In a virtual ceremony on March 25, the National Book Critics Circle announced the winners in six categories for its annual awards honoring the best books of the previous publishing year. Books published by Harvard University Press won two of the awards, while books published by Big Five publishers won the remaining awards.
The winners in each category are as follows:
- Autobiography: Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (One World)
- Biography: Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley (Scribner)
- Criticism: Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Nicole Fleetwood (Harvard UP)
- Fiction: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf)
- Nonfiction: Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire by Tom Zoellner (Harvard UP)
- Poetry: Here Is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris (FSG)
In addition, Raven Leilani won the John Leonard Prize for a first book, judged by voting members of the NBCC, for her novel Luster (FSG). As previously announced, the $1,000 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing went to Jo Livingstone, a staff writer at the New Republic, and the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award went to the Feminist Press, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
During the ceremony, which was streamed online, authors were visibly moved and used the occasion to remark on recent events. In her acceptance speech for the John Leonard Prize, Leilani said that the award came after a year that surpassed her "wildest dreams," but also contained "insurmountable grief."
Jo Livingstone said that they found hope in other writers, as we appear to be "living through the end of the world." Jamia Wilson, former editor and publisher of Feminist Press—who moved to Random House in January—noted: "Research studies have shown the person most likely to read a book in any form today is a college-educated Black woman." She added that she was reminded of "how important it was to be doing this work today." This moment was followed with a montage of literary luminaries, including Molly Crabapple and Michelle Tea, honoring the press as Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" played.
Maggie O'Farrell dedicated her award to the late Knopf editor Sonny Mehta. francine j. harris, moved to tears by her win, cited the lasting influence and mentorship of previous generations of Black women poets, and noted the passing of poet Adam Zagajewski earlier this week.
The most intense moment came when Cathy Hong Park, visibly moved at winning, dedicated her award to the eight people murdered in Georgia last week. “This is for their families, and this is for all of the Asian women, the women in the sex industry, in the service industry, the migrant workers, the factory workers, the mothers and daughters who have come from homelands riven by empire, who have labored and struggled and died in the shadows of American history," she said. "Your hardship and spirit will not be in vain. We will remember you. We will fight for you. Your lives are not expendable. You will be remembered.”
David Varno, president of the board of the NBCC (and PW's fiction reviews editor), remarked: “This culmination of a year of reading was a joyous and deeply moving occasion, from the intimate readings by thirty of the finalists to the emotional and powerful acceptance speeches from the winners, all of whose work demonstrates literary excellence and cultural and political relevance."
This article has been updated with further information.