Last night’s 71st National Book Awards were singularly unlike any of the seventy ceremonies that came before them. Typically a tony black-tie affair held in the sumptuous ballroom of Manhattan’s Cipriani Wall Street, this year’s awards, like so many other ceremonies thrown off-course by the pandemic, were broadcasted online, streamed on the National Book Foundation’s website and on YouTube. Some writers wore the evening’s characteristic dress of suits and gowns, while others Zoomed in from their bookshelf-adjacent perches wearing street clothes, visibly overcome. Yet one thing remained the same—the ceremony’s indelible commitment to the power of books, an inexhaustible source of magic in good times and in bad.
“This is our night,” urged Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and the evening’s upbeat host. “There’s a lot going on in the world, but it’s still our night, and it’s a big deal.”
First up on the evening’s slate of awards was the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, presented to Kacen Callender, the author of King and the Dragonflies, a vivid and elegiac young adult novel about a Louisiana boy grappling with grief, gayness, and Blackness.
“I know I’m not the only one who believes that these next generations are the ones that are meant to change everything,” Callender said, accepting the award. “Young people already have changed the world in so many ways, and it is an honor and a privilege to be given a platform and the opportunity to help in their guidance through the power of story.”
Next up, the National Book Award for Translated Literature went to Yu Miri, the author of Tokyo Ueno Station, and Morgan Giles, who translated the novel from the original Japanese into English. In the surreal Tokyo Ueno Station, a homeless ghost haunts Tokyo’s busiest train station, reflecting on the downtrodden life he lived and its intersections with Japanese history. Miri lamented that she could not hug or high five Giles, though in a touching moment, they high-fived across the barriers of screens and oceans. Miri added that she lives in the former exclusion zone of Minamisōma, a city just 16 miles from the north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that exploded in March 2011; at that time, Miri ran a bookstore.
“I would like to share this joy with the people of Minamisōma,” Miri said, noting how the region was later afflicted by a tsunami and an earthquake. “This is for you.”
The National Book Award for Poetry (the “piano of literature,” Reynolds said) went to poet and translator Don Mee Choi, honored for DMZ Colony. Stitched together from poems, prose, photographs, and sketches, DMZ Colony examines violence and injustice in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, employing translation as a device to break down borders.
“Poetry and translation have changed my life,” Choi said in her acceptance speech. “For me, they are inseparable… it is more important than ever that we engage in the non-predatory, idle labor of writing and reading poetry and translation.”
The National Book Award for Nonfiction went to Les Payne and Tamara Payne, the father and daughter team behind The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, the product of Les Payne’s nearly thirty-year quest to interview everyone he could locate who knew Malcolm X, from his family to his cellmates to the FBI agents who sought to stop him. Tamara Payne, who teamed up with her father to research the book and completed it after his death in 2018, gave an emotional acceptance speech, noting that she wished her father could be present for the “bittersweet” moment.
“Since beginning the journey to finishing The Dead Are Arising, we’ve seen how Malcolm X has influenced people internationally. Today, we see the youth all over the world continue to embrace him, because his message still rings true,” Payne said. “I want to thank my father, Les Payne, for committing to this enormous work and making it his life’s work, and for bringing me on as his copilot.”
Presenting the National Book Award for Fiction, the fiction jury chair Roxane Gay said, “We have a responsibility as writers to respond to this political moment. We have a responsibility to bear witness.” It’s fitting, then, that the National Book Award for Fiction went to Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu’s formally adventurous satire of Hollywood and Asian-American stereotypes. Written as a screenplay, Yu’s brain-bending, gut-busting novel centers on Willis Wu, who longs for Hollywood stardom and seeks to rise beyond racist roles like “Kung Fu Guy” and “Silent Henchman.”
“I have had goosebumps several times tonight,” Yu said. “There’s not many reasons for hope right now. But to be here, hearing about some of these books, having read some of them, going on to read more of them, it is what keeps me going. And I hope this community can sustain other people in the same way.”
Visibly shocked, Yu, also a writer for Westworld, added, “This seems about right for 2020. Pretty sure this is a simulation.”
After Yu received his award, the night wrapped with a surprise acoustic performance by John Darnielle, a member of The Mountain Goats and a judge on the Translated Literature panel. From his home in Durham, North Carolina, Darnielle performed a rendition of “This Year,” the band’s most popular song, singing, “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.”
Yet perhaps the most powerful message of the night came in the National Book Foundation’s determination not just to honor this year’s winners, but to hold the mirror up to its own historic practices of exclusion—and vow to do better. For the first time in the thirty-two year history of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the award went to a Black man: Walter Mosley, the versatile and distinguished author of The Devil in a Blue Dress and Down the River Unto the Sea, among other titles. The award was presented to Mosley by Edwidge Danticat, herself a National Book Award finalist, who said, “In spite of this year, its many challenges and horrors, we dare to celebrate the miraculous.”
Thanking scores of Black writers who rose to prominence alongside him, including Ralph Ellison and Ishmael Reed, Mosley spoke eloquently about the historical import of the honor.
“There’s a great weight hanging over the reception of an award when the underlying subject is ‘the first Black man to receive,'” Mosley said. “I prefer to believe that we are on the threshold of a new day, that this evening is but one of 10,000 steps being taken to recognize the potential of its nation.”
In a year marked by a nationwide reckoning on the subject of racial inequity, the Foundation looked inward, rigorously examining its past shortcomings in a short video package about the Black Lives Matter movement and its intersection with literature, narrated by last year’s ceremony host, literary advocate LeVar Burton. In the video, Burton reveals that just thirteen writers of color were awarded National Book Awards in the foundation’s first fifty years. The Foundation pledged its commitment to Black literature, while also making a solemn vow to open its doors to writers from all walks of life.
“We must pursue the goal of seeking out and honoring the voices of writers whose contributions to our culture have too often gone unrecognized,” Burton said. “There can be no excellence without those voices that have too often been excluded. Whatever excellence might have been achieved was, at best, compromised… there is no American literature without the voices of the disenfranchised, the undocumented, the marginalized, and the unheard.”
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