"This is our night," author Jason Reynolds, the host of the 71st National Book Awards, told his audience from his ceremony headquarters in Washington, D.C. "I know there's so much going on in the world, but this is still our night, and it's a big deal."
Indeed, the event was historic: the first-ever all-virtual National Book Awards, with a live-streamed broadcast free and open to all, and the fifth and final ceremony to be headed by executive director Lisa Lucas, who will leave the National Book Foundation in January for a new position as publisher at Pantheon and Schocken. Despite the challenges from both an impending change in leadership and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the NBF pulled out all the stops—from tribute videos to graphic animation to live award acceptances via Zoom—to ensure the event made as big a splash as ever, even at its uncharacteristically brisk pace.
First up during the evening were the lifetime achievement prizes, including the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, awarded to late Simon & Schuster publisher Carolyn Reidy. In a tribute video, Reidy's former authors and industry colleagues paid tribute to a world-class publisher.
"The first thing I thought of when we lost Carolyn Reidy was that she was a reader," author Rachel Kushner said. "She ran this huge company, she knew everybody in the publishing world, she knew intricately how it works. But she was a reader." Oren Teicher, the former head of the American Booksellers Association and the recipient of last year's Literarian Award, said: "I just can't imagine anybody more deserving than Carolyn Reidy to receive this recognition. The contributions she has made to the book business and more broadly to the literary landscape in America are just unparalleled." Author Walter Isaacson added that to his mind, "Carolyn's legacy is understanding how to move the publishing industry into each new age that comes along."
Stephen Reidy, Reidy's widower, was "tremendously honored" to accept the award on behalf of his late wife, "with whom I have been sharing books and reading since we were 19 years old, when we had our first conversation, and it was about a book." Reidy, he continued, "believed that authors and publishers, through the power of the words and the books, do not just reflect our culture, but help to create it." He added: "I think she was proudest of being a publisher because, as she said, 'in publishing, we are the shepherds of this gift of the book.'"
The evening's other lifetime achievement honor, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, was presented by author Edwidge Danticat to author and Publishing Certificate Program at the City College of New York cofounder Walter Mosley, making him the first Black man to ever receive the award. "It has been more than 30 years since I have embarked on the path that writing conjures out of almost nothing, a path wrought in the mind, a mind that is too small to contain the full scope of a project and has within it, like language itself, the full scope of experience of our species," Mosley said in accepting the award, after listing off dozens of Black men of letters—from Ralph Ellison to Randall Kenan—without whom, he said, he could not be here today. "There's a great weight hanging over the reception of an award when the underlying subject is 'the first Black man to receive,'" he 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."
Following Mosley's acceptance, the Foundation aired a video in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and narrated by last year's awards host, LeVar Burton. Through the video, the Foundation pledged its commitment to Black literature, and promised to be "a literary community as life-giving and rich and as varied as the stories we tell. A community of which we can all be proud. A community which unequivocally understands why Black lives matter, and that there is no American literature without the voices of the disenfranchised, the undocumented, the marginalized, and the unheard."
Lucas then joined the ceremony, which doubles as the Foundation's biggest yearly fundraiser, live from the children's room at the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. "One book, we know, can change a life, and these books, we also know, will impact the world for years to come—every single one of them," she said, noting that, despite this year's challenges, the Foundation has doubled down on its mission by, for instance, distributing more books to young people and the imprisoned than ever. Still, Lucas said, the Foundation can't keep up its mission without funding: "I'm just a girl standing here in a ball gown and a pair of crocs in a library asking you to love books with money."
Following a video showing the scope of the Foundation's work, David Steinberger, chair of the Foundation's board of directors, said his farewells to Lucas. "When I was thinking back this week about everything you accomplished, I just kept coming back to that day when you first told me that we might be able to get books to kids in some public housing authorities—you called them book deserts," he said. "The research is clear that if you do nothing more than just get books in the home of a child, that child's chances in life just got a whole lot better. And now here we are, just a few years later, and thousands and thousands and thousands of books have somehow made their way into the homes of thousands and thousands and thousands of kids. If that's not making a difference in the world, I don't know what is."
After showing live shots of some of the viewers on Zoom across the U.S., the broadcast turned to the awards portion of the evening. The awards announcements were held live—all but the award in Translated Literature, which was pre-recorded due to the variation in time zones among the authors and translators—with custom-made animations narrated by a handful of celebrities introducing the finalists and the chair of each judging panel announcing the winner. Winners were fed in live from "Zoom rooms," or virtual green rooms, to make their acceptance speeches.
First, Joan Trygg, chair of the Young People's Literature judging panel, announced that Kacen Callender was the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for King and the Dragonflies (Scholastic Press).
"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, upon 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, Dinaw Mengestu, chair of the Translated Literature panel, announced that the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature was Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri and translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles (Riverhead Books).
"I am so happy Morgan Giles translated Tokyo Ueno Station into English," Miri said. "It is a shame that we can't be together on stage right now. I'd like to give her a high five and a hug." Miri added that she lives in Minamisōma, a city only 16 miles north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant plant that exploded in March 2011, and in which she ran a bookstore at that time. "I would like to share this joy with the people of Minamisōma," she said, noting that they suffered from many hardships after the nuclear disaster, including the consequent tsunami and earthquake. "This is for you."
Then Layli Long Soldier, chair of the judging panel for Poetry—which Reynolds said he calls, with a somewhat cheeky reverence, "the piano of literature"—announced that DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi (Wave Books) was the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry.
"Poetry and translation have changed my life," Choi said upon accepting the award. "For me, they are inseparable. The International Women's Network Against Militarism have taught me to think critically about translation," she continued, noting that a handful of "wonderful small and independent presses have generously published my translations of Korean feminist poets and translation-related writings." She added: "It is more important than ever that we engage in the non-predatory, idle labor of writing and reading poetry and translation."
Following poetry, Terry Tempest Williams, chair of the Nonfiction judging panel, announced that the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction was The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne (Liveright)
"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," said Tamara Payne, accepting the award on her own behalf and on the behalf of her late father. "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."
Finally, Roxane Gay, chair of the Fiction judging panel, announced that the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction was Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (Pantheon).
"I prepared nothing, which tells you about how realistic I thought this was," Yu said. "I have had goosebumps several times tonight. 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." He added: "This seems about right for 2020. Pretty sure this is a simulation."
To close out the night, John Darnielle, the two-time novelist, lead singer of the band the Mountain Goats, and one of the judges from this year's Translated Literature panel, broadcast in from his home in Durham, N.C., with a rendition of "This Year," the group's most famous song—and one that likely resonated with viewers the world over. "I am gonna make it through this year," Darnielle sang, "if it kills me."