Ahead of this year's National Book Awards ceremony, publisher Zibby Media has withdrawn its sponsorship of the event after learning that some authors were planning to use the awards ceremony to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. In a Substack post, Owens, who said that she will not attend the ceremony, cited the potential for "hate speech," "anti-semitic comments," and "a bullying atmosphere" in explaining her decision to withdraw.
"There’s nothing I want more than to celebrate the accomplishments of talented authors like this year’s [finalists]," Owens wrote in a message to National Book Foundation executive director Ruth Dickey, which she shared in the post. (Zibby Media did not publish any of this year's NBA finalists.) “But I can’t do so in an environment that values 'not censoring' authors more than preventing what seems likely—given the collusion of many authors already—[to be] a prejudiced, activist environment that intends to use the platform of the book awards to perpetuate activism against a group based on race or religion.”
According to the New York Times, one other sponsor, Book of the Month, has also decided not to attend. The organization reportedly remains a sponsor.
On Tuesday morning, the National Book Foundation sent a message to sponsors and ticket holders informing them of the absentee sponsors and the possibility of political speech during the ceremony.
"There might be political statements made by some of this year's yet-to-be-determined winners during their acceptance speeches," wrote NBF executive director Ruth Dickey. "This is by no means unprecedented in the history of the National Book Awards, or indeed any awards ceremony, but given the extraordinarily painful moment we are in, we felt it best to reach out in case you have any questions or concerns."
Fiction prize finalist and Temple Folk author Aaliyah Bilal confirmed to the Times that she and several other NBA finalists planned to take the stage at the end of Wednesday's ceremony, with one person reading a prepared statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. “I don’t want to look back on this time...and say that I was silent while people were suffering," Bilal told the Times, adding that it was "very important" to the writers that the statement would also be "sensitive to all of the antisemitism going on in this moment."
In a statement to PW, the NBF affirmed its support of authors, further acknowledging the long history of NBA winners expressing political views during past ceremonies and noting that it was working with the venue to “ensure a safe environment” for all attendees at the ceremony.
“Over the years, these speeches have been poignant, funny, moving, at times political, and even, occasionally, controversial," the NBF statement observes, noting that winning writers have always been invited to accept their award and make brief remarks. “ At their best, these honored authors’ words enrich, enlighten, and inform us all."
Last year, several winners criticized Republican-led efforts to ban books in public schools and libraries and indicated their support for HarperCollins Union, which was then on strike. In 2016, fiction winner Colson Whitehead decried "the blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland that we're going to inhabit."
“At this time of so much pain and suffering in our world, we believe writers’ words—and the insight and inspiration they bring—are more important than ever," the NBF statement added. “We of course hope that everyone attending the National Book Awards, in person or tuning in online, comes in a spirit of understanding, compassion, and humanity—the very things that the books we love inspire."