2020's National Book Awards Strive For Inclusivity This year's National Book Awards — announced in a first-ever virtual streaming ceremony — went mostly to writers of color, as the foundation that gives the prizes vowed to be more inclusive.
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2020's National Book Awards Strive For Inclusivity

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2020's National Book Awards Strive For Inclusivity

2020's National Book Awards Strive For Inclusivity

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NOEL KING, HOST:

It was a virtual ceremony, but the National Book Awards were given out last night. Here's NPR's Petra Mayer.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: 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 with an admission - up until 1999, only 13 writers of color won a National Book Award.

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LISA LUCAS: We haven't been bold enough in our vision. We haven't been brave enough in our choices.

MAYER: That's Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which gives out the awards.

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LUCAS: 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.

MAYER: This is actually Lucas' last year as director of the foundation. She's leaving to become senior VP and publisher at Pantheon and Schocken Books. But tonight's ceremony went some ways towards making good on her words. Almost every medal went to a writer of color. The evening began with the Literarian Award for services to the literary community, given posthumously to the late Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy. But up next was Walter Mosley, who received an award for distinguished contributions to American letters. Writers speak to readers, he said, but readers take those stories and apply them to their own lives.

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WALTER MOSLEY: In this way, writing is political and democratic in the extreme. We are free in our minds to imagine, to conjure anything.

MAYER: The award for Young People's Literature went to Kacen Callender for their heart-wrenching "King And The Dragonflies" about a young boy growing up in a small Louisiana town who's convinced his late brother isn't truly dead; he's just become a dragonfly. It's been a devastating year, Callender said.

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KACEN CALLENDER: 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.

MAYER: Next up was the Translated Literature award, which went to Japanese author Yu Miri for "Tokyo Ueno Station," translated by Morgan Giles. The book is narrated by a ghost haunting a Tokyo train station.

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.

And Tamara Payne took home the Nonfiction prize for "The Dead Are Arising: The Life Of Malcolm X," a biography begun by her father, journalist Les Payne. Tamara Payne was his primary researcher and finished the book after his death in 2018. She said her father wanted to give a clearer picture of the world into which Malcolm X was born.

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TAMARA PAYNE: To provide context for the man who, more than any other leader of the 1960s, moved Blacks to consider who we are, from whence we come and to plan for what we could become.

MAYER: 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 in bit parts as a generic Asian man. Yu seemed taken aback by his victory, briefly wordless.

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CHARLES YU: There's not many reasons for hope right now, but to be here, hearing about all of these books, it is what keeps me going, and I hope that this community can sustain other people the same way.

MAYER: The night ended with a surprise performance from Translated Literature judge John Darnielle, otherwise known as the frontman of the band The Mountain Goats, singing his 2005 song "This Year," which seems right for, well, this year.

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JOHN DARNIELLE: (Singing) I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.

MAYER: Petra Mayer, NPR News.

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DARNIELLE: (Singing) I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.

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