VOICES: Dayton’s continuing contribution to peace

Jim Brooks

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Jim Brooks

Dayton has served our country in times of war and has played a role in bringing about peace as well. The Dayton Peace Accords, signed on December 14, 1995, forged an agreement which brought an official end to a bloody civil war and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in eastern Europe. As recent articles in the Dayton Daily News would indicate, it is an uneasy, fragile peace that leaves the region wanting more from an ongoing process for all of its citizens.

In Dayton, there is an organization which continues that work toward peace and justice on an annual basis — The Dayton Literary Peace Prize Awards (DLPP). These awards are the brainchild of Sharon Rab, a retired Kettering Fairmont High School English teacher who had a vision for promoting peace and justice through the reading of great contemporary literature. Since 2006, DLPP has recognized outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction (a winner and runner-up in each category), along with a lifetime achievement award for one author’s body of work. Each year, the scope of the awards grows and reaches a broader audience both here and around the world.

This year’s winner for fiction is Scotland’s Alexander Starritt for We Germans, a novel written in the form of a letter from a German soldier to his grandson, explaining his life while fighting the Russians on the eastern front and the aftermath as a POW. Based on the remembrance of Starritt’s own grandfather, it spells out the savage barbarism that killed millions of Russians as well as the vast majority of German soldiers who died in World War II. Meissner, the main character, owns what he and the Germans have done. “I wear a mask of shame,” he writes to his grandson. “No matter what anyone says, it was me who held the rifle, and it always will be.” But a change of heart can and did occur: “Where there is hope, there may yet be virtue.”

The Road from Raqqa, by Jordan Ritter Conn, won the runner-up prize this year in non-fiction. It is about the Alkasems, two lawyer brothers from a small Syrian city. One pursued his dreams by leaving for California in 1990 and eventually starting a restaurant in Nashville. The other chose to stay in his beautiful ancestral city until the dangers his family faced became too much in 2016 due to the Syrian Civil War and the impact of ISIS. He and his family faced a harrowing escape through Turkey to Europe. According to New York Times reviewer Jessica Goudeau, “the book portrays Syria and the United States as multifaceted and complex, both capable of generosity and oppression, with histories as interconnected as the brothers’ own.”

This year the Distinguished Achievement Award, named for Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (who helped engineer the the Dayton Peace Accords), goes to Canadian Margaret Atwood, whose varied writings have engaged and instructed readers for decades about dystopian societies, human loves and fears, freedom and oppression. In response to the question “What does writing have to do with peace?” she said, “Writing as the placing of words on surfaces — not much. But fiction writing is different. If it presents its characters in the round — what they think, how they feel, who they love and fear — it’s impossible not to realize that those being read about are as real as those doing the reading. And if the characters are from other places and other cultures, it becomes less and less possible to dismiss such people as not like us and therefore not our fellow mortals.”

Even if you missed the award events in November, I encourage all who care about peace and want to promote the reading of great books on the subject to explore the DLPP website: daytonliterarypeaceprize.org. You will be carrying on a fine Dayton tradition.

Jim Brooks is a retired high school English teacher who writes, coaches tennis, and tutors immigrants.

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