One of the best highlights of this year’s trip to ALA Annual was undoubtedly the Alex Award ceremony on Sunday, June 26th. A small group of dedicated individuals, including current and former committee members, made their way to the South Conference Center to listen to 2016 Chair Angela Craig deliver a brief presentation on the top ten award-winners and the vetted titles and hear the acceptance speech of special guest Ryan Gattis, author of All Involved (2016 Alex Award Winner).
In the wake of the acquittals over Rodney King’s beating at the hands of a few members in the Los Angeles Police Department, much of the Los Angeles metropolitan area experienced riots, lootings, arson, and violence including murders. Just six days of lawlessness resulted in:
- eleven thousand fires
- just under eleven thousand arrests
- over two thousand people injured
- more than $1 billion in property damages
- approximately sixty deaths.
During these six days, Gattis set his novel and chose various characters taken from real interviews with those who experienced the riots, bringing to life the different realities during this turbulent period. Gang members, a firefighter, a nurse, a dreamer, an artist, a homeless man, and others give unique testimonies to all sides of the 1992 violence and show the complexities of survival, vengeance, desperation, and loss.
For more information about the history of the period, see www.lariotsallinvolved.com.
During Ryan’s acceptance speech, he described his own history with violence and how it created an author:
“I was seventeen when my nose was torn out of my face. Seventeen, when I had two facial reconstructive surgeries to fix it. I was eighteen when my senses of smell and taste returned. Before, I was on track to apply to the US Air Force Academy, and after, all I wanted to be was a storyteller.
Suffering violence, enduring it and not allowing it to determine everything about me has made me who I am today. And that is a very difficult thing to say, but an important thing.”
Winning an Alex has brought about some powerful results for Gattis, who shortly after the award, was asked to speak at Marco Antonio Firebaugh High School in Lynwood in South Central Los Angeles, an area described: “as inextricable from Compton as Long Beach Boulevard, sharing all of its violence and troubles but none of its notoriety”. They had not known he had won an Alex, but afterwards, were more enthused at the news. Upon his visit, in an area where “South Central Los Angeles is an island unto itself [and] the cities within it are locked off from the LA tax base and school system and must fend for themselves,” Ryan and his publishers (Ecco, HarperCollins, Picador and Macmillan in the UK, and Writers House in New York) were able to donate 150 books to students and over 100 to the library, including 2016 Alex Award titles. He found that the high school students knew very little of the Rodney King riots because “the generation before them had made an unspoken pact not to raise their children as they had been raised”. This discovery was “incredibly moving” and “filled [me] with hope for Lynwood and its future”. He shared with attendees a few photos and described his experience:
“Their students are young and excited and so eager to learn but they don’t read. They don’t read enough. So all I did when I went in there was talk about what reading means to me and how it changed my life. Especially the year of my life where I was basically a hermit trying to recover from my surgeries and…and my injury…”
Soon after this visit, he describes how he was invited to Lynwood Middle School and visited immediately after a second 8th grader was killed due to gang violence, an 8th grader whose “body had been discovered in a parked car at the end of an alley”.
He notes: “Standing in front of a room full of young teenagers who know the cost of violence, who are dealing with its monstrous grief, at that very moment being asked to comfort them, to inspire them, is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And yet…nowhere was it more important to say that reading helps us learn the consequences of behavior without having to suffer them ourselves. I remain in awe of the decision that the Alex committee have, not least because its incredible foresight forced me to see my work more clearly but it also pushed me to refocus my efforts to make certain that I reach an entirely new generation in Lynwood, and I do whatever I can to inspire them to be writers to tell their own stories to the world.” Continue reading ALA Annual 2016: Alex Award Recap with Ryan Gattis