The National Book Awards returned in person for the first time since 2019 on November 16 at their usual location of Cipriani Wall Street in New York City’s financial district. Presiding over the evening’s award ceremony was author, producer, and television host Padma Lakshmi, who donned a button supporting the members of the HarperCollins Union, who were demonstrating outside the venue. Upon taking the stage, Lakshmi, a force in the culinary world, professed the parallels between gastronomy and literature.
“I believe that food, like books, can tell a story, by creating a sense memory, capturing a feeling, sharing our identities, and transporting us with the right combination of ingredients,” Lakshmi said. “I’m struck by the way books can also feed us, by sparking new ideas, exposing us to new people and culture, and expanding our understanding of the world.”
Lakshmi also, like many of the night’s speakers, condemned the book banning taking place in schools nationwide, and expressed staunch support for librarians. “Today in schools across the country, books like mine are under attack,” she said, denouncing the “massive censorship campaign” intent on “attacking children’s first amendment rights” and seeking to “restrict access to books.” She proudly declared herself “a product of the American public school system,” noting that, this year, 138 school districts in 32 states had been targeted by book bans.
Continuing Lakshmi’s pro-library rhetoric, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi took the stage to present the 2022 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community to American Library Association executive director Tracie D. Hall. Kendi recalled “the challenge that [Hall] issued to library professionals” in 2020, four months into her tenure at the ALA, to build a more diverse library workforce, establish universal digital access, and invest more money in libraries. She said, ‘Through these three priorities, let our legacy be justice.’”
Taking the stage to accept the honor, Hall hoisted the award overhead. “Tonight is a reflection of two groups of people who have lit a lifelong fire within me: people who long to read and people who fight for the right to read,” she said, acknowledging the wave of book banning surging in communities across the nation.
"Inevitably, when you tell someone you are a librarian they comment that you must really love to read. Surely loving reading is a prerequisite. But loving reading is not what makes you a librarian. What makes one a librarian is when you begin to truly understand that our democracy depends on people having the opportunity to think and write and read and share their stories openly," Hall said. "What makes one a librarian is that once you have witnessed the transformation that occurs when someone comes across a book or resource that truly flips on a switch in their lives and and changes their lives, after that, you want everyone to have that same opportunity and you are willing to fight for it."
Hall acknowledged “the irony” that at a time “when books and reading are being scrutinized, over 43 million adults in the U.S. cannot read above a third-grade level,” and concluded her speech with a resounding declaration that presaged the theme of the evening: “Let history show that librarians… were on the frontlines of upholding our democracy.”
Next, author Neil Gaiman presented the 2022 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Art Spiegelman, author of the frequently banned graphic novel Maus. Gaiman praised Spiegelman first as a friend (“he is in every way a mensch”) and then as a literary figure: Spiegelman’s work, Gaiman said, “changed the level of respect that comics got.” But what Gaiman admires most about Spiegelman is that “he’s a troublemaker—and he is still out there, making trouble,” he added, referring to the recent attempts to ban Maus.
The first comics artist to receive the medal, Spiegelman spoke highly of comics as a form. “I’m proud of my medium’s vulgar roots,” he said, “its ability to stir controversy, to provoke, and sometimes even make people laugh.” Speaking about Maus, which he said became a hit “against all odds,” Spiegelman declared that the book “was never made to teach anybody but me anything.”
After comments from National Book Foundation executive director Ruth Dickey and chairman of the board David Steinberger, the official award ceremony began, beginning with the award for young people’s literature. Lilliam Rivera, presenting on behalf of jury chair Jewell Parker Rhodes, announced All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir (Razorbill) as the winner. In a tearful speech, Tahir said she was proud to be the “first Muslim and Pakistani American woman to win this award in this category,” dedicating the win to her “Muslim sisters.” Awestruck, she said her win felt “like an impossible dream,” and thanked the immigrant parents, like her own, whose “dreams died so that the dreams of our generation could live.”
Prolific translator Ann Goldstein, who chaired the jury for translated literature, announced the category’s winner: Seven Empty Houses by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Riverhead). Schweblin, who hails from Argentina, promised that, as a short story writer, she would keep her speech short, and indeed did. McDowell added that she was “grateful to Samanta for continually demonstrating the power words have to invoke,” and said that “any act of communication is an act of translation.”
Poet Kwame Dawes, chair of the jury for poetry, announced the category winner was Punks: New & Selected Poems by John Keene (The Song Cave). Keene dedicated the award to “all the readers out there and the ancestors on whose shoulders I stand… particularly the black, gay, queer, and trans writers, especially those we lost to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.” He implored attendees to “support workers in the publishing industry and in every industry,” and to “support writers who speak up and face political censure and oppression.” Keene ended his speech by reading a few lines from “one of my favorite poets,” Robert Hayden.
Zyzzyva editor and nonfiction jury chair Oscar Villalon introduced the award for nonfiction, which went to South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry (Ecco). “I promise that I will continue to bear witness to the best of my ability,” Perry said in a poetic acceptance speech. “I write for my people… I write for the sinned against… I write for the ones that clean the toilets and till the soil and walk the picket lines.” She concluded her remarks saying, “We may rewrite in solitude, but we labor in solidarity.”
The final award of the night, for fiction, was presented by jury chair and author Ben Fountain, who recounted the many months and hundreds of books that went into the decision, before announcing the winner was The Rabbit Hutch, the debut novel by Tess Gunty (Knopf). Gunty thanked her fellow nominees for “putting their books into the world,” adding: “I truly believe that attention is the most sacred resource that we have to spend on this planet, and books are perhaps the last places where we spend this resource freely, and where it means the most.”