Kirkus Reviews has announced the finalists for the 2023 Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction. This year’s nonfiction jurors are Mark Athitakis, journalist, book critic, and award-winning author of The New Midwest; Anjali Enjeti, journalist, book critic, and author of Southbound and The Parted Earth; and Kirkus nonfiction editor Eric Liebetrau.
Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan
“It is impossible to understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution,” Tania Branigan writes. During this decade of Maoist fanaticism between 1966 and 1976, children condemned parents, students condemned teachers, and as many as two million people died for their supposed political sins, while tens of millions were hounded, ostracized, and imprisoned. Yet in China this brutal and turbulent period exists, for the most part, as an absence; official suppression and personal trauma have conspired in national amnesia. Red Memory uncovers forty years of silence through the stories of individuals who lived through the madness. Deftly exploring how this era defined a generation and continues to impact China today, Branigan asks: What happens to a society when you can no longer trust those closest to you? What happens to the present when the past is buried, exploited, or redrawn? And how do you live with yourself when the worst is over?
Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century by Jennifer Homans
Arguably the greatest choreographer who ever lived, George Balanchine was one of the cultural titans of the twentieth century–The New York Times called him “the Shakespeare of dancing.” His radical approach to choreography–and life–reinvented the art of ballet and made him a legend. Written with enormous style and artistry, and based on more than one hundred interviews and research in archives across Russia, Europe, and the Americas, Mr. B carries us through Balanchine’s tumultuous and high-pitched life story and into the making of his extraordinary dances.
Balanchine’s life intersected with some of the biggest historical events of his century. Born in Russia under the last czar, Balanchine experienced the upheavals of World War I, the Russian Revolution, exile, World War II, and the Cold War. A co-founder of the New York City Ballet, he pressed ballet in America to the forefront of modernism and made it a popular art. None of this was easy, and we see his loneliness and failures, his five marriages–all to dancers–and many loves. We follow his bouts of ill health and spiritual crises, and learn of his profound musical skills and sensibility and his immense determination to make some of the most glorious, strange, and beautiful dances ever to grace the modern stage.
With full access to Balanchine’s papers and many of his dancers, Jennifer Homans, the dance critic for The New Yorker and a former dancer herself, has spent more than a decade researching Balanchine’s life and times to write a vast history of the twentieth century through the lens of one of its greatest artists: the definitive biography of the man his dancers called Mr. B.
How Not To Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin
The last time Clancy Martin tried to kill himself was in his basement with a dog leash. It was one of over ten attempts throughout the course of his life. But he didn’t die, and like many who consider taking their own lives, he hid the attempt from his wife, family, coworkers, and students, slipping back into his daily life with a hoarse voice, a raw neck, and series of vague explanations.
In How Not to Kill Yourself, Martin chronicles his multiple suicide attempts in an intimate depiction of the mindset of someone obsessed with self-destruction. He argues that, for the vast majority of suicides, an attempt does not just come out of the blue, nor is it merely a violent reaction to a particular crisis or failure, but is the culmination of a host of long-standing issues. He also looks at the thinking of a number of great writers who have attempted suicide and detailed their experiences (such as David Foster Wallace, Yiyun Li, Akutagawa, Nelly Arcan, and others), at what the history of philosophy has to say both for and against suicide, and at the experiences of those who have reached out to him across the years to share their own struggles.
The result combines memoir with critical inquiry to powerfully give voice to what for many has long been incomprehensible, while showing those presently grappling with suicidal thoughts that they are not alone, and that the desire to kill oneself—like other self-destructive desires—is almost always temporary and avoidable.
How To Say Babylon: A Memoir by Safiya Sinclair
Throughout her childhood, Safiya Sinclair’s father, a volatile reggae musician and militant adherent to a strict sect of Rastafari, became obsessed with her purity, in particular, with the threat of what Rastas call Babylon, the immoral and corrupting influences of the Western world outside their home. He worried that womanhood would make Safiya and her sisters morally weak and impure, and believed a woman’s highest virtue was her obedience.
In an effort to keep Babylon outside the gate, he forbade almost everything. In place of pants, the women in her family were made to wear long skirts and dresses to cover their arms and legs, head wraps to cover their hair, no make-up, no jewelry, no opinions, no friends. Safiya’s mother, while loyal to her father, nonetheless gave Safiya and her siblings the gift of books, including poetry, to which Safiya latched on for dear life. And as Safiya watched her mother struggle voicelessly for years under housework and the rigidity of her father’s beliefs, she increasingly used her education as a sharp tool with which to find her voice and break free. Inevitably, with her rebellion comes clashes with her father, whose rage and paranoia explodes in increasing violence. As Safiya’s voice grows, lyrically and poetically, a collision course is set between them.
How to Say Babylon is Sinclair’s reckoning with the culture that initially nourished but ultimately sought to silence her; it is her reckoning with patriarchy and tradition, and the legacy of colonialism in Jamaica. Rich in lyricism and language only a poet could evoke, How to Say Babylon is both a universal story of a woman finding her own power and a unique glimpse into a rarefied world we may know how to name, Rastafari, but one we know little about.
Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of “Latino” by Héctor Tobar
“Latino” is the most open-ended and loosely defined of the major race categories in the United States, and also one of the most rapidly growing. Composed as a direct address to the young people who identify or have been classified as “Latino,” Our Migrant Souls is the first account of the historical and social forces that define Latino identity.
Taking on the impacts of colonialism, public policy, immigration, media, and pop culture, Our Migrant Souls decodes the meaning of “Latino” as a racial and ethnic identity in the modern United States, and gives voice to the anger and the hopes of young Latino people who have seen Latinidad transformed into hateful tropes and who have faced insult and division―a story as old as this country itself.
Tobar translates his experience as not only a journalist and novelist but also a mentor, a leader, and an educator. He interweaves his own story, and that of his parents’ migration to the United States from Guatemala, into his account of his journey across the country to uncover something expansive, inspiring, true, and alive about the meaning of “Latino” in the twenty-first century.
Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom by Ilyon Woo
In 1848, a year of international democratic revolt, a young, enslaved couple, Ellen and William Craft, achieved one of the boldest feats of self-emancipation in American history. Posing as master and slave, while sustained by their love as husband and wife, they made their escape together across more than 1,000 miles, riding out in the open on steamboats, carriages, and trains that took them from bondage in Georgia to the free states of the North.
Along the way, they dodged slave traders, military officers, and even friends of their enslavers, who might have revealed their true identities. The tale of their adventure soon made them celebrities, and generated headlines around the country. Americans could not get enough of this charismatic young couple, who traveled another 1,000 miles criss-crossing New England, drawing thunderous applause as they spoke alongside some of the greatest abolitionist luminaries of the day—among them Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown.
But even then, they were not out of danger. With the passage of an infamous new Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, all Americans became accountable for returning refugees like the Crafts to slavery. Then yet another adventure began, as slave hunters came up from Georgia, forcing the Crafts to flee once again—this time from the United States, their lives and thousands more on the line and the stakes never higher.