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Book News: Wanda Coleman, L.A.'s 'Unofficial Poet Laureate,' Dies

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • The poet Wanda Coleman, often called "the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles," died on Friday, her husband told the Los Angeles Times. She was 67. A finalist for the National Book Award and the author of a dozen poetry collections, Coleman was a believer in "the power of creative writing to change, heal and transform," and much of her writing dealt with social and political issues. In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, she lamented seeing "Black Los Angeles ... smothered slowly under the kudzu of a persistent and prolific racism." Coleman hoped that one day social change would make her work irrelevant. She wrote in a blog post, "In Y3K, I hope that the readers of my poetry will look back and find it dreadfully passé and that the emotional, social and oft political issues I confront are things of the savage past." She added, "To Hell and Damnation with timelessness. I want my poems to go out of date as fast as possible." Tom Lutz, the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books, wrote in an email to NPR, "Her performance of her own poetry was already legendary when I met her, almost a decade ago, but it was her improvisational oratory that really floored me, her ability to read her audience and speak to them, off the cuff, with power and humor and eloquence, to hit them, to make them, to a person, feel their culpability, to feel identified, to see themselves. And she could do this with compassion and rigor, fire wielded with a Zen calm. She was wise."
  • Daniel Mendelsohn writes on the echoes of Greek tragedy in the death of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963: "Athenian drama returns obsessively — as we do, every November 22nd — to the shocking and yet seemingly inevitable spectacle of the fallen king, of power and beauty and privilege violently laid low."
  • The winners of the American Book Awards, which honors "excellence in American literature without restriction or bias with regard to race, sex, creed, cultural origin, size of press or ad budget, or even genre," Louise Erdrich, Amanda Coplin and D. G. Nanouk Okpik. Unlike many other literary prizes, the American Book Awards doesn't offer a cash prize and doesn't rank the winners or split them into categories.
  • Juan Gabriel Vasquez tells The Washington Post's David Montgomery how he learned to write about Colombia, his home country: "I realized that the fact that I didn't understand my country was the best reason to write about it — that fiction, for me, is a way of asking questions. I think of it as the Joseph Conrad approach: You write because there's a dark corner, and you believe that fiction is a way to shed some light."
  • The Best Books Coming Out This Week:

  • Sun-mi Hwang'sThe Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly has already sold millions of copies in Hwang's native South Korea and worldwide. In the novel, a hen named Sprout wants to raise a chick, but all her eggs are taken from her as soon as she lays them. She decides she wants "to do something with her life" and escapes. Ostensibly a story for children, it has the plain language of a folktale but also its power of dark suggestion.
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.