At the 69th National Book Awards, held, as has become tradition, at Cipriani Wall Street in lower Manhattan this Wednesday night, it did not take long for the presenters to crack subtle jokes alluding to the cultural significance of the number of this year's awards, even as the political fervor underpinning the past few ceremonies remained. In fact, those jokes were cracked immediately, as comedian, actor, and author Nick Offerman, of Parks and Recreation fame, took to the stage as the evening's emcee.
"I should hope that I and you, the esteemed intellectuals gathered in this hallowed dining area, are here to celebrated not sins of the flesh, but those loftier accomplishments," he said, adding: "In an age when our First Amendment rights and truth itself are very much in peril, books remain the ultimate repository of creative ideas and irreplaceable knowledge. In our inexorable pursuit of freedom and human rights, books serve us as weapons and also as shields. They are, perhaps, the greatest creation of humankind—one that is living, and always growing. What can I say? They make me horny. I'm a fan."
Offerman then introduced Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly, who introduced this year's Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, v-p and program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "Doron Weber is a man of facts, but he is also a man who knows that facts alone are not enough to kindle the human imagination, that facts are not alone to provoke empathy." Stories, Shetterly added, wedded to facts, are the currency in which Weber trafficks—and for that, she said, "we thank you."
Weber, in accepting his award, noted that when he came to the Sloan Foundation, the foundation did not support the arts—but once he joined, they let him "put their money where my mouth was." He was especially proud, he said, of his ability to use Sloan funding to support women writers and writers from marginalized communities. He added: "I don't have to remind you that especially today we need to safeguard creative freedom for writers of every stripe... we must defend their rights, or lose them."
The second lifetime achievement award of the evening, the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters, was awarded to Chilean author Isabel Allende, the first Spanish–language author and second not born in the United States to receive the award, by the writer Luís Alberto Urrea. "In despotic times, she speaks of human hope, survival, connection, wonder, tragedy, and joy against all odds," Urrea said of Allende. He added: "If dictators like Chile's Pinochet could not silence these kinds of voices, could not silence words, then what Isabel does is a calling to us to be bolder," continuing: "This prize honors American writers, yes. Isabel is quite aware that America spans from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle."
Allende, in an emotional speech, accepted the award "on behalf of millions of people like myself who have come to this country in search of a new life," noting her status as a former political refugee in addition to an immigrant in the United States for more than 30 years. "I look Chilean, and I dream, cook, make love, and write in Spanish. Making love—it would feel ridiculous panting in English. My lover doesn't speak a word of Spanish."
Pivoting back to politics, Allende said: "This is a dark time, my friends. It is a time of war in many places and potential war everywhere. A time of nationalism and racism." She added: "I write to preserve memory against the ocean of oblivion, and to bring people together. I believe in the power of stories."
Following the presentation of the pre-announced awards, dinner was served, and shortly after National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas and chairman David Steinberger took to the mic to congratulate the finalists and lifetime achievement honorees, thank their sponsors, present a video on the community-focused nationwide initiatives of the Foundation, and introduce the awards portion of the evening. The duo also noted the newly revamped mission of the Foundation: "to celebrate the best literature in America, expand its audience, and ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture." That literature, they noted, includes a new category, literature in translation, presented for the first time this year.
Offerman then brought to the stage last year's winner of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Far from the Tree author Robin Benway, chair of this year's YPL category, who announced that Elizabeth Acevedo won this year's award in the category for The Poet X.
"I walk through the world with a chip on my shoulder," Acevedo said in her acceptance speech. "I go into so many spaces where I feel like I have to prove that I'm allowed to be in that space—as a child of immigrants, as a Black woman, as a Latina, as a person whose accent holds certain neighborhoods, whose body holds certain stories." She added: "Thank you so much to the readers who time and again remind me why I took this leap, why it matters, and why books matter."
Offerman then called Harold Augenbraum, former executive director of the National Book Foundation, up to the podium to award the brand new National Book Award in Translated Literature, where Augenbraum, chair of the category, introduced the new award in three languages: English, Spanish, and Indonesian. He then announced that Yoko Tawada won the inaugural National Book Award for Translated Literature for The Emissary, translated by Margaret Mitsutani.
Tawada could not be in New York for the awards, so a representative of the author, writer Monique Truong, read a note from the author: "I'm truly sorry not to be able to travel to New York for the National Book Awards," she said through Truong, as she had prior reading engagements in Japan and did not want to cancel them for fear of disappointing those who had already bought tickets, continuing: "I think it's great that the Translated Literature category for the National Book Awards has been resurrected." (There was, once, a National Book Award for "Translation," which was cut years ago.) "Translation," Tawada added through Truong, "gives a book wings to fly across national borders."
Poet Mary Jo Bang—"a fellow midwesterner," as Offerman called her, and chair of this year's jurors for the poetry category—then announced that Justin Phillip Reed won the National Book Award in Poetry for Indecency.
Reed, who accepted the award in honor of his grandfather, said: "I am standing here with ancestral hands on my shoulders still not knowing what to make of this epithet, 'winner of the National Book Award for Poetry.' As a poet, it is kind of my business to get hung up on words," he continued, adding: "What's next? I want to feel a fullness: to love the vast proliferation of voices and blurred countenances that have allowed me, and you with me, to have libraries...."
Annette Gordon-Reed, winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2008 and chair of this year's nonfiction judges panel, named Jeffrey C. Stewart the winner of this year's award in that category for The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.
"I have to say, it's unbelievable to me," Stewart said upon accepting the award, "that the scholars and readers chose this book, and that the National Book Foundation exists—especially in the times we live in, in which many people just don't read." He added that Locke never won such an award, but his own achievement, no lesser, was to "create a family" among writers, artists, and dancers, and to call them "a New Negro, for a New America."
Finally, Offerman invited Laila Lalami, author of The Moor's Account and chair of this year's fiction judges, to the stage to announce that Sigrid Nunez is this year's winner of the National Book Award in Fiction for her book The Friend.
"I became a writer not because I was seeking community, but rather because I thought it was something I could do alone, and hidden, in the privacy of my own room," Nunez said. "How lovely to realize that writing books made the miraculous possible: to be removed from the world and to be part of the world at the same time. And tonight," she added, "how happy I am to be part of the world."
Facts and Tidbits Behind This Year's Finalists and Winners
- Between the five categories, there were five writers who have been previously honored by the National Book Awards:
- M. T. Anderson, a 2002 YPL Finalist, 2006 YPL Winner, and 2015 YPL Longlister
- Rae Armantrout, a 2009 Poetry Finalist
- Lauren Groff, a 2015 Fiction Finalist
- Terrance Hayes, a 2010 Poetry Winner and 2015 Poetry Finalist
- Jhumpa Lahiri, a 2013 Fiction Finalist, who appears on this year’s list as a translator in the new Translated Literature category
- Five of the twenty-five finalists were debuts
- 18 of the 31 finalists (five Finalists per category, but with author and translator for Translated Literature and with one YPL title with two authors) were women
- None of the winners have ever been nominated for NBAs before
- No debut titles took home a prize
Facts courtesy National Book Foundation