The 69th National Book Awards took place in New York overnight, with the ceremony emphasising a vision of an America willing to open borders and cross boundaries, forcefully countering the messages and actions propagated by the current occupant of the White House.
A new category of award for translated literature was unveiled on Wednesday night (14th November), to be shared between the author and translator of the work, and went to Japanese-born Yoko Tawada—who now lives in Berlin, and writes in German as well as Japanese—and her translator Margaret Mitsutani, for Tawada’s novel The Emissary (New Directions).
Arcadia c.e.o. and National Book Foundation (NBF) chairman David Steinberger said it had taken years of persuasion to make it happen and approval had had to come from the entire NBF board.
Meanwhile writer Luis Alberto Urrea presented the medal for distinguished contribution to American Letters to his "hero", Isabel Allende. Urrea said: "You can’t build a wall to keep words out. Words have wings that fly over barriers and sing all over the globe... [Allende] is the bestselling author writing in Spanish in the world today, with 70 million copies sold, and the first Spanish-language author ever to receive this award."
In accepting it, Allende said that she was "born in Peru, raised in Chile, was a political refugee for 13 years in Venezuela, and an immigrant in the US for more than 30…. I refuse to live in fear, let alone vote in fear… In this land, everybody descends from someone who came from another place…. I am proud to be an American citizen, and this award means that maybe I’m not an alien after all, maybe I’ve found a place where I belong."
The nonfiction award went to an African-American, professor Jeffrey C Stewart, for The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke (Oxford University Press), which tells the story of the father of the Harlem Renaissance and first African-American Rhodes scholar. Stewart found it "unbelievable" that he was chosen, and that the NBF exists, "especially in the time we live in, when too many people just don’t read."
Justin Phillip Reed, won in poetry for Indecency, published by Minneapolis nonprofit Coffee House Press; Dominican-American Elizabeth Acevedo won for Young People’s Literature with The Poet X (Harper).
Native New Yorker Sigrid Nunez, daughter of a German mother and a Chinese-Panamanian father, was the surprise winner of the fiction prize, for The Friend (Riverhead/PRH). In her acceptance speech, Nunez spoke both personally and universally: "Writing books makes the miraculous possible, removing you from the world and making you part of the world at the same time."