The 2024 National Book Critics Circle Awards were presented on March 21 at the organization's second in-person ceremony since the pandemic began, once again held at the New School in New York City. The awards, which honor books published in 2023, are among the only literary honors in the country decided by working book critics, and are considered among the most prestigious and venerable in American letters. The NBCC, which was founded in 1974 at the Algonquin Hotel, comprises more than 600 critics and editors.

"We celebrate your imagination, your fearlessness, and your persistence," NBCC president Heather Scott Partington said in kicking off the evening's programming. "Your words are essential, particularly in this time of division and censorship."

The evening began with a celebration of the previously announced winners of two of the special awards administered each year by the National Book Critics Circle: Washington Post books critic Becca Rothfeld, who was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing; and former NBCC treasurer Marion Winik, recipient of the NBCC Service Award.

"At minimum, a review is a duet with the book under consideration," said Rothfeld in her acceptance speech. "Criticism, then, dramatizes what is always true but often hidden: it demonstrates by way of example not only that writing is social but also that reading is."

"Just as becoming a book critic turned my focus from my own writing to the work of my peers," said Winik as she accepted the award, "my involvement in the NBCC allowed me to participate in a national and even international conversation about literary culture and the culture of great books—which is honestly the only religion I have." In her speech, she also recounted the NBCC's near-implosion in 2020 and its efforts to reinvent itself in the years since.

Waiting to Be Arrested at Night: a Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide by Tahir Hamut Izgil, translated by Joshua L. Freeman (Penguin Press), won the John Leonard Prize for best debut. Committee chair Adam Dalva said that the judges found the "astonishing memoir" to be "both heartfelt and urgent, terrifying and illuminating," and "a clear-eyed, beautifully rendered detailing of the ongoing atrocities committed against the Uyghurs, from the most personal of perspectives. As one voter put it: it's a miracle that this book exists."

"Ever since the publication of this book on the political topic of the Chinese government's genocide against the Uyghur people, I have received any number of very moving and gratifying responses from readers," said Izgil, with Freeman interpreting. "And while that made me very happy, of course, as a poet it was always my hope that the literary aspect of my memoir would also be appreciated, and now with this John Leonard Prize that hope has come to fruition."

Tina Post received the criticism award for Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression (NYU Press), which committee chair J. Howard Rosier characterized as "a book that recontextualizes the act of withholding to taxonomize its origins and uses—specifically, the tact it assumes when intersecting with blackness."

Kim Hyesoon was awarded the poetry award for Phantom Pain Wings, translated by Don Mee Choi (New Directions), which committee chair Rebecca Morgan Frank said "presents a stunningly original and audacious work in which grief and interventions with patriarchy and war trauma are embodied in a capacious and visceral ventriloquism." New Directions editor Jeffrey Yang accepted the award on Hyesoon and Choi's behalf.

Safiya Sinclair took home the autobiography award for How to Say Babylon: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster), which committee member Jane Ciabattari called an "unforgettable and a shining example of why poets should write prose."

"I'm gagged," Sinclair joked as she took the stage. She went on to say, "For all the women who came before me, unknown and unsung, this is for you.... My work, my words, my voice is for you."

Two more previously announced special awards were presented next: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, which went to Judy Blume; and the Toni Morrison Achievement Award, which went to the American Library Association.

Blume accepted her Sandrof Award over Zoom. "I wish I could be there with you tonight but I'm at home in Key West, where I run a bookstore," she said. "I cannot thank you enough for this incredible award—it just means so very much to me. And I'm thrilled to know that you're also honoring ALA tonight, because every day I thank them for their tireless work in protecting our intellectual freedoms." She also thanked her parents, saying "the greatest gift they ever gave to me was the freedom to choose my own books."

ALA president Emily Drabinski took the stage to receive the Morrison Award. "I can't wait to have a drink," she joked, referencing the impending reception, "but mostly I wish I was reading a book." In her speech, Drabinski said, "This award honors library workers across the country—in institutions large and small, in big urban centers like this one, in small rural communities in Alabama—who make the American library as an institution the bulwark of inclusive democracy that it is."

The second annual Gregg Barrios Book in Translation Prize, which honors both author and translator, went to Maureen Freely’s translation of late author Tezer Özlü’s Cold Nights of Childhood (Transit Books), which committee chair Mandana Chaffa said "strikingly depicts the haunting interior life of an unsettled young woman seeking happiness and self-determination against the backdrop of a swiftly changing Turkish society."

"Most of all, I would like to thank the author, Tezer Özlü, for giving us—for leaving us—this book," Freely said in her acceptance speech. "Since its first publication in 1980, it has inspired two generations of Turkish women to step out of their gendered straitjackets and live by their own lights, embracing beauty where they find it. I hope this translation will inspire anglophone readers just as much for just as long."

Jonny Steinberg won the biography award for Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage (Knopf), which committee chair Elizabeth Taylor called a "deeply insightful, painstakingly researched" book that "unmasks the Mandelas, sliding past their public mythos, and the simpler romantic narrative they told each other, to reveal the emotional labyrinth beneath" and explore "two radically different approaches to apartheid."

Steinberg began his speech by honoring the late editor Dan Frank, who acquired the book at Knopf and died three weeks before Steinberg handed in a draft, in May 2021. John Freeman later became the book's editor. "I want to bring his spirit here," Steinberg said of Frank. "I am so very grateful to him, as are many other authors." He added, "I rediscovered my country, South Africa, through writing this book."

Next, Roxanna Asgarian received the nonfiction award for We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Committee chair Jo Livingstone described We Were Once a Family as “a meticulous, harrowing, and deeply empathetic investigation into the murder-suicide of six children and their adoptive parents.”

Finally, Lorrie Moore was awarded the fiction award for I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home (Knopf), which committee chair David Varno, who is also PW's fiction reviews editor, called "a heartbreaking and hilarious ghost story" and "an unforgettable achievement from a landmark American author."

"I've never won a book award before!" Moore said when she took the stage. "I know it's very hard to be a judge, I know it's very hard to be a critic, I know it's very hard to be in a circle," she joked, referencing the members of the NBCC, "so I'm so very, very grateful to you and all the hard work that you did."

The 2023 National Book Critics Circle Award Winners

Autobiography: How to Say Babylon: A Memoir by Safiya Sinclair (Simon & Schuster)

Biography: Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage by Jonny Steinberg (Knopf)

Criticism: Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression by Tina Post (NYU Press)

Fiction: I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore (Knopf)

Nonfiction: We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America by Roxanna Asgarian (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Poetry: Phantom Pain Wings by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi (New Directions)

Translation: Cold Nights of Childhood by Tezer Özlü, translated by Maureen Freely (Transit Books

Debut: Waiting to Be Arrested at Night: A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide by Tahir Hamut Izgil, translated by Joshua L. Freeman