With the Nobel Peace Prize being announced last week, this seems like a good time to talk about this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prize. The Dayton Literary Peace Prize, in honor of the Dayton Accords which ended the Bonsian War, recognizes books which give readers “a better understanding of other cultures, peoples, religions, and political points of view”.
Like last year, I decided to focus primarily on the finalists for the non-fiction prize. (The list of fiction finalists can be found here.)
Here on the Edge by Steve McQuiddy- I checked this out of the library and read a few chapters. It’s about work camps for conscientious objectors during WWII. I actually hadn’t realized that these work camps existed, so it was interesting to learn a bit about them. This book focuses on one particular camp and specifically on art and culture developed withing that camp. I decided to focus more on reading some of the other finalists because it just seemed more narrowly focused than I was interested in. On the other hand, last year’s non-fiction runner-up, The Devil in the Grove, focused on a single case of Thurgood Marshall’s and that was a truly amazing book. So maybe I’m missing out by not reading more of this one.
Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler- I had expected this to be a more general book about problems and improvements in how we deal with death in the modern world. So I was a bit disappointed at first to realize that it’s much more of a memoir of Katy Butler’s experiences with the process of her parents aging and dying. But it really was a powerful work that made me think a lot (and made me feel rather depressed). She really highlights how hard it is to avoid medical interventions that will extend someone’s life even when their quality of life is extremely low. I sometimes felt that her experiences have swung her too far into the non-interventionist camp, but I could always understand where she was coming from and reading her experiences really opened my eyes. Ever since finishing it, I feel like I’m seeing articles on this topic everywhere. And it turns out that Atul Gawande has just published a book called “Being Mortal”, that looks like it is more or less the book I was expecting to read when I picked up this one. I really like Gawande’s writing, so I’m looking forward to reading it.
Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward- I feel guilty about it, but I just didn’t like this book. Jesmyn Ward writes about five young men in her life, including her brother, who died within a few years of each other. The story of her life growing up as an African-American in rural Mississippi is intertwined with the stories of their deaths. The book highlights a really important reality that all too often is ignored. But more than a third of the book consists of the author and her friends and family going out partying one night after another, getting drunk and using drugs. I have a pretty low threshold of irritation for drug and alcohol stories, so other people might not be bothered by this as much as me, but I found it tiresome pretty quickly, even though I was trying to be more empathetic.
Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel- I didn’t read this one. It’s about Iraq veterans trying to reintegrate into American society.
Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of
Catastrophe by Jo Roberts- I didn’t read this one either. Seems like I missed out!
Your Fatwa Does not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim
Fundamentalism by Karima Bennoune- I was glad to see this book win. It was the one I was rooting for! Karima Bennoune is a human rights lawyer who grew up in Algeria. To write this book, she traveled the world and met with people of Muslim origin who fight fundamentalism. Of course, Malala Yousafzai, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize, is probably the most famous example of this in the world right now. She’s hardly the only one though and this book tells many more people’s stories.
Actually, I think the book’s main flaw is that it tries to tell too many stories. No one gets more than a few pages. I think the would have been more engaging if Bennoune had picked a few examples to focus more on. I think she wanted all of these people to be heard and couldn’t bear to leave anyone out. I think she also wanted to convey a sense of abundance. That it isn’t just a few people who stand up to fundamentalism, there are many. And it is these people who bear the brunt of fundamentalist violence- from the reporters who insist on telling the story to artists who keep performing to women who refuse to be kept at home.
Bennoune is opinionated and provocative, but at the same time, a very careful writer. I’ve used the words Muslim and fundamentalism without specifying what I mean, but she defines her terms very carefully. She herself is non-religious, but she includes the perspective of both the religious and the non-religious. She strongly rejects the argument that women’s veiling themselves is a choice or simply a matter of cultural differences and criticizes international human rights organizations (she used to work for Amnesty International) for being focused on government abuses of human rights more than . Also, I now feel embarrassed for my naivety and ignorance when I wrote about women in Algeria.
Other posts on the Dayton Literary Peace Prize: