JOSHUA Cohen’s “The Netanyahus,” a comic and rigorous campus novel based on the true story of the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking a job in academia, has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Benzion Netanyahu, who died in 2012, was a medieval historian and ultra-nationalist who taught at several American schools, including the University of Denver and Cornell University. “The Netanyahus” is set around 1959-60 and centers on a Jewish historian at a university loosely based on Cornell who is asked to help decide whether to hire the visiting Israeli scholar. The novel, subtitled “An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family,” has been highly praised for its blend of wit and intellectual debate about Zionism and Jewish identity.
“It is an infuriating, frustrating, pretentious piece of work — and also absorbing, delightful, hilarious, breathtaking and the best and most relevant novel I’ve read in what feels like forever,” The New York Times’ Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote last June.
Many of the winners in the arts Monday were explorations of race and class, in the past and the present. Winners were also announced in several journalism categories.
James Ijames’ “Fat Ham,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” set at a Black family’s barbecue in the modern South, received the Pulitzer for drama. Raven Chacon, the first Native American composer to win a Pulitzer, was honored in the music category for “Voiceless Mass.”
The late artist Winfred Rembert won in biography for “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South,” as told to Erin I. Kelly. Rembert, who survived years in prison and a near-lynching in rural Georgia in the 1960s, died last year at age 75.
In an interview Monday, Kelly spoke of the book’s long and unexpected back story. She is a professor of philosophy at Tufts University and had come across his work several years ago while working on a different project, on criminal justice. She contacted Rembert, who was living in New Haven, Connecticut, and found him so compelling that she wanted to make sure his life was properly documented.
“He was both charismatic and down to earth,” she said. “He had an incredible grasp of language and an incredible visual memory.”
Rembert had been in poor health and died before “Chasing Me to My Grave” came out, although he did get to see an edited manuscript.
“We both felt a great sense of urgency to get the book done,” Kelly said.
Andrea Elliott’s “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City,” which builds upon her New York Times investigative series about a homeless Black girl from Brooklyn, received a Pulitzer for general nonfiction. Elliott’s book has already won the Gotham Prize for outstanding work about New York City.
Two prizes were awarded Monday in history: Nicole Eustace’s “Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America” and Ada Ferrer’s “Cuba: An American History,” which traces the centuries-long relationship between U.S. and its Southern neighbor.
Diane Seuss won in poetry for “frank: sonnets. Her collection, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Prize, draws in part on her roots in rural Michigan and features her fierce and lyrical reflections on gender, class and substance abuse among other subjects.
“My father died very young. My mom raised my sister and me. Young me came to poetry by instinct alone,” Seuss said Monday, also citing influences ranging from Frank O’Hara to Amy Winehouse. “I consider ‘frank: sonnets’ a collaborative effort — with the living and the dead.”
Chacon created “Voiceless Mass” specifically for the pipe organ at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, where it premiered in November 2021. Chacon is a composer, performer and installation artist from the Navajo Nation. His art work, currently on display at the Whitney Biennial, is inspired by those who gathered near the Standing Rock reservation in the Dakotas to protest an oil pipeline.
“This was my first time writing for a church organ and I wanted to make a statement about the space that this organ is housed in,” said Chacon, who is Diné, the Navajo word for “the people.” “I wanted to think about the church’s role in the forming of the country, particularly as it pertains to Indigenous people.”
His 2020 opera, “Sweet Land,” co-composed with Du Yun, was performed outdoors at the Los Angeles State Historic Park earned critical praise for its revisionist telling of American history using different narratives simultaneously. The opera was awarded best opera by the Music Critics Association of North America for 2021.
Chacon has been mentoring hundreds of Native high school composers in the writing of string quartets through the Native American Composer Apprenticeship Project since 2004.
Chacon told The Associated Press in an interview after learning of the Pulitzer win that he wants his work to stand as a reminder that Indigenous people are involved in chamber music and classical music.
“I am happy that this work was heard. I think overall chamber music is not something that can always be accessible to a broad audience,” Chacon said. “There’s an opportunity for anyone to listen to chamber music and I am happy I am able to contribute to that.”
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez congratulated Chacon, saying the artist exemplifies the tremendous potential of Navajos.
“His award showcases the talent, innovation and creativity of Indigenous people and shows our young people that anything is possible through hard work and prayer,” Nez said in a statement to the AP.
Chacon graduated from the University of New Mexico and the California Institute of the Arts and is scheduled to start a residency at the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage in Philadelphia in 2022.
His solo artworks have been displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian Institute’s American Art Museum and National Museum of the American Indian and many more.
Drama finalists included “Selling Kabul” by Sylvia Khoury and “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” by Kristina Wong.
The drama award, which includes a $15,000 prize, is “for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.” Ijames is a Philadelphia-based playwright and Wilma Theater co-artistic director whose “Fat Ham” production was streamed last summer.