At the 74th annual National Book Awards, the proceedings were charged with politics from beginning to end. Held in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday night, the evening opened with host LeVar Burton joking, “Are there any Moms for Liberty in the house? No? Good! Then hands will not need to be thrown tonight.” It ended with a joint statement from a group of writers calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
The group’s statement came after the final award of the night: the National Book Award for Fiction, which went to Justin Torres for Blackouts, a vital novel about the erasure of queer history. After his personal remarks, Torres invited other finalists to join him on stage. More than a dozen writers assembled behind Aaliyah Bilal, a fiction finalist for her story collection Temple Folk, as she read this prepared statement:
“On behalf of the finalists, we oppose the ongoing bombardment of Gaza and call for a humanitarian cease-fire to address the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians, particularly children. We oppose antisemitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment and Islamophobia equally, accepting the human dignity of all parties, knowing that further bloodshed does nothing to secure lasting peace in the region.”
Days before the ceremony, rumors spread that a group of finalists intended to make a statement about the war in Gaza. Two sponsors, Zibby Media and Book of the Month, opted not to attend the event, while Zibby Media pulled its sponsorship funding entirely. Ahead of the event, facing questions about how the organization would respond to political speech on the stage, the National Book Foundation issued a statement reminding attendees that political statements “are by no means unprecedented” at the National Book Awards, “or indeed at any awards ceremony.” The statement continued, "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 other political thrust of the evening was a rousing defense of the freedom to read, with Burton, special guest Oprah Winfrey, and many others issuing barn-burning remarks about conservative efforts to ban books. “There’s a reason, I believe, why books are under attack,” Burton said in his opening remarks. “It’s because they’re so powerful.” Winfrey, for her part, spoke movingly about her first encounter with the oft-banned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; when she read it at age fifteen, it was the first book she’d ever read with a Black protagonist. “Make no mistake: to ban books is to snuff out the flame of truth, of what it means to be alive, what it means to be aware, what it means to be engaged in the world,” she said. “To ban books is to cut us off from one another, to shroud us in a solitary darkness—a soulless echo chamber. To ban books is to strangle off what sustains us and makes us better people: connection, compassion, empathy, and understanding.”
In their speeches, many of the winners spoke to the representational power of books. Ned Blackhawk, winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Rediscovery of America (an Esquire Best Book of Spring 2023), a sprawling study that situates Native peoples at the heart of the American story, urged a new view of our nation’s past. He condemned the systemic erasure of Native American history, saying, “To know and walk this land, to feel and understand its past, and to do so as best that we can, guided by the voices of Indigenous peoples past and present: these must become essential attributes of American historical inquiry.”
Other winners included Dan Santat, winner in the Young People’s Literature category for A First Time For Everything, a graphic memoir about a tween’s awkward middle school trip to Europe, and Craig Santos Perez, winner of the National Book Award for Poetry for from unincorporated territory [åmot], the fifth in the author’s ongoing series of poetry collections about the history of his homeland. Perez, who is from Guam, spoke about his dream of inspiring the next generation of Pacific Islander writers. “When I was growing up in a colonial school system, we were never taught my own people’s literature,” he remembered.
The award for Translated Literature went to Stênio Gardel and his translator, Bruna Dantas Lobato, for The Words That Remain, a moving novel about an elderly man reflecting on his secret teenage romance with his best friend. A tearful Gardel spoke about growing up as a gay boy in rural Brazil, saying, “Being here tonight as a gay man, receiving this award for a novel about another gay man’s journey to self acceptance, I wanted to say to everyone who ever felt wrong about themselves that your heart and your desire are true, and you are just as deserving as anybody else of having a fulfilling life and accomplishing impossible dreams.”
Lifetime achievement awards went to Paul Yamazaki, who received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community, and Rita Dove, who received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Each spoke about the disruptions facing the world of books today. But at the end of the night, bounding onto the stage to stand with the crowd of finalists after making their statement, Burton said it best: “I am so grateful to have lived long enough to see this snapshot of literature in America today.”
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