Bookshelf: Molly Brodak, Pearl Cleage honored with Lifetime Achievement Award

Atlanta poet and memoirist Molly Brodak was recognized by the Georgia Writers Association with the Georgia Author of the Year's Posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award.
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Atlanta poet and memoirist Molly Brodak was recognized by the Georgia Writers Association with the Georgia Author of the Year's Posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award.

John Lewis Writing Award announced during Georgia Author of the Year Award presentation.

Molly Brodak was a poet of delicate, beguiling verse published by Granta, Guernica and Poetry magazine. Her book “A Little Middle of the Night” won the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2009. Her book “The Cipher” won the 2019 Pleiades Press Editors Prize. She also taught creative writing, composition and poetry classes at several schools, including Kennesaw State University, Savannah College of Art and Design and Georgia College and State University. And she was an accomplished baker, who competed on “The Great American Baking Show.”

Pearl Cleage is a playwright, a novelist and a poet who tells hyperreal stories, both contemporary and historic, about Black women and their communities. Themes of racism, sexism and domestic violence are common threads throughout much of her work. Georgia’s first poet laureate and the playwright in residence at Alliance Theatre, Cleage is also a teacher, a performance artist and a contributing writer to Essence magazine.

Pearl Cleage, C '70, author and playwright.
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Pearl Cleage, C '70, author and playwright.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

On June 12, Brodak and Cleage both received the highest literary honor bestowed by the Georgia Writers Association during the online presentation of the 57th annual Georgia Author of Year Award (GAYA). Cleage received the annual Lifetime Achievement Award, and Brodak received the annual Posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award. The poet ended her life last year at age 39.

Both writers were lauded with video tributes by fellow writers. Poet Caroline Crew, winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Prize for Nonfiction for her upcoming essay collection “Other Girls to Burn,” read excerpts of Brodak’s poems and described them as iridescent and disarming.

“Brodak’s work stuns and haunts her readers,” says Jenny Sadre-Orafai, executive director of the Georgia Writers Association. “(She was) a champion of her fellow poets and writers and a generous professor and mentor. We know that her writing will endure.”

Novelist Tayari Jones, who won the 2019 Women’s Prize for “An American Marriage,” honored her former Spelman College professor, Cleage. “All of her work celebrates our communities, but she never coddles. She is critical, without rancor or self-righteousness,” says Jones. “She is a treasure. A gem. A brilliant gleaming Pearl.”

Sadre-Orafai describes Cleage as “a pillar of Atlanta for over 40 years … Her reach is far, and she unflinchingly and honestly tackles important issues in her work. She is, without a doubt, a vital voice in Georgia.”

Cleage and Brodak share more in common than a Lifetime Achievement Award from GAYA. They were both Atlanta transplants with roots in Detroit. And they have both written riveting memoirs.

In “Things I Should Have Told My Daughter,” Cleage provides a gutsy, unvarnished account of what it was like to be a Black woman finding her voice as an artist and an activist in Atlanta during the ’70s and ’80s. It is a vividly recounted slice of history told from the perspective of an emerging feminist.

In “Bandit,” Brodak tells the story of a chaotic childhood growing up with a father who was a compulsive gambler, a con man and a bank robber. The content is raw and disturbing, but the writing is poetic and contemplative. Just thinking about these books makes me want to go back and read them again. They are both that good.

The GAYA honors are well deserved. Kudos to the Georgia Writers Association for recognizing two such important writers. And congratulations to the rest of the 57th annual Georgia Author of the Year Award winners. They are:

Children’s Book: Malcolm Mitchell, illustrations by Michael Robertson, for “My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World”

Detective / mystery: Kimberly Belle for “Stranger in the Lake”

First novel: Ginger Eager for “The Nature of Remains”

History: Claudio Saunt for “Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory”

Inspirational: Kaitlin B. Curtice for “Native: Identity, Belonging and Rediscovering God”

Literary Fiction: Taylor Brown for “Pride of Eden”

Memoir: Natasha Trethewey for “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir”

Poetry, full-length book: Carlos Andrés Gómez for “Fractures”

Romance: Colleen Oakley for “You Were There Too”

Specialty: Stephen Doster, photographs by Benjamin Galland, for “Cumberland Island: Footsteps in Time”

Young adult: Nic Stone for “Dear Justyce”

The awards presentation began with the announcement of a new annual John Lewis Writing Award created to “elevate, encourage and inspire the voices of Black writers in Georgia,” said Valerie Smith, president of the Georgia Writers Association. The award consists of three prizes given for fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Competition is open to emerging Black writers who are residents of Georgia or full-time students in a Georgia college or university. Submissions open Aug. 1.

For details about the John Lewis Writing Award, the 57th annual Georgia Author of the Year Award and to watch a video of the awards presentation, go to www.authoroftheyear.org.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. svanatten@ajc.com.