Norton, Washington D.C. on December 7, 2016 at 11:47 am

The trolls of #pizzagate failed to get anyone killed this time, but they’d sure love it if they could, and the bastards need to know they’re being watched.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dear owners, staff and patrons of Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor: Being new in town, I had no idea you existed until the fake-news-inspired gun attack at your premises on the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.

But I live pretty close by, and since that day have taken many walks over to your northwest D.C. block, and talked to folks outside, and discovered the brilliant Politics & Prose Bookstore a couple of doors down from you. And all this has changed my life.

Now, here’s where I ask those with no connection to Comet Ping Pong to give me your eyes, because I’m trying something new and hard for me—which is, to take a stand. When I was a young news reporter, an old-school veteran of The New York Times drilled it into me never to share my politics or positions on issues. Everybody has their opinions, he said, but we in the news business had to strike a public stance of careful objectivity.

It was a sacrament with which I did my best to keep the faith in jobs I worked at papers like The Capital Times in Madison, Wisc., The Moscow Tribune in Russia and the Miami Herald International Edition. And it’s hard for me to break that rule here, even though I swore off newspapering after the February 2016 passing of my gorgeously gifted bride Sarah Kershaw, who for 11 years gave all she could to The New York Times—a job she loved, even if, like most jobs, it never really loved her back.

With the the dogged dedication of my early mentor—who was Sarah’s hands-down favorite professor when we were both at University of Wisconsin-Madison—my wife spent thousands of working days and nights hunting down the details, facts and first-hand voices you need to report news that people can trust. This is called #realnews. It’s a thing we used to think preserved the people’s trust in the stories we reported.

Fabricating stories—that is, writing #fakenews—was the gravest sin to Sarah, our mutual teacher and all the scribblers of that fading breed who saw the work as not merely a job, but a vital public service.

So it’s come to this: the fake news #pizzagate allegations came perilously close to causing bloodshed in a family restaurant 1.6 miles from my residence on Dec. 4. Knowing the intensity of Sarah’s passionate commitment to public-service journalism, I’m certain those brazen falsehoods and that godforsakenly overused suffix (pizzagate? really?) would’ve pushed her past the peak of outrage. Within days of the attack, Sarah would have dug up a mountain of reporting, scored get-worthy interviews from every side, and helped the nation ratchet down this madness.

In consideration of all this and what I owe to Sarah’s legacy I say, if ever in my life there was a time to take a stand, this is it. So here goes: Comet Ping Pong, you and your whimsical name and your friendly staff are awesome. Your street has a supportive and neighborly vibe that makes me feel welcome and at home in a city I’ve never lived before. The trolls of #pizzagate failed to get anyone killed this time, but they’d sure love it if they could, and the bastards need to know they’re being watched.

Anyways. People of Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor, Politics & Prose, please count me among your regular customers and vocal supporters. I stand with you, and urge everyone reading this to do the same.

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