The 62nd National Book Awards were held at Cipriani's on Wall Street on Wednesday night, with the awards going to Thanhha Lai for Inside Out & Back Again (Young People's Literature), Nikky Finney for Head Off & Split (Poetry), Stephen Greenblatt for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Nonfiction), and Jesmyn Ward for Salvage the Bones (Fiction).
In accepting the Young People's award for Inside Out & Back Again, Lai gave a brief speech, saying, "This is more than I could ever have expected." Inside Out & Back Again, published by Harper, is about 10-year-old Ha, whose young life is changed when the Vietnam War comes to her home of Saigon; her family flees when Saigon falls, and starts a new life in Alabama.
In a big victory for university presses, Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split from TriQuarterly Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press, won for Poetry. Finney was tearful when she took the stage, delivering a stirring tribute to those who came before her and those who pushed her to become better, closing her remarks by saying, "I am officially speechless."
Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, published by W.W. Norton, is about the discovery of an ancient poem and how it fueled the Renaissance. Greenblatt thanked both the writer of the poem, Lucretius, and the book hunter who found it, Poggio Bracciolini. Said Greenblatt: "My book is about the power of books to cross boundaries, what the magic of the written word is and about the strangeness of a poem that was written 2,000 years ago."
In what could be considered an upset, Ward's Salvage the Bones, published by Bloomsbury, won for Fiction, the final award presented for the evening. Ward talked about her deceased brother in her speech, saying "my first stories were attempts to honor my brother," and that her "journey has just begun." Ward's book is about a looming hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, and the 12-day framework around it.
Mitchell Kaplan, the co-founder of the Miami Book Fair International and owner of Books & Books, received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. Kaplan received the award from Walter Mosley, author of over 35 books and an O. Henry Award recipient, who called him "the heart and soul of the Miami Book Fair." Kaplan thanked his parents, who taught him "very early on the value of a book." Kaplan opened his single-room bookstore 30 years ago in Miami, and he said that since then, "it's been just a blink." Closing his upbeat speech, Kaplan said: "I firmly believe there is room for plenty of optimism. Our challenge today is to figure out and solve the complex distribution issues. We need to reassert the role of the bookseller, and I have a real sense that this is beginning to happen."
John Ashbery received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The award was presented to him by Ann Lauterbach, author of eight books of poetry and a National Book Award finalist, who said that Ashbery has "given us an astonishing linguistic habitat." Ashbery thanked his editors, agent and his partner, David Kermani. His speech traced his poetry throughout the years, and he admitted that his early poetry "was in the grand tradition of being hard to understand." Now, however, "writing the poetry I write gives me a pleasure I can almost taste," he said. And though he conceded writing's difficulty, he said "somehow the difficulty is embedded in the pleasure."
The ceremony was hosted by John Lithgow. The panel chairs were Marc Aronson (Young People's Literature), Elizabeth Alexander (Poetry), Alice Kaplan (Nonfiction), and Deirdre McNamer (Fiction).