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Writing to be a part of the conversation

WLP associate professor tapped for National Book Awards panel

by Brittany Gervais / Beacon Staff • April 11, 2013

Jabari Asim was chosen to be a judge on the non-fiction panel of the National Book Awards.
Jabari Asim was chosen to be a judge on the non-fiction panel of the National Book Awards.

Every Sunday morning for the last 30 years, Jabari Asim, an associate professor of writing, literature and publishing, has gone out to the nearest newsstand with his wife Liana Asim and children to pick up a physical copy of The New York Times.

“It’s an old habit. We probably could have it delivered to the door, but it’s the process of getting up, going to get some muffins, a cup of coffee, and a copy of The New York Times,” said Liana Asim. “[Jabari] divides up the sections among the kids and they talk about and discuss what’s going on.”

Whether with his family or with a national readership, Jabari Asim, 50, has always wanted to be a part of the conversation.

He is the editor-in-chief of The Crisis Magazine, the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the author of 11 published works that range from non-fiction to children’s books. He has also edited and contributed book reviews to newspapers across the country.

This year, Asim’s work captured the attention of the National Book Foundation. The non-profit reading and literacy organization runs the National Book Awards, a set of annual U.S. literary prizes. The foundation asked Asim to be a judge on the non-fiction panel for the awards. He said he was happy to hear someone from the organization was paying attention to his work.

“What I found gratifying is my books have a longer shelf life than I originally envisioned. It’s always good to know someone else is reading, besides your mother,” Asim joked.

One such “someone” turned out to be Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation. He said he has known Asim for the last 15 years since first meeting him through a music and literature program. Augenbraum said ever since, he’s been following Asim’s career.

“I don’t do that with everyone, but I did that with Jabari because I found him really impressive,” he said. “As time went on, it became more and more apparent that he would make a great judge.”

Out of 750 possible candidates, Augenbraum said he chose Asim to be on the non-fiction panel along with four other judges because he admired the way Asim was able to convey the complex and difficult issue of race in America to the general public.

“He took a very thoughtful and considerate approach in his writing,” Augenbraum said. “He’s not the type of person who would let his ego get in the way of his discussions.”

Asim’s discussions on race have gotten him attention in the past: He has appeared on NPR and The Colbert Report to talk about his two most popular publications, The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why, and his most recent non-fiction work, What Obama Means.

The latter, published in 2009, is an examination of how developments in America and popular culture led to the possibility of a black president.

Looking at political and racial attitudes of younger Americans, Asim said he noticed the younger generation was not as racially occupied as his generation was.

“There were people who could actually say they weren’t voting for Obama based on his policies, not because he has brown skin,” he said.

What Obama Means echoes a similar technique Asim used to discuss the country’s racial history in his most popular and most controversial book, The N Word (2007).

The book is an analysis of where the word came from, what it means, and why it’s such an offensive word. He said he also tried to analyze whether or not there are situations where it’s actually acceptable.

Asim said one of the reasons why he writes so frequently is because he wants to be read.

“I enjoy writing, I can’t imagine a life without writing, but I’m not uncomfortable saying I write to be read,” he said. “I hope to be a part of a conversation with readers. I hope to be a part of the national and global discussion going on about things that I write about.”

Augenbraum said Asim and his fellow judges will begin receiving books in April. The process of narrowing down the choices continues for several months, until the winner is finally revealed to the public Nov. 20. Because of Asim’s prior experience writing book reviews for newspapers, Augenbraum said taking on 400 to 500 non-fiction books as a judge for the National Book Awards would be no problem for Asim to handle.

“He’s a professional. No doubt he will have a very astute way of approaching that many books,” he said.

Liana Asim, 47, said she does think her husband gets stressed sometimes, but at the end of the day he loves what he does.

“Part of it is tiring, so I make sure he eats right and he takes his vitamins and he gets a good night sleep,” she said. “But the challenges help keep him motivated and give him new and fresh ideas.”

As for future plans, Asim said he is currently writing a musical with his wife and workshopping it with Melia Bensussen, professor and chair of Emerson’s performing arts department.

Called Wiley and the Hairy Scary, Asim said the show is based off an old African American folktale.

“Our goal is to get it on Broadway, but right now we’re going to sit down and go through it line by line until we’ve got something that will live on the stage and not just on the page,” he said.

At first workshop, he said he wants to get the musical on the Emerson stage sooner rather than later. Asim and his wife are also working with Emerson student performers in April, asking them to read aloud certain parts.

Asim said being a disciplined writer helps him jump from genre to genre. First, he said he absorbs the topic he wants to explore, then he decides what form is best for telling the story.

“As a writer, I think my imagination is big enough to encompass those sorts of styles. I write to be read, but I also write what I like to read. And I like to read in all those different categories,” he said.

There are infinite possibilities of unexplored topics to write about, Asim said. And as a professor, he said he wants to teach his students to be creative.

“Students struggle with finding something to write, but you can write about anything,” Asim said. “The more difficult and pressing question is what not to write about.”