Opinion: On the Colorado Book Awards' Ongoing Diversity Issues

Erika T. Wurth has been nominated for a Colorado Book Award.
Erika T. Wurth has been nominated for a Colorado Book Award.
Erika T. Wurth
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When news broke that Kali Fajardo-Anstine, who had been shortlisted for the National Book Awards for her short-story collection Sabrina & Corina, was not a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards in the short-story category, many in Colorado’s literary community expressed shock. How could a book with such clear artistic merit, one that had been nationally recognized, not even be long-listed in the author’s home state? That the finalists in the short-story category were all white only magnified frustrations.

The news brought up another round of criticisms that the finalists for the Colorado Book Awards have largely ignored writers of color, with such notable exceptions as Native American author Linda Hogan, who won the Colorado Book Award for The Book of Medicines in 1993 and Solar Storms in 1996. Adding to the controversy was the fact that Fajardo-Anstine’s short-story collection, Sabrina & Corina, takes place largely in the Denver area, where stories of the local Latinx community go too often untold.

Some argued the lack of diversity that tarnishes the publishing industry had once again sullied the Colorado Book Awards, despite attempts to address diversity. Those efforts, made by Colorado authors of color and the organizers at Colorado Humanities, were substantial: This past year, there was at least one person of color judging in every category, in an attempt to address past biases. But that risks being tokenism at best, and it doesn’t inherently create equity. And if further efforts aren’t made to continue to diversify the judging process, other gaffes will follow.

Unfortunately this year, the Colorado Book Awards' failure to recognize Sabrina & Corina has overshadowed the accomplishments of writers of color who, like me, are finalists.

As an Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee writer raised between Idaho Springs and Evergreen, I was ecstatic when I saw no fewer than three Colorado Native American writers nominated as finalists. In poetry, there is How to Dress a Fish, by Abigail Chabitnoy, from Wesleyan University Press. In juvenile literature, there is Spotted Tail, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, illustrated by Jim Yellowhawk and Pat Kinsella and published by Reycraft Books. And in literary fiction, there is my book, You Who Enter Here, put out by Excelsior Editions, State University of New York Press, Albany. If we count the illustrator of Weiden’s book, this count moves up to at least four. This is a historic first and shouldn’t be buried under shock that one high-profile artist of color didn’t make it as a finalist.

Historically, how minorities have been treated in publishing — and in general — has revolved around the “there-can-only-be-one” principle, in which only one author from any given demographic will be promoted to readers, in effect silencing the rest. As a result, Native Americans make up a pitiful percentage of publishing authors.

While the “there-can-only-be-one” phenomenon is finally breaking down for many ethnic and sexual minorities in publishing, it is much slower going for Native American authors. Most in the literary world have heard of Tommy Orange’s There There. But how about Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking, his novel about Native Americans in the social work system, which was shortlisted, just like Fajardo-Anstine’s, for the National Book Awards? Whenever I talk to book lovers — even from the Native world — they have only heard of Orange’s work. Even worse, some only know about Sherman Alexie.

All of this is why it’s important for Colorado’s literary community to acknowledge that having three Native American writers nominated for the Colorado Book Awards is historically significant. That recognition will have positive ramifications for the entire Native literary world. Regional awards like this signal globally that these authors have voices to listen to, and perhaps to nominate for larger awards. And awards — as author Fajardo-Anstine’s success shows — can be career-making.

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