And the Pulitzer Prize goes to…

A look back at our visits from 2017 winners Matthew Desmond and Heather Ann Thompson

Heather Ann Thompson discusses Blood in the Water, Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for History

One of our favorite things about hosting events here at Literati is the opportunity to hear from authors early in their careers, or their tours, or just in the midst of whatever incredible journeys their books might take them on. When they visited us last year, we didn’t know that two of these authors would go on to win Pulitzer Prizes, but we did know that the conversations they brought to our community — about eviction and poverty, about criminal justice and prison reform — felt absolutely vital. They still do — and, earlier this week, the Pulitzer committee agreed. Matthew Desmond won the 2017 prize for general nonfiction, and Heather Ann Thompson won for the best work of history. We’re thrilled that these incredible books — and their brilliant, passionate, generous authors — have received such recognition, and we wanted to take the opportunity to look back at their visits…

MacArthur Award-winning sociologist Matthew Desmond visited Literati in March of 2016, on tour in support of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Our event coordinator Mairead Small Staid introduced the book as follows:

The titular American city explored in Evicted is Milwaukee; it might have been any number of others. The people whose lives are chronicled are Arleen, Scott, Lamar, Vanetta, Larraine, Patrice, Natasha, and Pam; there are millions like them whose stories might have been told. But the power of this book lies, despite the horrifically widespread nature of its subject, in the specifics Matt has chosen: this place, these people. The story of eviction in America at this moment in time is, like so many stories, pluralistic and manifold, a complicated web of cause and effect. To generalize does the story — and its characters — a disservice. So the only way in is through the particulars, the individual humans who are the reason for the writing, and the reading, and the urgent necessity of Evicted.
Those individuals are brought to life in these pages — a strange thing to say about real, living people, I know. But I was struck by a phrase Matt used in the book’s afterword, when he defined a sociological term as a measure of “the texture of scarcity” — texture, as in something not only seen but felt. Eviction — its happening, its aftermath, the way it overwhelms a life, distracting and devouring too many hours of the day, the way it causes poverty, loss, instability, depression, distrust, violence, and suicide — is felt in these pages.
Perhaps Evicted couldn’t exist any other way. “To me,” Matt writes, “ethnography is what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible… until you begin to move like they move, talk like they talk, think like they think, and feel something like they feel.” I love the nod of that something, the acknowledgment that we can never truly slip inside another’s skin — but we can try. We can try a hell of a lot harder than we have, certainly, as the housing crisis in this country has reached unprecedented heights, as eviction has become routine, particularly for mothers and their children, and as the word “exploitation,” Matt reminds us, “has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate.” We can try. Evicted is an invitation to do just that.

We celebrated the release of Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy with a hometown reading (Heather grew up in Detroit and teaches at the University of Michigan) in September. Here’s part of Mairead’s introduction:

Each of the glowing reviews Blood in the Water has received — and they are many, let me tell you — each mentions the timeliness of this book, the way this work of historical scholarship feels meant for our present moment. The prison conditions Heather chronicles in meticulous detail, the fears of prison and government officials that fracture attempts at negotiation, the conflicted and conflicting narratives that rush in to fill the space left behind by death — all of these things feel familiar, as if they were pulled from the daily headlines and not painstakingly reconstructed by this brilliant historian over the course of a decade, not the terrible fragments of an event that took place forty-five years ago. We wish this weren’t so. We wish this book felt less familiar.
But it doesn’t: it feels like — and is — a story that still needs to be told. The story of Attica and its aftermath had never, before Blood in the Water, been written as thoroughly, as honestly, as intelligently; the larger story of which Attica is a part — the story of racism, incarceration, struggle, and justice in the United States of America — is, of course, still being written. I, for one, am very grateful that Heather Ann Thompson is contributing her words to both of these stories. We are lucky to have her — working in this arena, brilliant in these pages, and speaking in this store tonight.

Heather Ann Thompson will speak as part of the Midwest Literary Walk in downtown Chelsea, Michigan on Saturday, April 29th at 2:30pm.

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