“Everyone close your eyes for a second,” asked Phoebe Robinson, the author, comedian, Tiny Reparations Books publisher, and host of the 72nd National Book Awards from the Penguin Random House offices in Manhattan. “Now think about the first book that changed you. Try to remember how the pages smelled…. Imagine its weight in your hands, how comforting that felt. Finally, think about the excitement that coursed through you, as if you just could not wait, before you could tell your parent, teacher, or friend about what you just read.” Awards are nice, Robinson explained, but what really matters is the reading and the writing of books.
At the second virtual National Book Awards in a row (in spite of the National Book Foundation’s best efforts to hold a live event), that sentiment, as always, took center stage. That began with the Foundation’s decision to honor author, critic, literary activist and—above all—librarian Nancy Pearl with its Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, one of its two pre-announced lifetime achievement prizes.
“Nancy’s voice on radio, television, and in her own bestselling books resonates so powerfully because she represents the ideal of the librarian,” the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles said in his presentation speech. “An activist for the unbridled pleasure of reading, she’s not a guardian of the treasures—she’s a farmer of the orchard.”
In her remarks, Pearl thanked, among others, her childhood librarian, Ms. Frances Whitehead, the children’s librarian at the Parkman Branch of the Cleveland Public Library, “who took this miserably unhappy eight-year-old girl that I was and gave me the world through the books she recommended.” She continued: “Ms. Whitehead showed me that books are places where you can both find yourself and lose yourself. I knew when I was 10 that I wanted to be a librarian just like Ms. Whitehead, so I could give to other children what she gave me.” Pearl added: “I am, I believe, the first librarian to win this award, and I’m dedicating it to all of the librarians who do such essential work for their communities. One of the foundational principles of the public library is that it is a truly egalitarian institution, available free to everyone regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, age, or economic status—and as such, it is a democratizing and unifying force in our society, which is needed now more than ever before.”
The evening’s other lifetime achievement honor, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, was presented by author Viet Thanh Nguyen to author Karen Tei Yamashita.
“She’s ambitious, and it’s one of the things I most love about her as a writer,” Nguyen said. “Her masterpiece, I Hotel, is, for me, the Great (Asian) American Novel—with ‘Asian’ in parentheses….She has played her role with unwavering commitment to her amazing vision.”
In her remarks, Yamashita thanked her “small but mighty independent press, Coffee House Press, and its visionary publisher, Allan Kornblum,” who “read my work and took a chance on my writing” and “schooled me on the world of publishing.” She continued: “Asian American literature is, at heart, a literature of politics and resistance. For our community, your recognition tonight is significant, especially this year,” going on to cite hate-mongering and acts of violence against Asian Americans that emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic. “In such times,” she said, “may our writing forge tolerance and care.”
Following his customary remarks, Foundation chairman David Steinberger introduced Ruth Dickey, who succeeded Lisa Lucas as executive director of the Foundation in May.
“Through each grief and each joy in this historic time, there have been books.” Dickey said.”Books don’t just reflect our humanity. Books remind us that humanity is shared. Reading gives us an experience that is simultaneously unmitigated, impersonal, in-depth, personal, and universal. We need books, and the deep thinking, learning, and empathy that reading brings. Books can open minds, and that’s why books can be challenging, and why books are currently being challenged. Yet this is also precisely why books matter, and why it feels especially important to celebrate literature, uplift the voices of authors, and champion reading.”
Dickey ceded the floor to Robinson, who introduced the awards portion of the evening. First up was Cathryn Mercier, chair of the Young People’s Literature judging category, who announced that Malinda Lo won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Dutton Books for Young Readers). “In lustrous detail,” the judges’ citation read, “Malinda Lo materializes Chinese American Lily and white Kath’s love story during the rise of 1950s McCarthyism.”
A visibly moved Lo explained how the book began as a short story, and how she was encouraged her agent, Michael Bourret, to make it into a full book, before thanking her parents and aunt for help writing the parts of the novel rendered in Chinese, as well as her grandmother—”you may not be here in this world any longer, but you are here with me”—and her wife, who was just offscreen.
“When my first novel came out in 2009, it was one of 27 young adult books about LGBTQ characters or issues published that year,” Lo added. “This year, hundreds of LGBTQ YA books have been published. The growth has been incredible, but the opposition to our stories has also grown. This year, schools across the country are facing significant right-wing pressure to remove books about people of color, LGBTQ people, and especially transgender people from classrooms and libraries. I urge every one of you watching to educate yourself about your school boards and vote in your local elections. 2022 is coming, and we need your support to keep our stories on the shelves. Don’t let them erase us.”
Stephen Snyder, chair of the Translated Literature judging category, then announced that author Elisa Shua Dusapin and translator Aneesa Abbas Higgins had won the National Book Award for Translated Literature for Winter in Sokcho (Open Letter). “Narrated by a sharply observant young French Korean resident,” the judges’ citation stated, “the story explores rifts of identity—personal, cultural, and national—and the fleeting kinship that is possible between solitary strangers. “Aneesa Abbas Higgins’s elegant translation brings out the lyricism of Elisa Shua Dusapin’s tender and mysterious novel.”
Dusapin, as Higgins translated, said “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. This is a book that comes from the bottom of my heart.” Higgins added: “Elisa, it’s just fantastic for all of us, for all of the people who have read your book and now get to read all of your work.”
Then A. Van Jordan, chair of the Poetry judging category, announced that Martín Espada won the National Book Award for Poetry for Floaters: Poems (Norton). In their citation, the judges wrote: “Martín Espada’s Floaters manages to address the concerns of our times through a timeless voice that can be heard above ‘this cacophonous world.”
Espada was “speechless, to a large extent because I did not prepare a speech,” he said, “but also because I am very honored by my selection.” He added, speaking to the other finalists: “I know what it’s like to be where I am, and I know what it’s like to be where you are. And I hope that we can form friendships and relationships independently of the National Book Awards.”
Nell Painter, chair of the Nonfiction judging category, announced that Tiya Miles had won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family’s Keepsake (Random House). “Tiya Miles’s graceful prose gives us narrative history, social history, and object history of women’s craft,” the judges wrote in their citation, adding: “This book is scholarship at its best and most heartrending.”
Speaking to Painter directly, Miles said: “I, like so many people, many of us, read you in graduate school, and I admired you so, so, so much for your path-breaking work in African American history. I can’t tell you what it means to me that you were chair of this jury.” She very movingly thanked her agent, Tanya McKinnon, and especially her editor, Molly Turpin, for her passion and dedication for the project, saying: “We both know this was a co-written book.” She also thanked the women at the center of the narrative, adding: “I want them to know, and to see, how much they were loved and honored today.”
Finally, Luis Alberto Urrea chair of the Fiction judging category, announced that Jason Mott won the National Book Award for Fiction for Hell of a Book (Dutton). The judges said, in their statement: “In a structurally and conceptually daring examination of art, fame, family, and being Black in America, Mott somehow manages the impossible trick of being playful, insightful, and deeply moving all at the same time.” A teary Mott dedicated his award “to all the other mad kids—the outsiders, the weirdos, the bullied, the ones who… in spite of this, refused to lose their imagination, who refused to abandon their dreams.”