If the 1995 Bosnian peace agreement put Dayton on the global map, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize has kept it there. The prestigious awards, which celebrate “the power of literature to promote peace, justice, and global understanding,” will be presented tonight at a gala ceremony at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Center in Dayton. Journalist and author Wil Haygood, a 2016 nonfiction finalist, will serve as emcee.
The books and authors being honored this evening include fiction winner “Salt Houses” by Hala Alyan, and non-fiction winner “We Were Eight Years in Power” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is the runner-up for fiction and “Reading with Patrick” by Michelle Kuo is the nonfiction runner-up. The Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award — for lifetime achievement — will be presented to John Irving.
As the prize’s reputation continues to grow internationally, it’s no surprise that much of the current literary subject matter focuses on immigration and the plight of refugees. Sharon Rab, who founded the award 13 years ago, says from the very beginning, she envisioned the award in international terms. “If you’re talking about peace, it’s an international talk,” she says. “We didn’t have any international nominations the first year, but we did have a winner from London. By the second year, the Nobel Peace prize people were asking for some of our posters.”
To date, the award has gone to authors in 20 countries — Nigeria and South Korea have each claimed two winners; England has had five. Winning books have been set in 55 countries. Film crews from as far away as Japan and Bosnia have come to Dayton to cover the story. Many of the judges reside in foreign lands and patrons seated on the Mead Center stage for the annual dinner represent other nations as well.
Betty Darst, who looks forward to attending each year, says there’s always something special about each event. In 2016, for example, members of the Belmont High School soccer team — including students who had fled war-torn countries including Burundi, Tanzania, Cameroon, Mozambique and Iraq — were joined by Centerville High School soccer players who had befriended and supported them.
Last year, students and faculty from the International Studies Program at the University of Dayton filled a table. This year, members of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Diversity Consortium will attend, representing diversity and inclusion programs at Sinclair College, UD and Wright State University. “They will be the perfect audience for the international writers honored this evening,” says Rab.
This year’s recipients
None of the authors intentionally sets out to write a book about peace. “The fact that they are nominated and chosen is because they have a world view that helps lead us to peace and gives us that international perspective,” Rab notes. She says each of the 2018 winners addresses issues of people and characters who are “displaced,” people who are not at home or welcome where they live.
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“John Irving’s work has been dedicated to protesting attitudes toward sexual minorities,” she says. “Hala Alyan’s ‘Salt Houses’ tells the story of generations of the Yacoub family who, driven from Palestine by war, move from country to country searching for a place to call home. Min Jin Lee’s ‘Pachinko’ salutes the courage of generations of a Korean family who are considered foreigners in Japan, a country they have called home for decades.
“In ‘We Were Eight Years in Power,’ Ta-Nahesi Coates describes how the tyranny of white supremacy has created a world that the descendants of slaves continue to struggle against for any true sense of freedom. Michelle Kuo’s ‘Reading with Patrick,’ tells the story of a young black man who suffers under the very effects described in Coates’ narratives, a young man who finds himself through literature, especially the writings of other black men.”
Rab says the fact that three of these writers are the daughters of immigrants to the United States from Palestine, Korea and Taiwan, shows the blessing that welcoming immigrants and refugees brings to our country. “All of the winners show the power of literature to change minds, change lives, and, with our help, to promote peace through understanding.”
Returning to Dayton
One of this year’s speakers is author Ben Rawlence from Wales, who was last year’s non-fiction runner-up. His book, “City of Thorns,” revolves around nine lives in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya.
Rawlence calls the Dayton award, “the highest honor.” “I think all literature has at its heart the promotion of peace and understanding. That is one of the fundamental purposes of language and communication,” he says. “I’m almost shocked that other literary prizes could use any other criteria! Surely an effective work of art is one that stimulates empathy and furthers the cause of peace?”
Rawlence believes any prize concerned with universal values will naturally draw in writing from all over the world, either in English or in translation. “And in a world where communities and nations are increasingly in dialogue with themselves, the outward focus of the prize is ever more necessary.” His hope, he says, is that readers will see the world through the eyes of people suffering in difficult situations and, as a result, have a slightly broader take on the world. “So that the next time you see someone that might not look like you on the TV you might find it easier to care.”
Patricial Engel, last year’s fiction winner for “The Veins of the Ocean,” will also make one of the presentations tonight. The daughter of Colombian immigrants, her book is about refugees and immigrants from Cuba and Colombia. She learned about the Dayton prize, she says, because many of the authors she had most admired have been recipients.
“The prize is unique in that it recognizes the integrity of a book with regard to how it serves the global landscape and promotes a vision for a compassionate world community,” Engel says. “My characters are identified as immigrants because it’s a marker of their reality, but I think that as a society, we have largely forgotten that we are all refugees or immigrants.
“A defining characteristic of mankind is the urge to move to, to migrate, and though, for the convenience of whomever is recording a particular history, the language has changed from “settler” to “refugee,” or “explorer” to “immigrant.” The hunger to live beyond borders and boundaries is something we each carry within us. Unless you are indigenous to the place where you reside, you are a foreigner, and this is something most people have forgotten.”
There are international benefits to membership in the DLPP as well. Through the “Fly With the Doves Book Circle Annual Membership Program,” winning books are being purchased and presented to the needy. The first recipient is the National Library in Sarajevo, which was fire-bombed during the Bosnian War. Almost two million books were destroyed.
Rab is often asked why so many of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize books are about war. “The reason people become refugees and often immigrants is because of war,” she replies, “and so war becomes the driving force that creates the need for people to find safety, some kind of haven. So it’s directly connected with peace. Every good book about war is a book about peace.”