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Russell Banks
Russell Banks at the 2011 Texas Book Festival.
Born March 28, 1940 (1940-03-28) (age 80)
Newton, Massachusetts, United States
Occupation Writer
Nationality American
Notable work(s) Continental Drift, Affliction, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter, The Darling
Spouse(s) Chase Twichell

Russell Banks (born March 28, 1940) is an American writer of fiction and poetry. As a novelist, Banks is best known for his "detailed accounts of domestic strife and the daily struggles of ordinary often-marginalized characters". His stories usually revolve around his own childhood experiences, and often reflect "moral themes and personal relationships".

Banks is a member of the International Parliament of Writers and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Biography

Russell Banks was born in Newton, Massachusetts on March 28, 1940 and grew up "in relative poverty". His father, Earl, deserted the family when Banks was aged 12. While he was awarded a scholarship to attend Colgate University, he dropped out six weeks into university and travelled south instead, with the "intention of joining Fidel Castro's insurgent army in Cuba, but wound up working in a department store in Lakeland, Florida". He married a sales clerk and they had a daughter.

According to an interview with The Independent, he started to write when he was living in Miami in the late 1950s, though an interview with The Paris Review dates this to Banks's subsequent spell living in Boston. He moved back to New England in 1964 and then to North Carolina, where he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, funded by the family of his second wife, Mary Gunst. In Chapel Hill, Banks was involved in Students for a Democratic Society and protest during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1976, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Banks divorced Mary Gunst in 1977 after 14 years of marriage. He was subsequently married to Kathy Walton, an editor at Harper & Row, for five years.

Banks now lives in Keene, upstate New York, though spends the winters in Miami. He was a New York State Author for 2004–2006. He is also Artist-in-Residence at the University of Maryland. He has taught creative writing at Princeton University. He is married to the poet Chase Twichell, his fourth wife. Banks has four daughters from his previous marriages.

Banks was the 1985 recipient of the John Dos Passos Prize for fiction. Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter were finalists for the 1986 and 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction respectively. Banks was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996.

Works and themes

His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous international prizes and awards. He has written fiction, and more recently, non-fiction, with Dreaming up America. His main works include the novels Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter, The Sweet Hereafter, and Affliction. The latter two novels were each made into feature films in 1997 (see The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction). Many of Banks's works reflect his working-class upbringing. His stories often show people facing tragedy and downturns in everyday life, expressing sadness and self-doubt, but also showing resilience and strength in the face of their difficulties. Banks has also written short stories, some of which appear in the collection The Angel on the Roof, as well as poetry. Banks has also lived in Jamaica. Interviewed in 1998 for The Paris Review, he stated that:

After living in Jamaica and writing The Book of Jamaica, I accepted that I was obliged, for example, to have African American friends. I was obliged to address deliberately the overlapping social and racial contexts of my life. I'm a white man in a white-dominated, racialized society; therefore, if I want to I can live my whole life in a racial fantasy. Most white Americans do just that. Because we can. In a color-defined society we are invited to think that white is not a color. We are invited to fantasize and we act accordingly.

The themes of Continental Drift (1985) include globalization and unrest in Haiti. His 2004 novel The Darling (novel) is largely set in Liberia and deals with the racial and political experience of the white American narrator.

Writing in the Journal of American Studies, Anthony Hutchison argues that, "[a]side from William Faulkner it is difficult to think of a white twentieth-century American writer who has negotiated the issue of race in as sustained, unflinching and intelligent a fashion as Russell Banks".

Critics

According to Robert Faggen in The Paris Review, Banks's debut novel, Family Life, "was not a critical success". His next volume, a collection of short stories called Searching for Survivors, won Banks an O. Henry Award. A second collection of short stories, The New World, published in 1978, "received acclaim for its blending of historical and semi-autobiographical material".

Many have admired Russell Banks' realistic writing, which often explores American social dilemmas and moral struggles. Reviewers have appreciated his portrayal of the working-class people struggling to overcome destructive relationships, poverty, drug abuse, and spiritual confusion. Scholars have variously compared Banks's fiction to the works of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus. Christine Benvenuto has commented that "Banks writes with an intensely focused empathy and a compassionate sense of humor that help to keep readers, if not his characters, afloat through the misadventures and outright tragedies of his books."

In 2011, The Guardian's Tom Cox selected Cloudsplitter as one of his "overlooked classics of American literature".

Awards and honors

  • 1985 John Dos Passos Prize
  • 1996 Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 2004-2006 New York State Author
  • 2012 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, shortlist, Lost Memory of Skin
Novels
Russell Banks talks about Lost Memory of Skin on Bookbits radio.
  • Family Life (1975)
  • Hamilton Stark (1978)
  • The Book of Jamaica (1980)
  • The Relation of My Imprisonment (1983)
  • Continental Drift (1985)
  • Affliction (1989)
  • The Sweet Hereafter (1991)
  • Rule of the Bone (1995)
  • Cloudsplitter (1998)
  • The Darling (2004)
  • The Reserve (2008)
  • Lost Memory of Skin (2011)
Story collections
  • Searching for Survivors (1975)
  • The New World (1978)
  • Trailerpark (1981)
  • Success Stories (1986)
  • The Angel on the Roof (2000)
  • A Permanent Member of the Family (2013)
Poetry
  • Waiting To Freeze (poetry) Waiting To Freeze (1969)
  • Snow (1974)
Nonfiction
  • Invisible Stranger (1998)
  • Dreaming Up America (2008)
  • Voyager (2016)

Literary links

Interviews


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