Stanford lecturer Anthony Marra wins Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction

Anthony Marra

Novelist and Stanford lecturer ANTHONY MARRA has received an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Marra joins the ranks of past winners like NADINE GORDIMER, TONI MORRISON, WOLE SOYINKA and MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. in winning the only national juried prize for literature that recognizes works that confront racism and examine diversity.

While on a recent book tour in Germany, Marra received word from the jury’s chair, Harvard Professor HENRY LOUIS GATES JR., that Constellation received this year’s award in fiction.

“I was, to say the least, stunned,” Marra said of winning the award. “So many of the previous recipients are writers of artistic vision and moral urgency whose work has inspired and continues to inspire my own. I’m deeply humbled and grateful for this extraordinary honor.”

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, set in war-torn Chechnya, begins as Russian officers burn down a Muslim home and abduct the father but can’t find his daughter. A neighbor hides the 8-year-old girl in a barely functioning hospital. The story unfolds over five days, as the child is hunted and the protective adults around her try to navigate radically different circumstances.

While studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, Marra was drawn to the region of Chechnya initially because he knew so little about it.

“The more research I did,” said Marra, “the more I realized that the scant and often stereotypical images of Chechnya that have permeated American culture do little justice to the enormous complexity of the conflict there.” And when Marra discovered there were no novels in English about the recent Chechen wars – and the psychological, ethical and emotional tolls taken on the civilian population there – he decided to write a novel about it himself.

The novelist’s work has garnered much critical and popular acclaim over the past year. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena has been a New York Times Bestseller and a Washington Post Top 10 Book of the Year, and Marra recently received the 2013 National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, which recognizes an outstanding first book in any genre.

Marra finished Constellation during his first year as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in 2011 in Stanford’s Creative Writing Department.

“The support of the Creative Writing Program allowed me to devote myself entirely to [the novel] during that delicate final-draft phase,” said Marra, “and the feedback of my fellow Stegners and the faculty was invaluable.”

When asked if he began the book with the intention of examining race and diversity, Marra said,  “My only agenda was to write the kind of book I would want to read, and the kinds of books I most admire usually explore the moral conflicts that arise in the space between the individual and society, culture and history.”

The book’s enthusiastic reception has certainly surprised Marra: “I don’t think anyone would write a nonlinear novel set in Chechnya with the expectation it would be published, much less read and received so generously.”

In addition to the literary accolades, Marra’s book has also resonated with war survivors. Recently, a young woman from the Caucasus wrote to him to say that the book helped her deal with memories she’d long tried to ignore.

Connecting with a reader like that surprises and encourages Marra: “You realize your story has become a part of other people’s stories in ways you never could have imagined,” Marra said,  “It’s a remarkable thing.”

—TANU WAKEFIELD, The Humanities at Stanford