This year's National Book Awards ceremony was an evening with a message: We can do better.
The online-only event included a montage of Black winners past — narrated by LeVar Burton — with this admission: From 1936 to 1999, only 13 writers of color won a National Book Award.
"We haven't been bold enough in our vision," said National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas, who will leave the foundation in January to become a senior vice president and publisher at Pantheon and Schocken Books. "We haven't been brave enough in our choices. We haven't been confident enough in our values to make sure that this industry, this community is as strong and inclusive and vibrant as it could be. As it should be. As it will be."
The Foundation made some strides towards that inclusivity tonight, with almost every medal going to an author of color. The evening began with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, given posthumously to the late Simon & Schuster CEO, Carolyn Reidy. But next up was Walter Mosley, who received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
"Stories keep their deep connection to the human heart word by word, sentence by sentence," he said. "We writers speak to our readers, but at the same time, they receive our stories, applying them to their own unique experience. In this way, writing is political and democratic in the extreme. We are free in our minds to imagine, to conjure anything. Anything at all."
Host Jason Reynolds paid tribute to Mosley, remembering an encounter with the writer at a literary event. "You simply said, 'I see you.' And I don't know if you remember it," Reynolds said, "but it meant the world to me, because it felt like you were saying that I had a place here, that I had earned a seat at the table, to sit amongst the other quilters, and to stitch my square."
After an extended fundraising appeal, the first National Book Award of the night — for young people's literature — went to Kacen Callender, for their heartwrenching King and the Dragonflies. It's a story about a young boy growing up in a small Louisiana town, who becomes convinced his late brother isn't truly dead — he's just become a dragonfly. "This is an interesting year to win," Callender said. "This has been the hardest, most painful, most devastating year in many people's memories, in our lifetime. But this has also been an empowering year for many, a year when we're forced to pause and reflect, not only on ourselves but on the society we live in."
Next up was the Translated Literature award, which went to Japanese author Yu Miri, for Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles. In her speech, Miri thanked the people of Fukushima, where she lives, and recalled the terrible earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of 2011. The book is narrated by a ghost — originally from Fukushima but now haunting a Tokyo train station; our critic Michael Schaub called it "a stunning novel, and a harsh, uncompromising look at existential despair."
The Poetry prize went to poet and translator Don Mee Choi, for her collection DMZ Colony, which explores lives affected by colonization and war. In an emotional speech, Choi dedicated the award to her father. "Poetry and translation have changed my life," she said. "For me, they are inseparable."
Tamara Payne accepted the Nonfiction prize for The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, a monumental biography begun by her father, journalist Les Payne, who spent decades interviewing anyone who'd ever known the late Black activist. Tamara Payne was her father's primary researcher and finished the book after his death in 2018. "Definitive is a word we must use carefully when talking about biographies because it implies a degree of finality that research and new information may prove wrong," says our reviewer Gabino Iglesias. "That said, Les and Tamara Payne's The Dead Are Arising is, for now, the definitive biography of Malcolm X."
And finally, the Fiction prize went to Charles Yu for Interior Chinatown, told from the point of view of a struggling actor most often seen as a generic Asian man in the background of a restaurant or a crime scene. Yu seemed taken aback by his victory, briefly wordless. "I prepared nothing, which tells you how realistic I thought this was," he joked, wiping away a tear. "There's not many reasons for hope right now, but to be here, hearing about all of these books, having read some of them, going on to read many more of them, it is what keeps me going, and I hope that this community can sustain other people in the same way."
Perhaps it's fitting to go back to Walter Mosley to close: "There's a great weight hanging over the reception of an award when the underlying subject is 'the first black man to receive,'" he said, putting pointed emphasis on those last words. "We, the people who are darker than blue, have been here on this continent, in this storm for 400 years. As a matter of course we have been chained, beaten, raped, murdered, robbed of our names, our history and often even our dignity. This has been an ongoing process. An unending anguish. And so one might be cowed by the monumental negative space surrounding that pinprick of light that this award represents. One might ask, could such a thing make a difference? Is this a dying gasp, or a first breath? Is today different from any other day over the past 400 years? I prefer to believe that we are on the threshold of a new day. That this evening is but one of ten thousand steps being taken to recognize the potential of this nation."
And the night ended with an unexpected treat, Translated Literature judge John Darnielle — otherwise known as the frontman of the band The Mountain Goats — giving an acoustic performance of his 2005 song "This Year," with its unwittingly prescient chorus: "I am gonna make it through this year, if it kills me."