Raqqa Road, by Jordan Ritter Conn, won second prize this year in non-fiction. They are the Alkasems, two brother lawyers from a small Syrian town. One of them pursued his dreams by moving to California in 1990 and eventually opened a restaurant in Nashville. The other chose to stay in his beautiful ancestral city until the dangers facing his family became too great in 2016 due to the Syrian civil war and the impact of ISIS. He and his family faced a painful escape through Turkey to Europe. According to New York Times Criticizes Jessica Goudeau, “the book portrays Syria and the United States as multifaceted and complex, both capable of generosity and oppression, with stories as interconnected as those of the brothers.”
This year’s Distinguished Achievement Award, named in honor of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (who helped craft the Dayton Peace Accords), is presented to Canadian Margaret Atwood, whose varied writings have engaged and educated readers for decades on dystopian societies, human loves and fears, freedom and oppression. In response to the question “What does writing have to do with peace?” She said, “Writing like placing words on surfaces – not much.” But writing fiction is different. If he presents his characters in circles – what they think, what they feel, who they love and fear – it’s impossible not to realize that those you read about are as real as those who read. And if the characters come from other places and other cultures, it becomes less and less possible to reject such people as unlike us and therefore not our mortal companions.